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[In preparation for the annual Wheaton Theology Conference (April 16-17, 2010) the topic of which is “A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright,” this essay aims to introduce Wright‟s basic views on a particular issue.]
Talking about N.T. Wright on Biblical Theology is no simple task, for two reasons. First, what is Biblical Theology? The concept is vague and scholars seem to have differing perceptions of it. Second, Wright has not written much on the subject—at least explicitly. But he has indirectly addressed the issue, or at least one can glean some elements of Wright‟s Biblical Theology from a number of writings.2 One must put together a puzzle from pieces scattered in a number of different puzzle boxes. In fact, describing Wright‟s ideas on Biblical Theology is a bit like doing Biblical Theology itself (minus the nature of the authority given to the material!). Fortunately, and perhaps unlike Scripture, finding consistency is not mind-bending. One way to go about “N.T. Wright on Biblical Theology” might be to discuss Wright‟s perspectives on God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, justification, and the church. But this would be doing it in a very unWright manner.3 For the purposes of this brief summary, which simply cannot justly explain Wright on Biblical Theology, I will be concerned with how Wright sees the Bible as a whole, two key elements to his reading, and how he explains the nature of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments.4 What Bible? Before going further, it is important to be clear that Wright‟s Biblical Theology concerns the Christian Bible, and one may be even more precise to say that it concerns the Protestant Bible. At least in his writings, Wright does not give a positive sense that the version of the Bible assumed in his Biblical Theology includes the apocrypha. I suspect that introducing the apocrypha into the mix would change things little, if at all. The Narrative of God Wright‟s starting point for Biblical theology is the idea of narrative or story. This is not anything distinct, as interpreters have for some time read the Bible in terms of a grand narrative. This is how Wright walks the line between dogmatic theology and pure a-theological history.5 Rather than falling into the ditch of equating Biblical Theology with “large chunky doctrines”6 Wright insists on paying attention to the lives and contexts of the Biblical writers. And rather than fall into the other ditch of pure historicity, Wright insists that all of the writings of the Bible
Kyle is a PhD candidate in New Testament/Early Christianity at Loyola University, Chicago. He is currently writing his dissertation on the law in Romans 2, trying to interpret Paul‟s statements in conversation with Diaspora Jewish literature. He is writing under the direction of Thomas Tobin (Paul’s Rhetoric in Its Contexts [Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004]). He serves part-time as an adjunct instructor at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN, and was Visiting Lecturer in New Testament in 2008-09. He and his family live in Stillwater, MN. 2 Principally his NTPG, JVG, JRG, and select essays. Wright‟s understanding of the Old Testament is very derivative. That is, we have no book or essay in which Wright directly attempts to give a more systematic explanation of how he understands the Old Testament. We have only passages and statements scattered about his interpretation of the New Testament. 3 Based on Wright‟s comments in NTPG, 126-44. 4 Taking cues from James Dunn‟s brief comments on biblical theology in his recent New Testament Theology: An Introduction (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009), 3-4. 5 NTPG, 121-44. 6 “The Bible for the Post-Modern World.”
are inherently theological. To treat them as less is to not listen to them. To shoot past history for theology, or theology for history, is to misunderstand the target. In Wright‟s words: “We need to do both history and theology.”7 Understanding the Bible in terms of a grand narrative means that one must properly place the parts in their historical contexts, but also recognize the greater theological purpose or narrative to which they point. As for Christian doctrine, Wright explains that his understanding does not dismiss doctrinal concepts. Wright suggests that Christians recognize that doctrines are “portable stories”—they are something like suitcases in which a certain narrative is packed.8 Doctrine must presume and point to God‟s grand story. For Wright, this narrative is not necessarily about “salvation” understood in terms of the individualistic salvation of the soul or salvation of the individual from sin. Wright puts it most completely in this way:
The Christian Bible we know is a quite astonishingly complete story, from Chaos to Order, from first creation to new creation, from the Garden to the City, from covenant to renewed covenant, and all fitting together in a way that none of the authors can have seen but which we, standing back from the finished product, can only marvel at.9
Wright describes this story about God‟s redemption of the world in more detail in terms of a five act play. The five acts are: (1) creation, (2) fall, (3) Israel, and (4) Jesus, and (5) the New Testament.10 This fifth act is important, for while its beginnings are found in the New Testament (including the gospels), the act continues beyond to this day, right up through to the end of the story. In their diverse ways, the writers of Scripture work within this story. They do not necessarily tell this story self-consciously, however. They may have been aware enough of the story to the point of their writing, but not necessarily aware of all the parts.11 It is this unawareness that marks this storyline as particularly “extraordinary.”12 Historically Rooted Wright‟s Biblical theology is not simply the result of putting together the pieces of what the Biblical writers say. In other words, it is not merely an endeavor of finding a common thread through Scripture. His Biblical theology is also historically rooted, and this must be so. Wright‟s Biblical Theology emerges primarily out of the contexts of Second Temple Judaism. Second Temple Judaism sets the New Testament witness, especially the proclamation of Jesus, in the context of exile and restoration. Wright bases this on a reading of Second Temple Jewish texts which, according to his reading, attest that although Jews were no longer in physical
NTPG, 24. “Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” 62-64. 9 From Wright‟s lecture “The Bible and Tomorrow‟s World,” given at the Lambeth Conference on July 30, 2008. It can be found on the N.T. Wright Page: . Elsewhere Wright describes it as a story “from the first garden to the new city” (“Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” 61). 10 NTPG, 141-42; “The Bible and Tomorrow‟s World.” 11 Wright puts it this way: “It is as though engineers from different workshops were invited to produce bits and pieces of cantilevers which ended up, when put together without the different workshops knowing of it, producing the Fourth Bridge” (“Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” 61). 12 “The canon as it stands…displays an extraordinary, because unintentional to every single individual writer and redactor involved, overall storyline of astonishing power and consistency” (“Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” 60).
exile, they were in waiting for God‟s promises to be fulfilled.13 But it was more than this: “Israel was (still) enslaved to foreign overlords and their pagan culture and customs.”14 This “exile” was understood through the lens of Daniel 9. As a result of disobedience to the covenant, and failing in their God-given mission to be God‟s people in the world, God‟s people Israel were in perpetual exile. But God would be faithful to his promises, and so Israel was waiting on God to „show up.‟15 This view of Second Temple Judaism is significant, for it provides the stage set-up when Jesus comes on the scene. God’s Righteousness The “righteousness of God,” as one might expect, plays a significant role in N.T. Wright‟s Biblical Theology. Or at least it seems to in current debates. This leads one to wonder if we can, like Schweizer said of “righteousness by faith” in Paul‟s thought, suggest that “justification” or “righteousness” is not the center of Wright‟s theology, but a key topic that receives its significance from debate with others.16 It seems we can place “righteousness” at or near the center of Wright‟s Biblical Theology. I hasten to add that if one suspects “justification” or “righteousness” is at the center that it is not itself the center, but part of a center that includes more than one element. Specifically it is God‟s righteousness and not human righteousness or justification. In other words, the whole of Scripture, as a story of God‟s redemption of the world, is also about God‟s righteousness. In this sense, “righteousness” is understood in terms of God being faithful to God‟s promises.17 Wright explains this in terms of covenant and lawcourt, in fact merging these two. God being faithful to his covenant was God‟s way of working to “bring justice to the whole world.”18 For it was always through God‟s people Israel and his covenant with them that god had been working to restore his rule in the world. How does Jesus fit? For Wright, Jesus, according to the gospels‟ proclamation, “embod(ies) in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God.”19 He “believed himself to be the focal point of the people of YHWH, the returned-from-exile people, the people of the renewed covenant, the people whose sins were now to be forgiven.”20 In the resurrection of Jesus, sin and death have been dealt a final blow, bringing to fulfillment God‟s covenant plan, and inaugurating God‟s new creation.21 Wright reads Paul through this lens as well. For Wright the theme of Romans is “God‟s gospel unveils God‟s righteousness.”22 This “righteousness”
“As long as Israel remained under the rule of pagans, the great promises made by this God to the patriarchs, and through the prophets, had still not been fulfilled” (“Romans, 398). For his full interpretation, see NTPG, 268-79. It is important to note that Wright acknowledged that “we cannot say that all first-century Jews thought like this, any more than you can say that all Americans like hamburgers” (Justification, 59). This is an important point, and raises the question of what Jews did not think like this, and might Paul in particular have interacted with them? 14 Justification, 60. 15 Justification, 57-63. 16 Albert Schweizer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. W. Montgomery (New York: Holt and Company, 1931), 220-25. 17 “Romans,” 398; 18 “Romans,” 399. 19 JVG, 653. 20 JVG, 538. This is a result of Wright‟s detailed work on the historical Jesus. 21 RSG, 726-31. 22 “Romans,” 397.
unveiled in the good news of Jesus Christ is God both “putting God‟s world to rights” and God keeping God‟s promises.23 The New and the Old It seems that on the one hand Wright would object to the idea of “Old” Testament. For the stories within the Old Testament are not “old” but very relevant and vital for not only Jesus and the early Christians, but for Christians now. Nothing is left behind, superseded, or no longer useful. The story of Jesus Christ is ultimately the climax of the Old Testament story, the story of the God who chose Israel as his people. It remains fundamentally a Jewish story.24 On the other hand, “Old Testament” might be fitting according to Wright‟s Biblical Theology because the climax witnessed to in the New Testament is indeed the inauguration of God‟s new creation. There is a distinct sense of something “new” going on in the New Testament. So how does Wright explain the perennial problem of the relationship of the New Testament to the Old Testament? The concept of the narrative of Scripture gets us only so far, for one can still describe the relationship in more than one way within this framework: allegory, typology, supersessionism. Perhaps a fitting word would be continuation. For Wright both New and Old Testament tell the same story, not two stories—one of God, law, and a stubborn, failed people and the other of God, grace, faith, and God‟s “true” people. The main way in which Wright understands the relationship between the two testaments is by stating that the Old Testament is “a story in search of an ending.”25 In Wright‟s words, at the end of the end of the Old Testament, one is left with a “yes, and what next?” feeling.26 In the Old Testament we have God choosing a people through whom God will bring justice to the world. But this people is in need of help themselves. The New Testament continues this story and tells of its climax and the aftermath, witnessing to how the climax is lived out in the real world of the first century. It both describes the climax of the narrative, and inaugurates the next act of the narrative (act 5), of which present Christians are also a part. To understand the story of Jesus without the story of God and Israel is to misunderstand the story. This means that the New Testament is best read as a witness to God‟s righteousness in fulfilling his covenant promises, “bringing the world to rights” through Jesus. The New Testament also is to be understood eschatologically in terms of the beginning of the end—the new creation awaiting its complete fulfillment has begun.27 For Wright, this Biblical Theology helps in understanding the parts for Christian life in the present: why do some Old Testament laws apply, while others do not? Understood within the grand narrative, some things in the Old Testament functioned specifically only in that stage of the story. As Wright says, the book of Leviticus “is part of our story, a non-negotiable part of that story” but “it is not the part where we presently live.”28
“Romans,” 404. “The Bible for the Post-Modern World.” “It is the story of Israel” (“Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,”
66). “The Bible for the Post Modern World,” 6. This was originally given as the Latimer Fellowship, Orange Memorial Lecture in 1999. 26 “The Bible for the Post-Modern World.” 27 “The Bible for the Post-Modern World.” 28 “The Bible for Tomorrow‟s World.”
Bibliography “The Bible and Tomorrow‟s World,” lecture given at the Lambeth Conference, July 30, 2008. Full text here: http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=334 “The Bible for the Post Modern World,” paper given as the Latimer Fellowship, Orange Memorial Lecture, 1999. Full text: http://www.biblicaltheology.ca/blue_files/The%20Bible%20for%20the%20Post%20Modern%20 World.pdf “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?”, originally published in Vox Evangelica 21 (1991): 7-32. Full text here: http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.htm Jesus and the Victory of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996). Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downer‟s Grove: IVP, 2009). The New Testament and the People of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 1 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992). “Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” in Scripture’s Doctrine and Theology’s Bible, ed. M. Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008): 59-71. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003). “Romans,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).
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