NT Wright – The Church Continues the Revolution Jesus Started


Christianity Today has just published the interview of Mike Bird, author of What Christians Ought To Believe, with Anglican biblical scholar NT Wright, on his latest book, The Day that Revolution Began.

Here are some significant quotes from that interview.

Most Western Christians have been taught that Jesus died so that they could escape the results of sin and go to heaven after they die. The New Testament, however, regularly speaks of Jesus’ death as the defeat of the powers of evil that have kept the world in captivity, with the implication that the world is actually going to change as a result—through the life and work and witness of those who believe this good news.

The human problem isn’t just that God set us a moral exam and we all flunked it. It is that God gave humans a vocation: to reflect his image, to be (again, as in Revelation) a kingdom and priests, summing up the praises of creation and reflecting the creator’s wise rule into the world. Human rebellion and idolatry, then, doesn’t just mean that we are in trouble (though we are); it means that God’s larger purposes for creation are not going ahead as intended. So the long story of God’s plan to put things right, starting with Abraham, climaxing in Jesus and the Spirit, and looking ahead to the new heavens and new earth, isn’t the story of guilty humans being forgiven so they could go to heaven, but of idolatrous (and yes, therefore guilty) humans being rescued in order to be worshippers and workers in God’s restoration movement, God’s kingdom-project.

The problem comes in three stages: 1) We have swapped our biblical heritage of new heavens and new earth for a form of Platonism (“going to heaven”—which you find in the first century in Plutarch, not in Paul!); 2) we have swapped the biblical vocation of humans (to be “a kingdom and priests”) for a moral contract in which the most important thing is whether or not we’ve passed the moral exam, and if we haven’t what can be done about it; and 3) we have therefore swapped the rich biblical account of what Jesus’ death achieved for a slimmed-down version which can easily be heard to say that an angry God took out his bad temper on his own Son . . . which is the sort of thing a pagan religion might say. So, as I say in the book, we have platonized our eschatology, as a result of which we have moralized our anthropology, and have therefore been in danger of paganizing our soteriology. Fortunately, the Bible itself will help us get back on track.

In the West we have been so seduced by the Platonic vision of ‘heaven’ that the resurrection of Jesus is seen simply as the “happy ending” after the crucifixion, and as the prelude to his “going to heaven” so that we can go and join him there later. This misses the central point that the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the new creation, in which we are to share already in the power of the Spirit. This affects everything, from prayer and the sacraments to mission and service to the poor. And yes, it ought to be reflected liturgically in whatever tradition we stand.

…the victory which Jesus believed he would win in this way was, in Israel’s Scriptures, the victory of God himself. That is a whole other theme, but an important one for us, in case we should imagine that this human vocation was all about twisting God’s arm to do something he might not otherwise have done. Jesus believed that, in being obedient to this human vocation, he was embodying or, if you like, incarnating the loving, rescuing God of whom Israel’s Scriptures had been speaking all along. Jesus’ own sense of vocation and (what we loosely call) “identity” lies at the heart of the church’s developed belief.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:3, quoting a very early gospel summary, that “the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.” In accordance with—in other words, along the line of, as the climax of, in fulfilment of the entire scriptural narrative. We in the West have been in danger of turning that into “The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the story we have learned to tell”—the story, that is, of an angry God and endangered sinners—with a few scriptural proof-texts thrown in. Of course the wise Creator is angry with everything that defaces and destroys his good creation; of course we sinners are indeed endangered if we do not allow the gospel to embrace us. But to reduce the gospel to those two points is like reducing a great four-part hymn simply to the alto and tenor lines. We need the firm bass of the full scriptural narrative, and the glad tune, in the top line, of the kingdom-story told by the four gospels and Acts. We need the harmony of the inner parts, of course; but that means what it means in relation to the larger music.

Q – There is a great hymn called “In Christ Alone,” which says that on the cross “the wrath of God was satisfied.” But you argue that we must not forget the love of God here either. So what does the cross have to do with the love of God?

I have often said that if a church wants to sing that hymn—and I agree that it is a great hymn in most other respects—then at least every second time they sing it they should sing “the love of God was satisfied” instead at that point. There is a deep and dark truth under what the writer said, and it’s the truth I just mentioned, as set out in Romans 8:1–4 and elsewhere. But people can all too easily hear that and sing it with a very different narrative in mind: the narrative according to which, in a parody of John 3:16, God so hated the world that he killed his only son. Yes, God hates sin. Yes, the death of Jesus is—because of his representative messianic role—the moment when sin is condemned. But the way most people hear it is taking a large step towards a pagan idea which, frankly, not only puts a lot of people off Christianity but quietly hints at a license for other forms of anger and brutality. From the very beginning, Jesus’ followers insisted that his crucifixion was the personal expression of the ultimate divine love: “the son of God loved me and gave himself for me,” said Paul in Galatians 2:20, and he and John return to this theme again and again (John 13:1 says “having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the uttermost”). Romans 8 is the great climax: Nothing in all creation shall separate us from the love of God in the Messiah, Jesus our Lord.

Read HERE the entire text of the interview.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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