I seem to be doing a lot a blogging about the teaching of N.T. Wright just at the moment. I suppose it’s because I’m struggling to understand what seem to me to be his revisionist views of many aspects of New Testament teaching and Christian doctrine.
I realise, of course, that he would be regarded by many in the academy as ultra-conservative. But, as a self-confessed evangelical, ‘revisionist’ is not a huge exaggeration when the doctrines of sin, repentance, justification by faith, and the gospel itself seem to be up for fairly drastic re-interpretation.
Readers of this blog will know that I have found much in Bishop Wright’s writings that is helpful and insightful. But, to be honest, he appears to be almost obsessed with finding something new to say about what the biblical texts mean (it seems that his favourite word is, “fresh” – I’m starting to cringe every time I read it).
I’m also worried by the way in which he claims to be committed to (let’s say) personal salvation but manages to kill it with neglect (“of course, that’s hugely important, but…”).
Then again, (why stop mid-rant?), I’m distressed that if, as he claims, the Christian church took a wrong turn with respect to the meaning of the gospel at the time of Augustine, this rather thumbs the nose at generation after generation of gifted and godly Christian leaders, including poor old Martin Luther.
And this brings me to Wright’s understanding of the gospel itself. The following statements are extracted from his celebrated book, What St Paul Really Said.
The word ‘gospel’ and the phrase ‘the gospel’ have come to denote, especially in certain circles within the church, something that in older theology would be called an ordu salutis, an order of salvation. ‘The gospel’ is supposed to be a description of how people get saved; of the theological mechanism whereby, in some people’s language, Christ takes our sin and we his righteousness; in other people’s language, Jesus becomes my personal saviour; in other languages again, I admit my sin, believe that he died for me, and commit my life to him. In many church circles, if you hear something like that, people will say that ‘the gospel’ has been preached. Conversely, if you hear a sermon in which the claims of Jesus Christ are related to the political or ecological questions of the day, some people will say that, well, perhaps the subject was interesting, but ‘the gospel’ wasn’t preached. (p40f)
[For Paul, the gospel was the announcement] that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead; that he was thereby proved to be Israel’s Messiah; that he was thereby installed as Lord of the world. (p46)
‘The gospel’ is not, for Paul, a message about ‘how one get’s saved’, in an individual and ahistorical sense. It is a fourfold announcement about Jesus:
- In Jesus of Nazareth, specifically in his cross, the decisive victory has been won over all the powers of evil, including sin and death themselves.
- In Jesus’ resurrection the New Age has dawned, inaugurating the long-awaited time when the prophecies would be fulfilled, when Israel’s exile would be over, and the whole world would be addressed by the one creator God.
- The crucified and risen Jesus was, all along, Israel’s Messiah, her representative king.
- Jesus was therefore also the Lord, the true king of the world, the one at whose name every knee would bow.
‘The gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is…the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ…[It is] the announcement of Jesus’ lordship, which works with power to bring people into the family of Abraham, now redefined around Jesus Christ and characterised solely by faith in him. ‘Justification’ is the doctrine which insists that all those who have this faith belong as full members of this family on this basis and no other. (p133)
The gospel is not…a set of techniques for making people Christians. Nor is it a set of systematic theological reflections, however important. The gospel is the announcement that Jesus is Lord – Lord of the world, Lord of the cosmos, Lord of the earth, of the ozone layer, of whales and waterfalls, of trees and tortoises. As soon as we get this right we destroy at a stroke the disastrous dichotomy that has existed in people’s minds between ‘preaching the gospel’ on the one hand and what used to be called loosely ‘social action’ or ‘social justice’ on the other. (153f)
John Piper (The Future of Justification, p18) suggests that Wright’s views of the gospel as set out here actually constitute a denial of what St Paul really said:-
1 Corinthians 15:1-2 – Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, [by which] you are saved.
And I suppose a big part of the question is whether, as Wright urges, ‘social action’ lies at the heart of the gospel, or whether it is, rather, an entailment of it.
I would want to ask, in what sense can the message that ‘Jesus is Lord of all’ be understood as ‘good news’ unless due emphasis is given to atonement, forgiveness of sin, and new life in him?