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Tom Wright: Surprised by Scripture


n t wright

The essence of N T Wright’s Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (Harper One 2014).

Bishop Tom Wright (yes, ‘call me Tom’) currently occupies a teaching post at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and is regarded by many as the most important Christian apologist since C S Lewis. Certainly he is the most prolific Evangelical biblical scholar in a generation. He is generally acknowledged as having written, over a 40-year career, the most extensive work on Paul in the history of Christianity.

But he’s not a boring academic. He has the gift of shocking his fellow conservatives with affirmations like this one: ‘being a Christian is not really about going to heaven when you die.’ He manages to get up the noses of people like Reformed pastor-scholar John Piper, with whom he has traded thousands of words. But on the other hand he can co-write irenic books with liberal Jesus Seminar scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.

So is he ‘Evangelical’? His answer, often: ‘I have always had a high view of the Scriptures and a central view of the Cross.’ ‘Jesus Christ is Lord. His resurrection showed his claims to be the Messiah are true.’

In this interesting volume he offers a selection of lectures delivered on both sides of the Atlantic – the majority to American audiences – between 2004 and 2013. They address some of the burning theological issues of our day.

To whet your appetite, here’s something from his first chapter on Science and Religion: ‘Basically the American dream is that if you get up and go, you’ll succeed; the egalitarian hope is that the fittest will survive the economic jungle. This is simply a given, an unexamined presupposition that lies behind, for instance, the gut-level reaction against any kind of health-care proposal: after all, if these folks were fit to survive, they’d be out there earning a living! It also works at the international level: America has grown to be the leading superpower, so if America doesn’t like a regime… then America – with a tiny bit of help from her friends, of course! – has the right and duty to go and bomb it and effect regime change…

‘The great irony [is] that often those most opposed to Darwin when it comes to reading Genesis 1 are in fact most deeply in thrall to him, or to the wider application of his theories, when it comes to social and international policy.’

Or this, from the same chapter: ‘One of the main drivers [of the Enlightenment] was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. Had there been a god who was running the show, he certainly wouldn’t have allowed such a thing, on All Saints’ Day in particular, when everyone was inside collapsing churches…’

Other issues/questions include: Do We Need a Historical Adam? Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection? The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women. Jesus is Coming – Plant a Tree! 9/11, Tsunamis, and the New Problem of Evil. How the Bible Reads the Modern World. Idolatry 2.0. Our Politics Are Too Small. Becoming a People of Hope

Essentially, his three foundational axioms are  

[1] The Enlightenment reaffirmed (roughly) an Epicurean worldview. Epicureanism declared that the gods, if they existed at all, were totally removed from the world and never intervened in its affairs… ‘You could sum it up like this: the gods are a long way away and they don’t bother about us, so relax and enjoy your life.’ And life is essentially about what we do with power (eg. Nietzsche), money (Marx), and sex (Freud). 

[2] Western Christianity has embraced the dualistic notion of heaven being detached from earth ‘so that the aim of Christianity… is seen in terms of leaving earth behind and going home to a place called heaven’. Heaven is not a place in the sky but rather a ‘different sphere of reality that overlaps and interlocks with our sphere in numerous though mysterious ways.’ 

[3 Yes, there was a real Resurrection (of Jesus the Son of God and Saviour of the world) in the middle of history, despite the Hebrew expectation of a general resurrection of everyone at the end of time. Writing as a professional historian: ‘Science studies the repeatable, history the unrepeatable’. And as an Evangelical Theologian: ‘Take away the Resurrection and you lose the entire New Testament, and most of the second-century fathers as well’. Moreover: ‘No other explanations have been offered, in two thousand years of sneering skepticism against the Christian witness, that can satisfactorily account for how the tomb came to be empty, how the disciples came to see Jesus, and how their lives and world-views were transformed.’ 

Important sub-themes: [1] The biblical people knew the Genesis story of creation was poetic… ‘It has nothing to do with the number of twenty-four-hour periods in which the world was made’;  [2] God’s plan is to ‘put the world to rights’ (a quirky expression Tom uses often in his writings); and [3] The ‘second coming’ is not about humans being rescued from the world; rather the question is how God rescues the world by means of rescued humans (otherworldly salvation actually colludes with the forces of evil, as gnosticism always does); 

Tom Wright offers some interesting generalisations about Britain vs America. Here’s one: ‘Americans, I think, are encouraged by the media and the parties themselves to think that one candidate with the right vision can at last bring the utopia they know they deserve. And to that I want to say, quoting a famous American song, “It ain’t necessarily so”.’

Finally, some quotes to stir the brain-cells:

* ‘The last saying in the so-called Gospel of Thomas suggests that “Mary will be saved if she makes herself male” – a radically different agenda from what we find in the NT’. (‘Mary was sitting at Jesus’s feet in the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women’). 

*  The young William Temple, who became archbishop of Canterbury, ‘once asked his father, “Daddy, why don’t philosophers rule the world?” His wise father answered, “Of course they do, silly – two hundred years after they’re dead”.’

* ‘The Bible tells the story of the world as having reached its destiny, its climax, when Jesus of Nazareth came out of the tomb on Easter morning. The Enlightenment philosophy, however, tells the story of the world as having reached its destiny, its climax, with the rise of scientific and democratic modernism.’

* Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: ‘Science takes things apart to see how they work, but religion puts things together to see what they mean’. 

* ‘The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein declared that as it stood, the Jewish Bible was like a body without a head. It’s a story that is going somewhere but hasn’t arrived there yet. The early Christian writings, however, tell and interpret the story of Jesus quite specifically in such a way as to say, “This is where that original story was always going”.’

* The Enlightenment’s story is a parody of the true one, just as Marx offered the world a parody of the biblical vision of society and Freud a parody of the biblical vision of a redeemed human interiority.’

* ‘We have apps that can make millions out of a tiny change in exchange rates, but none that can rescue the poorest countries from their plight… The world’s poorest have been kept poor by the unpayable compound interest owed to Western banks on loans made decades ago to corrupt dictators. The injustice has itself been compounded by our governments’ breathtaking bailing out of super-rich companies, including banks, when they defaulted: the very rich did for the very rich what they still refuse to do for the very poor.’  

* ‘Some question whether Jesus ever existed. No serious historian would make that mistake.’

* The ‘left behind’ school of thought anticipates ‘the rapture in which they will be snatched up to heaven, leaving this world behind once and for all. Those who take this view have no reason to worry about the condition of this present world or issues like global warming or acid rain; indeed they sometimes take pride in pollution, since the world is not their home, they’re just a-passing through…’

It’s a great read. I look forward to the good bishop’s tackling of two other great themes of our time: Islam, and LGBTI questions. But he’ll have to do more listening to resolve those issues: reading the Qu’ran and Plato-with-Paul respectively will help a little, but such complex and urgent  ideological matters must be addressed also in the marketplace – listening to the protagonists’ stories –  rather than the study, alone. (In Surprised by Hope, he describes himself as one of the ‘least bereaved’ people he knows – a handicap, eh?).

Suggestion: Start with the two easiest chapters in this book, the last two: Apocalypse and the Beauty of God, and Becoming a People of Hope. Then go back, and read slowly, sometimes very slowly, from the beginning. You might have to read and ponder some sentences more than once to understand them. But I hope you’ll be glad you did!

If in 2019 this excellent digest of Tom Wright’s talks and sermons isn’t in the ‘Top 3 Theological Books of this Decade’ I’ll be very surprised. Some British reviewers don’t agree: they say this book not only repeats a lot of what he’s already written elsewhere, but there’s too much of an American flavour about his comments. True, and true: but for those who haven’t read much of the good bishop’s other writing, my contention would be that this is a wonderfully condensed introduction to his major ideas and expertise. 

Rowland Croucher


March 2015




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