In Which N.T. Wright Discovers the Moon Again

The next chapter from Wright is on eschatology and care for the creation, and is a mixed bag. The title of the chapter is “Jesus is Coming — Plant a Tree.” We will come back to that shortly.

I want to begin by acknowledging what is very good about this chapter, which is Wright’s exegetical understanding of the relationship of heaven and earth, the old creation and the new creation, and what the resurrection of Jesus and what His second coming actually mean for this world. It is very good work, and it is good work from the beginning of the chapter to the end of it. This is basically a chapter length treatment of his book on the same general topic, Surprised By Hope, and has the strengths and weaknesses of that book, mostly strengths.

While there would be quibbles here and there, I don’t want to dispute with his exegesis on this topic. I think it is good, I think it salutary, I think it is most necessary for our generation of evangelicals, particularly in America, to recover this understanding. Anything that Wright does to help this along is something I am all for. I am grateful for his influence here at this point.

But this leads to the second issue. While his exegetical theology is fine, his historical theology is atrocious. I have no problem with how Wright argues his biblical case in this chapter because, as it happens, I am a postmillennialist. The position that Wright is advancing has a name, and it is a name that Wright appears to be extremely reluctant to use. I have not read everything Wright has written, for the age of miracles is past, but I have read a lot of his stuff. I am open to correction here, but I don’t recall him ever using the term postmillennialism, still less identifying with it. This could be fine — albeit a little weird — except for the next thing.

Last week Sam Allberry tweeted this: “‘…and only I am left’ – The prophet Elijah and every book by N T Wright.” In a previous post, I said that Wright has an annoying habit of announcing discoveries that all of Western theology has missed, when in fact his discoveries are nothing of the kind. He is like a very competent amateur astronomer who keeps discovering the moon. We could put up with this, but then he keeps chiding us for having missed it. Now it is true that there are popular schools of theology that have missed it, but Wright is here making claims about the broad history of theology, and he gets it spectacularly wrong.

Here is an example from this chapter, but there are other little comments like it scattered here and there. And it is why somebody once coined the word insufferable.

“It is my belief that the broad sweep of Western theology since way before the Reformation, and continuing since the sixteenth century in both Roman Catholicism and the various branches of Protestantism, has been subbiblical in its approach to that potent combination of themes, eschatology, and ecology” (p. 83).

But in actual fact, the broad sweep of Protestant eschatology, from shortly after the Reformation down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, was postmill. The point here — for my non-postmill readers, love you all — is not whether or not postmillennialism is correct, but whether it was held by anybody significant who was contained within Wright’s dismissive “broad sweep of Western theology.” Anybody heard of Jonathan Edwards? B.B. Warfield? David Livingstone? William Carey? Iain Murray was right to label this as the Puritan hope. Anybody out there heard of the Puritans? Geez Louise, Tom.

Wright does have a lot to say that is valuable. He has something to contribute, and he does have unique insights to contribute. But his habit of planting his flag on the beach of thickly inhabited lands is really bad for his ethos. He looks like Columbus planting the flag in the modern Bahamas, right next to the shaved ice stand. True, Chesterton discovered orthodoxy as though he were the first one there, but he had the good grace immediately afterward to recognize that the joke was on him.

Here he is again. Speaking of Romans 8:18-27, Wright makes this astonishing claim: “And yet, as I say, preachers, commentators, and theologians in the Western tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, have almost routinely regarded this section as something of a distraction” (p. 87).

This hope is glorious, and I exult in it. But when I was becoming postmill, I learned a great deal about how to understand Romans 8 from a number of saints in the Western tradition. I give thanks for them all, and I want to declare my indebtedness to them. I don’t want to pretend, with Wright, that they never existed.

The third point to make concerns one possible reason why Wright puts distance between himself and standard-issue postmillennialism. The last word in the quote cited above was ecology. When it comes to policy prescriptions, the actual things that one would do to make the planet that Jesus is coming back to a better place, Wright tends toward soft leftism. That was not the case with the broad swath of postmillennialists in history. In other words, the impact of postmill Christians up to this point has not really been leftist in any recognizable way. But I would argue it has been a practical blessing precisely because of that.

In this chapter, Wright’s practical politics are not foregrounded, but they are hovering in the background, and to my mind, ominously (pp. 83,85-86,95,106).

I said that we would return to the issue of planting trees. In my day I have planted many trees, and have some thoughts on the subject. I am all for it. Jesus is coming, and we should plant a tree. But this is not a new idea. Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”

But . . . how? What kind of tree? Who paid for it? Who owns the dirt where we will plant it?

I want the tree that is planted to have been purchased by the planter himself at Home Depot, and purchased there with his own money. I want no taxpayer to have been soaked for the expense. I want to praise personal responsibility and praise the suburbs while I am at it. Learn how to plant your own hedge, and learn how to take care of it. Every man under his own fig tree, every man mowing his own lawn.

I do want the earth to be transformed into a garden city, and I want it to be emerald green. This means keeping the statists far away from it. I have no problem with being green. My difficulty is that our modern priests of Baal always promise us green and, just like in the days of old, turn everything brown.

We can’t do that — turn everything brown, and we can’t because Jesus is coming again. The saints with Him in glory now say that the intermediate state is not their home. They’re just passing through. And when they get back here with Jesus, at the true marriage of heaven and earth, we should not want this planet to look like a badly-run VA hospital. Because Jesus is coming, this means we need to learn how to love liberty. And we need to have the Spirit teach us to hate statist coercion.

Jesus is coming. Hug a logger. And plant a tree.

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Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Us nonPosties appreciate the love, pastor Doug! But the postmillenial expectation in the preaching of Jonathan Edwards is a far cry from the postmil requirement in the teaching of Douglas Wilson. Edwards’ postmillenialism was softcore. It gloried in what the Spirit was awakening during Edwards’ time. He hoped for & expected floods more by 2000, at which point he assumed Jesus might well just return and get it all consummated, since His Spirit would have already brought about “the dawning, or at least a prelude, of that glorious work of God, so often foretold in Scripture.” But the idea that… Read more »

Katecho
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Amen. NT Wright appears to have intentionally made himself at home within liberal (leftist) circles, at least by not using jargon that could be associated with “fundamentalists” or theological conservatives. Doug wrote: “The position that Wright is advancing has a name, and it is a name that Wright appears to be extremely reluctant to use. I have not read everything Wright has written, for the age of miracles is past, but I have read a lot of his stuff. I am open to correction here, but I don’t recall him ever using the term postmillennialism, still less identifying with it.”… Read more »

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Heard of BB Warfield?! — ain’t he the fellow that wrote to his friend Samuel G. Craig, that the amillennialism view of his friends Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper “is the historic Protestant view, as expressed in the creeds of the Reformation period including the Westminster Standards”?

To be fair, you should point out that them early Posties also considered themselves Amillers.

Jon Swerens
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“He looks like Columbus planting the flag in the modern Bahamas, right next to the shaved ice stand.”

It’s not nice to make me laugh out loud at the public library.

John McNeely
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John McNeely

When I read Doug Wilson’s review of Wright’s material, especially the Elton John Version I am reminded of a statement Pastor Wilson made on this blog recently, “heretics love them some nuance”.

Katecho
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Eric Stampher wrote: “But the idea that a future partial utopian milieu will bless some future church folk — and that mainly as a “We told you so” to all past unbelievers — that’s not the Edwards’ postmillenialism.” I confess I’ve never ever heard of the “we told you so” form, but my introduction to postmillennialism was by way of Doug Wilson. God’s creational desire was to have a people for Himself, and to be their God. I’ve come to understand that God never gave up on this desire, and that it is global in nature, encompassing tribes, peoples, languages,… Read more »

Katecho
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Eric Stampher wrote: Heard of BB Warfield?! — ain’t he the fellow that wrote to his friend Samuel G. Craig, that the amillennialism view of his friends Herman Bavinck and Abraham Kuyper “is the historic Protestant view, as expressed in the creeds of the Reformation period including the Westminster Standards”? I’d need to see a full reference from Warfield regarding any claim of amillennialism. Others have mistakenly associated Warfield with amillennialism too (see the footnote on page 439 of The Theology of B.B. Warfield by Zaspel). Even the wikipedia entry on postmillennialism says: “Warfield disdained the millennial labels, preferring the… Read more »

Katecho
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Oops, it was page 539, not 439.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Ask today’s Posties: “How has it gone so far, what with Mao & Obama and all, obtaining that temporary utopia for which you yearn before His return?” The answer = “Not so well, YET. But it’s gonna happen.”

Ask yesterday’s Amillers the same question, and the answer = “He has, nonetheless, brought in nations & tribes without number!! And you and me too, oh bless His glorious & successful Name!”

Willis Vida
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I think that Wright has a lot to contribute here. I have spent a lot of time in various churches in the evangelical tradition and I have regularly heard things like: “She is resurrected now, dancing with Jesus.” “I cannot wait to cast aside this old body.” “This world is not my home” And etc. In other words, people in the modern evangelical tradition constantly confuse the two phase nature of life after death. Death followed by 1) Disembodied paradise 2) Bodily Resurrection. Wright’s various works have made this important doctrine crystal clear in my mind. And while I agree… Read more »

Jane
Member

Ask today’s Posties: “How has it gone so far, what with Mao & Obama and all, obtaining that temporary utopia for which you yearn before His return?” The answer = “Not so well, YET. But it’s gonna happen.” I have NEVER heard that answer among the postmills I’m familiar with. The answer I can imagine hearing to that question from those I’ve known is more along the lines of, “A heck of a lot better than back when there were only 1 million people in the Egyptian desert who were not under the active dominion of Satan; literally everyone else… Read more »

JohnM
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JohnM

Jane Dunsworth – Well, I’ll confess I don’t understand the kind of postmillennialism promoted on this site at all. Or not much more than not at all. Does the majority report on this site think things are getting better or getting worse? If better, then shouldn’t we turn off the tornado sirens and stop complaining about the weather? If worse, isn’t that kind of not where the postmillennial weathervane points? But then I’m sincere when I admit I don’t understand it.

David Nilsen
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David Nilsen

Does Wright really not acknowledge that “Jesus is coming – plant a tree” is a clear ripoff of Luther? Luther’s quote was literally the first thing I thought after reading that sentence.

It’s fine to have your chapter title be an homage to Luther, but if he doesn’t explicitly acknowledge where it came from, that strikes me as a staggering example of his atrocious historical theology.

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Jane,

Amillers agree that He has brought and will to bring tons of folks in. That’s progress.

Today’s Posties expect more and of a different kind: stunning social theonomic progress, albeit not quite complete.

BTW, of those million in the desert, how many were left to die there in their unbelief?

BTW, of the rest of the world population back then, you don’t recognize the multitudes of believers including Jethro, Melchizidek, et al?

Katecho
Member

JohnM wrote: “Well, I’ll confess I don’t understand the kind of postmillennialism promoted on this site at all.” It might be helpful to read the quote from Warfield that I offered above. Regardless of the labels, perhaps the most efficient way to understand the “kind of postmillennialism promoted on this site” is to honestly answer the question that was put to Eric Stampher (which he didn’t engage): Is Christ going to inherit the nations in history? A postmill view does not entail any delusions of a man-made utopia, or the outgrowing of human depravity, or some Star Trek fantasy about… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Eric Stampher wrote: “Today’s Posties expect more and of a different kind: stunning social theonomic progress, albeit not quite complete.” Eric needs to engage with what is actually being presented here, such as the quote from Warfield. Somehow Eric supposes that he can claim Warfield for the amill position, which I assume means that Eric agrees with Warfield in some sense. Yet Eric did not engage with the quote that I gave from Warfield regarding his view of “eschatological universalism”. If Eric actually thinks Warfield is amill, can he agree with the quote I gave from Warfield or not? Warfield… Read more »

Jane
Member

BTW, of the rest of the world population back then, you don’t recognize the multitudes of believers including Jethro, Melchizidek, et al? Multitudes? There were small numbers who were blessed by their contact with the covenant people. The most you can posit is that there might have been another few tens of thousands of people who had interacted enough with Israel to be proselytes. But the lovingkindness of God simply had not been made known outside the penumbras, if you will, of that broad orbit, which was not large. I’m not sure how pointing out that lots perished in the… Read more »

Katecho
Member

Eric Stampher wrote: Ask today’s Posties: “How has it gone so far, what with Mao & Obama and all, obtaining that temporary utopia for which you yearn before His return?” The answer = “Not so well, YET. But it’s gonna happen.” This is not an honest treatment of the postmill position at all. Rather than knock down his straw men versions and put words in our mouths, Eric needs to engage with how we might actually respond to his question. We would observe that the trend of history is not measured by events witnessed in the most recent lifespan. It’s… Read more »

JohnM
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JohnM

katecho, “the expansion of Christ’s Kingdom is measured by 1000 cubits at a time (Ezekiel 47), in the big picture, since it was sprouted from a mustard seed in the first century, and is now the dominant faith on the planet.” Might then an analogy be something like a good investment, where there are days when the stock value drops, yet the value is always trending upward over time? It sounds like the idea is something like that. I do have to question the part about “dominant faith on the planet”. It’s not always even the dominant faith in the… Read more »

Katecho
Member

JohnM wrote: “Might then an analogy be something like a good investment, where there are days when the stock value drops, yet the value is always trending upward over time? It sounds like the idea is something like that.” I don’t object to the analogy of a good long-term (generational) investment, so long as we recognize that God is the one who is providing the increase (by His zeal, not ours) and that the final return on the investment is a guaranteed positive return of the whole world (sealed and collateralized with Christ’s blood). John also wrote: “I do have… Read more »

David R
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David R

Now that we are getting into the thick of eschatology, I would like to ask the post-mills a question. I am not post-mill, but I do like much of what they have to say, especially regarding the advancement of the Kingdom and the optimistic future. The one huge stumbling block for me is in Rev 20 and the 1000 years. For post-mill to be correct, this 1000 years would have to be metaphorical and not literal. If it were metaphorical, then I can see no other interpretation than for it to mean forever, which makes no sense given Rev 20:7.… Read more »

Katecho
Member

David R wrote: “I see no instance in the Bible where the use of 1000 in this sense means anything but all/every/eternity.” This is a fair concern, and I appreciate David R’s cautiousness. This is an issue that I had to work through as well. It didn’t sit right with me for a long time. Fortunately, I think we do have an instance of just the thing that David R is looking for. I have alluded to Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 47. This is a vision for the “Son of Man” regarding rivers of living water that turn the sea… Read more »

David R
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David R

Thanks for the response, katecho!

Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

“If Jesus came back today …” — today’s Posties yell “STOP!!” before you can finish this sentence. “He won’t and can’t come back today, because He will and can save the world first! And that, obviously, is quite a ways away.”

Thus today’s Posties actually show their pessimism about what’s been accomplished so far, compared to the Amiller claim: “The world IS saved! — except for the last few (maybe even many!) to yet be brought in.” So Amillers claim that once that last soul is “in” — and this may be tonight!! — game over!