So it appears that I owe N.T. Wright an apology. For years I have read him as a postmillennialist who wouldn’t admit it, one who inexplicably wouldn’t use the standard terminology. But it now seems that this is not accurate at all — he is more like an amillennialist who won’t use the standard terminology.
Here is a salient passage.
“The time-lag between those two victorious moments, to be explored presently, is one of the most obvious and significant characteristics of his worldview. We should not imagine, as in Cullmann’s famous image of D-Day and V-Day, that Paul supposes the present time to be a matter of a steady advance, with the world gradually getting better and better as God (or even the church) engages in a kind of ‘mopping-up operation’, eliminating bit by bit pockets of resistance to the restorative justice which God has established and is establishing in the Messiah. Any attempt to read church history that way is manifestly doomed to failure, but, more importantly, there is no sign of such a ‘progressive kingdom’ in Paul. Instead we find the analysis of ‘what’s wrong’ focusing on the fact that the Messiah’s reign, though emphatically present, is not complete. The ‘last enemy’, death, remains as yet still powerful, though defeated in principle through the resurrection. There is no progressive overcoming of death; it isn’t the case that, because of the work of the gospel, people die a little less, or that death is less unpleasant. The ultimate resurrection will not be the final coping-stone on a building that has been steadily growing up to that point. It will be as sudden, new and shocking as was Easter Day itself” (N.T. Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Kindle Locations 16089-16098).
In short, the reign of Jesus Christ over this earth does not register in any significant or identifiable ways in the course of earthly history. I am glad to set the (my) testimony straight on this point, but it really is a mixed bag because Wright’s contributions on the principle of cultural engagement was one of the reasons why his writings could be used in a really profitable way. But now it turns out that he didn’t really mean it. What good is cultural engagement if the culture is never supposed to notice?
If Christ is Lord, then Caesar isn’t. This is a glorious truth, but one of the reasons that it is a glorious truth is that Caesar notices us proclaiming it. This is really and truly odd, given how strong Wright has been in echoing the biblical language at so many points.
The oddity is that if we triumphantly proclaim that Christ is Lord over all (in a spiritual sense) and that the nations are streaming to Him (because I feel like they are streaming to Him in my heart) and that The only theological name I know for this sort of thing is gnosticism. The world goes on the way it always has, and yet I have this secret knowledge in my heart of higher, nobler, heavenly things, but this knowledge doesn’t take incarnational form until after human history is over? That’s gnostic.
But Wright says that young earth creationists are the gnostics. In The Lost World of Adam and Eve, Wright says this:
“If we can study Genesis and human origins without hearing the call to be an image-bearing human being renewed in Jesus, we are massively missing the point, perhaps pursuing our own dream of otherworldly salvation that merely colludes with the forces of evil. That’s what gnosticism always does” (p. 179).
But what Wright says about nothing really changing until the eschaton is the ultimate in otherworldly salvation. This is really unfortunate.
But of course, in the last analysis, what matters is what Scripture teaches. And, more to the point of Wright’s comment, what matters is what Paul teaches. So let us look briefly at that. Is it true that “there is no sign of such a ‘progressive kingdom’ in Paul”? Not exactly. There are quite a few signs, and so let consider just a couple.
In defense of his mission to the Gentiles, Paul said this:
“And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust” (Rom. 15:12).
So Christ will rise up to reign over the Gentiles. This is not to be equated with Him reigning over the Gentiles in such a way as to have them never notice. The Gentiles, for their part, will trust in Him. To what extent will they trust in Him? What will be the nature of His reign over the Gentiles? The answer to that question is found in the immediate context of the passage from Isaiah that Paul is quoting from. Here it is:
“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, As the waters cover the sea. And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, Which shall stand for an ensign of the people; To it shall the Gentiles seek: And his rest shall be glorious” (Is. 11:9–10).
In what day will Paul’s mission to the Gentiles occur? It will occur in the day when hurt and destruction will be banished from the holy mountain, in the day when the earth will be as full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. The Bible teaches in multiple places that the growth of the kingdom will be gradual and slow, and the Bible also teaches that the process will be inexorable, and the end of the process will be exhaustive.
The mopping up operation that Wright dismisses is exactly what Paul describes.
“Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Casting and bringing are participles, and participles are one of the very best tools to use when conducting mop-up operations.
Christ must reign, but how long will He reign?
“For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor. 15:25–26).
Christ’s reign will progressively put all His enemies under His feet, and when all them (death excepted) are under His feet, He will return and destroy that final enemy standing. Notice that on Wright’s understanding, with the Eschaton happening as suddenly as Easter, this means that death will be the first enemy destroyed, not the last one.
Arguments that show Paul is in full harmony will the rest of Scriptures on this point would not be difficult to assemble, and perhaps I will get to that at some point. In the meantime, while I used to be able to say “go with Wright on this point,” I am still able to say “go with what Wright usually sounds like.”