N. T. Wright at Auburn 2005

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The bulk of my review of N.T. Wright’s presentations at Auburn 2005 will be occupied with concerned observations and/or criticisms, so I need to establish the context of all this in the first couple of paragraphs. In all my years of listening to Christian speakers, I have to say that I have never heard anyone so gifted, or so compelling. He is a very great gift of God to the Church at large, and to the Church of England particularly. He was witty, humble and self-deprecating, very effective as a speaker, and a master of the raw material under discussion. He spoke as though all the text of all Scripture were laid out flat before him on a table, and he could instantly point to any place in Scripture and show its relevance to the topic under discussion. I have never seen anyone who had so much Scripture instantly at his fingertips. This gift of God to the Church at large is currently the Bishop of Durham, and the Church of England is in the midst of a very great crisis indeed. This is the crisis provoked by the arrogant ordination of a practicing homosexual as a bishop by the bishops of the American Episcopal Church. I don’t know if we can be optimistic about the outcome, but if something good comes from it, I think Wright will be involved in that good. When I went to the conference, I was already appreciative of much of Wright’s work, and came away with a much deeper appreciation of him. His talks were extraordinarily edifying.

That said, just a few comments. Much of this comes from things he said in the course of his talks, some from things in the air, and some of it from questions I was able to ask him.

One of the great emphases in Wright is the impossibility of depoliticising the gospel. His talk on eschatology (I think it was Tuesday night) was simply stupendous, and he notes, rightly, that the restoration of humanity in Christ cannot be tucked away in some private place. These things cannot be done in a corner. But when Wright comes to make the (necessary) applications of this, his socialistic environment manifests itself. In England, and in some of the circles he visits in America, he is considered something of a dangerous conservative, and this is something of an optical illusion. Wright needs to come to grips with the fact that many Americans who are attracted to what he is saying about the public nature of discipleship will not make the same political applications of this truth that he would. To him, one public application of the lordship of Christ means the forgiveness of Third World debts. The way believing Americans would apply it would be more likely to involve protecting gun ownership. All this serves to warn us — the Church needs to work through a lot of things before we take the show on the road. Americans would be prone to simply reproduce our radical individualism in the name of Jesus, which is not helped if the English evangelicals simply reproduce the quasi-socialism that they are used to — in the name of Jesus.

Related to this is Wright’s acceptance of women’s ordination. How someone who knows Paul the way Wright knows Paul can process this is simply beyond me. But because Wright generally is so masterful in things Pauline, I think something like this is a good reminder for us. We should be extremely grateful for Wright, but not so dazzled that we allow him to slip something in that is manifestly not true (and in this case, something that is at odds with Wright’s larger project). The whole thing reminds me of the old joke told about Charles Spurgeon (by a Presbyterian). God gave so many gifts to Spurgeon that He knew we would be tempted to idolize him . . . so He made him a Baptist.

Then there is the question of whether Saul (before the Damascus road experience) was blameless according to the law. Paul says that he was in Philippians 3:6, a point made by Wright at the conference. But is Paul saying that he really was blameless, or that he thought he was (to the admiration of all his fellow Pharisees)? I asked Wright if he thought that Paul and Zacharias, who is also described as blameless in his observance of the law (Luke 1:6), would have gotten along. Wright said he thought Zacharias would have thought Paul a dangerous hothead, which I think is exactly right. But being a dangerous hothead is not blameless. Paul describes himself as having been an insolent man, which was not okay according to the law. Wright acknowledged that Paul did have something wrong with him, but this issue lies right at the heart of all the “boundary marker” questions. Zacharias was a covenant-keeping Jew, and Saul was a covenant-breaking Jew. I was happy that Wright acknowledged a difference of some sort between them, but concerned that he doesn’t appear to see the relevance of this to one of the big New Perspective issues.

The last point regards inerrancy. Wright is clearly committed to the functional authority of Scripture, but the way he answered the question looked like a dodge. I believe he has an important point to make about inerrancy (and the problems of precisionism), but the question itself is not a matter of American categories. Perhaps I can note more about this later.

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