Ask N.T. Wright...(response)

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This afternoon I am thrilled to host one of today’s best known and respected New Testament scholars, N.T. Wright, as a guest in our ongoing reader-conducted interview series.  Last week you submitted over 300 questions for Wright, but we could only pick 6 as our esteemed guest is busy wrapping up work on the much-anticipated Paul and the Faithfulness of God and its two companion volumes, Pauline Perspectives and Paul and His Recent Interpreters. (You can pre-order all on Amazon.) 

Wright is the author of over 100 books, including the popular Surprised by Hope and Simply Christian. His full-scale works—The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God,  The Resurrection of the Son of God, and the forthcoming Paul and the Faithfulness of God—are part of a projected six-volume series entitled Christian Origins and the Question of God. He is also the author of multiple articles, essays, and sermons, many of which you can access here. (Wright usually publishes as N.T. Wright when writing academic work, or Tom Wright when writing for a more popular readership.) 

Wright was the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England from 2003 until his retirement in 2010. He is currently Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

Like a lot of you, I’ve been hugely impacted by Wright’s work and am so grateful for the ways in which he has helped me love Scripture, and the Christ to whom it points, better. One thing I have always appreciated about him is his commitment to teaching God's people, not just the intellectual elite, but all who want to know and follow Jesus. 

Thank you for your many excellent questions.

From S. Kyle: Dr. Wright: You have argued, particularly in Surprised by Hope, that the bodily resurrection and the physical nature of the coming consummation of the Kingdom opens up to us a legitimate basis for physical action in the world: the things we do in the body and on this planet for good, matter. How exactly do these things 'last' into the eschaton? How seamless is the relationship between the now and the not-yet? What seems especially tricky to me here is doing things that have implications outside of the Church. Do the parts of the physical world we preserve through our ecological work literally remain into the eschaton? What about securing justice for non-believers who will ultimately, we would posit, be judged eternally? Most fundamentally: how exactly do your eschatological views, particularly in teasing out these details, provide a well-supported basis for a Christian social ethic?

The continuity between our present now/not yet time and the ultimate eschaton is deeply mysterious, since the only model we have for it is the resurrection of Jesus himself – with the wounds of the nails and the spear evidence of that continuity.  

There is much about which we must say we do not know and we quite possibly cannot know at the moment. What we can know and do know is that we are called to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God, and I don’t see that as e.g. doing something wrong if those for whom we do justice and mercy turn out to spurn God’s love for themselves. The point of justice and mercy anyway is not ‘they deserve it’ but ‘this is the way God’s world should be’, and we are called to do those things that truly anticipate the way God’s world WILL be.

The fact that God has promised to put the world right in the end, the fact that he has raised Jesus from the dead having defeated the power of evil on the cross, and the fact that he has called us to participate in that death and resurrection and, by the spirit, to be agents of his blessing in the world (see the Beatitudes!) indicates clearly enough that our ‘social ethic’ (what a lot of muddles are contained in the background to that truncated phrase!) is rooted in God’s act in Jesus, aiming for his final completion of his restorative justice, implemented in part by us here and now. Part of gospel obedience is precisely that we do NOT know in the present the answer to questions like this. See Matthew 25: “‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you…?”

From Jessica: A struggle of mine recently has been reconciling (or rather trying to reconcile), the seemingly violent and vindictive God of the Old Testament with the non-violent, "love your enemies," Jesus. How would you put those two radically different views of God, together?

An old question but best answered by a fresh reading of Isaiah 40-55 on the one hand – the greatest outpouring of divine love and mercy you can imagine – and of, say, John’s gospel on the other, in which when the spirit comes he will convict the world of sin in righteousness and judgment.

Beware of false either/or divisions. Of course there is a problem in, for example, the book of Judges. My view is that when God called Abraham he knew he was going to work through flawed human beings to bring about redemption . . . and that the fault lines run forward then all the way to the cross, the most wicked thing humans ever did and the most loving thing God ever did. Once we figure out how all that works (probably never!) we will understand the rest. Part of the problem the way the question is posed is by assuming that we can abstract an ethical ideal from one part of scripture and use it to judge the actions of God in another part of scripture, as though scripture were given us so we could form such dehistoricized abstract ethical judgments! Life just isn’t like that.

For more, see my response to a similar question posed by Andrew Wilson.

From Kurt: Hi Dr. Wright, First, allow me to admit that your writing and speaking has been the most influential thing in my theological, missional, and spiritual journey in the last 10 years. Before I was introduced to your work, I was convinced that Christianity was all about pie in the sky and leaving this world - not redeeming it. Discovering Romans 8 and a God who groans with creation for its ultimate redemption - [re]new[ed] creation - changes everything! For showing me this - along with various other things about the historical Jesus, the apostle Paul, and theology in general - I am truly grateful.

I do have a question for you: I am wondering if you would be willing to "show your cards" when it comes to open theism? Most of my friends who are open theists, Greg Boyd and others, are very influenced by your work. Certainly, nothing you have said seems to contradict such a God of possibilities. In fact, your reading of Abraham and Israel as God's "plan B" actually helps give us a framework for thinking about such things. Even so, what would your thoughts be on open theism? I realize that you may not agree with this position of mine, but I would be intrigued to hear some your observations. Thanks for your continued ministry to the church!

Open theism is not something I have done a lot with and to be honest (and it’s late at night and I’m busy). I strongly suspect this is one of those classic American either/or questions that is forcing theology into a box. I never use the language of ‘Plan B’, certainly not about Abraham and Israel; in fact I often quote the Rabbi who envisaged God having Abraham in mind from the start. I don’t want to sign a blank check (or cheque as we spell it), especially when it’s written in dollars not pounds. Go figure!

From Steve: What is sexuality like in the kingdom of God? Is everyone in Heaven going to be heterosexual? And if NOT, what are the implications of that for how we live here and now?

Freud said sex was laughing in the face of death. Jesus said that in the new world, people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; having passed beyond death into resurrection, with no prospect of death, there will be no need for reproduction and hence we may assume no desire for it, just as now as a 64-year old I no longer have a desire to play rugby though there was a time when I lived for it. (Not a good analogy but never mind.) Also, be careful of equating ‘kingdom of God’ with ‘in Heaven.’ Read 1 Corinthians 13 and figure out what Paul is saying about that which lasts into the resurrection life and that which doesn’t.

The key thing of course is that throughout the New Testament it is assumed that what God has done in Jesus is new CREATION in which the original plan of Genesis 1 and 2 is gloriously fulfilled. (See Mark 10 and elsewhere.) And beware of language that assumes categories like ‘heterosexual’ and similar terms are now solid and fixed entities which are somehow established. They are modernist constructs which already many postmoderns are rapidly deconstructing. Don’t build houses on sand.

From Heidi: Because Rachel is such a voice for women in the blogosphere, I would love for you to address gender inequality in the church and bring a better reading to the passages that have been used as weapons on women for generations.

I’ve done this in various writings some of which are available on the web. The best place to start is with this article, “Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis.”

An excerpt, regarding Mary of Bethany:

"I think in particular of the woman who anointed Jesus (without here going in to the question of who it was and whether it happened more than once); as some have pointed out, this was a priestly action which Jesus accepted as such. And I think, too, of the remarkable story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10."
"Most of us grew up with the line that Martha was the active type and Mary the passive or contemplative type, and that Jesus is simply affirming the importance of both and even the priority of devotion to him. That devotion is undoubtedly part of the importance of the story, but far more obvious to any first-century reader, and to many readers in Turkey, the Middle East and many other parts of the world to this day would be the fact that Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet within the male part of the house rather than being kept in the back rooms with the other women. This, I am pretty sure, is what really bothered Martha; no doubt she was cross at being left to do all the work, but the real problem behind that was that Mary had cut clean across one of the most basic social conventions. It is as though, in today’s world, you were to invite me to stay in your house and, when it came to bedtime, I were to put up a camp bed in your bedroom. We have our own clear but unstated rules about whose space is which; so did they. And Mary has just flouted them. And Jesus declares that she is right to do so. She is ‘sitting at his feet’; a phrase which doesn’t mean what it would mean today, the adoring student gazing up in admiration and love at the wonderful teacher. As is clear from the use of the phrase elsewhere in the NT (for instance, Paul with Gamaliel), to sit at the teacher’s feet is a way of saying you are being a student, picking up the teacher’s wisdom and learning; and in that very practical world you wouldn’t do this just for the sake of informing your own mind and heart, but in order to be a teacher, a rabbi, yourself. Like much in the gospels, this story is left cryptic as far as we at least are concerned, but I doubt if any first-century reader would have missed the point. That, no doubt, is part at least of the reason why we find so many women in positions of leadership, initiative and responsibility in the early church; I used to think Romans 16 was the most boring chapter in the letter, and now, as I study the names and think about them, I am struck by how powerfully they indicate the way in which the teaching both of Jesus and of Paul was being worked out in practice…."

An excerpt, regarding 1 Timothy 2

“When people say that the Bible enshrines patriarchal ideas and attitudes, this passage, particularly verse 12, is often held up as the prime example. Women mustn’t be teachers, the verse seems to say; they mustn’t hold any authority over men; they must keep silent. That, at least, is how many translations put it. This, as I say, is the main passage that people quote when they want to suggest that the New Testament forbids the ordination of women. I was once reading these verses in a church service and a woman near the front exploded in anger, to the consternation of the rest of the congregation (even though some agreed with her). The whole passage seems to be saying that women are second-class citizens at every level. They aren’t even allowed to dress prettily. They are the daughters of Eve, and she was the original troublemaker. The best thing for them to do is to get on and have children, and to behave themselves and keep quiet."
"Well, that’s how most people read the passage in our culture until quite recently. I fully acknowledge that the very different reading I’m going to suggest may sound to begin with as though I’m simply trying to make things easier, to tailor this bit of Paul to fit our culture. But there is good, solid scholarship behind what I’m going to say, and I genuinely believe it may be the right interpretation."
"When you look at strip cartoons, ‘B’ grade movies, and ‘Z’ grade novels and poems, you pick up a standard view of how ‘everyone imagines’ men and women behave. Men are macho, loud-mouthed, arrogant thugs, always fighting and wanting their own way. Women are simpering, empty-headed creatures, with nothing to think about except clothes and jewelry. There are ‘Christian’ versions of this, too: the men must make the decisions, run the show, always be in the lead, telling everyone what to do; women must stay at home and bring up the children. If you start looking for a biblical back-up for this view, well, what about Genesis 3? Adam would never have sinned if Eve hadn’t given in first. Eve has her punishment, and it’s pain in childbearing (Genesis 3.16)."
"Well, you don’t have to embrace every aspect of the women’s liberation movement to find that interpretation hard to swallow. Not only does it stick in our throat as a way of treating half the human race; it doesn’t fit with what we see in the rest of the New Testament, in the passages we’ve already glanced at."
"The key to the present passage, then, is to recognise that it is commanding that women, too, should be allowed to study and learn, and should not be restrained from doing so (verse 11). They are to be ‘in full submission’; this is often taken to mean ‘to the men’, or ‘to their husbands’, but it is equally likely that it refers to their attitude, as learners, of submission to God or to the gospel – which of course would be true for men as well. Then the crucial verse 12 need not be read as ‘I do not allow a woman to teach or hold authority over a man’ – the translation which has caused so much difficulty in recent years. It can equally mean (and in context this makes much more sense): ‘I don’t mean to imply that I’m now setting up women as the new authority over men in the same way that previously men held authority over women.’ Why might Paul need to say this?"
"There are some signs in the letter that it was originally sent to Timothy while he was in Ephesus. And one of the main things we know about religion in Ephesus is that the main religion – the biggest Temple, the most famous shrine – was a female-only cult. The Temple of Artemis (that’s her Greek name; the Romans called her Diana) was a massive structure which dominated the area; and, as befitted worshippers of a female deity, the priests were all women. They ruled the show and kept the men in their place."
"Now if you were writing a letter to someone in a small, new religious movement with a base in Ephesus, and wanted to say that because of the gospel of Jesus the old ways of organising male and female roles had to be rethought from top to bottom, with one feature of that being that the women were to be encouraged to study and learn and take a leadership role, you might well want to avoid giving the wrong impression. Was the apostle saying, people might wonder, that women should be trained up so that Christianity would gradually become a cult like that of Artemis, where women did the leading and kept the men in line? That, it seems to me, is what verse 12 is denying. The word I’ve translated ‘try to dictate to them’ is unusual, but seems to have the overtones of ‘being bossy’ or ‘seizing control’. Paul is saying, like Jesus in Luke 10, that women must have the space and leisure to study and learn in their own way, not in order that they may muscle in and take over the leadership as in the Artemis-cult, but so that men and women alike can develop whatever gifts of learning, teaching and leadership God is giving them."
"What’s the point of the other bits of the passage, then? The first verse (8) is clear: the men must give themselves to devout prayer, and must not follow the normal stereotypes of ‘male’ behaviour: no anger or arguing. Then verses 9 and 10 follow, making the same point about the women. They must be set free from their stereotype, that of fussing all the time about hair-dos, jewellry, and fancy clothes – but they must be set free, not in order that they can be dowdy, unobtrusive little mice, but so that they can make a creative contribution to the wider society. The phrase ‘good works’ in verse 10 sounds pretty bland to us, but it’s one of the regular ways people used to refer to the social obligation to spend time and money on people less fortunate than oneself, to be a benefactor of the town through helping public works, the arts, and so on."

Read the rest here, and see also this video related to Romans 16:

From Mark: In these theological/political times, where it seems so important to be in the right "camp" lest we be cast out from fellowship with others because we do not hold the "correct" views, how do you suggest moving forward toward greater unity, rather than greater division?

Beware of ‘camps’.

In the U.S. especially these are usually and worryingly tied in to the various political either/or positions WHICH THE REST OF THE WORLD DOES NOT RECOGNISE. Anyone with their wits about them who reads scripture and prays and is genuinely humble will see that many of the issues which push people into ‘camps’ - especially but not only in the U.S. - are distortions in both directions caused by trying to get a quick fix on a doctrinal or ethical issue, squashing it into the small categories of one particular culture. Read Philippians 2.1-11 again and again. And Ephesians 4.1-16 as well.

From Laura: Can you and Francis Collins write more awesome songs together? Pretty please! 

You never know!  The two we’ve written so far happened more or less by accident.

Thanks for the questions and sorry these answers are brief! Good wishes to one and all. And say a prayer for all the final editing and production of the big book on Paul!

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Thanks again for your questions! You can check out every installment of our interview series—which includes “Ask an atheist,” “Ask a nun,” “Ask a pacifist,” “Ask a Calvinist,” “Ask a Muslim,” “Ask a gay Christian,” “Ask a Pentecostal” “Ask an environmentalist,” “Ask a funeral director,” "Ask a Liberation Theologian,"  "Ask Shane Claiborne," "Ask Jennifer Knapp," and  many more— here.

 

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