There is no theologian, scholar, or pastor, in recent memory, whose influence and fame have reached as far, or as wide at that of N.T. Wright. He is popular within the church universal, and he is well known and respected as a leader and scholar outside the church. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and his ability to communicate that knowledge to a demographically comprehensive audience is unmatched by any theologian in–at least–the last 50 years. I mean (seriously), when was the last time you saw a theologian on The Colbert Report? With rousing success of Wright’s last two books After You Believe and Surprised by Hope (among others), his fame has spread to an even wider audience and will no doubt continue to grow as he resumes his full time academic career.
The interview was originally intended to be one post, but due to its size, I have decided to post it in two parts. Part 1 will discuss Wright’s recent books, while part 2 (6/7) will discuss his recent decision to resign as Bishop of Durham, the Christian Origins series, and more. Enjoy the interviews.
- Matthew: Your two most recent books, Surprised by Hope and After You Believe, focus on belief and praxis respectively. Were these books motivated by your time as Bishop of Durham?
Wright: Yes and no. Surprised by Hope grew out of lectures I gave in several places during my time at Westminster Abbey. These in turn grew out of the big book on the Resurrection, The Resurrection of the Son of God, that I was working on ten years ago. But Surprised by Hope, in its final form, was quite affected by my early years as a bishop, because I was working closely with communities that were in danger of losing hope for all kinds of reasons and I was eager to relate the main message of resurrection to these actual situations on the ground.
After You Believe was generated by reflections on the nature of Christian moral life which grew out of the fresh vision of God’s final future promise in Surprised by Hope. The way in which this vision relates to my work as Bishop is that I have been constantly aware of several major moral issues of our time – euthanasia, third world debt, climate change, sexual ethics, the nature of government, and so on – and I have been eager to think through not just the issues themselves but the question of what Christian moral thinking actually is. There is also, of course, the basic issue which After You Believe addresses: when someone becomes at Christian, what’s next? How does it work?
- Matthew: How does your articulation of justification coincide/complement the ethical paradigm you are arguing for in After You Believe?
Wright: Justification is absolutely basic. The key word is After: there is no sense that the work of moral decision-making and acting has anything to do with our acceptance before God in and through Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross. But, as all theologians of justification know, the question then comes: what is the place of the moral life? How does it, so to speak, ‘work’?
In particular, Paul’s exposition of justification, which I have tried to follow as closely as possible, has two poles: the future day of judgment, and the present moment in which the verdict of that last day is spoken already, in advance. Because I have tried to understand the promises about the future day in a fresh way (as in Surprised by Hope), I have discovered that that has provided a basis and framework both for understanding present justification by grace through faith and for understanding the work of the Spirit that inspires faith in the first place and enables moral decision-making and action in between the one and the other. You might say that I am offering a large-scale exegesis of what Paul is talking about in Romans 8.12-17, within the same framework – justification as already expounded, and eschatology coming up in 8.18-27.
- Matthew: In After You Believe you repeatedly emphasize the necessity of hard work, the thinking and self-discipline that is required to build character, and also about how distasteful this may sound to Christians. Why do you think this is so unappealing to Christians in the West?
Wright: The whole of western culture for the last two centuries or more has been stuck on two alternative ways of thinking about ‘how to behave’. First there has been the iron moral law, Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’, which produces an ethic of ‘duty’, which often appears as a grim taskmaster, appealed to by bosses, politicians, clergy, military leaders, heads of households, etc when trying to get their ‘subordinates’ to do what they want. No surprises that this has been so unpopular.
So, second, there has been a reaction: all we need is ‘spontaneity’, ‘doing what comes naturally’ or ‘what feels good’. (In between, of course, there is ‘utilitarianism’, the idea that we must all figure out ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ and follow that . . . which is harder to operate in practice than it sounds in theory.).
The trouble is that many western Christians have imagined that this either/or between ‘duty’ and ‘spontaneity’ is what St Paul and other NT writers were talking about in referring to ‘law’ and ‘grace’, and so have assumed that when someone becomes a Christian good behavior will ‘come naturally’ – with the corollary that if it doesn’t, if (for instance) a prayer for moral help seems not to be answered right away, then this particular moral precept can’t be ‘right for me’. The whole NT shows that this is nonsense, but the old habits of thought in a culture die hard.
- Matthew: In both Surprised by Hope and After You Believe you make mention of specific political issues such as international debt, but never recommend or outline a political theology—though your theological perspectives have obvious political implications. Why do you take this approach?
Wright: I have frequently outlined a political theology in my various sermons and speeches – many of which are available on line at my website (www.ntwrightpage.com). I have often thought of developing this into a book but the opportunity hasn’t yet come along. Among my mentors in this area is Oliver O’Donovan, whose various books are always worth wrestling with even when I find myself disagreeing.
- Matthew: Much has been made in recent years about the “anti-Empire’ Paul. To what degree do you side with this articulation of Paul?
Wright: I have myself been one of the chief proponents of the anti-imperial Paul, as my various writings will show (see, for instance, chapter 4 of Paul in Fresh Perspective). I have no doubt that Paul intended to be heard as saying, from one angle and another, that if Jesus is ‘Lord’ then Caesar isn’t. The question of how this integrates with the other major emphases of his writing is interesting and tricky, and I hope to address this more fully in my forthcoming volume on Paul in the series Christian Origins and the Question of God.
Are their specific texts that come to mind in support of this view, or that would suggest it is overstated?
The obvious places include Romans 1.1-7, where almost everything Paul says about Jesus has resonances with the rhetoric of the Roman empire (Caesar as all-powerful Son of God, demanding worldwide allegiance, etc. etc.), and the fact that this plays out in ‘salvation’ and ‘justice’, two of the biggest words in imperial rhetoric. Philippians 2.6-11 is another obvious example, where the story of Jesus upstages the story of the emperor, leading Paul to stress that Christians must ‘work out their own “salvation”’ – in other words, you have a kind of ‘salvation’ that is different to what Caesar is offering, and you must work out what that means in practice.
Of course, like all theories, it is perfectly possible to push this one too hard and try to make it the primary meaning all through – a danger not always avoided in, for instance, the recent book on Paul by Dom Crossan and Marcus Borg. And the fashion for anti-imperial readings of Paul has all too obviously been driven in some quarters by normal American left-wing political inclinations, which introduce their own distortions (as of course do all our inclinations, which is why scholarly debate is a good thing). After all, in a democracy ‘Caesar’ is ‘all of us’, and though we have Presidents and Prime Ministers the critique of ‘empire’ is more complicated now than it was in the first century.
- Matthew: To what degree do you think Christians should be involved in politics, and to what degree do you think Christians should try to legislate their values in the political realm?
Wright: God wants people in every legitimate walk of life, and calls and equips different people for different tasks. The task of governing and administrating areas large and small is part of God’s plan for his world to be ordered, not chaotic. Part of that task, at every level, involves working out what is necessary for the good order of the society and what may be desirable for some but not necessary for all.
If we found a society where murder was not prohibited, we would I think expect Christians to campaign for making it illegal, so I don’t see why Christians shouldn’t also campaign (e.g.) for major reforms in international finance, which has had deadly consequences for many in the world, or indeed for a major change in the way the western powers have regarded themselves as the world’s unofficial police force, ditto.
There is nothing wrong in being passionately interested in politics. From where I sit (as, for three more months, a member of the British House of Lords!), the American scene has been dangerously polarized, with positions taken up on all kinds of issues that then get over-simplified into an either/or, and people feel obligated to fight their side of this on all occasions.
The issues are important, but I want quite urgently to say to my American friends: get some nuance in there, learn some irony. Human beings and societies are more complicated than you are making them. Go read Reinhold Niebuhr and others like him . . .
- Matthew:In what ways does your view of ethics differ from traditional Lutheran and Reformed views?
Wright: Huge question and I’m not sure I can answer it. I have argued for one form of a ‘virtue ethic’, which the Reformers fought shy of because (especially Luther) they regarded it as just a complicated form of hypocrisy – where you just ‘put on’ something which isn’t true to your deepest self. As I’ve argued above, and in the book, I do believe that the teaching in the NT about the work of the Spirit indicates that moral effort is required – or why is ‘self-control’ part of the fruit of the Spirit?
This implies that it doesn’t ‘come automatically’ in the sense that good behaviour bypasses the thinking and willing human being. I am not an expert on Reformation ethics, though, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that after Luther all sorts of writers were a lot more subtle and many-sided.
- Matthew: Scot McKnight in his review of your book for Books & Culture has suggested that he would have liked greater interaction with the Old Testament and how it relates to a NT Ethic. Why did you, with a couple of exceptions, steer clear of the OT?
Wright: The book was already too long!! Scot, who is a good friend, has a habit of suggesting in reviews that one should have dealt with other things . . . when he reviewed my big book on the Resurrection, he mentioned various German writers whom I should have discussed; but most reviewers thought the book was already too long! I would love to write a much fuller account of biblical ethics that would take full measure of the OT as well.
After You Believe certainly wasn’t trying to be comprehensive. However, the vision of creation and new creation, of the call of human beings to be a ‘royal priesthood’, is a NT emphasis which is only comprehensible in the light of the whole OT. And those who know the rest of my work will know just how much I understand the whole scripture as a whole . . .
- Matthew: In looking at the OT, events like the Canaanite genocide, and the prevalence and endorsement of the war seem very problematic. Why do you find troubling theologically?
Wright: Because it really does look as though Israel’s God was endorsing actions which to us today – not least with Christian sensibilities – look morally problematic. There’s no point not facing that directly. But at the same time the OT itself is full of hints that actually all this is partial and ambiguous. I have tried in Evil and the Justice of God to grapple with this a bit.
- Matthew: How does/should this affect our understanding of NT ethics?
Wright: Part of our problem is to imagine that the Bible is designed as a book of ‘moral examples’. It isn’t. It is the story of how the creator God is rescuing his creation, and doing so as it were from within – coming to work ‘inside’ the situation rather than simply blitzing it from the outside and beginning over again. That ‘inside’ working inevitably involves God in deep ambiguity, which comes to its head in the crucifixion of God’s own second self, the incarnate Son.
Only when we learn to live within that great story can we begin to understand the call to live as renewed human beings, which is the basis of all Christian ethics. Hunting through scripture imagining that it’s all really about moral example is like walking through a grocery store looking for hammers and nails.
- Matthew: Character development is the major emphasis in After You Believe. But such long term development is at odds with much of Western culture, especially American culture. What common cultural practices and/or assumptions, specifically, do you believe undermine our ability to develop character over the long term?
Wright: We are regularly undermined by the quick-fix mentality that says if I can’t do it this weekend I’m not interested. Behind this, I think, is the sense, endemic in the post-enlightenment world, that says that now we’ve got modern democracy all problems ought to be easily soluble, that utopia, personal and corporate, is within reach of us all.
That naïve optimism, of course, regularly meets hard reality – but then we assume it’s somebody’s fault, that we ought to be happy and someone else has prevented it. Television has a lot to answer for: having made several TV programes myself, I know that producers work under the tyranny that they have to keep the viewers entertained every ten seconds or they will flip to another channel. The idea that something – a symphony, a marriage – might be worth working at even though it seems hard is deeply counter-intuitive to many today.
- Matthew: In a recent review Michael Horton, writing for Christianity Today, was generally supportive of your book. Yet, he took issue with your, at times, negative articulation of the Reformation and its impact on Christian ethics stating, “in addition to caricaturing Luther’s positions, [Wright’s] criticisms lack any nuance in distinguishing between Reformation traditions.”
Further, Horton argues, that your critique is actually more characteristic of “Wesleyan” tradition, rather than the Reformed or Lutheran. How do you respond to this critique?
Wright: I’m not a church historian and defer to those who are, from whom I hope to learn. I was fascinated by the critique of the mediaeval ‘virtue’ tradition I found in various sixteenth-century writers, and tried to note that as I went by. I wasn’t trying to give a systematic account of how the different post-Reformation traditions have understood virtue, but was hoping rather to show that the cultural pressures towards a romantic ‘spontaneity’ and an existentialist ‘authenticity’, both of which I see as radically undermining a proper appropriation of NT ethics, have gained (spurious) validation in many quarters by appearing to say what the Reformers say. Some have indeed argued that Luther paved the way for the Enlightenment. There is a sense in which I think this is true – just as, more obviously, Luther paved the way for Rudolf Bultmann. But life is always more complicated than these over-simplifications.
I am much, much more concerned by the fact – and it is a fact – that the Reformers, whom I love and revere, and their various would-be successors to this day, have caricatured St Paul and failed to distinguish different things in his thought. That’s a larger debate I suspect Michael Horton and I ought to have some day. I’ve never met him but I think we would have an interesting conversation.
End Part One
Part 2 will be posted on Monday, June 7th.