It is good that one of my readers points out that we need to appreciate N.T. Wright’s writings as a needed correction of popular Christian thinking where the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ is little mentioned. I agree with her concerns, although I think the weekly Lord’s Supper of the local Brethren churches often refers to Jesus Christ. In any case, I appreciate the reminder. Actually, I debated whether to include the beginning and the end of Horton’s review, where he writes of his appreciation of Wright’s needed correction for popular (a)theology. However, as the post needs to be brief, I left it to the reader to read the appreciative parts from the review itself.
Anyone familiar with Wright knows he’s a master storyteller. In that regard, The Day the Revolution Began may be his best, especially for a popular audience. But more than a good narrator, Wright is steeped in the world of Jesus and Paul, bringing decades of scholarship to the task. Still more, the story he tells is vital for us to hear; he exposes the wider redemptive-historical canvas that challenges tendencies to domesticate the gospel to a platonized eschatology focused on the salvation of the individual believer from this world rather than the redemption of all believers with this world…
Even if its provocations strike one as reactionary at times, they should be allowed to strike home nonetheless. If they’re sometimes overcorrections, perhaps they may be allowed at least to correct our distortions, exaggerations, and reductions.
In any case, I have more problems with Scott McKnight (whom I disagree with half the time) than with Wright (whom I agree with 75% of the time, except when he writes with forceful rhetoric and polemics). Nevertheless, the 25% of disagreement is on significant issues. I shall list only 3 areas where I have some concerns about Wright’s interpretation.
1) Historical hermeneutics where Wright allows a reconstructed and contestable historical background to take precedence over a canonical reading of the text. The alert reader will recognize my concerns in my earlier posts on biblical history and canonical interpretation. This is an area of in-house friendly academic disagreement.
2) Jesus’ ‘realized’ eschatology and preteristism in the gospels: Wright writes,
“during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return…when Jesus speaks of “the son of man coming on the clouds,” he is talking not about the second coming but, in line with the Daniel 7 text he is quoting, about his vindication after suffering…the stories Jesus tells about a king or master who goes away for a while and leaves his subjects or servants to trade with his money in his absence were not originally meant to refer to Jesus going away and leaving the church with tasks to get on with until his eventual second coming.. In their original setting, the point of these stories is that Israel’s God, yhwh, is indeed coming at last to Jerusalem, to the Temple—in and as the human person Jesus of Nazareth. The stories are, in that sense, not about the second coming of Jesus but about the first one” (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Harper Collins, 2008), pp. 125-126).
How this squares with his claim to adhere to inaugurated eschatology is another matter, although there are occasions where Wright will in another piece of writing include a further qualification to his earlier polemics.
Wright rightly warns us of what he calls platonized eschatology of traditional/conservative Christianity, which in his view leads to a spiritualized heaven and other-worldly pietism. I agree that the redeemed people will enjoy an embodied new existence, a new heaven and a new earth which is partially described by how the New Jerusalem will come down to earth. But to stop here would be to go the way of the Jehovah Witnesses. Perhaps, Wright has over-reacted to other-worldly pietism and committed over-literalism in his understanding of apocalyptic language (how ironic it would be if Wright is over-literal with symbolism, and leans towards biblicism when he rejects further theological reflection). After all, there are many Scriptural passages which refer to believes entering or going to the kingdom of the future, and that heaven is a realm above, separate and more exalted than earthly existence (Mark 9:47; Matt. 6:1, 9, 10, 20; 18:10; Luke 24:51; John 1:51; Acts 1:10; 2 Cor.12:2; Col. 1:5; 1 Pet. 1:4).
In other words, if salvation is to be received into the holy presence of God, and if God’s presence is not restricted to this earth (even the renewed earth), than neither should we envisage our redeemed existence to be restricted to this earth. If I may take a leaf from C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy and commit the sin of second order theological reflection without biblical chapter and verse – the redeemed shall enjoy an embodied, glorified existence on a renewed earth, but they will not be earthbound as fallen humanity will no longer be quarantined from the wider cosmos. To be sure, I want to do more than strumming harps in heaven. If I may be bold, I will ask God for the pleasure of managing galactic ecosystems in my ‘heavenly existence’! In any case, I take it that Wright in his less polemical moments would agree that not everything Platonic is inimical to Christianity. Indeed, Platonism rightly appropriated, is vital to ensure Christianity is not reduced to mere ‘horizontal, materialistic or even Aristotelian physicalism.
3) By now readers should know I have serious disagreement with Wright on the doctrine of justification-imputation etc. I shall refer readers to read my ongoing series of posts on New Perspective on Paul.
In short, we are grateful to Wright for his bold and brilliant insights and his insistence that the grand panorama of salvation history should not be reduced to abstract dogmatic formulation. However, notwithstanding his captivating and seductive prose, we remain mindful of his caricatures of Reformation theology and his over-reaction to the other-worldliness of popular Christianity.
One thought on “Second Thoughts on N.T. Wright’s Second Thoughts on Heaven”
I do not count myself worthy of engaging the theological discourse at the level being discussed as I fall short of the formal training in the field. I share from my own journey and the resonance I feel with some perspectives Wright espouses. The last time I felt such resonance was with Brian McLaren in his early phase of the trilogy of “Adventures of a New Kind of Christian” (alas I had to abandon him with his stand on homosexuality but I still believe there was much truth in what he said which helped heal the disconnects I felt in my own faith, made to bare when facing the postmodern world). I believe NT Wright is for me the next “resonance” which challenges my faith to a new insight or even paradigm and I feel actually confirms what I believed or suspected but could not yet articulate. This is particularly in the area of the meaning of the gospel and its intended impact. Being a Brethren I have always been atonement focussed (how not to be when we break bread every week) and justification based (the guilt of sin has to be paid for). But more and more I have been realising the multi-dimensional aspects of our salvation as concerns (i) “here and now” and not just “saved for heaven” (ii) communal and not just “personal decision” (iii) changing the world and not just being saved “from the world”. NT Wright resonates with me in these aspects. Whilst I might not fully appreciate the theological pitfalls being propounded from taking him too far, not to walk that road will mean I remain “stuck” in my faith which I think is even more dangerous.
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