An interview with N.T. Wright
How did you end up at Wheaton this week?
Dr. Perrin is an old friend and colleague from 17 years ago and he told me that they had assigned my book “Simply Christian” to all the first years to read, and he said “it would be really good if you could come because they are reading the book, and so they can see who you are and ask you questions,” so it seemed like a good idea. We scheduled it for this week…
As an expert on the Pauline Epistles, if you had to pick just one as a favorite, which one would you pick?
I often say Romans is the house where I have lived for the last 40 years. I did my doctorate on Romans and kind of cut my intellectual teeth on trying to figure out what it’s all about. Romans is not just another letter. Paul clearly composed it with considerably more care and artistry than I think any of his other letters with the possible exception of Ephesians. Romans is like a symphony in four movements. No other Pauline letter is like that. And you need all four movements, but each one has its own integrity … and its own way of arguing, but they join up, they criss cross, and it’s just an extraordinary work of art. And then of course it’s one of the most powerful theological documents ever written. That sounds like a grandiose statement, but actually other than John’s gospel it’s hard to think of anything else with the same theological density, richness and power. But it’s like choosing which one of your children you like best — you actually don’t want to leave the other ones out.
What books are currently on your to-read shelf?
Oh goodness, far too many, far too many. I’m not even sure which ones to mention out of all… there’s one amazing book which isn’t published yet but will be soon by the Irish Poet Micheal O’Siadhail, and it’s coming out with Baylor University Press soon, called, “Five Quintets” … And it’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of poetic writing that I’ve seen, certainly in the modern period. I’m excited to have been given an advance sight of it. Theres’s a novel which a friend just told me I should read which is about Charles Darwin and what lead to his voyage, and it’s called “This Thing of Darkness ” by Harry Thompson; I think the author died young, but it’s a recent novel. A good friend told [me] that it’s a very powerful book about that whole period, and I’m trying to research 18th and 19th century thought as the background to contemporary New Testament culture, so I’m interested to read it. [After the interview in an email Wright added “The Varieties of History from Voltaire to the Present” by F. Stern (ed.), and “Creation: A Guide for the Perplexed” by S. Oliver.]
In “Simply Christian” you argue that Jesus did not know he was God in the way that one knows he is male or female, but in the sense that one knows he is called to be a poet or a musician. That is, you claim that Jesus knows he was called to do what only God could do. But if Jesus knows that he is to do only what God could do, wouldn’t it follow that he knows he is YHWH not just vocationally, but “as one knows he is male or female”?
It depends [on] what you mean by “know,” and that’s the point. I think in our modern Western culture, we have allowed the word “know” to be hijacked by the rationalists where we know that two plus two equals four. And so we’ve been seduced into thinking that real knowledge is that sort of a thing. … There are other much, much more important things in life — like knowing deeply that you love somebody and are loved by them, or knowing like a musician, deeply knowing how to play a piece of music so as to bring out its real flavour. That is the sort of knowledge which goes far beyond the kind of easy rationalism of two plus two equals four. It seems to me it’s that kind of knowledge which we have to probe into. And the danger of that is that we end up with a docetic Jesus — that’s where he isn’t really human, only pretends to be — and I think many Western Christians have gone that route, so that for them, Jesus strides around leaving God all over the place, never having to face any difficult decisions, never having to struggle with any questions. Whereas what we see in the gospels is a very real human being who, before he chooses his [closest associates] spends all night in prayer. Before he finally knows he’s going to be arrested he’s sweating drops of blood in Gethsemane and pleading “Isn’t there another way?” That to me is not compatible with what many people mean when they say Jesus knew he was God. Read Matthew and Mark particularly, it’s just not like that. I’m trying to be faithful to what I see in the four gospels. I fear that often in the Christian tradition, [it is] not really taken into account the fact that Jesus is wrestling with vocation. Trying to do justice to the vulnerable humanity of Jesus while saying, very firmly, I think he believed right through to the end that he was called to do what, in Scripture, only Israel’s God gets to do.
How does evangelism fit into the task of implementing God’s justice into the world when it comes to issues like racial reconciliation, gun violence, violence against women, etc…?
If you read the Sermon on the Mount and then say, just supposing a whole city or a whole county were to say, “We’re going to live by this Sermon on the Mount,” then there would be no gun violence, there would be no violence against women. Because if you’re living by the Sermon on the Mount, those things would never be thought of. Evangelism is announcing that in Jesus, the creator God has launched a new way of being human. … In other words, God says he will one day put the whole world right. In raising the crucified Jesus from the dead, God has launched this project decisively, and we live in between the resurrection of Jesus and the ultimate [end] of all things and that process. When people hear the word of the gospel and discover how much sense it makes … then they are justified in order that they are then to be part of God’s project. He’s going to put the world right so that he can put us right in the present and we can [be] part of his “putting right project” for the world. So therefore, evangelism, summoning people to the joy of justification in the present, in the very same breath, is saying … you’re now part of the “putting right project” and that means we’re Sermon-on-the-Mount people.
I think the separation of evangelism and justice is one of the most devastating things in the Western world in the last 200 years. And we see that all over the Western world, not only America, but certainly America.
What do you think Christians get right about heaven and hell? What do you think they get wrong about heaven and hell?
It’s very hard to generalize because there’s a large range of opinion, but particularly in North America, there is a sense that believing in heaven and hell is almost synonymous with being Christian. And actually the funny thing is, the New Testament is not really [concerned] about either of them. In the New Testament, what matters is … God’s kingdom on earth. And so, we have tended to hear the language of heaven and hell within the wrong philosophical or cosmological framework where heaven is upstairs and hell is downstairs and we’re in the middle somewhere. Whereas what the Bible is talking about is God’s desire to put heaven and earth back together again so that Jesus represents heaven on earth and the Holy Spirit is given to enable his followers to be heaven-on-earth people until the time when Jesus returns to complete the job — not to take us away from the earth and to take us to heaven, but to implement fully and finally the rule of heaven on earth. That’s so clear in the New Testament, but ever since the Middle Ages, the Western Church, both Protestant and Catholic, has just got it wrong and imagined heaven as this place which saved souls will go and that’s just not in the Bible. …
And there’s Jesus saying to the criminal on the cross “Today we will both be in paradise,” but paradise is not the final resurrection state. Luke knows perfectly well that in three days, Jesus is going to be raised from the dead, so paradise seems to be kind of a holding [pad], talking about an intermediate state. Now you can call that heaven if you like, but no one in the New Testament ever does. … Hell is what happens when humans worship to the point and the extent where they effectively say, “I do not want to be an image bearing human being, I don’t want to be in God’s image, I don’t want to be genuinely human,” and it seems to me that the end of idolatry is the end of image bearing … which means that one can imagine … what it might mean to be a creature that used to be an image-bearing human but now isn’t. I think that is a more coherent, potentially Biblical way of talking about … the images of hell.
What are you most excited to be researching right now?
I’m deeply into one particular project which is for a set of public lectures next year called The Gifford lectures, which is quite a prestigious lecture series, and I’m honored to be asked to do it. It’s on natural theology, which is not something I’ve written about before, and I’m trying out a whole argument about the ways in which 18th and early 19th century thought skewed our Western culture, and with that, skewed the way that many people have read the Bible; and that the Bible itself needs to argue back to this distortion, and when we let that happen, there may be new ways into … some old questions. My basic point is that I think these questions have been asked and answered in a distorted fashion because the huge cultural pressures in the 18th century have shaped them and that it’s been hard to address them from the Bible because the way people have studied the Bible … has itself been conditioned by the same cultural problems. And that is really exciting [because] it’s pulling together stuff I’ve been doing for years and some stuff I haven’t done before, which I’m seeing it’s fitting into. I’ve got kind of a mental jigsaw, and I’m gradually bringing these pieces together hoping it’ll make sense.
How do you see Western culture affecting the way Christians read their Bible?
The 18th century epicureanism splits off God or gods from the world, and that licenses a view of science which says God never intervenes so the world just makes itself, which is a pre-Christian Greek philosophical view called epicureanism, which was revived in the 18th century and then given some sort of apparent legitimacy by Darwin, when in fact Darwin’s research didn’t prove epicureanism… But it also licenses a politics in which we say God is not going to intervene in politics, politics is democratic … and so the political revolution of the 18th century exactly [correlated] with the scientific revolutions and for the same philosophical reasons and economics as well. At exactly the same time, people were asking, “Who was Jesus really?” and the skeptics were saying “Oh he’s just a revolutionary… and he died a failure” … and then devout Christians have come back and in order to say something positive about Jesus, instead of going back to a biblical way of doing that … they’ve gone to variations of platonism. And so they’ve stayed with and upstairs-downstairs [framework of the] world and instead of it being an epicurean world where this is no [correlation] between the two, you have a platonist view where the spirit or the soul is in touch with God or other realities. They’ve tried to recapture what the New Testament is about in platonic terms, hence the going to heaven when you die, etc. … And so trying to get away from the split level world of the 18th century … if instead we say, God made this world, there’s a heaven plus earth combined reality, and he intends to bring heaven and earth together gloriously…
As you observe the Christian millennial generation in the West, what are some major causes of theological concern and optimism?
I’d say hope rather than optimism — optimism is merely a feeling, and it can totally ground us, but I do have causes for hope in that I see in my children’s generation and beyond a wonderful idealism in the sense of a deep, deep knowledge that the world can and should be a better place for everybody —not just for a few of us — and that poverty could in principle be eliminated and should be eliminated. I think that there is a deep revulsion among many young people against an older politics which just seem to be self-serving. That’s jolly difficult because how are you going to do politics differently? How are you gonna run countries differently? But at least there is a sense of deep dissatisfaction and a determination and I hope and pray that can be channeled.
One of the things that worries me about Christian young people is that they don’t read nearly as much. My students only read what they can read on screens. Screens are hugely useful, but I think there are things that screens are not terribly good for, including taking detailed notes, comparing texts and scribbling in the margins. … You can do that on the screen, but it’s not the same. I’m actually worried that something’s happening to people’s brains, and that they’re not particularly studying old texts in the way that they used to. The whole Twitter culture encourages people to think in tiny sound bites and to fire things off without really thinking about them. I think the pause for reflection is gone, and that’s actually quite dangerous. I think this kind of instant knee-jerk reaction culture is not a good place to be. And this is a wild generalization, but … I worry about it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Record?
The only one question which people do sometimes ask me is ‘of all your books, which one has had the most impact’ and I would say unhesitatingly, “Surprised by Hope.” I get more letters and cards and emails and even sometimes people stopping me in the street … than all my other books put together, and I think it’s because of the heaven-hell thing. People have just grown up with Christianity as you’re going to heaven or you’re going to hell and actually to be told no it’s not like that, it’s about life after that, it’s about a new creation, it’s about resurrection … this is just totally new to so many people and the silly thing is, it’s what the New Testament is about.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.