Posted by: mattcolvin | May 22, 2011

The Best NT Wright Book (+ Conference Notes)

In conversation with friends at the St. Bartholomew’s Church conference this weekend, the question was asked, “What’s your favorite book by Wright?” For most of the rest, it was The Resurrection of the Son of God, but for me, it was Jesus and the Victory of God. There were only two passages of the Bible that I was persuaded to read differently by reading RSG (namely, “the Sadducees say there is no resurrection, neither angel nor spirit” and the response of the disciples to Rhoda’s announcement that Peter had arrived at the house where they were praying for him: “It’s his angel.”) The book mostly just confirmed my orthodox view of the resurrection.

JVG, on the other hand, completely reconfigured the way I understood what Jesus was doing in his earthly ministry. I can’t even count the number of passages that suddenly started to make sense. Not only that, but the miracles and parables as Wright explained them in JVG also fit perfectly with the thesis of David Daube about the meaning of Jesus’ actions and words at the Last Supper.

It was a good conference, but almost nothing of what Wright said was new to me. Among the highlights were these:

Wright suggested — what I had never heard formally said — that Reformed people have long tried to make Jesus’ relation to Israel’s history fit the pattern of the Reformation’s discontinuous relation to the first 1500 years of the Church’s history. It doesn’t fit. Amen! This is the real source, I think, of the deep-seated resistance to, and loathing of, the New Perspective on Paul among conservative Presbyterians: the NPP threatens one of the foundational implicit metanarratives of our Protestant lives.

Wright also made the charge, which I have never heard stated so powerfully, that the ecumenical creeds spend no time on the Old Testament, and that they go directly from the virgin birth of Jesus to the cross, omitting all the miracles, teachings, and symbolic actions to which the actual Gospels devote so many pages. These “in between” things are not merely an “extended prologue to the Cross.” They concern the Kingdom of God, and as such, can only be understood in light of the Old Testament, to which the Creeds give no attention. The creeds were designed to counter heresies and errors, but we have turned them into statements of “what it is necessary for a Christian to know.” The Heidelberg Catechism even makes the mistake of taking the Apostles’ Creed as “a summary” of “all things promised us in the gospel.” It is no such thing. Nor is the Nicene Creed. Says Wright, “We have taken the church’s washing line, where it has hung up all the laundry it had to clean, and turned it into a syllabus.”

My favorite line from the whole conference was this: “We belittle the cross as only a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our own petty naughtiness.”

Of course, Wright’s amazing communications skills were on full display. At one point he pulled out this virtuoso metaphor: Christians who try to do theology with the Jesus of the creeds instead of the Jesus of the gospels — i.e. without reckoning with the stuff in between the virgin birth and the cross — are like people trying to do a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle with only about 50 pieces on the table. You may feel more comfortable playing with only those 50 pieces. Indeed, it may be very daunting to see all 1,000 pieces out on the table at the same time. Yet you’d actually be closer to solving the puzzle when you have all the pieces out. And if you try to make the complete picture out of the 50 pieces that you do have on the table, you will have to use a hammer to force those pieces to fit together, because their actual joints are made to fit a lot of pieces that are still in the box.

I did submit a question for the Q&A time after the talks, and he answered it, though not to my satisfaction. I wanted to know how he makes his “kingdom of Jesus vs. kingdom of Caesar” theme fit with the relatively favorable depiction of Roman officials in Acts: Festus, Felix, Sergius Paulus, Gallio, even Lysias the commander of the garrison — all appear to be fairly helpful in at least preserving Paul from a lynching at the hands of the Jews. Wright’s response was that they’re all actually depicted as venal cogs in the machine of a corrupt empire. And that’s true, I suppose, but IMO it doesn’t really go far enough to help his case. I would have liked to hear him further on the subject.



  1. Matt,

    Good to see you at the conference and find your new blog.


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