Frustrated by N. T. Wright


N. T. Wright’s, Surprised by Hope, was an enjoyable read interrupted by notable moments of frustration. On one level, I appreciated the way Wright explored long standing themes—- ever willing to challenge traditional perspectives with deeper reflection. But pursuits of this kind are easily vulnerable to questionable novelty and this is where I occasionally became frustrated with N. T. His use of terms and associations sent some strange and mixed messages that invited justifiable concern among his critics.

In a review of Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God, D. A. Carson acknowledged something similar: 

“He (Wright) says some things so wonderfully well one cannot but be grateful for his contribution. And, as usual, he reserves a place for a few things that are doubtful, mistaken or (at best) out of proportion, or just plain annoying” (D. A. Carson). See: Review).

In Surprised By Hope, part 13, Building for the Kingdom, Wright used reactionary language that (I think) diminished his line of thought and felt like some of the knee-jerkish response he seemed to be opposing. When discussing Redemption, Jesus’ resurrection and the new creation of salvation, for example, Wright placed the work of “garden keeping” (earth care) and argued that because of God’s ultimate intention to redeem creation, we cannot picture God looking at the fallen world (and I might add, “groaning” world, see: Romans 8 ) and saying, “Oh, well, nice try, good while it lasted but obviously gone bad, so let’s drop it and go for a non-spatiotemporal, nonmaterial world instead.” I am not sure how the case for “garden keeping” can be built on God’s ultimate intention to redeem creation itself (something that God will do in the end after He undoes the present world). If Wright aims to correct Christian neglect of earth keeping, why frame the concern this way? 

Wright then argued that since God intends to redeem rather than reject His created world, we should celebrate that redemption (what he calls healing and transformation) in the present as a means of anticipating what is to come. But by choosing the word “rejecting,” he seems to present a straw man to make it reasonable and easy to argue against. The apostle admonished believers to “look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat” (II Peter 3:12)?

But “looking to this day” does not require one to “go ahead and trash the world because the whole things going up in flames some day anyway.” There may be a few fringe groups that take this approach but most see it as irresponsible and disrespectful of creation Exactly who does Wright have in mind. This way of arguing follows the kind of weak logic found often in the writings of Brian McLaren. It also leaves the impression that someone just has some kind of personal ax to grind. 

Along these lines, Wright associates the Church with a call to “implementing Jesus resurrection and thereby anticipating the final new creation.” I am not entirely sure if he’s referring to some brand of Christian earth-care or something else but he anticipates what he calls “obvious objections” with more straw men to argue against — those who accuse him of “turning mother earth into an idol” or those who “think we should give up on the earth until the Lord returns” (the attitude, “Oh well, no sense shining the brass if the ships going under!”). Where are these perspectives being promoted (beyond some odd little fringe groups)?

At this point, Wright took an interesting leap from Jesus’ resurrection as breaking into the present — to doing work for justice in ongoing campaigns for debt remission (something Wright is passionate about to say the least). All of this, Wright considered to be forms of “implementing” God’s intended future in the here and now. Again, I found myself feeling kinship for many of his concerns but frustrated by his theological associations and choice of terms for validating them. 

He stayed with this emphasis by picturing people who view ministry as merely saving souls for the future while letting the world go to its corruption. I am sure there are some irresponsible Christians who hold these extreme views but using them as an example weakens his point.

Similarly, he groans over “rampant belief in the rapture” as a strong support for the attitude that says, “who cares what the state of the planet is.” I know lots of people who believe in the rapture (and, I assume Wright also believes that I Thessalonians 4:16-17 means something about believers being raptured) but I do not know any who hold to this extreme view of neglecting the earth.

The apostle Peter wrote that, “…the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” But, the apostle also wrote, “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” (II Peter 3)

This narrow vision of God’s work seems more characteristic of an older brand of fundamentalism (see: History and Fundamentalism).

Although Wright pauses to recognize that “the final putting to rights of everything does indeed wait for the last day” and although he rightly rejects the defeatist attitude that puts off doing works of justice in the here and now, I wish he would engage more seriously how this final act of God relates to the present. I too believe that redemption sets off powerful horizontal effects in the here and now that are both healing and transforming. But where do those effects primarily demonstrate themselves?

In relation to Wright’s call to ministries of justice, I am not sure he is asking for much more than a call to holistic ministry advocated in Scripture (see: Holistic Ministry). Yet I believe that Wright uses some odd (and potentially misleading) terminology and associations in calling for such ministry (like talk of implementing Jesus’ resurrection). I also think that deeper consideration should be given to the already/not yet tensions of the kingdom, see: Kingdom Theme in Scripture.

Steve Cornell

About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
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3 Responses to Frustrated by N. T. Wright

  1. Richard H says:

    One factor might be that NTW speaks English, while many of us speak American. Some of the cultural references are lost on us.

    I also find the definition of “justice,” i.e., the particular instances of justice we should work toward, to be much less clear than NTW seems to assume. Christians, for the most part, all argue for justice. They simply don’t mean the same thing, or picture the same outcomes as instantiating that justice. That was my frustration with the book.


  2. Richard says:

    I completely agree with you…
    I have just finished Suprised by Hope and I guess I found it inspiring and frustrating in equal parts. I have been reading Wright’s stuff for some time and was impressed once again by his grasp of the big picture and his work has definitely shaped my theology and preaching for many years. I particularly find how his way of linking the ‘kingdom of God’ theme of Jesus with the ‘Jesus is Lord’ theme of Paul makes the whole NT come alive and fit together.

    The frustration, however, comes right at the end and slightly dampens my complete and wholehearted endorsement… His last but one sentence of the book is pertinent… and indeed you pick up on this in your second quote (the first one is fantastic though)… As you note his final words to us are a call to ‘implement’ the resurrection and this idea which he repeats whenever he can in interviews and blogs, runs through most of the final chapters and now seems to be the driving motivation for his life and work.

    Now, I completely agree that the church is a foretaste of the future kingdom, that the church is called to stand up for the poor etc, but I can’t find any place where the phrase ‘implement the resurrection’ (or any like it) comes in the NT. Can you?

    Even when we change the wording and talk instead of the ‘Builidng for Kingdom of God’ it is important to note that (as Guder has told us) that Jesus never once encouraged any one to build or extend the kingdom. The words Jesus uses are ‘receive’ and ‘enter’. Wright talks about ‘building for the kingdom’, but I think this is not our calling. Rather we are called to be salt and light. This is not to say that we are to be passive however in the face of injustice, ugliness or violence, but just that Jesus told us to proclaim the kingdom not extend it, ot embody it and not force it into being. The church is the church when it recklessly gives away its life like Jesus did for the sake of the world trusting in the reality and power of the resurrection, and of the reconciliation of all things to God when Jesus returns. I think Wright thinks that a ‘credit union’ or a play gorup is a sign of the kingdom. It might be, but it might not be too… God’s kingdom is only present (logically) over the parts of the world that he is king over. God’s kingdom is definitely expressed by individuals and communities who live under the rule of God, love the poor, proclaim good news, set free the captives, and heal the sick… but it is not ‘extended’ or ‘built’. It is expressed, embodied, preached, proclaimed, demonstrated. Wright is very keen that we get involved in politics like him (sitting in the house of Lords), but I think this is not the primary calling of the Church, nor one that necessarily comes out of the resurrection of Jesus. Greg Boyd’s reflection on this seems pertinent to this…

    I think so much of Wright’s book is fantastic though and only feel
    frustrated by the conclusions… I am just keen to be part of a church that does the basic things well – loving neighbour and enemy, forgiving others, proclaiming the good news, etc, before we feel the need to sort out the politics of this world…

    Do you have any other thoughts about this idea of ‘implementing’ the resurrection or ‘building for the kingdom’?


  3. O. Bower says:

    I think a possible answer to your question might be found in Jesus’ own actions. Certain times during Jesus’ ministry he says, “The Kingdom of God has come near you.” This could refer to his actions, his disciples’ actions, or even Jesus himself. Now, if Jesus formed a community around himself (the Church) and charged it with a task to mirror his life and interpretative frameworks, then the Church most definitely makes the Kingdom known to those it reaches. Non-church members then have the decision to participate in this redemptive community or go their own way. I think this at least glimpses what Wright intends when he says “implement the resurrection” or “build the Kingdom”. We thus fulfill Jesus’ command to “baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And teach them everything I have commanded you.”


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