N.T. Wright, otherwise known as Tom Wright, is a world-renowned New Testament scholar, Pauline theologian (he’s an expert on all things Apostle Paul), and a retired Anglican bishop. He has authored well over 70 books, as well as many other educational videos, manuals, and other resources. There is so much that could be said about a man of his accomplishment, but the best honor we know to give him is to declare our fandom of his teachings and writings.
We have each learned a great deal about Jesus, the mission of the church, and the necessity for theological study as we’ve taken the time to read his writings and learn from him. It’s not hard to find someone who disagrees with Tom on some of his teachings (*cough, cough* John Piper), but it is very hard to find those who lack respect for who he is and how he is presently impacting the world. Tom Wright is truly leaving a legacy that we will all benefit from should we choose to engage ourselves in what he has to say.
Recently, it was our pleasure to exchange emails with the always busy Prof. Wright, who was unable at this time to join us for an episode. He was gracious enough to afford us the time to ask some questions that we are constantly asking in our own conversations, as well as many questions we hear being asked by you! So, sit back, grab your favorite cup of coffee, and read through this brief interview between us and N.T. Wright.
What is the Gospel?
*The message that the crucified and risen Jesus is the world’s true Lord, having overcome all other ‘powers’ through bearing human sin and its consequences. The early church presented this as a story about things that had actually happened, rooted in the story of Israel’s scriptures, things that had changed the world (1 Cor 15.3-11).
What is the primary mission of the Church?
*To be for the world what Jesus was for Israel (‘as the father sent me, so I send you’): in other words, to be the living embodiment of, and spokesperson for, the good news that God has launched his new creation, thus speaking of Jesus within the larger context of doing justice, mercy, and beauty.
Why does theology matter to the person in the pew?
*Because God wants all Jesus’ followers to ‘grow up in their thinking’ (1 Cor 14), to be ‘transformed by the renewing of the mind’. Theology isn’t just an academic subject; it is the task of the whole church, rooted in scripture and soaked in prayer and sustaining and directing the church’s mission. Only through constant fresh thought will the church attain its vocation of unity and holiness, and so, through suffering, function as the ‘royal priesthood’ in the present and future time.
What is “hell” in the New Testament, and did Jesus descend there between his crucifixion and resurrection?
*Why do Americans always want to ask about hell? (This is a serious question.) The NT clearly envisages that some humans will choose to continue worshipping idols and so to miss out on the genuine humanness which is held out in the gospel; traditional images of ‘hell’ are at best a way of saying that vividly. The early church picked up from 1 Peter 3.19 the idea that Jesus went after his death to the place of death and ‘the spirits in prison’; there are various interpretations of this passage, including (a) the belief that Jesus went down to the deepest depths of human destiny, being really and truly dead; (b) that idea that he did this to rescue people from there, and/or (c) the belief that Jesus went to announce to the powers of darkness that their reign was over and their condemnation had been effected.
What specifically did the cross achieve?
*Jesus’ crucifixion was the means by which the creator God drew on to one place, and then condemned, the evil and sin of all the world, thereby loosening the grip of the idols on the humans that had worshipped them, and thereby opening up new creation (‘the age to come’) already in the present age and continuing the other side of death.
Your latest book on the meaning of the cross, The Day The Revolution Began, has been well received by many different sides of the cross debate. Why do you think that is the case?
*I haven’t seen too many reviews yet. I think if the book has a good reception it might be because I am (a) rooting everything in scripture, especially the four gospels which are so often left out of these debates, and (b) showing how all the major ‘theories’ about the atonement are rooted in scripture and actually fit together instead of pulling against one another. I think in particular people may enjoy the fact that I start with the personal effect and power of the message of the cross: in other words, I insist that the ‘theory’ is not the ultimately real thing, but that what matters is the power of God’s love which the cross invokes and unveils.
You have said elsewhere that you believe Christus victor to be the central metaphor for the cross. If so, could you explain your more recent position on substitution, and how you have evolved on this issue?
*I don’t think ‘Christus victor’ is a ‘metaphor’ as such. To say that ‘Christ has defeated the evil powers’ is not a picture for something else. The centrality of this idea of Jesus’ victory over the powers of evil results from putting the four gospels into the centre of the picture instead of letting Paul and Hebrews have that place. Paul and Hebrews matter vitally, but when they say that through the cross God overcame the dark power(s) they are summarizing what the gospels say more fully, as part of the theme of God’s kingdom. The fact that some theologies have downplayed God’s kingdom itself indicates why Christus Victor has itself sometimes been regarded as a side-issue. The point then is that penal substitution – as, for instance, in Romans 8.1-4 – belongs in THIS narrative (of God drawing ‘sin’ on to one place in order to condemn it there) rather than in some other (an angry, vicious God determined to kill someone etc). The gospels tell the story of Jesus’ death as his victory over the evil powers accomplished through his representative substitution. The main change in my own position is that as a result of very careful fresh exegesis of Romans 2, 3 and 4 I do not believe that the famous passage in Romans 3.21-26 states ‘substitution’ as normally understood. The problem there is that Romans 5.9 speaks of us being reconciled by the Messiah’s death and therefore – as a FUTURE event – being saved from the coming wrath. What Paul says about Jesus’ death in 3.24-26 cannot, therefore, be about the wrath being poured out on Jesus at that point, otherwise, the Romans 5 passage would be tautological (having been saved from wrath, we shall be saved from wrath).
What are your favorite films?
*I watch very few films. I prefer live theatre or live classical music. If I had to watch an old film again I would go for classics like Amadeus or Chariots of Fire. I have enjoyed, however, taking my grandchildren to movies like ‘Finding Dory’!
Do you actually update your Twitter and what is your take on the effects of social media on theology?
*No, I have nothing to do with Twitter. The N T Wright page which Harper Collins run consists of quotations from my books pulled out by someone on the Harper staff. I worry about the fact that fewer people read books these days and more rely on YouTube and so on: this is an unreliable, often unedited world where all sorts of wrong impressions can be given – and in which people can indulge foolishness and worse. However, the publishers now say that e-books (including Kindle editions) have not, as at one time they thought, eclipsed actual old-fashioned books.
What are some forthcoming works you have coming out?
*I have a biography of Paul coming out next February – a reasonably ‘popular’ summary of Paul’s life and work. I hope it will be helpful for a new generation who may not yet be ready for Paul and the Faithfulness of God! I also have some new articles coming out – one on the use of Psalm 8 in the gospels, one on the ‘delay of the Parousia’ as a (misleading) theme in the biblical scholarship of the last hundred and more years. I am about to record the course on Colossians for the online courses at www.ntwrightonline.org – more and more courses ‘out there’ now, and more and more online students! And I am working towards the ‘Gifford Lectures’ in Aberdeen next spring in which I want to explore the theme of ‘History, Eschatology and New Creation’. Along with that, I hope soon to complete my long-awaited commentary on Galatians.
Thanks for the hospitality of this discussion!
Prof N T Wright, St Andrews