Archive for April, 2010

(Professor) N.T. Wright Going to St. Andrews

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

I thought I was done blogging about Bishop Tom for a while, but then the big news came out today: he is headed for St. Andrews University in Scotland as Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity. Both the University and the Diocese of Durham released statements today.

The good Bishop said it was the most difficult decision of his life (other than turning down the offer we made a few years back :-) ). In my conversation with him in Chicago, he dropped a hint in this direction, but I think most people are quite surprised. I know he is sad to leave the ministry in Durham, but this move certainly feels (w)right to me.

Why? He will now have time to actually get some writing done! (It’s about time.) No more slouching!

Seriously, he will be able to continue his pastoral writing, increase his scholarly output, and guide graduate students. In fact, I know that some people already inquired today about the Ph.D. application process at St. Andrews for the fall and learned that it is closed! I’m sure this was well planned.

Tom joins some interesting people at St. Andrews (which has a very strong biblical faculty and is currently rated the top school in theology in Scotland), including Philip Esler, Trevor Hart, and Alan Torrance not to mention Richard Bauckham (emeritus) (RB has moved to Cambridge in retirement), plus a young American gospels scholar, Kelly Iverson, a good friend of my colleague Chris Skinner.

Bishop/Professor Tom will be 62 in the fall—still a young and energetic man, with many productive years left, we hope and pray. (His colleague C.K. Barrett at Durham, who is 92, remains active to this day as far as I know.) May the next phase of his scholarship and ministry be blessed.

What do others think of this development?

N.T. Wright’s Pauline Respondents: Conference Report (5)

Monday, April 26th, 2010

This final post on the N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference will consider the papers given on Saturday, the day devoted primarily to NTW and Paul. The papers were as follows:

“Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and in Protestant Soteriology,” by Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Wheaton)

“The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies,” by Jeremy Begbie (Cambridge/Duke)

“Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died?”, by Markus Bockmuehl (Oxford)

“Glimpsing the Glory—Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright,” by Edith Humphrey (Pittsburgh)

1. Kevin Vanhoozer’s paper was a theological and rhetorical masterpiece. If I were an evangelical reformed theologian (I’m an Anabaptist Methodist with Orthodox and Catholic interests), I would have said what he said, and I would have said a good deal of what he said even without being reformed. (But remind me that if I ever give a lecture at Wheaton to design a first-rate PowerPoint presentation—and to bring extra batteries for the remote.) Besides being a fine response to Wright, it was a noble attempt to build a bridge between the Bishop and his conservative reformed detractors.

Vanhoozer drew on his well-known adaptation of speech-act theory to argue that justification as declaration is not a legal fiction but a performative utterance, calling on Eberhard Juengel’s idea that justification effects an ontological change, and arguing that NTW’s understanding of declaration sometimes neglects this effective dimension of declaration. He suggested that NTW’s emphasis on God declaring people part of the covenant should include the effective dimension—it makes people members of the covenant community. I am with KV 100% on these points.

Vanhoozer also raised the question of whether the juridical declaration that justification is should be seen as something like a civil case or a criminal case, that is, is one declared “in” (settling a civil matter) or declared “innocent” (settling a criminal matter). (My hunch is that if one follows the juridical model, the answer should be “both,” which is where KV landed, though many, especially those who oppose NTW, stress the latter.)

Vanhoozer then offered an interpretation of imputation and union with Christ that he dubbed “incorporative righteousness,” which means that human beings declared to be justified are both “in the clear and in the covenant.” He went on to build on Calvin’s understanding of the double grace of justification and sanctification (distinct but inseparable) by speaking of the triple grace of becoming sons [sic] of God, heirs of heaven, and partakers of righteousness. Incorporative righteousness/union with Christ is forensic, ontological, and covenantal, a Trinitarian communication of righteousness that the Father declares, the Son enables, and the Spirit effects.

Finally, returning to the question of what kind of court the metaphor of declaration refers to, Vanhoozer raised the provocative question, “Is the law court an adoption court?”

This was an exciting paper in many ways. Not only did it challenge NTW on justification precisely where I think he needs to be pressed—on the question of effective declaration, ontology, transformation, union with Christ, participation—it really did open the possibility of conversation between NTW and some of his severest critics—if they (the critics) are willing to talk, that is. My own work on justification resonates with Vanhoozer’s at some very significant points, though he did not (and likely would not) use the term theosis.

I will need to be briefer in treating the others.

2. Jeremy Begbie (my office-next-door-neighbor at Duke last year) is a fine theologian and musician, and we were treated to both aspects of his brilliance at this event. He gave an analysis of NTW’s ecclesiology, explaining its appeal to the emergent-church folks. According to Jeremy, NTW’s ecclesiology has five characteristics, all of which appeal to emergent: it is (a) intrinsic to his theology and his understanding of what God is up to, not an add-on; (b) eschatological, meaning that NTW does ecclesiology backwards and that eschatology is the context for mission; (c) cosmically situated, indebted to Colossians 1 and Romans 8; (d) material; and (e) improvisatory, as in the work of Sam Wells, Dean of Duke’s chapel.

Jeremy added that there are three additional themes in NTW’s ecclesiology that are easily forgotten: the ascension, its Jewish roots, and its catholicity.

At the end of his paper, Jeremy thrilled the crowd with an original, creative musical tribute to Bishop Tom at the piano. At the end of the day, he was called back for an encore.

In the panel later that day, Bishop Tom made a funny comment in response: “Until this paper, I didn’t know I had an ecclesiology, but this is it.”

3. Markus Bockmuehl, who knows the primary sources like almost no one else, pressed NTW on what we might call his “personal eschatology.” Markus finds inconsistencies, and perhaps exegetical problems, in NTW’s presentation of what happens to people at death.

Unfortunately, I took very few notes on this lecture and have not had time to review it. I will just add that I too find NTW’s language (such as what he means by “life after life after death”) less than clear at times.

4. The title of and introduction to Edith Humphrey’s paper had some people a bit anxious about how critical, or even serious, it would be, but it turned into a tour de force. Once again, I took few notes (by Saturday afternoon the energy to do so had all but dissipated), but the gist of her argument was close to my own interpretation of righteousness in Paul: the key is 2 Cor 5:21, which (contra NTW) is not merely about apostles embodying God’s righteousness, but about all believers being transformed into the divine character. She noted that this text and its theology form an important part of the scriptural basis of the doctrine of theosis. (She is a recent convert to Orthodoxy.) I agree, and I make the same argument about 2 Cor 5:21, against NTW, in Inhabiting the Cruciform God.

Depending on one’s interest, all of these lectures would repay careful viewing and/or hearing. The presentations of Vanhoozer and Humphrey are especially important for anyone interested in the topic of justification/righteousness.

The IVP book that comes out of this conference will be a must-have for anyone interested in Jesus studies, Pauline studies, or NTW studies. (Yes, I met with a young scholar preparing to do a PhD dissertation on NTW as theological interpreter.) Congratulations and thanks are due to Wheaton, to all involved, and especially to Bishop Tom. As Richard Hays said at the outset, adulation is for rock stars; critical engagement is what honors scholars.

N.T. Wright Himself at the N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference (4)

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

Undoubtedly the main reason 1,100 people registered for the Wheaton conference was to hear the good bishop himself, and we had three opportunities to do so in the form of major addresses (followed by questions after the evening lectures, though not after the chapel service), plus his responses to the papers each day.

I would suggest that there was one loud-and-clear message that came through all three addresses: “God is ‘putting the world to rights,’ and we are called by Jesus and Paul to be part of that kingdom mission, so let’s get on with it as people of the resurrection.” No one who has heard or read NTW of late will be surprised at that summary.

The first address was a Friday-morning chapel sermon on Ephesians. Bishop Tom took us on a whirlwind tour of the letter, focusing on select verses (one per chapter) that unpack what NTW sees as the message of Ephesians: that God’s mission is to bring the entire cosmos together in Christ (1:10), and that the church is called to do good works (2:10) that, as the expression of a reconciled, unified, and loving community, bear witness to the powers (3:10) that Jesus is Lord and they are not. More could be said, but that’s the basic drift.

The second address was his Friday-evening lecture called “Jesus and the People of God: Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies and the Life of the Church.” Among the key points of the lecture:

• Without attending to history, we shrink Jesus into the abstract categories of humanity and divinity. We must focus on Jesus’ mission as the mission of the God of Israel, that God’s “invasion.”

• Kingdom and cross must be kept together; some churches focus on one much more than, or to the exclusion of, the other, but they are inseparable. We need to ask, “What sort of atonement theology effects the kingdom?”

• Because Jesus has been raised, the new creation has begun, and the church has a job to do. For the church, the risen one is the kingdom-bringer. The “so what” of both historical-Jesus studies and the resurrection is mission.

The third address, on Saturday evening, was called, in parallel fashion, “Paul and the People of God: Whence and Whither Pauline Studies and the Life of the Church.” It was an overview of the much-awaited “big book” on Paul, due out in 2011 (probably). It of course felt also like a summary of the little books on Paul, especially Paul: In Fresh Perspective But there was also a difference. Rather than ending on the topic of the task of the church as a conclusion, this lecture began, and the book will begin, with the letter to Philemon as an icon of Paul’s gospel in its real-life, and therefore most important, manifestation. For NTW (and for myself, I should add, and no doubt for many others), this little letter demonstrates the centrality of the cross as God’s means of reconciliation, not only of humans to God, but also of humans to one another. The letter is Galatians 3:28 (“neither slave nor free”) in the flesh.

I would suggest that this is a significant theological, rhetorical, hermeneutical, and ultimately pastoral move on NTW’s part. And he seemed to say so when he signaled, at the beginning of the talk, that he knew of no one else who started the study of Paul here. (Though I know someone who applied for a New Testament teaching job and did their “trial lecture” on Philemon.) Later he contended that the main symbol of Paul’s gospel is a unified community, and that this should be the starting point of Pauline theology. Moreover, though NTW did not reveal the title of his new book, his online c.v. says it will be called Paul and the Justice of God, a revealing title, to be sure.

Some other key points in the lecture (not all in chronological order):

• For Paul, the story of Israel is fulfilled in Christ but also, from another perspective, radically altered. This may have been a partial answer to more apocalyptically minded interpreters of Paul who criticize NTW for being too “salvation-historical” or “covenantal” in orientation.

• Paul’s theology is a “christologically reshaped and pneumatologically re-energized Jewish monotheism.”

• “The unity of the church is a sign to the world of a different way of being human.” The result of what God has done in Christ is a renewed humanity, a renewed humanness. Romans 15:8ff, about a community of Gentiles and Jews glorifying God with one voice, is a potent summary of Paul’s gospel. (In an SBL paper soon to be published, I say something quite similar.)

• Life in the new creation is a life of justice situated between present justification and future justification, the life of justice flowing from the former and leading to the latter. (As someone who has also stressed the connection between justification and justice in Paul, both linguistically and theologically, I was quite pleased to hear this.) Without justice, he said, you nave not understood Paul.

• One somewhat odd thing he said in passing: Romans 8, about the cosmos groaning in anticipation of the revelation of the children of God, means something like the world is waiting for God’s children in Christ to be good stewards of the earth’s resources. Though I am all in favor of earth-care as a Christian mandate, and would base my position in part on Romans 8, I think NTW temporarily lost sight of the very apocalyptic character of that text, and I imagine that some of his critics will turn this into an opportunity to accuse him of something nasty.

In fact, I confess to my own discomfort with where this last point could lead. Although I am fully in agreement with Tom about God’s purpose of reconciliation, new humanity, justice, etc., and that this is very much at the heart of Paul’s theology and mission, I think we must be careful not to make the mistake of turning Paul (or ourselves as the church!) into an updated semi-Pelagian postmillenialist. The church is not the savior of the world, humans do not put the world to rights, and we are not for the world what Jesus was for Israel. The Bishop mentioned the recently minted slogan of his diocese, which is officially “Helping to grow God’s Kingdom in every community” (from the diocesan website), though I think NTW said simply, “Growing God’s kingdom.” In any event, he reported that one of his priests objected that we do not grow the kingdom, God does. To which Tom replied something like, “Of course, but let’s just get on with it.”

Is this a mere rhetorical difference between the bishop and his diocesan priest? Or is it crucial for us, even as we stress mission and justice and reconciliation—as I do—to remember and to articulate that though we are being transformed into, and embodying, God’s justice/righteousness (2 Cor 5:21), it is God’s justice and kingdom and activity, not ours. This seems to be more than mere rhetorical emphasis, and it is important especially for the many young Christian communities who admire NTW and his message (about which Jeremy Begbie gave an excellent paper on Saturday) not to fall into the postmillennial trap of thinking that we can and will bring in the kingdom. We bear witness to the kingdom as we embody God’s justice in the power of the Spirit.

Enough for now. I will have more to say about Bishop Tom and Paul in the next post about the other papers.

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (3)

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

The afternoon sessions on Friday continued the focus on Jesus with the following papers:

“‘Outside of a Small Circle of Friends’: Jesus and the Justice of God,” Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat (Toronto)

“Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet,” Nicholas Perrin (Wheaton)

I don’t have too much to say about these papers, not because they were uninteresting, but because my energy level was not real high after lunch following, essentially, three papers (Hays, Thompson, and NTW’s chapel address—an overview of Ephesians).

Always creative, husband-and-wife team Sylvia and Brian, who have been NTW’s students and friends for a long time, gave an impassioned address on the importance of taking Jesus’ teaching on wealth and injustice/justice even more seriously than does Bishop Tom. They argued for moving from a “crucifixion economy” where the non-elite are sacrificed on the altar of the “god of unlimited economic growth” to a “resurrection economy” that embodies the “prophetic critique and prophetic hope” of Jesus that is given validity and divine approval in the resurrection. They asked if we find that prophetic critique and hope of Jesus on the subject of wealth and justice in Jesus and the Victory of God. The basic answer—yes, but not as much as we should.

Former NTW research assistant Nick Perrin argued for seeing a close connection between eschatology and ethics in Jesus and in NTW, especially suggesting that NTW’s identification of Jesus with Israel yields an integrative biblical theology. In NTW’s work on Jesus we find a counter to docetism, a synthesis of soteriology and ecclesiology, and a basis for social ethics in its combination of Christology, praxis, and community.

Both papers, in other words, interpreted Jesus and the Victory of God as providing the foundation of a Christian social ethic grounded in Jesus, though the concrete implications of this (at least according to Sylvia and Brian) need to be explored more vigorously.

One small comment: Bishop Tom has grown increasingly aware of, and committed to addressing, social injustices, whether in his backyard or in Africa, since becoming bishop and a member of the British House of Lords. He grounds this in his meta-narrative and in his interpretation of Jesus and Paul. Jesus and the Victory of God might look a bit different now… That said, I will raise some questions in my next post, about NTW and Paul at the conference, about the direction he may be going.

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (2)

Monday, April 19th, 2010

As I continue my reflections on this historic conference, I want to state at the outset of this post that all of the participants are my professional colleagues, people with whom I have worked and/or interacted, and many of them are my friends, including Bishop Tom. So any criticisms I offer are those of a friendly critic.

I do not intend to give full summaries of the various papers. But Marcus Maher, a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School student who was at the conference, has done a look of summarizing over at his blog, Seeking the truth…

Day one of the conference, Friday, was dedicated to the Bishop’s treatment of Jesus and its theological implications, especially in his justly famous 1996 book Jesus and the Victory of God. The morning session was as follows:

“Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth,” by Richard Hays (Duke)

“The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God,” by Marianne Meye Thompson (Fuller)

Richard Hays is probably the most respected American New Testament scholar and a long-time friend of Tom Wright. As always, Richard’s paper was incredibly well done, and one of the two or three from the conference that everyone interested in NTW or NT Theology needs to view, hear, or read. It was both a summary and a critique of Tom’s methodology in the study of Jesus and a public rejoinder to Tom’s devastating SBL review of the book Seeking the Identity of Jesus, edited by Richard and Princeton’s Beverly Gaventa. At that session, I remember Richard’s initial reaction to Tom’s review: “It makes me wonder if you read the book.” The tension over that book and the issues it raises have no doubt strained their friendship, and this paper and its hoped-for but unfortunately postponed dialogue (since Richard had to leave) can be seen in part as an attempt to heal the rift.

So what is the issue between Wright and Hays? It is the age-old tension between the so-called Jesus of history and the so-called Christ of faith, which has to get worked out in each new generation of theologians and scholars. More specifically, it is the relationship between, and the significance assigned to, the first-century Jew known through historical reconstruction and the no-less-Jewish but living Jesus whose identity is revealed in the canonical gospels and in the Christian tradition. In my view, Tom and Richard are actually closer together than they can sometimes appear to be, and their differences may be largely a matter of emphasis—though I’m not 100% sure either of them would agree with me on this.

After reviewing seven dimensions of NTW’s distinctive methodology for studying the historical Jesus and pointing out its principal strengths, especially vis-à-vis certain other approaches, Hays raised some concerns and questions, and then asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Among the most important points in Hays’s paper (meaning the ones I agree with most strongly):

• The story of Israel and Jesus that NTW posits as the biblical meta-narrative is never actually told anywhere in the NT; it is not the story proclaimed by any of the evangelists, nor is it the story of Jesus found in later Christian confession. I would say that this does not necessarily make it wrong, but it does make it suspect—or at least in need of nuancing. Hays rightly contends that sometimes the historical evidence or the exegesis gets overly systematized and forced into his (NTW’s) narrative construct.

• The quest for an alleged single story of Jesus behind the four gospels is theologically problematic, since such a quest deliberately muffles the distinctive voices of the evangelists and tries to create a kind of historian’s Diatessaron (melding of the four stories into one, as Tatian did with the four gospels; that phrase is my own, not Richard’s).

• The absence of the Gospel of John from NTW’s historical reconstruction is hermeneutically significant. Tom later replied that he did not include John for apologetic reasons—he would not have been taken seriously as a scholar of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, in light of recent scholarly developments, that situation is quite different now, and John’s gospel is receiving renewed attention for its possible contributions to understanding the historical Jesus. Maybe NTW would consider John if he were writing Jesus and the Victory of God today.

• The starting point for, and the basic fact of, a Christian statement about the identity of Jesus is the resurrection of Jesus. It is the key to any ultimately truthful and meaningful historical account of him. How would NTW as the author of The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) reconceive the project taken on in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996)?

• There is no need to bracket out the Christian tradition in our quest to understand and identify Jesus. Richard implied what another panelist, Edith Humphrey, said the next day: that the effects of Jesus tell us something important about him as an historical figure.

Marianne’s paper developed a point made by Richard—the problem of the neglect of John in Jesus and the Victory of God. She made two especially important observations:

• The destruction of the Temple, which occurs early in John, would likely signal, not the end of exile, but a new exile, or at least divine judgment. What does one (especially NTW) do with that?

• Ironically, the Jesus of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God (taking on the role of YHWH, etc.) might look a lot more like the Jesus of John than of the synoptics. Actually, I think the work of Kavin Rowe on Luke and the forthcoming work of Richard Hays on the use of Scripture in the gospels indicate that all the evangelists saw Jesus as identified in a significant way with YHWH. But the standard critical interpretation of the differentiation between the synoptics and John on this matter makes Marianne’s point at least interesting and probably valid.

Clearly these two papers gave and give both Bishop Tom and the rest of us much to consider.

Three thoughts on all of this:

1. Later on in the panel (I think), Bishop Tom noted that one of his concerns about reading Jesus through the creeds and tradition is that they have tended to engage in the “de-Israelitization” (his neologism on the spot) of Jesus, God, and the gospel. I have heard him register this complaint before, and I share his concern to a point, as I share his similar concern that the creeds skip from Jesus’ birth to his passion.

One way to deal with this is to realize that the creeds and the Christian tradition more generally do not override or replace the gospels—or at least they shouldn’t. They provide a hermeneutical lens, not a straight-jacket. That is, when we read the gospel narratives of Jesus the Jew, the creeds tell us, we are not reading the story of merely a Jewish teacher, healer, etc. He is, of course, that first-century Jew, but he is that first-century Jew simultaneously, and inseparably, as the once-incarnate and now crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming Son of God.

2. Someone on the panel spoke about a two-dimensional (purely historical) versus a three-dimensional (historical plus theological/canonical/creedal) interpretation of Jesus. I have to think more about this image, but if it is valuable, it reinforces my previous point. As Christians, we cannot think only two-dimensionally, historically (Jesus the first-century Jew), but neither can we skip the two dimensions, however flat they may be, and pretend that Jesus can be known only in the third dimension of canon/creed/theology. Or, better put—if the two-dimensional (historical) Jesus is inseparably part of the three-dimensional Jesus, then it is better to say that understanding Jesus historically, at least in regard to some basic aspects, is not merely an historical task but an essential part of the theological task, of understanding Jesus theologically. This is because, at the very least, (1) incarnation and resurrection and parousia all have something to do with history, and (2) failing to identify Jesus as a Jew, and a particular kind of Jew (the One who brought salvation to and through Israel), is a fundamental theological error in all sorts of ways.

3. It may be that Bishop Tom’s reading of Jesus, even in Jesus and the Victory of God, is more theological than he might want to admit. That’s OK. He’s a Christian! But that does not make his reading any less historical, or any less valid, in my view, because his implicit theological vision is fundamentally both historically and theologically true.

To summarize briefly: it’s a both-and, not an either-or; historical and theological readings of Jesus need to go hand in hand.

At almost 1,500 words, I will stop here and say something briefly about the Friday afternoon session in the next post.

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (1)

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

I am back from the NT Wright conference at Wheaton College in Illinois: “Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Dialogue with N.T. Wright.” I plan to offer my reflections in three parts: general, Friday (Jesus), and Saturday (Paul).

To begin, here are some general and rather random thoughts about the conference as a whole.

First of all, it was simply big, impressively big: lots of books, lots of people, lots of interesting people, both on stage and off. There were 1,100 people registered, plus some Wheaton students and faculty and, in the evenings, the general public watching in the gym on big screens. I have no official count, but it would not surprise me if there were 2,000 people in attendance Friday evening. The crowd was fascinating. Though mostly white, there was some racial and ethnic diversity, but there was definitely a wide span of ages. Lots of younger folks of course—college and seminary students, the newly ordained, etc.—but also people my age and older. The crowd was also denominationally diverse, with some Catholics, Orthodox, and even a Jewish rabbi sprinkled among the Anglicans and Protestants and post-Protestants of various stripes. I kept bumping into both younger and established biblical scholars and theologians, including some rather legendary figures like Kenneth Bailey and René Padilla. I spent some time with Nijay Gupta of Ashland (and soon Seattle Pacific), Woody Anderson of Nashotah House, Rodrigo Morales of Marquette, and Andy Rowell of Duke’s ThD program. I also saw Todd Billings of Western Seminary and met numerous other professors from various fields and places.

Second, it was stimulating: lots of good presentations, lots of interesting and even important conversations. I was particularly happy to get to interact with a few younger students who are preparing for ministry and/or considering doctoral work. I always relish those opportunities at SBL and elsewhere, but there were far more students here than at SBL.

Third, it was well organized and executed. Nick Perrin (NTW’s onetime research assistant) and Jeff Greenman, both of Wheaton’s faculty, did an excellent job, and the many orange-shirted student volunteers giving directions, etc. could not have been more helpful.

Fourth, it was doxological, which is what theology should be. Each session included sacred music by gifted instrumentalists, prayer, and congregational singing (chiefly Taizé and Iona pieces). Grant LeMarquand of Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh (and NTW’s former student) led the prayer and worship, ably assisted by musicians who were also from Trinity.

Fifth, the conference basically lived up to its subtitle: a dialogue. At one level, this was a laudatory event, a love-fest for Bishop Tom, if you will, or at least a profound expression of appreciation. But even the most appreciative papers offered critique, or at least suggestions for improvement or new directions. There was time for feedback from the Bishop to the papers, time for interaction between him and the presenters, and questions from the attendees. That said, however, there probably should have been more time and space allotted to interaction between the panelists and NTW. These were major figures giving substantive engagements with his work about important issues, yet he only had about 5 minutes max to respond to each paper (15-20 minutes to respond to four papers, though he took a bit more time). His responses were therefore necessarily—for the most part—brief and even rushed, with some papers getting lots of attention and some a lot less. The actual give-and-take dialogue, though good at points, was not extensive.

It was unfortunate that Richard Hays, one of the conference organizers and the co-editor of the conference volume that will appear, had to leave (to preach as this father-in-law’s funeral) after giving the first address.

Sixth, the conversation was rather comprehensive: Jesus in relation to history and story/theology, Jesus and John (since NTW has focused on the synoptics), Jesus and economic justice today, Jesus and ethics in light of his eschatology; justification and union with Christ in Paul, NTW’s emergent-friendly ecclesiology, Paul’s individual eschatology, and righteousness in Paul.

Lastly, Bishop Tom was at his rhetorical best in his chapel address and in his two evening lectures. Not a lot of new ground, but vintage Wright on God’s mission and the church, Jesus, and Paul.

On a personal note, I was glad that my student Susan was able to attend the conference–and speak briefly with Bishop Tom—since she is doing an independent study on NTW and Paul this term. I was also glad that I could meet up with Fuller student Angela, who went to Greece and Turkey with me in February.

On a different note, presenter Markus Bockmuehl had a terrible and expensive time getting from Oxford to Chicago for the NTW conference—via trains to Paris and Zurich—and was fearing he may have to return via Africa! I am anxious to hear what happened to him.

More to come. Meanwhile, check out the initial reactions from Nijay Gupta and Andy Rowell (also here), who also has posted links to audio and video of the conference.

At the NTW Conference

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

I am off to Wheaton and the NTW conference. I will likely not blog while there, but I plan to give some feedback when I return.

Why are 1,100 People Going to a Conference about N.T. Wright?

Saturday, April 10th, 2010

Next Friday and Saturday the annual Wheaton College Theology Conference in Illinois will be devoted to the subject of N.T. Wright’s contributions to the study of Jesus (Friday) and Paul (Saturday). “A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright” will consist of a series of presentations by some of the world’s top biblical scholars and theologians, a panel with the presenters and Tom Wright each day, chapel with Tom preaching, and a concluding lecture each night by the good bishop.

Why are 1,100 people, including yours truly, attending? Why did 900 come to my seminary to hear him, and in the process buy $13,000 worth of his books in about a 24-hour period? He may well be the most widely and influential New Testament scholar of all time.

A few thoughts:

1. Bishop Tom is a first-rate historian, New Testament scholar, theologian, churchman, and rhetorician all rolled into one. He is the total package.

2. As an historian and interpreter of texts, he is enormously insightful in his analysis and creative in his synthesis.

3. He has almost boundless energy and is simply a spellbinding speaker. As one noted speaker said when introduced as the next presenter following the bishop’s magical presentation, “No one should have to follow Tom Wright on a program.” Amazingly, he can do what he does often with little time for preparation—for instance, a riveting lecture or sermon prepared in a few minutes early in the morning and delivered before the rest of us have begun to think for the day. As one good friend of mine says, it’s a question of theodicy, of the justice of God, that someone can do that.

4. He is sometimes traditional and sometimes progressive, and often both at the same time.

5. He brings theology and Scripture to life, making the connection between them and the role of Christians in the real world.

6. Finally (at least for now) he has helped to revolutionize and solidify our understanding of many things about Jesus and Paul and the mission of the church. That’s not to say anyone, including me, agrees with him all the time. But he must always be taken seriously.

What else about him is worth noting?

Rev 22 and Hope in Hymnody

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

Easter (which is not over but has just begun!) is the season of hope. In writing today about Revelation 22, I was taken back to the beautiful American choral anthem “E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come.” Drawing on various themes in Revelation, but especially chapter 22, the piece was written by the well-known Lutheran church musician Paul Manz (1919-2009) and his wife Ruth as their young son lay very ill in a hospital bed. (He later recovered.) Though it is often appropriately sung in Advent, it is no less appropriate in the Easter season Those who do not know it should immediately listen to its hauntingly beautiful combination of text and music:

As many others have said, I want this sung at my funeral.

Resurrection Day: A Poem

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

If he rose

If he rose
Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body.
If the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the
amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled eyes of the
eleven apostles;
it was as his flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then regathered out of
enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a thing painted in the faded credulity
of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier mache,
not stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of time will
eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair, opaque in the
dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not make it less monstrous,
for in our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour,
we are embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

– John Updike, “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” in Telephone Poles and Other Poems (London: Andre Deutsch, 1964), 72–3. (HT Halden Doerge)


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