N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (3)

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.

7 Responses to “N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (3)”

  1. dan says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    I was talking with Sylvia prior to this conference and I was saying that I often find Wright puzzling in this regard. It seems to me that he constantly misses the implications of his own work, when it comes to his reflections on contemporary matters relating to justice and all that (my suspicion is that Wright misses these implications because of his own socio-economic position in society and in the Anglican church… but I could be wrong about that). So, anyway, while I read JVOG and think that it leads pretty clearly in a certain direction, when I read Wright’s more pastoral works, I’m often confused that he stops so short of where I thought he would. As far as I can tell, Wright’s suggestions around justice fit fairly well with the standard contemporary practices of bourgeois charity, dictated as they are by the Powers of global capitalism, and don’t look much like the practice of creative solidarity and cruciform resistance displayed in the Jesus of JVOG (or the Paul of Wright’s other books).

    Sylvia stated that she experienced the same puzzlement. She stated that she was working some of that into the paper she was presenting. I’m curious… did Wright have anything to say in response? I’m also curious as to whether or not you share some of this puzzlement, if you care to reflect further on these things.

  2. MJG says:

    Dan—

    I talked briefly with Sylvia before and after her paper about this very subject, in part because of some comments I saw by you—on my blog, I think, right?

    I did not take notes on Tom’s response to Sylvia and Brian. He was actually a bit deferential because they all go back a long way and because he is indebted to Brian for much of his worldview material. I don’t think he actually wrestled publicly with the rather radical pushback Sylvia and Brian’s paper gave him, but neither did he disagree.

    I sensed in the Bishop a strong passion for speaking up on behalf of the poor and oppressed that actually challenged “contemporary practices of bourgeois charity”; he spoke of several matters (in generalities) where Christians in Britain, under his leadership or at least with his participation, had opposed, protested against, prayed against, spoken against, etc. normal British policies and practices, one being third-world debt.

    As I said before, when we see the Jesus and Paul we encounter in Scripture, the lives we lead in response always fall short. I think Bishop Tom is a bit too beholden to the Powers for someone who says Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not, but I refuse to throw stones from within my own glass house.

  3. Casey Taylor says:

    I’m intrigued by the whole “economic/social justice” line of thought, especially as it flows organically out of biblical reflection…probably in part because it was absent when I grew up as a Southern Baptist.

    But I have to say, I was not impressed by the presentation of that paper. Frankly, it felt smug and self-confident. Perhaps it’s because they were dialoguing with an old friend, but it would be good for them to remember that their “small circle of friends” included 1,100 strangers.

  4. dan says:

    Hi Casey,

    Interesting read on Walsh and Keesmaat. I can’t speak to their presentation at Wheaton but, having known them elsewhere, I think I can confidently say that they are far from “smug and self-confident”… although I can understand how the themes they raise, as well as the playfulness they often employ, might be interpreted that way by folks of various backgrounds. Regardless, if you get to know them more, I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

    Dr. Gorman,

    Yes, I know that Wright is pushing the envelope on ‘social justice’ issues when compared to many others in the circles in which he moves. However, the fact that he is more ‘radical’ than many Conservatives doesn’t necessarily mean that the form of social justice he proposes is all that ‘radical’ or, more importantly, all that just or liberating.

    Take, for example, Wright’s call for debt forgiveness (which you mentioned above). This call is already fundamentally compromised and on the side of the Powers because it assumes that there is a legitimate debt that must then be (oh-so-graciously) forgiven by the Powers. However, there is no such thing. Sure, there are legal debts, but these debts are the result of legal systems constructed to serve the interests of those who have already plundered and stolen the resources, well-being, and lives of people in the two-thirds world. Instead of calling rich nations to ‘forgive debts’, Wright should instead call on the nations of the two-thirds world to default on their loans and should urge them to refuse to accept the legitimacy of those so-called debts.

    This is why we need to exegete our own context with as much care as we exegete the context of the biblical texts. If we don’t do so, we can too easily mistake injustice for justice or justice for injustice.

    As for glasses houses and throwing stones… I’m not sure why one could, for example, criticize Wright for imposing an overarching narrative of exile/restoration onto the biblical texts but not, at the same time, criticize Wright for being too beholden to the Powers. Why does scholarship accept one form of criticism and not the other?

    Also, although one’s motive should not be throwing stones, if one is aware of that one lives in a glass house, isn’t it worth thinking about moving?

    To be clear, I’m not trying to be a smart-ass by asking these questions. These are matters that I struggle with personally on a regular basis and I wish there was more space to engage in this sort of discussion with Christian scholars.

  5. Casey Taylor says:

    Dan-
    I suspect you’re right that if I knew those making the presentations personally, I would hear it differently. But I have to be honest in how I perceived it.

  6. MJG says:

    Casey,

    Sylvia and Brian can sometimes come across as you experienced them, but, as Dan says, they are fundamentally both very gracious, very perceptive, and very committed to taking discipleship seriously.

    Dan,

    I am no expert on this subject. But your comment (“Instead of calling rich nations to ‘forgive debts’, Wright should instead call on the nations of the two-thirds world to default on their loans and should urge them to refuse to accept the legitimacy of those so-called debts.”) makes me wonder if your solution would be any more liberating if the developing nations protested at the behest of the Bishop (which perhaps they should do) but the Powers, with no more words from the Bishop, did nothing?

    Scholarship—or, better, theological scholarship—allows for all sorts of criticism. As for moving from glass houses, of course it’s worth thinking about, but I am not sure it’s possible, or what that would mean, for people in developed nations, especially in North America. (Not that I haven’t read, prayed, and experimented with options–and occasionally taken baby steps.) The whole structure is glass, and even those who migrate toward the neglected parts of empire are still in the glass house. We must help one another muddle along.

    I hope you at least sense some space for conversation here. But I refuse, in public or in private, to take the speck out of anyone’s eye while beholding the log in my own.

  7. MJG says:

    PS, Dan—

    I do not mean to make excuses for the church’s unfaithfulness or lack of cruciform character. But in my opinion, we must take corporate blame, and go forward together.

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