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.