The Paroikos Bible Blog exists as a resource to those interested in Biblical studies and Koine Greek. It is hoped that this blog will simultaneously provide food-for-thought to the reader while pointing him or her in the direction of valuable resources, both in print and on the internet, that will further help his or her studies in the Word.

Jul 8, 2020

N. T. Wright: The Day the Revolution Began--a Mini-review and interaction

N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion (HarperCollins, 2016).

N. T. Wright is a noted theologian and Anglican bishop, one of the most prolific Christian writers of the 21st century, and key representative of the conservative wing of the "New Perspective on Paul." Wright's work is so significant, that there is an entire monograph (full of prominent Pauline scholars) that is devoted to critiquing his work (click here).

Now, just a heads up: what I tell my seminary students is that N. T. Wright is absolutely golden when dealing with the Resurrection and when skewering liberals, but not helpful when dealing with the doctrine of justification. Thus I have my "New Testament Introduction" students read Wright's essay "Five Gospels but No Gospel--Jesus and the Seminar" (published in Authenticating the Activities of Jesus), as well as his three articles on the resurrection in the Sewanee Theological Review, vol. 41 no. 2 (1998). However, to balance that out, I also have my students read Thomas Schreiner's response to N. T. Wright in his article "Justification: The Saving Righteousness of God in Christ" in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society vol. 54. no. 1 (March 2011) [for the record, I also have them read Michael Bird's article in the next issue, just because Bird is always a treat to read].

The Day the Revolution Began (TDRB) is a well-written book meant more for the "average Joe" or "average Josephine," so to speak, not the scholarly guild (Wright excels at writing theology that the average church-goer can understand). The purpose of TDRB is to reorient the reader towards the significance of Jesus' death on the cross, properly understood within the social-political-historical climate of 1st-century Palestine under Roman rule. In other words, Wright wishes us to rethink, to ponder anew, the scandal of Jesus' crucifixion, not diminishing it to a simple transaction for our sins (though he never denies that it was that, either; imo he downplays it, though).

The chapters are, I believe, a bit less structured than some of Wright's other books, but here's a quick, general summary.

Chapter 1 introduces the key question about the significance of the cross and "how it works" (with some references to classic hymnology). Chapter 2 discusses the theological theme of the cross within the theology of the Reformers and modern Western interpreters. Here in chapter 2, Wright also introduces his objection to the standard "all sinned, Jesus took our punishment, and we can go to heaven by believing in him" presentation of the Gospel (see esp. pages 38-40), and Wright also pushes against any presentation of the Gospel that seems to focus on the idea of an "angry, bullying God" (p. 44). Chapter 3 focuses on what, exactly, caused the cross to be a scandal in the 1st century setting (and is one of the more valuable chapters, in my opinion).

Part Two (chs. 4-7), "In Accordance with the Bible--The Stories of Israel" deals generally with Old Testament theology, especially the narrative of Israel, and how it's relevant for Jesus' crucifixion.

Part Three (chs. 8-13), "The Revolutionary Rescue" then develops Wright's theology of the cross, his focus on the kingdom, and a form of "New Exodus" theology (see pages 180-184, esp.) to describe what Jesus was doing. Here, as elsewhere in Wright's works, he focuses on the corporate: Jesus' deliverance of, and offer of salvation to, the world. 

Thus I believe the general theological thrust of Wright's message in TDRB is exemplified in a paragraph from page 387:
"One of the greatest achievements of the cross is routinely overlooked by modern Christians. We tend to think of the early mission to the wider non-Jewish world as simply a good piece of news to be shared as widely as possible: 'Jesus died so you can go to heaven--seize the chance while you can!' But even when we have revised that formulation to focus on new creation rather than 'heaven,' we are missing something deep that stands behind and underneath it. Because of the cross, the world as a whole is free to give allegiance to the God who made it." 

In keeping with that emphasis, he then states on page 391: "The gospel was--and is--the powerful announcement that the world has a new lord and the summons to give him believing allegiance. The reason the gospel carries this power is that it's true: on the cross Jesus really did defeat the powers that had held people captive. For the early Christians, the revolution had happened on the first Good Friday."

Part Four (chs. 14-15), "The Revolution Continues," then focuses on demonstrating how this theology of the cross is relevant for Christianity today.

Now, there are elements of this book that I can commend. Anytime Wright pushes back against the "go to heaven" aspect of our Gospel presentation, I offer a hearty "amen" (Newsflash!! Dear Christian, you will never, ever, see anywhere in Scripture the idea that "believing on Jesus" means we will "go to heaven for ever!" [and the closest we might come, John 14, "I go to prepare a place for you," is most likely a reference to the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven]. The eschatological hope of Christians is not "heaven" but rather the Resurrection and the New Heaven and the New Earth. Thus Wright does well to focus on the "Renewal of Creation" (e.g., pages 267-8)  In addition, although I would certainly disagree with much of what Wright has to say about Israel, I greatly appreciate [and cited positively in a recent BibSac article] his focus on Israel's "Covenant of Vocation."

A few critiques. I feel that, in his zealousness to offer a more corporate model of the cross, he caricatures those who focus on individual salvation (e.g. page 265 contains a caricature of the Romans Road). In addition, he swings the pendulum too far to the other side, downplaying individual salvation (this tendency of Wright vis-a-vis repentance has been well-critiqued by my former classmate Josh Chatraw in an article in JETS vol. 55.2--click here). Imo, Wright basically commits the "either-or fallacy" on page 234 when he states that "Galatians is not about 'salvation': . . . The central argument of Galatians has nothing to do with 'how to get saved.' . . . The letter is about unity." Since Galatians is dealing with precisely the sort of problem that was going on in Acts 15, which most definitely dealt with "how people are saved" ("is circumcision necessary?") as well as the unity of the Church (and also sanctification, what is "needful"), this is a major lapse on Wright's part. 

On a minor note, there are other places where I felt Wright creates something of a caricature and/or strawman of those he disagrees with, e.g. page 201.

Secondly, Wright downplays the (very important!) theme of God's wrath to the point where huge swaths of Scripture are rendered irrelevant. For example, a statement on page 147 encapsulates, in a nutshell, both my appreciation of and my frustration with Wright's work. He states,
"In much popular modern Christian thought we have made a three-layered mistake. We have Platonized our eschatology (substituting 'souls going to heaven' for the promised new creation) [I would "amen" that part!] and have therefore moralized our anthropology (substituting a qualifying examination of moral performance for the biblical notion of the human vocation), with the result that we have paganized our soteriology, our understanding of 'salvation' (substituting the idea of 'god killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath' for the genuinely biblical notion we are about to explore."
This immediately follows Wright's objection that "Some versions [of Christian portrayals of salvation] are closer to the pagan idea of an angry deity being pacified by a human death than they are to anything in either Israel's scriptures or the New Testament."

Now, the problem with this is that the wrath of God, and its need for satisfaction vis-a-vis justice and punishment of sin, appears all throughout Scripture, featured prominently in the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25 (see esp. v. 11--Phinehas actually turns aside God's wrath by killing the sinner!) and Romans 1:18, 24, etc. In my opinion, Wright downplays this to a dangerous degree (though to be fair he never denies it).

I would like, in conclusion to bring in a point made by Stephen Westerholm in his [so far] excellent Justification Reconsidered: Rethinking a Pauline Theme (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013). When dealing with Krister Stendahl (of whom Sanders, Dunn, and Wright are all theological heirs to one degree or the other) and Stendahl's claim that "How am I to find a gracious God?" was not a question for which Paul sought the answer, Westerholm begins with Paul's Thessalonican correspondence and moves through the corpus, demonstrating conclusively that rescue from divine judgment (and wrath) was most definitely a concern of the average recipient of Paul's Gospel. Thus we see, for example, in 1Thess 1:10, that the Thessalonican believers' acceptance of Paul's proclamation necessarily involved the idea that Jesus Christ is the one rescuing us from the coming wrath. Consequently, Westerholm aptly states, "With or without an introspective conscience, anyone who takes seriously a warning of imminent divine judgment must deem it an urgent concern to find God merciful" (Kindle Loc approx. 120). Thus Westerholm offers a healthy corrective to Wright's work in multiple areas, pointing out that the Apostle Paul's presentation of the Gospel should naturally deal with a wrathful God and how to make peace with him (cf. also John 3:36; Rom 5:9; Eph 2:3; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6). This is not a minor theme in Scripture, but significant to our understanding of Christ's death.

In conclusion, then, TDRB is a well-written, provocative book with some good thoughts but a tendency to occasionally caricature and "throw out the [theological] baby with the bathwater."