Ahead of London Bible Week, Tom Wright tells Justin Brierley how Christians should think about the atonement
The former Bishop of Durham remains the most influential Bible scholar on the planet. He tells Justin Brierley why he’s returning to the cross of Christ
There aren’t many people we’ve chosen to feature more than once in the Profile pages of Premier Christianity, but if any individual deserves the honour it’s Tom Wright.
We first interviewed the Bible scholar in 2009 while he was still the Bishop of Durham, a role which he looks back on with a mixture of gladness and regret. Gladness for the communities it brought him into contact with where he saw “what the kingdom of God looks like when people are actually doing it”. The regrets are associated with the pull he experienced between academic writing and making time to serve his diocese. In retrospect he admits that he didn’t give enough priority to larger scale strategic issues in an “incredibly busy” life where “you say your prayers, you have the odd retreat, you think you can set some priorities, and then you’re just running from morning to night”.
Since he retired from being a bishop in 2010 and took up a professorship at the University of St Andrews, Wright has returned to academic research and teaching. He doesn’t seem to be any less busy, however. His book-writing is prolific. Within the last few years he has published a 1,800-page magnum opus on the life and ministry of St Paul (using the title NT Wright for his academic work), as well as dozens of popular-level books (as Tom Wright). He’s also constantly in demand as a speaker in the UK, Europe and the United States, turning down many more invitations than he is able to accept.
Wright’s global influence on evangelical theology is difficult to overestimate. His work almost singlehandedly reshaped how Bible students now approach the first century culture of Jesus and early Christianity. His emphasis on the kingdom of God inaugurated by Christ and awaiting fulfilment in a renewed heaven and earth is credited with rescuing a generation of Christians from a reductive “evacuation theology”. The simplistic gospel of being saved from earth for a home elsewhere in heaven has been replaced by a grand narrative of God’s redemption story that encompasses social justice, creation care, and a fresh vision of the mission of the global Church. At the same time Wright is no woolly liberal – he maintains a high view of scripture, doctrine and sexual ethics, and wants to see people converted to Christ.
There are critics, of course. He had the closest thing to a ‘book-off’ with John Piper when the prominent Calvinist pastor published The Future of Justification: A Response to NT Wright (Crossway). Piper’s accusation was that the Reformation principle of salvation by grace had been abandoned in Justification (SPCK) – an allegation which Wright says misconstrues his theology.
The reason the atonement is controversial and difficult is precisely because it matters so much
Unsurprisingly, theologians who disagree with Wright tread cautiously when they take him on. The 68-yearold’s mind is razor sharp, with an almost photographic recall of books, history and scripture (in the original Greek, obviously).
But what makes Wright more than just another crusty professor debating doctrine from an ivory tower is his ability to translate complicated theology into accessible literature for ordinary Christians. Thousands have benefited from his case for Christianity in books such as Surprised by Hope (SPCK) and Simply Christian (SPCK). Parallels drawn with Wright as a modern-day CS Lewis (one of his own spiritual heroes) are deserved on this occasion, though he plays down the epithet himself.
A new book The Day the Revolution Began (SPCK) brings Wright’s kingdom-come theology to the much-debated topic of how Christ achieved atonement for our sin on the cross (see page 66 for our review). It’s a doctrine that has left more than a few theological casualties in its wake, but one that Wright evidently feels passionate about. That passion has burned consistently since his first days as a student of scripture. And, as so many have testified, it’s hard not to get passionate about scripture again for yourself when you are in the company of Tom Wright.
What persuaded you to become both a priest and an academic?
I knew from a young age I wanted to be ordained – my grandfather was an archdeacon – and he was a super chap. I remember as a small boy just liking him enormously and thinking, “That’s what I’d like to do. I’d like to be up there on a Sunday preaching and leading the services.”
It was then only in my late teens, when I scraped into Oxford by the skin of my teeth, the more I was studying theology, the more I thought: “This is what I want to do; I’ll spend my life studying the Bible and teaching people about it.” And, of course, clergy ought to be doing that, and so in a sense I’ve been riding those two horses – the academic and the pastoral. I’ve tried to keep them in balance, though it’s not always been easy.
Do you think that if you were able to make an informed choice today you’d be an Anglican?
That’s a good question. It’s almost like asking, could you have had different parents. Because, of course, I grew up in it.
There have been moments when I’ve thought: “Do I really belong here; should I be somewhere else?” There are many people who grew up in one denomination and have moved elsewhere. I happen not to have done, and one of the reasons for that is a love of the classic liturgy and its music. But also because the Anglican tradition, at its best, showcases scripture itself in a way that few others do. With Morning and Evening Prayer, and the Eucharist, if done properly, you get an awful lot of Bible flowing through your system. Not just as information, but as prayer; as worship. And that to me has always been essential and important.
So how do you keep the word fresh and lively so it doesn’t become just a dry textbook?
I’m an early morning person. I make a large pot of tea, and I take it through to where I have my Bibles and notebooks lined up. And I use the traditional Anglican Morning Prayer liturgy as a framework, which gives me the Psalms near the beginning of the act of worship, but then a sustained bit of Old Testament and then a sustained bit of New Testament. And because it’s my own schedule and I’m not beholden to finish it at a particular time, I like actually to read a good chunk of the Hebrew Old Testament.
I’m in my late 60s now. I’m as excited by these texts now as I was in my twenties, if not more! As an academic that’s a great gift, because many people are bored by their subjects by the time they retire.
Christians in the West have more access to the Bible in print and on the internet than ever before. Yet, surveys tell us they’re reading the Bible less than ever. What’s gone wrong?
I’m not sure it’s gone wrong exactly. However, I do notice that in the first century, most people were functionally illiterate. Jewish boys would grow up learning how to read but most people, unless they were fairly well off, wouldn’t be terribly literate. And the early Church taught people to read because the early Church was a bookish culture.
The early Church believed that it was important for people, as Paul says, “not to be babes in their thinking but to be mature” – to be grown-up in their thinking. Which means dealing with plot and narrative and with ideas, which means jolly well learning to read.
So the early Church was in the forefront of education, particularly of literacy. We need to celebrate that and we need to recapture it and we need to find ways of saying: reading is a great thing, there’s stuff that happens when you read, which is quite different from what happens when you’re in front of a screen.
Your latest book is The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion (SPCK). The atonement has been a source of sharp disagreement among theologians in recent years. What made you want to take it on?
Because I have watched over my lifetime people fighting about different interpretations. And I’ve thought, “Actually, these all mesh together, if only we could be reading the Bible properly to get hold of it.” So I was determined to have a crack at saying, “I think this is how the whole story works, and this is the crucial thing in the middle: the cross.”
The reason it’s been controversial and difficult is precisely because it matters so much. This is contested, dangerous, difficult stuff, and that’s why we have to be prayerfully eager to grasp it properly and sort it out.
You reject the idea of there being a mathematical sum that God performs at the cross. So what’s the right way to think about it?
I want to start at the end and say God’s design is to join all things in heaven and on earth together in the Messiah. In Jesus, heaven and earth come together. The New Testament says that something happened when Jesus died, as a result of which the world is a different place.
Here’s the problem. In the West we’ve tended to see the whole thing in terms of “God wants me to obey him. Oh dear, I haven’t – God’s going to punish me. Oh – fortunately somebody gets in the way and takes the rap on my behalf!’” I want to say that’s a very low grade, almost pagan, view of how God might behave. But we get there because we have moralised our view of humanity.
Morals matter enormously, but humans are more than moral-keeping machines. Humans are meant to be reflecting God’s love into the world and reflecting the praises of creation back to the creator. It’s about a vocation, and Jesus rescues us from all the things that get in the way of our being the genuine human beings we are supposed to be and can start to be now, to practise ahead of the final new creation.
If you ask the average Christian, “How does Jesus’ death on the cross take away our sin?” they might say: “He took the punishment that I was owed.” Now, are you saying that’s not the right way to think about it?
I’m saying there are lots of half-truths out there. And as somebody said to me years ago, “If you take a half-truth and make it into the whole truth, it becomes an untruth.” And that’s a very serious thing because then the vision of God that people have is distorted, and so many people are actually put off the gospel – they just say, “No, that sounds like a bullying God. If there is a God he can’t really be like that.” When some people talk about the gospel, you’d think that John 3:16 said: “God so hated the world that he killed his only Son.” Sometimes people say: “That picture is important – wrath and sin and hell and all the rest of it, and it’s because God loves us.” But simply adding the word ‘love’ onto the end of that story can be actually even worse. It is like what abusers do when they say, “I love you so much” – it’s hideous. But I didn’t write this book because of those abuses. I’ve just seen what I think is a bigger picture.
So what do you think is happening when someone becomes a Christian? Do they have to understand a particular type of exchange of sin and righteousness at the cross, or is it as simple as trusting in Jesus?
The more one knows about how people have come to faith, the more you realise that God moves in many mysterious ways. For many people it isn’t at all about an intellectual thing. Some people are gifted by God with the “I’ve got to think this all through” bit. But there are other people for whom that may come a little bit later – and they’re drawn by some kind of irresistible love which they see in Jesus; maybe a painting or something they’re read about Jesus, or the story of the prodigal son.
There is no atonement theory in the story of the prodigal son, but this idea of a father reaching out his arms and running down the road to welcome this wretched young lad – how can you not be moved by that and just say, “Thank you, this is for me”? At that very moment God says, “Yes, this is for you, and you’re welcome.” In the fullness of time, there’s some stuff it would be wise for you to get your head around...
I’ve always thought at the cross itself, there is that moment where the thief says to Jesus “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And Jesus says, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). So it’s not dependent on us having a right theology…
Exactly. But I believe in theology. I believe in learning to think ‘Christianly’. But that task of learning to think Christianly is something that comes to different people at different levels at different stages.
I believe that little children can have faith; I believe that when a parent gazes at a child or grandchild – I did this morning with my fourmonth-old grandson; we just had a bit of eye contact and smiling at each other – there’s a wonderful sense of love which passes between them, which is pre-articulate. And I really think if God is the great God we know him to be, God has the same ability to communicate with people pre-articulately.
Yes, and perhaps the same goes for people who have limited intellectual abilities? You’ve told a story before about visiting a church with a community of people with Down’s syndrome.
Yes, it’s a wonderful, wonderful church in Houghton-le-Spring, County Durham. The first time I went there I was astonished celebrating the Eucharist and looking down and the front few rows being full of people with Down’s syndrome. They were just thrilled to be there and part of the community, and the community was obviously thrilled to have them there. They weren’t separate, and when they came up to the communion rail, the look of utter delight reaching out their hands…Jesus said, “unless you be converted and become like little children”…I think he could have said, “or like this lot”. There is simplicity and a total acceptance of the love of God, and I think God has a very special care for those and that is really beautiful.
Hear the full interview with Tom Wright on Premier Christian Radio on Saturday 11th February at 4pm. Or listen again at premierchristianradio.com/theprofile
Tom Wright will be speaking at London Bible Week, which is being held from 17th-22nd July 2017 at Emmanuel Centre, Westminster. For more information visit londonbibleweek.com