I finished reading a book last week called The Challenge of Jesus by NT Wright. The book was amazing, if not difficult to read at times, but when I finished I was glad that I pushed on until the last two chapters and when the last two chapters concluded I was even more grateful that I had pushed on through to the end. I know that Wright gets a lot of bad press at times, and perhaps some of it is justified (I have not read enough large swaths of his material to formulate any real judgments just yet; I have only just started reading his newest book Surprised by Hope last night), but the real issue is, I think, not whether he is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (can any of us claim to be the former to the exclusion of the latter?) but rather whether or not he is thinking through the Biblical text. This I believe he is doing, and doing well. We may not like all the conclusions he comes to; that’s OK. I don’t think he expects us to. I think he expects to think, to learn, and to mature.
The problem I have been having with Christianity as of late, strange because I am one of those dreadful people, is that there are so many people clamoring for rightness, claiming to be right, and disavowing those who are living in, what they (the Rightness) perceive as wrongness (I am inventing words) instead of pursuing His Kingdom and Righteousness. At the end of the day, in other words, no one is likely to be saved because, again, each of us has the other going to hell in the proverbial hand basket which, in today’s climate, is more likely a fast moving motorized vehicle. I appreciate intellectual debate; I despise superiority based on some vaunted rightness. The White Horse Inn round-table that I have linked below is an example. Don’t get me wrong: I love listening to White Horse Inn, but every time I listen I notice the ‘yes, yes, yesses,’ and the ‘oh you’re book is fabulouses’, and the ‘absolutelys’ and other such things are getting louder and louder with each episode. Frankly, I wish White Horse Inn would add a panel member, a ‘token Arminian’ if you will, who disagrees just to make the show less pedantic and sycophantic. What sort of intellectual stimulation comes from listening to four men who are lock-step with one another theologically?
I am amazed at how confidently some people approach the Word of God. I am even more amazed at how some people take the Word of God and bandy it about as if it were their arrow and their laptop were the bow. Or, to use a slightly more ameliorating metaphor for those less inclined to war metaphors: I am amazed at how many people (ab)use the Word of God to set up their own theological systems that justify their own presuppositions and theological systems. The Word of God was not written, in other words, to justify us or our positions. Something I have learned from reading The Challenge of Jesus is that many of the things I presupposed, ‘truths’ I have guarded from a young age due to overwork in Church camp, Sunday School, and, worse, fear, need to be not just re-thought, but, in fact, abandoned altogether because they are based not on solid history but on fearful presupposition or tradition. This is no denial of orthodoxy or of faith in Christ. This is, rather, an honest evaluation of what has colored my vision of what the church is, what a Christian does, and what God has done and will do and is doing. It has not expanded my vision of God’s rule; it has stifled it profoundly.
The one thing that I have, for better or worse, prided myself upon is this: it’s (I’ll leave the ‘it’s’ intentionally vague) about the Bible. I believe very strongly the Bible is unique in its origins, transmission, and preservation. It alone, in my judgment is the only rule of faith and practice for the church and the Christian. The problem that so many have pointed out is that there are so many different translations of the Bible (all tinged with their own theological slant), there are so many interpretations (I can see from where I am sitting in my study about 10 different commentaries on Matthew none of which agree at all, if any, points), and there are so many manifestations of what is in the Bible (read: denominations, theological constructs, practical applications, etc.). What are we to do? Who can make sense of it? How can anyone be right when there are so many of us who are right? How can anyone be right when there are so many of us who are wrong?
I’ll say this about Wright, agree or disagree with his theological constructions, he is making people think about the practice of their faith–at least he is making me think about my faith. By this I mean not at all my faith that Christ is my hope, salvation, substitute, atonement, Passover Lamb, etc., but rather what it means to practice that faith in any reasonably God-fearing way, what it means to preach that faith in any reasonably orthodoxy way, what it means to let that faith be the substance of my existence in any reasonably meaningful way. This is a fearful road I am traveling down because, frankly, it is much easier to live in the bunker of what I know and or the tank of my own rightness than it is to re-think what I know or, more drastically, to throw away every sermon I have ever written and start all over again from scratch. I have no idea where this road is going to traverse, what bends it will take, what path it will mark out and, to be sure, I am a little afraid. But isn’t there something about faith in that too?
We dare not, as Christians, remain content with an epistemology wished upon us from one philosophical and cultural movement, part of which was conceived in explicit opposition to Christianity. One aspect of following Jesus the Messiah is that we should allow our knowledge of him, and still more his knowledge of us, to inform us about what true knowing really is. I believe that a biblical account of ‘knowing’ should follow the great philosopher Bernard Lonergan and take love as the basic mode of knowing, with the love of God as the highest and fullest sort of knowing that there is, and should work, so to speak, down from there. (NT Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, 195)
That’s what I am thinking about today. This is what I have been thinking about for the last 6 months or so since some people, once very close friends, decided to leave the church and go elsewhere. Then there’s also that seminary class I took on grace which still has me fouled up a bit. Funny, that. Strange thing grace.
Click here for an interview with NT Wright.