Thursday, December 13, 2007

N T Wright answers the questions

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Trevin Wax interviewed Bishop N T Wright of Durham on November 19th for the Said At Southern Podcast. It is worth a listen, for here are some of the highlights:

On the sacraments:
I guess, as an Anglican, there’s always room to move, which can be a dangerous thing, but also a very healthy thing, because bits of the great biblical tradition which you haven’t fully plugged into before you’ve got the space to grow into… not least, the sacraments. You know there’s very little about the sacraments in the teaching I received when I was in my teens, but in my twenties, working with folk for whom that was actually really very important, in a very biblical way… it gave me the space, enabled me to grow.

On the importance of worship:
That’s like saying, “Tell me why breathing is so important to you.” I think if I stopped doing it, I would fall down, or something. I have to look in the mirror and say, “Why is worship important?” Well, it’s what I do. And it’s only comparatively recently, in the last maybe 15 to 20 years that I’ve reflected on why worship is important, which is like somebody who’s always enjoyed eating all their life suddenly reading about the theory of how food works or that sort of thing.

On defining the Gospel:
When Paul talks about “the gospel,” he means “the good news that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Messiah of Israel and therefore the Lord of the world.” Now, that’s about as brief as you can do it. . . . Paul slices straight in with the Isaianic message: Good news! God is becoming King and he is doing it through Jesus! And therefore, phew! God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s world is going to be renewed. And in the middle of that, of course, it’s good news for you and me. But that’s the derivative from, or the corollary of the good news which is a message about Jesus that has a second-order effect on me and you and us.

But the gospel is not itself about
you are this sort of a person and this can happen to you. That’s the result of the gospel rather than the gospel itself. It’s very clear in Romans. Romans 1:3-4: This is the gospel. It’s the message about Jesus Christ descended from David, designated Son of God in power, and then Romans 1:16-17 which says very clearly: “I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God unto salvation.” That is, salvation is the result of the gospel, not the center of the gospel itself.

On the role of justification:
The doctrine of justification comes into play because the whole plan of God is and has been right since the Fall to sort out the mess that the world is in. We British say “to put the world to rights.” I’ve discovered that that’s not the way Americans say it and people scratch their heads and say, “Funny… what does he mean by that?” It means to fix the thing, to make it all better again. And that is there because God is the Creator God, he doesn’t want to say, “Okay, creation was very good, but I’m scrapping it.” He wants to say, “Creation is so good that I’m going to rescue it.” . . .

Then there is this odd thing that we are called by the gospel to be people who are renewed in advance of that final renewal. And there’s that dynamic which is a salvation dynamic. God’s going to do the great thing in the future, and my goodness, he’s doing it with us already in the present! And then the justification thing comes in because within that narrative, we have also the sense that because the world is wrong and is out of joint and is sinful and all the rest of it, this is also a judicial, a law-court framework, and that’s the law-court language of justification. So we say that the future moment when God will finally do what God will finally do, he will declare, by raising them from the dead: “These people are in the right!” That’s going to happen in the future. And then justification by faith says, that verdict too is anticipated in the present.

On "salvation" versus "justification":
The word “salvation” denotes rescue. Rescue? What from? Well, of course, ultimately death. And since it is sin that colludes with the forces of evil and decay, sin leads to death. So we are rescued from sin and death. Now those may be the same event as the present and future justification. But the word “salvation” and the word “justification” are not interchangeable. It’s as though, supposing we have a class that starts at 9:00 in the morning and suppose that 9:00 in the morning also happens to the be the moment when the sun rises in the middle of winter. Now you can say “sunrise” or you can say “the beginning of class.” Those denote the same moment, but they connote something quite different. One is a statement about things that are going on in the wider world. Another is a statement about something very specific that’s happening this morning in my educational experience. They may be the same moment.

In the same way, justification present and future correspond to salvation present and future, but they’re different language systems to talk about different sorts of events that happen to be taking place at the same time. That’s hugely important. And it happens when we’re reading Isaiah, as well as when we’re reading Paul actually. People have often said, “
Your idea…” (pointing to me) “…that future salvation will be based on the whole life led.” I say, Excuse me. I didn’t write Romans 2:1-16! Romans 2:1-16 is Romans 2:1-16. The evangelical tradition has screened out Romans 2 because it didn’t know what it was there for.

On the Catholic and Protestant views of justification:
I think there’s been an enormous amount of misunderstanding. I have met many Roman Catholic theologians who will emphasize as much as any good Protestant preacher that everything comes from the love and grace of God. The problem again and again has been terminological. And of course at the Reformation, there were many in the Roman system who just didn’t get it and who had been so corrupted by some of the nonsenses that were going on in the late medieval period that they really did believe you had to do all these extra bits and pieces and works of supererogation. And it was hooked into the doctrine of purgatory and all of that. But in terms of the sovereign grace of God, you’ve got that in Thomas Aquinas just as you’ve got it in John Calvin. I think it’s time to stand back and take a much longer, harder look at what’s going on.

On the authority of the Word of God:
I’ve been trying to stress that the risen Jesus does not say to the disciples, “All authority on heaven and earth is given to the books you chaps are going to go off and write.” He says, “All authority on heaven and earth is given to Me.So that if we say that Scripture is authoritative, what we must actually mean is that the authority which is vested in Christ alone is mediated through Scripture. That’s a more complicated thing than simply having a book on the shelf, full of right answers that you can go and look up. It’s more a way of saying that when we read Scripture and determine to live under it, we are actually saying we want to live under the sovereign lordship of Jesus mediated through this book.

When you say it like that, then all sorts of other things happen as a result, like what is the sovereign lordship of Jesus all about? Is it simply to fill our heads with right answers to difficult questions? Well, right answers to difficult questions are better than wrong answers to difficult questions. But no, the authority of Jesus Christ is there to transform and heal and save the world, to make the kingdoms of the world become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. So the question then is, how does the authority of Scripture serve that purpose?. And that’s actually much more interesting than simply using Scripture to settle or raise indeed doctrinal disputes within the church.

There are many more good nuggets in the interview. You can listen here, or read the transcript here.

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