Posted on: April 16th, 2020 NT Wright on History & Eschatology

NT Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures are well worth grappling with, as is the book-form version of the same, History and Eschatology. While I take issues with his historiographical methodology (wh is a bit too positivistic), I think that his presentation of the actual view of first century Jewish thought is absolutely superb.

If we ask the question, “What is history, and what are its contents?” then the Christian can start with St. Paul & the Gospel writers (that is, the apostolic teaching of the NT itself).

But before we can ask, “What do the NT writers think history and its contents are?” we must investigate the historically conditioned character of their minds.

Ah, but before we can ask about the historically conditioned character of their minds, we must first ask about the historically conditioned character of our minds (that is, of the minds of modern interpreters, especially those who practice historical-critical method of biblical interpretation).

There are, then, three levels of history in view in NT Wright’s lecture series (and his book History and Eschatology):

  • the history which conditions the modern mind (which NTW rightly describes in terms of Epicureanism);
  • the history which conditioned the ancient (first century) mind (predominantly, at least in this lecture series/book, second Temple Judaism with its biblical themes of Temple, Sabbath, & Image);
  • the history which those ancient writers took to be real and determinative: the redemptive history—which is always already eschatological—of God’s covenant people.

After each of these investigations has been made, it is theoretically possible finally to ask: Can we ourselves adopt the apostles’ same position on history, namely the embrace of the historia salutis as narrated in Scripture? The striking reality is that, given many strands of postmodern theory (themselves neoplatonic in inspiration) this latter possibility is (in the spirit of Ricœur’s “after the desert of criticism we long to believe again”)  actually quite plausible and attractive.

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Posted on: June 21st, 2012 How to “stick it” to the Divider

As any number of folks in the Epiphany Community can tell you, the etymological meaning of the word “devil,” which occurs in Scripture a total of 34 times, literally means “the divider.” The devil loves to take what God has joined together in his good work of creation, and to rip it apart.

Which is why, for St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, God in the Gospel is all about taking what sin (and the devil) has torn asunder and “putting it back together again.” Fixing it. Making it into what, from the very beginning, it was supposed to be.

Indeed, as NT Wright has noted (in a recent lecture delivered to the students at Wheaton University) the letter to the Ephesians evokes at least four different divisions (wrought by sin, etc.) which God in the Gospel is working to repair and restore.

First, God is reuniting heaven and earth (Eph 1:10). Once upon a time God and man enjoyed each others’ intimate presence in the evening cool of the garden. Can you imagine? God being as present, indeed, more present, than your spouse, your parent, your loved one? And then, when the unspeakable had happened, man began to do what we all now do: he hid from his lover. What is the Gospel? It is the good news that God is reuniting heaven and earth … that, as the wonderful song says,

When at last this earth shall pass away,
When Jesus and his Bride are one to stay,
The feast of love is just begun that day.
God and man at table are sat down.

Second, God is reuniting giftedness and work. Have you ever had the horrible realization, when thinking of your own work, “I’m just not good at this?” Have you ever sensed that there is a terrifying mismatch between your work and your gifts? In the face of this common dread, St. Paul says that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Part of what’s going on here is the often neglected truth that, for the Christian, your work is bigger than your career. That is, each one of us is called to and specifically gifted for work, service, in the Body of Christ. God is faithful, if we ask him, to give us our daily bread. Beyond earning a paycheck, though, we can achieve deep satisfaction in the labor of Christ’s vineyard.

Third, God is reuniting Jew and Gentile, and every racial division which separates us. In Paul’s vivid imagination, the church “the multi-splendored wisdom of God … now … known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). The book of Ephesians stresses the reconciling work of Christ to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) which isolates Jews from Gentiles, and vice-versa. In our day we can be assured that if there is now no enmity between between Jew and Gentile, then there is definitely no necessary division between Hispanic and Anglo, between black and Asian, etc. For, as Paul states, elsewhere, we are “all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28).

Fourth, God is reuniting male and female. In chapter five of Ephesians Paul has been speaking at length about the relationship between husbands and wives. Even while advocating an egalitarian “mutual submission” between husband and wife, he also commends a certain hierarchical structuring of the marriage bond. This structure is meant to reflect the relationship between our “head,” Christ, and his “body,” the Church. As for Christ and the Church, so also for every husband and wife within the economy of God’s community.

Do you want to “stick it” to the devil, the “divider?” Then get on board with God’s reconciling project. It is called “the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and it is uniting all things in heaven and on earth.

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Posted on: March 19th, 2012 Lent & Learning the Language of Virtue

On Tuesdays at Christ Church during Lent we have been considering “The Virtuous Life: Learning to Love like Jesus,” a series rooted in I Corinthians 13.

In what the speakers have talked about I would venture that much more has been said about “love” than about “virtue.” I would suggest that there are several reasons for this, but one reason is that we think we know a thing or two about love, but when it comes to virtue (that ancient and medieval teaching about character formation) we are (to some extent, anyway) at a loss.

We live in a culture which has totally lost sight of this ancient tradition of virtue. Even in most quarters of the Church today we have basically no clue as to how someone like Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas (or, indeed, someone like St. Paul) would answer the question “How is Christian character actually formed in a person?”

Indeed, even in my senior ethics class at the evangelical seminary I attended to become a minister, the word “virtue” went unmentioned. Instead, the focus was on “What do the Scriptures teach about morality?” Now, that is a good question, but even when one figures that out, one is still left with the question, “OK, but how?”

How can I put God’s Ways into practice? Because sometimes I know the right thing to do, but I don’t do it. And it’s funny how I’ve noticed the same tendency in my children! We are well intentioned, but actually doing the right thing is something totally different.

To take matters a level deeper, the goal of Christian virtue is actually not even about “doing the right thing.” Much more important is the goal and the practice of becoming the right kind of person. The kind of person who can live well in this world and (therefore) in the world to come.

For these reasons and more I am grateful for our Neighborhood Groups at Christ Church where we are intentionally forming communities where virtue can be learned. So much of the work here (to allude to Dallas Willard and his disciple James Bryan Smith, whose book The Good & Beautiful God we are reading in our groups) has to do not only with “switching out our narratives” but also with adopting a new set of practices and disciplines.

Because without new disciplines, there can be no new habits. And without new habits, there can be no new virtue.

NT Wright gives a powerful illustration of virtue in his book After You Believe. On January 15, 2009 US Airways Flight 1549 flew into a large flock of geese, some of which were sucked into the jet engines of the plane, causing it to lose all power and hence to plunge downward toward the densely populated Bronx, New York. Captain Chesley Sullenburger III had less than two minutes to take action which would save the lives of hundreds of people. The problem is that with less than 120 seconds, there is not enough time to consult a pilot manual, to ask advice from your copilot, or even to formulate a plan. Good thing Capt. Sullenburger had formed unbreakable habits during his decades of flying. In less than two minutes he had to flip dozens of switches, disengage the auto pilot feature, get the nose of the plane down for maximum gliding, and perform dozens of other moves which eventually enabled the plane to land safely along the Hudson River, thus saving hundreds of lives.

Not everyone will be put in such a situation, but we are all faced, eventually, with tests of our character. When that time comes, virtuous habits are what God graciously uses to save us, and to save the day.

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