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N.T. Wright just has a way with words.  Regarding the “work of salvation, in its full sense,” he summarizes that it is

“(1) about whole human beings, not merely souls; (2) about the present, not simply about the future; and (3) about what God does through us, not merely what God does in and for us.” (Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, NY: HarperOne, 2008, p.200, original emphasis)

Salvation is not simply about any notion of saved “souls”, but about saved “wholes” (p.199) [make sure that one is read and not simply heard…or its homophone might make for a humorous aside].  God is working out the redemption of creation…not simply disembodied “souls” nor even simply of some chosen, but removed few.  The whole world (cosmos) shall be renewed, even as it is already underway through the reconciling work of Christ by His indwelling, empowering, life-giving Spirit.

In relation to this, he discusses the “kingdom” and thus God’s reign over all which is being carried out in the present (though awaits final consummation and revelation).  He writes,

“God longed…to re-establish his wise sovereignty over the whole creation, which would mean a great act of healing and rescue.  He did not want to rescue humans from creation any more than he wanted to rescue Israel from the Gentiles.  He wanted to rescue Israel in order that Israel might be a light to the Gentiles, and he wanted thereby to rescue humans in order that humans might be his rescuing stewards of creation.  That is the inner dynamic of the kingdom of God.” (p.202, original emphasis)

This is salvation…the work of the kingdom now as foretaste of the kingdom come.  The salvation of all we are…the salvation of creation groaning for redemption and the “revealing of the sons of God” (Rom.8:19).

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In What St. Paul Really Said, N. T. Wright takes our understanding of “the Gospel” to what it would have meant for Paul and his contemporaries. Modern Christians–evangelicals in particular–have tended to define “the Gospel” as having to do with how people are saved. It is, to modern ears, primarily a soteriological concept. To some degree, then, “the Gospel” leans heavily towards being about us (this is my conception, not Wright’s).

Wright argues that for Paul, the Jews and the people of the first century Roman world, “the Gospel” would have been understood as something quite different–or perhaps it could be better phrased: something much bigger than just soteriology in a narrow “how are we saved” sense.

Jews and Romans would have understood the term “Gospel” in different ways, says Wright, be we don’t need to pit them against each other. On the one hand, the Jews understood the term “Gospel” or “Good News” in Isaianic terms: “Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:9, Wright’s own translation) and “Your God reigns” (Isaiah 52:7, Wright’s translation).

These passages, in company with others (e.g. 60:6; 61:1), are among the climactic statements of the great double theme of the whole section (Isaiah 40-66): YHWH’s return to Zion and enthronement, and the return of Israel herself from her exile in Babylon. They are not simply miscellaneous ‘good news’, a generalized message of comfort for the downcast; they are very specific to the plight of Israel in exile… The ‘good news’…would be the message that the long-awaited release from captivity was at hand (42-3).

For Israel then, the term “gospel” would refer to return from exile (in Jesus’ day, I suppose, it would be under the Roman “Babylon”). This is, I suppose, to some degree about salvation, but more analogous to our notion of being released from captivity to sin, which is not something evangelicals regularly consider when they think of salvation. It is certainly a result of Christ’s saving work, but not salvation per se. Salvation, and therefore “the Gospel”, for evangelicals tends to be about “going to heaven” or “eternal life”. But this concept does not appear to be on the Jewish radar–the “afterlife” was not something they spent much time talking about, if the Old Testament is any indication.

As for the Romans, the Greek word for “Gospel” (euangelion)

is a regular technical term, referring to the announcement of a great victory, or to the birth, or accession, of an emperor… The coming of a new ruler meant the promise of peace, a new start for the world, not least at the time of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor in 31BC following a long period of civil war (p. 43).

So to the Romans, then, “Gospel” was not understood as “salvation” in our modern sense of the term, either. They wouldn’t think of the afterlife–to them the term had more to do with enthronement. According to Wright, scholars have historically tried to make Paul be either one of these two–a Jewish thinker or a Greek thinker. But Wright notes that

the Isaianic message always was about the enthronement of YHWH and the dethronement of pagan gods; about the victory of Israel and the fall of Babylon; about the arrival of the Servant King and the consequent coming of peace and justice (44).

To force a choice between a secular and a sacred understanding of “Gospel”, is to not recognize that for both Jews and Romans at the time claims relating to the emperor (including the move towards his divinization) were religious to the core.

[“The Gospel”] is not, then, a system of how people get saved. The announcement of the gospel results in people being saved — Paul says as much a few verses later. But ‘the gospel’ itself, strictly speaking, is the narrative proclamation of King Jesus. He can speak equally of ‘announcing the gospel’ and of ‘announcing Jesus’, using the term…’to act as herald’ in each case… When the herald makes a royal proclamation, he says ‘Nero (or whoever) has become emperor.’ He does not say ‘If you would like to have an experience of living under an emperor, you might care to try Nero.’ This proclamation is an authoritative summons to obedience… (45).

(Here I’m put in mind of and tempted to go to Bonhoeffer’s “Christ, Reality, and Good” in Ethics, but that might be forcing it.)

In summary, a classic N.T Wright line: “To announce YHWH [and by extension, Jesus] was king was to announce that Caesar is not” (44).

It seems to me that evangelicals have been very good at setting up a system of salvation, of telling people how to “go to heaven”, but we have not been so good at preaching the Lordship of Christ. Have evangelicals missed the Gospel?

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his little work entitled Life Together wrote about the Reformed perspective of “alien righteousness” (“fremde Gerechtigkeit”) which in Luther’s doctrine of justification was extra nos.[1] He explained the need, based upon this doctrine of “alien righteousness,” for community and the spoken Word of Christ.

If they are asked ‘Where is your salvation, your blessedness, your righteousness?,’ they can never point to themselves. Instead, they point to the Word of God in Jesus Christ that grants salvation, blessedness, and righteousness. They watch for this Word wherever they can. Because they daily hunger and thirst for righteousness, they long for the redeeming Word again and again. It can only come from the outside. In themselves they are only destitute and dead. Help must come from the outside; and it has come and comes daily and anew in the Word of Jesus Christ, bringing us redemption, righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. But God put this Word into the mouth of human beings so that it may be passed on to others. When people are deeply affected by the Word, they tell it to other people. God has willed that we should seek and find God’s living Word in the testimony of other Christians….They need them again and again when they become uncertain and disheartened….They need other Christians as bearers and proclaimers of the divine word of salvation.[2]

While I’ve been reading and reflecting on a recent book (Justified in the Spirit: Creation, Redemption and the Triune God; Eerdmans 2010) by Frank Macchia I was struck by the utterly non-pneumatic presence of Bonhoeffer’s statements.  So close and yet so far away.  What Bonhoeffer has to say rings true, but it should be added that we speak as the Church by the will and word of the very Spirit of Christ.  It is not simply a speaking words from the book which is the Bible.  That would not be “God’s living Word.”

The extra nos righteousness of Luther seems to fail to do justice (pun intended?) to the inward justifying of the Spirit within the believer in the very midst of the believing and confessing community.  I believe Bonhoeffer has in some ways redeemed Luther in this (though I haven’t read Luther so thoroughly that he may in fact do so himself) by reminding the Church that we speak the Word of God as righteousness…one to another.  We confess the forgiveness of sins as fully granted.  A community that is redeemed and redeeming by the Spirit which cries aloud “Abba, Father!” that others may believe and take heart.  That we may believe and take heart…together having been justified we may also be glorified with our Lord Jesus Christ.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al., Life Together; Prayerbook of the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 31fn10.

[2] Ibid., 32.

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I started reading The Chronicles of Narnia with Madeline last week and came across an interesting passage in The Horse and His Boy.  Two things to know: The animals in Narnia are friendly and able speak, but Digory’s Uncle Andrew is unable to understand them–their voices just sound like animal sounds to him and he’s terrified of them. Uncle Andrew has a major Narnia-based economic scheme in mind and Digory wants Aslan to set him straight. Aslan has this to say:

I cannot tell that to this old sinner, and I cannot comfort him either; he has made himself unable to hear my voice. If I spoke to him, he would hear only growlings and roarings. Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good! (The Horse and His Boy, 158)

There’s no question that Lewis’ theology shows up in his writing, but I couldn’t figure out what Aslan’s words reminded me of. Then I remembered: something N.T. Wright said in Surprised by Hope. This forms part of a discussion on purgatory, paradise, and hell, and Wright is writing in response to the popular (in “liberal” circles, anyway) notion of hell eventually being empty (i.e. some form of universalism).

I find it quite impossible, reading the New Testament on the one hand and the newspaper on the other, to suppose that there will be no ultimate condemnation, no final loss, no human beings to whom, as C.S. Lewis puts it, God will eventually say, “Thy will be done.” I wish it were otherwise, but one cannot forever whistle “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” in the darkness of Hiroshima, of Auschwitz, of the murder of children and the careless greed that enslaves millions with debts not their own (Surprised by Hope, 180).

Wright goes on to suggest his own view contrary to the traditional view of hell*, saying that

one of the primary laws of human life is that you become like what you worship; what’s more, you reflectwhat you worship not only back to the object itself but also outward to the world around…. My suggestion is that it is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse the whisperings of good news, all glimmers of the true light, all promptings to turn and go the other way, all signposts to the love of God, that after death they become at last, by their own effective choice, beings that once were human but now are not, creatures that have ceased to bear the divine image at all (Surprised by Hope, 182).

If I have to give a name to one of my hobby-horses, I suppose it would be “soteriology”–or at least that part of it that wonders who can be or is saved by the work of Christ (I should have written a thesis on the topic while Terry Tiessenwas still the theology professor here). I suppose I would call myself a hopeful universalist. I find many of the arguments for Christian universalism quite compelling.

Christian universalism is considered by many to be a cop-out in the face of discomfort with the notion of eternal conscious torment. But I can’t help but wonder if Wright’s view isn’t exactly the same thing. Yet it will not face nearly the opposition Christian universalism does, because at least people are eternally punished in some way (why do we wnt this so much?). And not only that, it may just have less scriptural or historical basis than Christian universalism. (In fairness, in the next paragraph he does consider his view speculative.)

I am also doubtful of his reasons for rejecting universalist ideas. The horrors that he lists may make him wish that there are people beyond redemption, but it doesn’t follow that it will be so.** Just because Joe Despot did some horrendous things, it does not automatically follow that there must be some kind of eternal punishment for him.

Further, we do believe that God’s grace is sufficient to atone for even the sins Wright lists. If (hypothetically speaking) the perpetrators of these sins were to repent, under the traditional view of things, they too would be saved. It seems to me, therefore, that the horrors we see in this world don’t necessitate punishment beyond, perhaps, that suffered by Christ (but that’s another discussion).

Wright–or any of us, frankly–might not be able to imagine it otherwise, but again that doesn’t make it so.

Wright is usually pretty good letting scripture shape his views. In this case he merely alludes to his readings of the New Testament. This isn’t particularly helpful, but then these “last things” are in general speculative.

[PS. I’m not saying Wright is wrong (heh heh), just that I don’t think he’s given good reason, scripturally or otherwise, for his position.]

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*I have the feeling that Wright’s view actually might have its origins in Lewis as well, but I can’t say for sure as Wright does not credit him in any way.

**Ignoring the question of at what point a sin is grave enough to warrant mentioning in this discussion.  That is, under Wright’s scheme, which sins are bad enough for us to expect eternal punishment?

(Cross-posted at The Eagle & Child)

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