Photo courtesy of Leo Kwan
N. T. Wright has arrived quite late on the scene in the Chinese Church, but it’s certainly better for him to be late than never. In reality, he is still not always widely read (though widely denounced by the Neo-Puritan/Neo-Reformed folks) in the evangelical church, and if he’s read, not many have reflected on the implications of his work. The above photo is a foreword introduction I wrote for him in Chinese. Below is the English version of it. For some of my English non-academic readers who are still unfamiliar with him, I hope this somehow introduces him in a fair and helpful way. Like him or not, he’s here to stay. You may as well think about how his writing implicates how the church should behave and how people should view Christianity.
For my Chinese readers, you can order this book from Get it here http://www.vwlink.net/product.php?pkey=1831 or here https://Shop.Campus.Org.Tw/ReadingBanquet/13.9-10/New.htm Here’s my English version of the intro foreword. I wrote this in January while book touring Taiwan for my publisher. Enjoy!
N. T. Wright is arguably the most significant theologian so far in the 21st century, not only in terms of biblical theology of the New Testament but also in terms of popular influence in the global church as well as the historical quest for Jesus and Paul. Wright has been working on his various projects from the popular level to highly academic monographs for more than two decades. His legendary scholarship has already been taken for granted in the West. No scholars of the NT dares to research without interacting with Wright’s work, though some have tried to ignore or belittle him in their writings. I suspect, whether everyone agrees with Wright on everything or not, most who try to ignore Wright are afraid of having their comfortable little box disturbed by something “new.” Fundamentalism and classical liberalism can both suffer the same way because of its entrenched ideological agenda. Lest anyone thinks that he is some kind of ivory tower egg head, Wright has always been an active churchman, serving both in the pulpit and the bishop office in England. Therefore, he balances his academics with relevance to the wider non-academic world. What is the most influential work in Wright’s own writings? This work is it! I shall introduce this work to the Chinese-speaking world while commenting on its relevance to many aspects of the church life.
Written first in 1992, NTPG is the foundational work to all of Wright’s other work, both for Jesus and for Paul. In order to understand Wright, we should not merely look at his popular works. Even though this book arrives late in the Chinese-speaking world, it must be digested so that we do not merely grasp bits and pieces from Wright’s banquet table but also consume a proper nutritional meal. Many misunderstandings in the Chinese world regarding Wright is due to a lack of understanding (or effort to understand) his theoretical/theological foundation. Those Wright-critics are behind more than two decades when they have not digested, understood and reflected on this work as they went on their polemical rampage. As a result, much of their ranting is unfounded, misguided, misleading, and misinformed.
By taking seriously this more influential work, we meet the complete Wright without using bits of his work to bolster parts of our agenda. This book is a tour de force of scholarship that stormed onto the scene, after historical criticism has been deemed by some to be passé and close reading of the NT has been denounced to be ahistorical. Wright found the balance for both. More importantly, Wright’s work implicates the way biblical theology is done and in the way biblical theology can influence systematic theology. His biblical theology creates a metanarrative that appropriates both Old and New Testaments in their proper places for NT interpretation. His has been such an admirable task that even though he did not set out to do a full biblical theology, I know colleagues have used this creative work as one sample of how solid biblical theology can impact exegesis and hermeneutics. His narrative approach tells the story the way drama of God’s salvation plays out. The drama metaphor is well-used by systematic theologians today, but even back in the day when this drama idea was not yet popular, Wright was already exploring and breaking ground.
The context of Wright’s writing is the popularization of postmodernism in biblical scholarship. I recall, as a fresh grad and young minister, armed with my two masters in those days, that great scholars like Anthony Thistleton wrote great volumes to combat, interact and integrate postmodernism into interpretation of the biblical text. Wright’s storms took hold of the academic world with something a bit new for biblical theology: critical realism. This paradigm avoids the pitfall of modernism that falsely declares positivistic objectivity. The declaration for certainty, of course, had its detractors in those days among postmodernists who point out the obvious fact that humans cannot know everything for certain. In some instances, certainty is impossible. Particularly useful is his theoretical foundation and plea for critical realism. Wright steers a middle way against the optimism of modernism and pessimism of postmodernism. Critical realism, per Wright’s definition, “is a way of describing the process of knowing.” While interpreters cannot gain absolute certainty, relative certainty is possible (including the elusive “author’s intention”). Such knowledge comes from the conversation (i.e. critical analysis) between the observer and the object. The feedback loop comes from a taking this conversation from different perspectives to view an object holistically. This knowledge is within but never “completely” in the grasp of the seeker. This process then is a continue spiral in search for truth.
How does Wright lead the reader on the search for this truth? He does so by story, by a narrative approach to biblical theology. In so doing, Wright avoids, as much as he can, an overly propositional format of doing biblical theology. In order to build his foundation, Wright works from many sources to recreate the worldview of those first-century people. His resulting picture is a rich jigsaw puzzle that includes many pieces instead of insisting on one strand of thought. This narrative method was an innovation during a period when everyone was just beginning to debate whether narrative theology was possible. Wright just went ahead and did it here. This story becomes the control over the entire biblical theology enterprise.
Wright’s sketch starts by talking about worldview. The “Christian” (versus other) worldview needs to be articulated when creating this necessary narrative. Wright rejects atheistic worldview on the one hand and deistic worldview on the other. This step is important before forming the narrative. With all such worldviews in place, Wright’s narrative enterprise ambitiously combines literary, historical and theological study of the NT. Wright analogizes this narrative as a drama of five acts: creation, fall, Israel, Jesus and the NT as the first part of the fifth act.
Wright tells the story by setting Judaism within the Greco-Roman world, using not only Jewish sources like Josephus but also Roman sources like Suetonius. This move is important to trace how early Christianity evolved from post-exile Judaism. Rather than painting the Jewish world as some harmonious ideal, Wright shows a diverse Judaism with different factions living in tension with one another. Within the Chinese world, this aspect is not often noted in second temple studies. At times, the power struggle between the factions could be quite fierce. At the same time, their religion often brought them into conflict with the Romans. This picture was not the familiar happy-go-lucky world often preached out of the average Sunday morning worship. This was the unstable and unhappy situation that eventually led to the Jewish revolt of 70 AD. Was there a baseline belief among the Jews? Of course there was. They worshipped the one true God in the temple. This God had called them to separate from gentiles and to live in the promise of Abraham. There was a point to this story linked with Abraham though. Somehow God would allow history to progress to a climax with the restoration of Israel. There was hope! In light of the need to keep separated from gentiles, the Jews centered their rituals on the temple institution and thought of God’s kingdom in terms of land. Whatever their power structure was, the Jews interpreted the Torah and lived according to their interpretation.
Built upon the above narrative was the Christian narrative, according to Wright. This picture, unlike the usual re-creation of dichotomy between Judaism and Christianity, keeps the church firmly with Israel’s salvation history. Reconstruction of the narrative shows many parallel points between NT narratives and other Jewish stories. Wright’s story moves from Jesus to Paul. At the time this work was written, scholars tended to move from Paul to the Gospels based on an early dating of Paul’s letters. Wright’s move is bold in that he takes the historical Jesus very seriously within the Gospel record. This move also looks familiar in the work of James Dunn where he places Jesus’ spiritual experience as something that relates to the early church. Wright’s move is different from Dunn’s in that he does not try to bring some kind of “spiritual experience” but looks clearly at the narrative shape of the Gospel without favoring one or another theme. His move is respectful of the canon’s shape without sacrificing either historical critical concerns or narrative shape of each element. This is not easily accomplished. The result is a story that moves from sin to salvation, creation to new creation, and alienation to hope. By merging Judaism and Christianity at its various points, Wright tells of the birth of Christianity in terms of a rebirth of Judaism with Jesus as the central messianic figure. At the end, the story is not merely Christocentric but theocentric.
At the beginning, I have addressed the contribution of Wright to all sorts of theological endeavors. I will owe my reader a great debt if I do not finish by pointing out the relevance of his work to the present reality of the Chinese church. To many less reflective readers, Wright’s work seems to be “out there” and “back then” about some historical faraway places, but reality is more complicated.
The very approach of story has complemented the more traditional way of working everything theological within propositions. Now, stories have elements of propositions. Everything has an element of proposition (i.e. “the sky is clear today”). However, Wright shows that having an overall framework helps work out otherwise inaccessible details. Yet, the cycle that starts the narrative needs to be informed by immense historical data that come from serious research on Second Temple Period. While creation of propositions is easy and abstract, portrait of a narrative is difficult and concrete. What will be the result of any such efforts?
Between certainty and skepticism, Wright steers his readers into a critical realism that transcends both. Modernism has steered the Chinese church towards a search for and declaration of absolute certainty. In fact, people feel uncomfortable about either asking or being asked questions. Many seek black and white answers, and why not? During the earlier missionary movement that ultimately created the modern Chinese church, western missionaries, in their noble intentions, brought over the struggle in the west against secular modernism. A polemical community of faith using modernistic means against modernism has formed, buying into the fundamentalist paradigm of those missionaries, line, hook and sinker. This same community has grown into the Chinese church today, still working within the modernist paradigm of false dichotomy between objective and subjective. Wright’s method allows for many shades of gray without ever endangering the historical orthodoxy of wider Christianity. Wright has done us a big favor pastorally and intellectually. From a spiritual formation perspective, both certainty and skepticism war against faith. Faith is something quite different. Moving away from certainty, faith moves the believer towards reliance of God. Moving away from skepticism, faith moves the believer towards a faithful search for God.
When reading Wright’s tome, many readers who are used to reading propositional theology can feel overwhelmed by the method. Let me remind the readers that we often use stories to share the gospel, either Jesus’ story or our story. The story of the fall is often somewhere in the popular presentation of the gospel along with God’s salvation. Wright’s is a sophisticated expansion of such a plot. More important than the similarity between Wright’s story world and ours is the implication of Christianity ethics.
What Christian ethics can come out of this narrative? The book’s name is The NT and the People of God. The narrative is the foundation that defines who we are as Christians. Everything we do flows out of this foundation. Our identity in this world should be the embodiment of this narrative. Many have not considered what Wright has written seriously. If God’s story through creation, fall, Israel and Christ is our story, then the world should be able to see this story reenacted in different forms throughout our lives. One question that still plagues me is whether the church is visible in the world, especially the Chinese church, and when it is visible, is the visibility a good witness that leads to conversion of those who originally were not in God’s narrative? These are important issues to address. By knowing how God carried out his plan, we acquire our identity. Thus, this work has important pastoral implications. I highly recommend it as a most important contribution both academically and pastorally. I strongly urge all readers of sophisticated theological books read this book reflectively and prayerfully. It will reap a harvest that is long overdue.
PS. I believe the above essay is equally applicable to most Pan-Asian churches I have encountered. It also applies to some non-Asian American churches. The problem is not limited to the Chinese church. I addressed the Chinese church only because I was writing this foreword for the Chinese edition of this magnum opus. If you don’t believe me, just ask your average pew sitter and even many pastors who N. T. Wright is or when the last time they have read Wright’s work with serious theological reflection. I’ll be proven right once again.