If you follow this blog you will know I mention Nicholas Thomas Wright quite a few times (a whole lot really.) So who is Tom Wright?
Answering who any person is, is pretty hard. When it is an intellectual heavy weight it becomes even harder. When it is Tom Wright… well? Let’s start with a quick resume:
N.T. Wright is a former Anglican bishop and professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is one of the most brilliant and influential biblical scholars and theologians in the world. He is also a prolific author and speaker with work that addresses both an academic and popular audience. His specific areas of expertise are Paul and early Christianity.
Having read his works and watched audios and videos of him I can tell you for sure: Mr Wright is a very complex man. He is an academic with a broad and ambitious vision, to reshape how we think and practise Christianity as we know it.
There’s a phrase in a well written article about him in Christianity Today that just about captures the spirit of Tom Wright, “apologist and revisionist.” He enjoys holding seemingly contradictory things in tension. You might dismiss this as simply the conceit of geniuses, who like his fictional compatriot of 221B Baker’s Street, solve riddles as a hobby. Sometimes it seems he has an almost whimsical insistence on treating certain grim and imposing barriers and distinctions as nothing more than imaginary lines. For instance Tom has co-authored books with people he deeply disagrees with, and they are his friends on top of that! How did a boy born in the middle of the last century, raised in a “middle, middle Anglican home” in the English Midlands become such a compelling, and even polarising, figure?
If we are going to capture such an electric figure we need something to ground him, a point of reference where he can be centred. I believe that anchor is the Bible. Tom after all is a Bible scholar. This is not as obvious as it might seem because many in his field do not share his agenda in honouring the entire word of God.
Tom is a historian. He explains in the first volume in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series, history is not blandly reporting “facts” about what happened in the past. Unlike in contemporary history, “facts” are very hard to come by in ancient history. The ancient historian uses the available evidence, and a good deal of plausible historical imagination, to piece together a convincing narrative of what happened in the distant past. He tries to get “inside” the event and figure out not only the circumstances but the motivations of the actors in historical events as well. They try to flesh out real people who experienced real events. As Tom began to get into the fray of scholarship he found academia largely treated historical figures in the way I described above save Jesus, the most towering historical figure of them all. He, to put it briefly, decided Jesus deserved the same sort of treatment. In my own amateurish, completely unqualified, and grossly over simplified way, I wish to do the same for Mr Wright, to play his own game and “get inside his head.”
The middle-ness of Tom Wright continues in that he is unabashedly orthodox (he was a high ranking Anglican Bishop after all) but he is certainly not conservative for conservativeness’ sake. From his own accounts he had been a Christian all his life. As a young man and a young scholar he encountered a cultural climate that was overly dismissive of Christianity or over-diluted it with its own agenda to an extent it was no longer recognizable. He found no reason to go with the flow but personal challenges in understanding the Bible and the prevailing atmosphere made it clear to him that he had to at least face the questions that had arisen. The very title of his multi-volume ongoing series is indicative of the Wrightian way, he heads right to the source. The majority of Christian teaching has, or at least claims, some relationship to the New Testament, which is right at the heart of Christian origins. For Tom, he “reads” the doctrine and then heads back to the Bible. He rereads scripture, in its own context and on its own terms. Then he re-examines the doctrine in the light of what the Bible has to say. Whatever survives the test he reaffirms, what doesn’t he discards, and what needs to be modified (which happens most of the time) he does so accordingly. This method of exegesis which I call a double rereading makes him very conservative of what he thinks is legitimately Christian i.e. whatever originates from and/or is consistent with the Bible. It also means he will liberally depart from anything that does not resonate with the primary source, the Bible, no matter how traditional or orthodox it might be. This I believe, begins to explain what makes him so paradoxical and enigmatic to many, but as far as I and probably he is concerned, that is a good thing. What he has learnt from studying the Bible further compounds this.
It is hard to summarise his broad, voluminous and far reaching work. I will take four phrases from the New Testament which I think best represents his biblical theology. Two of them are from Paul his main occupation, the other two from Jesus his main love and he certainly love his work. They are “gospel”, “kingdom of God”, “new creation” and “reconciliation.” The good news is that God has finally come back to rule, which means a new creation, the reconciling of heaven and earth. God has done this in and through the Messiah Jesus, inaugurating it by his resurrection from the dead. Unpacking this would take forever but throughout this blog I have tried to address that particular theme. For Tom this was the explosive first century message, the good news of Jesus, that so impacted Paul, motivating his preaching and teaching. Paul saw God bringing together every aspect of his creation in Christ. This recombination of parts that are meant for each other and are supposed to work together is itself a new combination. Tom Wright tries to do the same thing in his work both academic and popular. This is why he defies so many distinctions because Christ has transcended them all, left-right, conservative-liberal, theology-history, pastor-scholar etc. In the words of Paul he is trying to bring every thought captive to Christ.
In the New Testament and the People of God we see the ground work for Tom’s approach. He courts four different fields, history, literature and theology, all under girded by philosophy. Biblical scholarship and Christian theology have mainly been seen as two distinct fields that really should not mix. He sees a natural union of both history and theology in the text of the Bible. To understand and pursues things that way requires certain philosophical considerations. In treating the Bible as a work of literature he is not only concerned with standard exegesis. He takes the grand narrative approach he is famous for.
Together these things allow him to read the New Testament in its original 1st century context and concerns, and see its relevance for the 21st century and beyond. He reads the biblical narrative as an essentially Jewish message, a good God acting decisively in the world to save it, reworked around the story of Jesus the Messiah. I think like Paul, the Gospel message has itself reread the story of Tom Wright, reworking it around the story of Jesus. The text that he has devoted his life to has influenced him so profoundly in ways I believe he might not even suspect.
Tom is often criticised as an evangelical for not being very reformed. He however considers his work very much in the spirit of the Reformation. When Luther and his peers recognised and took what Paul really had to say seriously, they radically confronted the status quo. Paul was such an iconoclast for me it is no surprise that arguably the foremost Pauline scholar in the world refuses to “behave” himself. He sometimes quips in his talks about his “humble but accurate opinion.” This confidence, which is often mistaken for swaggering arrogance, is not because he thinks himself authoritative on each of the broad number of topics and sub-disciplines he touches on. In line with Calvin he believes the reformation needs to continue and every tradition, including the Reformed tradition itself, is not exempt from change. As the times change every new generation of Christians has to rediscover the Gospel for themselves. We have seen solely relying on the traditions, no matter how beloved they are, is simply not enough.
Considering the scale of Tom’s project and the copious amount of work he has produced to see it accomplished, only posterity will be able to tell the full merit of his work. He has charted some successes though, garnering wide ranging attention at the scholarly and a popular levels, both in and outside the Church. Perhaps people will disagree completely with the substance his work. That’s alright with him as long as he challenges people to go back to the scriptures. Tom has no intention of being the final word but has every intention of pointing people to the final word, King Jesus.
(*For a comprehensive treatment of Tom Wright and his work see Tom Wright for Everyone by Stephen Kurt (SPCK 2011). For access to in-depth resources and material from Tom see his unofficial website ntwrightpage.com.)