Nearly Everything Wrong with N.T. Wright Summed Up in One Chapter Heading

John Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton and author of the Lost World of Genesis 1, has a new book coming out this Spring. The new book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debateis summarized this way by the publishers:

For centuries the story of Adam and Eve has resonated richly through the corridors of art, literature and theology. But for most moderns, taking it at face value is incongruous. And even for many thinking Christians today who want to take seriously the authority of Scripture, insisting on a “literal” understanding of Genesis 2–3 looks painfully like a “tear here” strip between faith and science.

How can Christians of good faith move forward? Who were the historical Adam and Eve? What if we’ve been reading Genesis—and its claims regarding material origins—wrong? In what cultural context was this couple, this garden, this tree, this serpent portrayed?

Following his groundbreaking Lost World of Genesis One, John Walton explores the ancient Near Eastern context of Genesis 2–3, creating space for a faithful reading of Scripture along with full engagement with science for a new way forward in the human origins debate. As a bonus, an illuminating excursus by N. T. Wright places Adam in the implied narrative of Paul’s theology.

The Lost World of Adam and Eve will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand this foundational text historically and theologically, and wondering how to view it alongside contemporary understandings of human origins.

While there is much to be said about this book and the theological positions taken by the author (you can read the chapter headings here), what caught my attention was the “illuminating excursus by N.T. Wright.” Here is the full heading for Wright’s chapter, “Paul’s Use of Adam Is More Interested in the Effect of Sin on the Cosmos Than in the Effect of Sin on Humanity and Has Nothing to Say About Human Origins.”

This single chapter heading is truly amazing. It has successfully encapsulated almost everything that’s wrong with Wright’s theology. Let me explain what I mean. This chapter heading contains Wright’s low view of Scripture, his re-interpretation of Paul’s writings, his minimizing the importance of the salvation of individuals, his emphasis on the redemption of the cosmos, and his belief in the evolutionary origins of humanity.

First, the chapter heading illustrates Wright’s low view of the inspiration of Scripture. He speaks, here and in his other works, of “Paul’s use” as if Scripture is mainly the work of the human authors. It may seem like a stretch, but over and over again the repeated use of “what Paul means” or “Paul’s use of the Old Testament” or “Paul’s purposes,” etc. emphasizes the human author and de-emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in the writing and preserving of Scripture.

As far as inerrancy is concerned, Wright would not call himself an inerrantist and views the debate on inerrancy and inspiration to be an American preoccupation:

“…the insistence on an ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’ Bible has grown up within a complex cultural matrix (that, in particular, of modern North American Protestantism) where the Bible has been seen as the bastion of orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism on the one hand and liberal modernism on the other. Unfortunately, the assumptions of both those worlds have conditioned the debate. It is no accident that this Protestant insistence on biblical infallibility arose at the same time that Rome was insisting on papal infallibility, or that the rationalism of the Enlightenment infected even those who were battling against it.” Simply Christian (183)

Of course, Wright also believes the debate over the historicity of Adam is mainly an American preoccupation, so I’m not sure why he felt called to address it now.

Second, re-imagining and re-interpreting what Paul really meant is what Wright does. Wright has made his mark as part of the New Perspective on Paul. It should come as no surprise that Wright’s contribution to Walton’s book would be to explain to us how we’ve misunderstood and misused what Paul wrote.

What have we misunderstood this time? Two main things are mentioned in the chapter heading:

  • The effect of sin on the cosmos is more important than the effect of sin on humanity.
  • Paul had nothing to say about human origins.

I read an article this week that critiqued Wright’s “overstatement” on the importance of the cosmos as compared to humanity. The author is convinced that Wright simply overstated his case and that everyone knows that Scripture teaches that humans are more important than things. Unfortunately, the overemphasis on the importance of the cosmos is part and parcel of Wright’s theology.

Wright truly does believe that the cosmos are more important in the grand scheme of things. He believes that we have become way too focused on saving people and lost sight of our role in redeeming the cosmos:

to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. Surprised by Hope (164 ebook)

Not only have we misunderstood the purpose and overarching theme of redemption, we’ve misunderstood the Gospel. When Scripture says that Jesus came to save His people from their sins, Wright believes that it’s not so much about individuals being saved from their moral failures, but rather, that Jesus had to come to put God’s rescue plan for creation back on track.

God has made a plan to save the world. Israel is the linchpin of this plan; but Israel has been unfaithful. What is now required, if the world’s sin is to be dealt with and a worldwide family created for Abraham, is a faithful Israelite. This (Jesus) is what God has now provided. Justification (68)

And,

Embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition we find an already formulaic statement: the messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures. … It was not, first and foremost, a way of saying that the moral failures of individuals had been atoned for in some abstract theological transaction. That would come, and quickly; we find it already in Paul’s mature thought.

But in the beginning it was a claim about what Israel’s God had done, in fulfillment of the scriptural prophecies, to bring Israel’s long night of exile to its conclusion, to deal with the “sins” that had kept Israel enslaved to the pagan powers of the world, and to bring about the real “return from exile,” the dawn of the new day, for which Israel had longed (The Meaning of Jesus, 98).

And that is how we get to the final point from the chapter heading, Paul’s use of Adam has nothing to say about human origins. In a review of Wright’s book, Surprise by Scripture, the author explains how Wright’s understanding of salvation and his re-interpretation of Paul’s use of Adam are connected:

There is a commonly held approach to salvation which posits that a perfect creation was marred through Adam’s sin, and Jesus came to pay the penalty for sin, thereby allowing us to go to heaven when we die. Adam’s role in that story is crucial: “no Adam” means “no reason for Christ to come.” But according to Wright, that is not the story that Paul tells, and it is a distortion of the Gospel. Instead, Paul connects our salvation to the story of Israel—their being placed in the Promised Land, given a commission to bless all nations, then breaking the Law and being exiled. Paul uses Adam to retell Israel’s story: “placed in the garden, given a commission to look after it; the garden being the place where God wanted to be at rest, to exercise his sovereign rule; the people warned about keeping the commandment, warned in particular that breaking it would mean death, breaking it, and being exiled. It all sounds very, very familiar” (p. 37). Not much hinges on the historicity of Adam on this account. Lots of other Jewish authors around the time of Paul appropriated Adam to get their points across too. The genre of this literature was not historical journalism.

So there you have it. According to Wright, there’s no need for a historical Adam. Of course, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the review appeared on the BioLogos website. Wright and Walton both are featured on BioLogos and share their belief in an evolutionary explanation for human origins. For all three, Wright, Walton, and BioLogos, I truly believe their interpretation of Scripture is driven by their commitments to science, politics, and their own worldviews rather than the reverse.

And that brings us back full circle to the first point. Everything hinges on your view of Scripture. Either Scripture will be the lens through which you view the world or the world (science, politics, worldview, etc) will be the lens through which you view Scripture. Ultimately one or the other will be your authority.

The Keller Model for Pastoral (and Congregational) Burnout

Over at the Old Life Theological Society, D.G. Hart has an interesting post on Dr. Tim Keller and his model for city church growth. Hart wonders whether Keller’s influence is waning and points out that Keller sounds fatigued in his recent posts. Hart sees a good reason for exhaustion in Keller’s latest model for city church growth:

Although Keller’s failure to be the Presbyterian minister his credentials say he is aggravate the bejeebers out of me, this time his call for a gospel movement seems tired, bordering on #sotenminutesago. It used to be that a megachurch in New York City receiving favorable press coverage in both religious and secular publications was novel. Now it’s not. …

In this case, though, Keller himself sounds fatigued. The reason may be that the only way he can conceive of transforming the city is to concoct a set of hoops and ladders that only the Navy Seals could negotiate. According to Keller, a gospel movement requires three things: a contextual theological vision, church planting and church renewal movements (that’s only one thing even though its a mouthful and a bit redundant — you need a movement to have another movement), and specialized ministries. Here’s where tiredness sets in, at least for readers:

Hart then quotes from Keller’s most recent book, Center Church:

Based in the churches, yet also stimulating and sustaining the churches, this third ring consists of a complex of specialty ministries, institutions, networks, and relationships. There are at least seven types of elements in this third ring.

1. A prayer movement uniting churches across traditions in visionary intercession for the city. The history of revivals shows the vital importance of corporate, prevailing, visionary intercessory prayer for the city and the body of Christ. Praying for your city is a biblical directive (Jer 29:4-7). Coming together in prayer is something a wide variety of believers can do. It doesn’t require a lot of negotiation and theological parsing to pray. Prayer brings people together. And this very activity is catalytic for creating friendships and relationships across denominational and organizational bounderies. Partnerships with Christians who are similar to and yet different from you stimulates growth and innovation.

2. A number of specialized evangelistic ministries, reaching particular groups (business people, mothers, ethnicities, and the like). Of particular importance are effective campus and youth ministries. Many of the city church’s future members and leaders are best found in the city’s colleges and schools. While students who graduate from colleges in university towns must leave the area to get jobs, graduates form urban universities do not. Students won to Christ and given a vision for living in the city can remain in the churches they joined during their school years and become emerging leaders in the urban body of Christ. Winning the youth of a city wins city natives who understand the culture well.

You can read the rest of Keller’s 7 elements and the conclusion of Hart’s post here. I really recommend you do.

Peter Enns: “the gospel is not about how you get saved”

Peter Enns has a recent blog post answering the question: What is the gospel? According to Dr. Enns, Martin Luther (and all the Reformers and all pretty much all the church since the time of the apostles) were wrong. The gospel is not about how people are saved from their sins:

Rather, the common Christian way of answering the question–like the example I give above–misses a lot of what the New Testament says about the gospel. Which, if true, is a big problem.

That is what Williams is getting at in his posts, and they’re well worth reading.

Williams points out that “gospel” as it is commonly understood, at least among conservative Protestants, is tied to issues that were big during the Reformation. Martin Luther and others were struggling with the question of how we are made right before God, or as we might put it today, “how do you get saved?”

To make a long and complicated story short and simple, Luther argued that we are justified before God by faith alone, not by works. As we might put it today, “good deeds don’t get you to heaven.” Luther got that idea from the New Testament, especially Paul’s letters–or better, how Luther understood Paul’s letters given the kinds of questions he was asking, but I digress….

Here is the point: How Luther understood “gospel”–how someone gets right with God–is not really “the gospel.” Rather, it is part of the gospel, an implication of the gospel. Luther talked about the gospel the way he did to address a theological concern of his time, but that doesn’t mean Luther’s definition gets to the heart of the matter. In other words,

…the gospel is not about how you get saved.

If the gospel is not about how you get saved, then what is it about? According to Dr. Enns (and N.T. Wright, among others):

According to the Gospels, the gospel is not about the afterlife, but what “kingdom” you belong to here and now. Jesus talks a lot about the “kingdom of heaven” (or “of God”), and this is commonly misunderstood as a kingdom “up there” somewhere. But read what Jesus says about the kingdom. It is about the rule of God on earth, with Jesus as king. “Kingdom of heaven” doesn’t mean “kingdom that is IN heaven” but “kingdom FROM heaven.” God’s reign, though King Jesus, is setting up shop here and now. The question Jesus asks the people is, “Do you want in or not?”

I once asked a pastor two questions to clarify what he was teaching on the gospel: what is the gospel, and what is the mission of the church? He answered that the gospel is the Good News that Jesus has broken into history and has ushered in the Kingdom of God and begun His work of redeeming the cosmos. The mission of the church, according to this pastor, was to invite people to join in this work of redemption. What about salvation and the forgiveness of sins? Well, that’s part of the whole thing, of course, just not central. That’s when we decided to leave.

The church has one thing it can offer that no one else can: forgiveness of sins and salvation. Any secular organization can rectify social ills, provide basic human necessities, and build parks and schools. I’m not saying that these are not worthy goals. We should not forget about the physical needs of the people we minister to. What I’m saying is that if we forget that we have a mission and that that mission is preaching the Good News of salvation and the forgiveness of sins, then we are salt that has lost its savor. If we are not reconciled to God, no amount of clean water, social justice, and redistribution of wealth will save us. We will have stored up our treasure here on earth and kept the most important treasure hidden from those we are helping.

Is our sin so minor a thing that our salvation can be treated so contemptuously? May God have mercy on us all.

The Renewal of Creation: Are We Co-Redeemers?

One of the questions raised by the new social justice movement is: are Christians called to be co-redeemers in the renewal of creation? Dr. Craig Troxel addressed this in his essay from Confident of Better Things, a book of essays commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

With regard to the world as the created suborder, the Bible does not speak of it as something that is in the process of being redeemed. For example, Romans 8:21 states that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage”. But the context of Romans 8 teaches that the liberation of the created order will take place along with the revealing (“apocalypse”) of the sons of God, that is, at their glorification (vv. 19, 23). This renewal of creation will happen when it undergoes a purging by fire, and when the new heavens and the new earth are ushered in at the close of this age (2 Pet. 3:12, 13). This will take place, not in a process, but on the “day of the Lord” (2 Pet. 3:10). Secondly, this will take place, not through human efforts to preserve or “save the planet,” but by the mighty hand of God, with fire, just as he once deluged the creation with water (2 Pet. 3:6, 7). How are we to understand a form of redemption that bypasses the cross and is accomplished by and through our good works? Typically we associate the vocabulary of atonement, repentance, faith, and forgiveness with redemption, but how do we construe the church as a “co-redeemer?” We must be careful of rhetorical excess and consider the query of our forefather, B.B. Warfield, who asked in wonder whether we really think that we can understand “redemption” and “Redeemer” to refer to whatever benefit we happen to think it means–no matter how loose or superfluous that meaning is.” (354-355)

Does Grace Make Christians Just?

One of the hottest topics in evangelical circles is “social justice.” Many authors, including Kevin DeYoung, have addressed the subject of justice and the role the church should have in pursuing it. Dr. Tim Keller, Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York (PCA), has also written a book on the topic of social justice. In Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Dr. Keller explains his view on what justice is, why and how Christians should pursue it.

Dr. Keller opens his book with an explanation for why he wrote Generous Justice:

Most people know that Jesus came to bring forgiveness and grace. Less well known is the Biblical teaching that a true experience of the grace of Jesus Christ inevitably motivates a man or woman to see justice in the world. (8)

This really is the central theme of the book, and Dr. Keller works hard to drive this point home. He writes that his book is for people that “have not thought out the implications of Jesus’s gospel for doing justice in all aspects of life (9)” and those that don’t understand yet “that when the Spirit enables us to understand what Christ has done for us, the result is a life poured out in deeds of justice and compassion for the poor (10).”

According to Dr. Keller:

[T]he Bible is a book devoted to justice in the world from first to last. And the Bible gives us not just a naked call to care about justice, but gives us everything we need – motivation, guidance, inner joy, and power – to live a just life. (11)

Continue reading

Salt, Light, and Home Schooling

Most of us know when we decide to home school that we will face objections from friends and family who either don’t understand or don’t agree with our decision to teach our children at home. Recently, one of the objections many of us have heard is that by home schooling we aren’t allowing our children to be salt and light in the public schools. I ran across this article today by a home schooling dad who answered the objection really well. Here are a few excerpts from his article:

In short, if we send our children into the public schools we send them into an environment that is fundamentally unbiblical, though it may at times appear to parrot a traditional biblical ethic. Keep in mind, this is not an indictment of any particular school or teacher, rather it is the zeitgeist of the age―the water we swim in, the air we breathe.

As homeschooling parents we are not looking for a Christian gloss (or some moral equivalent) over an unbiblical foundation. Rather, we desire to live out an educational model with our children that begins with Christ and the biblical worldview. We will fail in many ways, but if we do not aim at that target, then at what are we aiming? It is our obligation before God and for the sake of our children to think this through. We have the privilege of homeschooling. We give up a lot to do it, but we still do it. Certainly there are many others, single parents for example, who find it much more difficult to homeschool. I do not discount public education as an option, but I am convinced that Christian parents must be particularly thoughtful about how their children are educated. We easily forget that we are much like sheep among wolves―how much more so are our children.

But what about the question of sending one’s children to school precisely because one is a Christian and feels the pressure to be missional? I believe Christians are called to be salt and light. And I believe the gospel is fundamentally both personal and social. We are to be personally transformed by the gospel, and we are called to take the good news to the world. However, I have concerns about feeling the missional pressure myself and then making my children take the brunt of responsibility for it. In other words, I do not want to assume it is the purview of my children to do something that is fundamentally an adult activity. And I do not want them to inappropriately get hurt doing it.

And

As Christians our first responsibilities lie with our covenantal relationships: with God, with our spouses, with our children, with our friends, and with our local churches. All these come before our responsibility to the world at large. We are to be salt and light to each other first, even to the least of us, and then to others. I applaud the goal of reaching out to one’s neighborhood, but I question whether putting one’s children into the hands of the state is the right way to do it. I realize that at the heart of the Christian life is the spirit of martyrdom (it has always been that way ever since the cross), but as parents we must be wary of thrusting our children into that role.

Finally, there may be more felt pressure on pastors to send their children to government schools as an example―to model “missional” for their congregations. I would argue that, perhaps, a better route is the one of modeling salt and light (to both congregation and the community) by not only extending oneself missionally into the world, but by extending oneself missionally to one’s children through a loving, Christ centered, biblical worldview-based homeschooling education.

As I said before, there are no easy answers. I believe that loving, Christian parents can, with a relatively clean conscience, send their children to public schools. But I doubt it can be done without at least some harm being done to the children. The questions are: what is the nature of the harm, for what purpose is this being done, and is the harm being offset by something of greater value? Just like a government should not mandate how one’s children are educated, neither should a church. Rather, one’s church should provide guidance, wisdom, and support in helping parents fulfill their God-given obligations of cultivating their own children in wisdom and virtue by nourishing their souls on truth, goodness, and beauty so that their children are better able to know and enjoy God. For us the choice is clear that homeschooling within a Christ-centered worldview and with a classical methodology best accomplishes this.

Keller: “The whole purpose of salvation is to make this world a great place.”

In a sermon on “Cultural Renewal,” Dr. Tim Keller explains his understanding of the purpose of salvation. You can listen to the whole sermon here.

I’m trying to overcome a typical, wrong, unbiblical attitude on the part of Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, toward this material world. There’s a tendency for many Christians to think of this material world – the world we’re in now – as a temporary theater for getting saved so that some day you can escape this material world and live happily in heaven forever.

An awful lot of Christians say, ‘this world is going to die, it’s going to burn up, and while we’re here basically the only thing that’s important is to get people saved, and if they get saved eventually they’ll be able to leave this world.’ So it’s a temporary theater for salvation.

Instead, let’s start at the end. At the end of time when we actually see what the triune God has been doing in creation and redemption through Jesus Christ, when we get to the very end of the Bible we see not human beings individually rising out of the material world and going to heaven forever. Instead we see heaven, the power of God, coming down and renewing this material world. That the whole purpose of everything God is doing in redemption is to create a material world that’s clean, that’s right, that’s pure. A material world in which there’s no disease and there’s no death and no injustice, there’s no unraveling, there’s no decay. The whole purpose of salvation is to cleanse and purify this material world.

Jews and Christians believe that this material world is permanent – it’s a good thing in itself. That an eagle’s flying and great music and the ocean pounding on the shore and a great cup of wine are good things in themselves, because God is not temporarily ‘God is here so someday we’re going to live in heaven’ but the whole purpose of salvation is to make this world a great place.

God sees this world as not a temporary means to an end of salvation, but actually salvation is a temporary means to an end – to the renewal of creation.

Saving souls is a means to an end of cultural renewal. Does the Christian church understand that? I’m not sure.

Emphasis added.