Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (eds) (2011). Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.

This is the seventh part of a ten post series on Nicholas Perrin’s and Richard B. Hays’, eds., Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Daniel James Levy has partnered with me to write a review of each chapter. To see previous posts scroll to the bottom of this one for a list. Today we will be discussing Jeremy S. Begbie’s contribution.

Jeremy S. Begbie, “The Shape of Things to Come: Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies”

Begbie begins by pointing out the influx of literature related to ecclesiology in the last couple of decades. Most books and articles have been characterized by a fascination with people “who may be attracted by the person of Christ and a broadly based ‘spirituality’ but who shrink at the idea of joining a local congregation’ (p. 183). These types have been characterized as the “emerging church” which “can embody and promote an effective missional engagement with late- or postmodern society, especially with the unchurched”(p. 184). What is surprising is that this group is “young”. They “challenge long-running assumptions”. They’re against anything that snacks of “professional management, centralized organizational structure, control through tight hierarchies, strong ties to places and buildings, and so forth” yet most admire Wright who was “an Anglican bishop, well past his first flush of youth, a powerful figurehead in an ancient institution many would regard a highly bureaucratic…a major land-owner with a huge commitment to buildings, able to move only with glacial slowness down antediluvian ecclesiastical valleys.” (p. 185)

So why do “emerging church” types like N.T. Wright?

This is what Begbie seeks to answer, especially as it relates to his reading of the Apostle Paul.

Five Features of Wright’s Ecclesiology:

Begbie begins by looking at five characteristics of Wright’s ecclesiology:

(1) Integral: The church is central to Wright (and Paul’s) theological vision. This matters to those thinking about the future of the church. Part of being saved is being part of the community of Christ.

Wright reacts against a Protestantism that is founded on “voluntarist contractualism”. This is how Begbie describes it:

“….a philosophically and politically shaped individualism still very much alive in our culture, fueled by the liberal ideology of choice. In this scheme individuals secure their identity prior to being part of the church by exercising a wholly unconstrained act of will in response to the gospel, a cognitive and conscious decision for Christ that ensures salvation and a place in heaven. Subsequently, and through a quite distinct act of the will, the saved person joins a church, understood in purely visible and localized terms, and as an aggregate of individual believers, related to each other (solely?) by virtue of their resolution to commit to Christ and to this particular group. Thus relationships within the church are seen as merely instrumental to the strengthening of each member’s ‘relationship with the Lord.'”

Wright connects the church to the story of Israel. This makes the church part of the story of Abraham and his greatest child, the Messiah. Since Wright grounds the church in the community that is Messiah’s he avoids false dichotomies like atonement and ecclesiology or justification and ecclesiology. To be saved is not an individual thing. It goes back into the great family of God because of Christ. This impacts his criticism of those who do not give the church, as a whole, more respect. (pp. 188-190)

(2) Eschatological: Wright’s ecclesiology is future oriented. He sees the New Creation as our hope toward which the church works. This church moves by the Spirit toward the day when what happened at Easter will happen to the cosmos. Yet in the meantime it is the church who groans (Rom. 8.18-25) with creation waiting for God’s final redemption.

Begbie sees the future looking ecclesiology as appealing to emergent groups. It gives hope and something to seek. Those in emerging churches find this as a useful model for their (social) engagement with society. (pp. 191-192)

(3) Cosmically situated: This has to do with “ecological alertness”. Since Wright follows the Apostle Paul in seeing the creation redeemed this provides grounds for creation care. Again, see Rom. 8.18-25. (pp. 192-193)

(4) Material: Wright’s reading of Paul causes him to affirm the goodness of the material world and this is something that emerging churches appreciate. It moves theology away from mere metaphysics to something tangible in history. This leads to a theology that addresses the real world. It is not merely our personal, ethereal relationship with Jesus that matters but also our physically connected relationship with others and the world around us. Our gospel doesn’t just speak to individual souls but it confronts all levels, even world politics. It is an earthy gospel that Wright proclaims and that emerging churches adopt. (pp. 193-196)

(5) Improvisatory: Since Wright’s ecclesiology promotes improvisation in our “act” of the great cosmic drama the emerging churches find it an ally as they seek to navigate the waters of where the world is going. The emergent church doesn’t seek to relive “the good ol’ days”, but it tries to be God’s people for these days. (pp. 196-197)

Forgotten Themes:

What are some forgotten ecclesiological themes that Wright addresses?

(1) Ascension: This is the doctrine that comes after resurrection (Wright will not conflate it like Borg, Crossan, or others). This doctrine reminds us that Christ still reigns over the church. He is physically present in the heavenlies. This prevents the church from thinking she is in complete control as if Christ is completely absent. (pp. 197-200)

(2) Israel: Wright wants to make sure that the church doesn’t divorce itself from Israel’s story. It began as a Jewish movement. It must not move so far away from those roots that it loses its identity. (p. 200)

(3) Catholicity:  Wright makes a distinction between “qualitative” catholicity and “extensive” catholicity. The first emphasizes that the church cannot give in to social divisions (as Paul said, there is neither Jew nor Gentiles, male nor female, slave nor free). The church shares a new humanity in Christ. The church shares the Spirit. We are radically united. The second emphasizes the “spatial extension of the church”. Wright tries to walk the line between not being overinstitutionalized while not being anti-institutional. (pp. 201-207)

Wright’s response: 

Wright says that Begbie helped him realize he has been “expounding an ecclesiology…without being aware of it.” (p. 208) Wright thinks one reason why the emerging church has come to appreciate his work is because they both share interest in the Kingdom of God motif. Wright clarifies a bit on his views on the ascension (referring readers to Acts for Everyone). He notes some of the dangers of the emerging church (e.g. cultural homogeneity, church-shopping, the overemphasis on spontaneity and authenticity when overreacting against institutionalized church, the naive misunderstanding of leadership, and so forth).

Concluding thoughts:

This chapter helps the reader understand Wright’s ecclesiology. It helps us see what he has done well and what he has wrestled with as forgotten themes. It shows why the emerging church like Wright, but also gives Wright a chance to note where he finds the emerging church lacking.

Schedule for this series:

06/01: Marianne Meye Thompson, “Jesus and the Victory of God Meets the Gospel of John” (Brian LePort)

06/08: Richard B. Hays, “Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth” (Daniel James Levy)

06/15: Sylvia C. Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: Jesus and the Justice of God” (Brian LePort)

06/22: Nicholas Perrin, “Jesus’ Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet” (Daniel James Levy)

06/29: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Brian LePort)

07/06: Edith M. Humphrey, “Glimpsing the Glory: Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness, and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright” (Daniel James Levy)

07/13: Jeremy S. Begbie, “The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies” (Brian LePort)

07/20: Markus Bockmuehl, “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died? (Daniel James Levy)

07/27: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology” (Brian LePort)

08/03: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?”  (Daniel James Levy)