Yesterday I had the rare opportunity to attend two separate lectures by N.T. Wright in Kansas City: a small(ish) morning gathering of local students, scholars, and clergy for whom Wright spoke about thriving as a Christian in a pluralistic world, and a large evening lecture (about 900 people) on the content of Wright’s new book Paul and the Faithfulness of God.
The events were hosted by the St. Mellitus Theological Centre Kansas City (for the remainder of this post, SMTCKC), an organization affiliated with Christ Church Anglican in Overland Park, KS, that seeks to “help bring theology back to the heart of the parish”—an aim which is, I believe, an extremely worthy cause. Below I have included a couple brief summaries of what I took away from Wright’s lectures.
Lecture 1: Proclaiming the Gospel in Post-Christian Culture
Wright noted that Paul’s theology was highly contextual—this is what often got the Apostle into trouble, but it also generated points of commonality between himself and those he preached to. For instance, while preaching at the Areopagus in Acts 17:22-34, Paul uses the altar to an unknown god to proclaim that the “unknown” god they were revering was none other than the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” who has been made known in the person of Jesus. This is to say that Paul used what was familiar to others to show them that the God of Jesus was not as foreign as they might think. Wright asked us to consider what might constitute as “altars to an unknown God” in our culture today—listing a couple examples, particularly the overwhelming concern among millennials for social justice—and questioning how we, like Paul, might show others how God is already the one at work behind that passion.
Following the morning lecture, SMTCKC was able to give away at least a dozen copies of Wright’s massive new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, thanks to the generous donations of those who also helped make the event possible (they gave at least the same number of books away at the evening lecture, as well). They were distributed according to various criteria, one of which included being a graduating student from one of each of the four seminaries in Kansas City. Since I will be graduating from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in just a few short months (and because I was quick to raise my hand), I was given a copy of Wright’s book, and I would like to express my sincere thanks to SMTCKC for the generous gift.
Lecture 2: Paul and the Faithfulness of God
Last night we met again at the DoubleTree Ballroom in Overland Park to hear Wright speak more about his new book and discuss Paul’s personal theology and mission.
The central thesis of his book (which Wright lamented that no reviewers had yet clearly summarized in their reviews) is that Paul’s vision was of a united and holy people brought together by the good news of Jesus Messiah, transcending social and religious barriers that once separated Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free.
In service to this thesis, Wright said that Paul believed that this unity would only come about by communally engaging in practical theology. He returned to this theme throughout the evening, particularly in the notion of learning to think theologically and have our minds continually transformed to suit this agenda of engaging in practical theology together. He noted that like the old saying about giving a person to fish and feeding them for a day vs. teaching a person to fish and feeding them for a lifetime, if we simply give a doctrine or dogma to someone we may inform them for whatever purpose they needed that information, but if we teach them to think theologically we “build up the Church” (another Pauline theme) for a generation. God wants to transform our thinking, reorienting us toward New Creation.
Wright next gave an overview of salvation history (using Paul’s appropriation of OT texts as a backdrop), beginning with Abraham and moving through the prophets to the time of Jesus. He claimed that Paul’s vision was similar to that of Ezekiel, who suggested that with the Exile God left the Temple, but eventually returns to live among God’s people. In Ezekiel the image is of a river of life flowing from the Temple, an image that is picked up by the author of Revelation to symbolize God’s presence among all people (in Revelation the leaves of the trees along the banks of the river are for the “healing of the nations). But at the time of Ezekiel, this prophecy remained unfulfilled. Wrights suggests that Paul argues that it wasn’t until the time of Jesus that God’s presence returned to the Temple, but this time it was to overturn a corrupt institution (an assertion that I thought tied in well with chapter 5 of Craig A. Evans’ From Jesus to the Church).
The three central themes of Pauline theology, Wright suggested, are monotheism, election, and eschatology. In monotheism we see the affirmation of the One God as prayed/confessed/affirmed in the Shema. Paul, however, saw in the middle of this prayer of allegiance to YHWH an affirmation of Christ: One God, One Lord (1 Cor. 8:6). In election Paul understood the family of God to be one, not two (i.e. Jew vs. Gentile). Finally, Paul argued that as a people united in and with Christ, there must be some direction human history is headed that fulfills God’s ultimate project of universal renewal. Paul envisioned a New People in a New Creation who inherit the promise of Abraham by faith in God’s crucified and resurrected messiah. For Paul, divine power, community, and eschatology are redefined around the image of Christ on the cross.
In concluding his lecture, Wright reiterated his earlier assertion that Paul understood theology to be the communal task of transforming our minds to be like Christ and to re-envision God’s community through him, and also understanding how this communal task is to be practically carried out on a daily basis.