Sunday, 28 August 2011

Review: Tom Wright for Everyone, by Stephen Kuhrt

Stephen Kuhrt, Tom Wright for Everyone: Putting the Theology of N.T. Wright into Practice in the Local Church (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011).

(Free download for Kindle here)
There were two reasons why I started reading Stephen Kuhrt’s Tom Wright for Everyone . First, I have found it very difficult to get to grips with Tom Wright’s theology, but secondly I am also intrigued by those who declare themselves enthusiasts for his point of view.
Wright’s output is prodigious, but although I would rather start with his earlier (pre-2000) works — the writing of ‘N T’ rather than ‘Tom’ Wright, as it were — the sad truth is I have yet to get round to it. I was grateful, therefore, that someone else might have done this and was prepared to summarize their findings for the rest of us.
However, the impact of Wright on contemporary evangelicalism interests me almost more than Wright himself. One is conscious of a ‘Wrightean’ atmosphere — a sense of people being passionately ‘for’ or ‘against’, coupled with the more obvious polemic of writers like John Piper, or contributions like Wright’s fierce (and bizarrely intemperate) criticism of Pierced for our Transgressions, included in his online article, ‘The Cross and the Caricatures’.
Here, Wright rallied to the support of the popular writer and speaker, Steve Chalke, expressing his “puzzlement” when he heard assertions that in The Lost Message of Jesus the latter had “denied substitutionary atonement”. After all, Wright said, Chalke had “relied to quite a considerable extent” on Wright’s own Jesus and the Victory of God, “the longest ever demonstration, in modern times at least, that Jesus’ self-understanding ... was rooted in, among other Old Testament passages, Isaiah 53, the clearest and most uncompromising statement of penal substitution you could find.”
Yet of course, as any reader of The Lost Message of Jesus discovers, penal substitution was precisely what Chalke denied. (Chalke’s own approach to Isaiah 53 is also remarkably circumspect.) How did Wright come to miss this and why was he so ‘pro-Chalke’?
So much heat in debate suggests there is much more at stake than the outward issues. Moreover, Stephen Kuhrt has been a frequent, and fierce, critic of conservative evangelicals, who have themselves targeted and been the target of responses from, Tom Wright. This also was therefore a good reason for reading the book.
The book itself begins with two prefaces which should not be overlooked, one by Kuhrt and the other by Wright himself. In his opening remarks, Kuhrt’s language reflects his frustration at what he feels to be the evangelical world’s neglect of his mentor:
... the challenge to engage with Wright’s theology needs to be heeded by those who are, at present, more wilfully resisting this engagement. (viii-ix)
This frustration will be a recurring theme in the book.
Wright’s own contribution is helpful for its clarifications. At one point he explains that,
Our ultimate hope is to be raised from the dead to share in the running of God’s new creation. And all that we do by way of Christian, Spirit-led work in the present is a genuine foretaste of that.” (xiii, emphasis original)
This, readers will discover, is crucial to Kurht’s own understanding that ‘social action’ is therefore building for the kingdom. Secondly, against the accusation that this is not about ‘preaching the gospel’, Wright says in reply,
When we announce that the crucified and risen Jesus is the world’s true Lord, we are ‘preaching the gospel’. People are simultaneously called to faith (by which they will be justified — will be declared by God to be ‘in the right’) and called to active service and obedience (by which, through them, God will continue his work of putting the world right). (xiii)
The comments in brackets are helpful, but as Kuhrt hints on page 4, it is this repeated need to clarify “his distinctive understanding of ‘justification by faith’” that dogs any assessment of Wright’s position and is still a problem in the book.
The first part of the book proper focuses on understanding Wright’s theology, but begins with two biographies, again of Kuhrt and Wright. Chapter 1 gives a brief account of Tom Wright’s career from his birth to the present. Here, I could not help feeling that Kuhrt’s admiration slipped over into adulation, and that this colours his attitude to those who are not so enthusiastic about his hero. He writes, for example,
There are stories from the deeply conservative Anglican diocese of Sydney, Australia ... of students reading Wright’s books in their study rooms without their tutor’s knowledge! (10 — incidentally, that should be tutors’)
Yet having myself studied at Moore in 1993, I can assure Kuhrt that (at least in those days) tutors neither knew nor cared what you read in your study, provided it was relevant and, preferably, stretching. Indeed, Wright was openly discussed and had many enthusiastic supporters at the college.
One of the problems with Kuhrt’s approach is that the world does not divide into those who have engaged with Wright and are full-on supporters and those who only differ from Wright because they have either not engaged with him or not understood him. Some people just disagree, whilst others — perhaps the majority — agree, but only in part. As we will see later, however, this is even true of Kuhrt himself.
Chapter 2, titled ‘Theological questions awaiting an answer ...’, is also biographical, but this time about Kuhrt. Partly this is because Kuhrt believes it will show why Wright is so relevant, partly because he believes his experience is one with which others will identify if they share his own “very English experience of evangelical Christianity” (12).
In this he is correct — perhaps more than he thinks, for in some ways ‘1980s Kuhrt’ sounded like ‘1970s Richardson’. His questions about issues of politics, justice and the arts were exactly those that my own generation of Anglican evangelicals were confronting a decade or two earlier. It was in this period, for example, that the magazine ‘Third Way’ and the Greenbelt Festival were founded.
Again, however, one wonders at the extent to which Kuhrt’s specifically English experience is important to his being drawn to Wright. I myself have often observed that during the period in which both he and I were young Christians, the more conservative evangelical Anglican constituency was poorly equipped theologically.
This was still the period when ordinands from ‘keen’ evangelical churches were encouraged to go to the Oxbridge theological colleges (Ridley and Wycliffe) to work with the university students, rather than to study theology. Kuhrt himself went to Wycliffe, though the fact that he got a first suggests he at least paid attention to his studies. One wonders, though how things might have worked out had he gone to Oak Hill, which was under Dr David Peterson from Moore College Sydney at the time.
The questions asked by the young Kuhrt certainly could not be answered by the then-absence of evangelical systematic theology. The abhorrence of a vacuum affects our spirituality as much as anything else, but where some evangelicals have found answers in a deepened understanding of the tradition, Kuhrt found them in Wright.
Chapter 3, then, is ‘A Summary of the theology of N. T. Wright’, which Kuhrt helpfully lays out under thirty-nine headings (presumably a coincidence rather than a reflection of the Thirty-nine Articles). Here it must be emphasized, however, that as Kuhrt himself acknowledges, this is Kuhrt’s take on Wright, and any errors or omissions are his own.
Having said that, it is very helpful to someone like myself to have such a resum√© of Wright’s theological loci communes. Whether or not it is absolutely accurate, it gives just the sort of ‘road map’ that tells one what to look out for in one’s own reading.
The second thing to say, however, is that personally I was surprised not only how much of it I simply agreed with, but how much I had gleaned from elsewhere. Indeed, I could not help thinking that the alert reader of the Bible, supplemented by some judicious reading, would have come to many of the same conclusions.
Wright’s emphasis on covenant, for example, can also found in Bill Dumbrell’s Covenant and Creation (1984), or Peter Jensen’s more recent The Revelation of God. Similarly, a robust ‘temple’ theology could be derived from Dumbrell’s 1986, The End of the Beginning or Gregory Beale’s 2004, The Temple and the Church’s Mission.
Even Wright’s fundamental understanding of Israel and the law would be ‘old hat’ to anyone who studied Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom or similar material. Again, ‘union with Christ’ would be familiar to students of Luther, and so on.
This is not, of course, to deride Wright’s achievement, but simply to say that many of the elements of his own theology are not uniquely ‘Wrightian’, and that one does not have to approve of everything Wright says, or even to have read Wright, to share substantially the same views as he does on many issues.
Nevertheless, there are things Wright, and others, have said, which the Church really needs to hear, not least being Kuhrt’s own emphasis that our hope is not ‘going to heaven when we die’ and that heaven and earth are, to use a phrase from the book, “two interlocking spheres of God’s single creation” (38 — but see also Beale).
Overall, therefore, I would recommend anyone to read through this chapter, not only for its survey of Wright, but to check it against their own theological framework.
It is in the things that are seemingly more unique to Wright, however, that the problems arise. In particular, I struggled with the idea that at the centre of Jesus’ conflict with the religious authorities was his message that Israel should “let go of those parts of the Jewish law that were given to keep her separate from the rest of the world” (40).
To begin with, Wright seemingly acknowledges that mission to those beyond Israel played a very small part in Jesus’ own ministry. But secondly, what surely upset Jesus’ opponents most of all in this regard was not his welcoming Gentiles beyond Israel’s cultural ‘boundaries’, but sinners beyond the moral ‘pale’ within Judaism. Thus his overall message cannot surely be summarized as dropping the cultural ‘markers’ of ‘works of the law’ (if that is what the latter means, as Wright alleges).
Other sections were just as troubling. According to Kuhrt’s version of Wright on ‘Atonement in the Gospels’, for example, Jesus identifies with those caught up in evil and takes on himself the consequences of Israel’s failure and sin. Thus “his death enabled God’s judgement to be executed on sin” (46). This idea again is not unique to Wright, but in Kuhrt’s account there is a sense of a lack of specifics — indeed of some confusion. How, for example, did the cross enable God’s judgement to be executed? Was not the cross itself the execution of that judgement?
The same phrase, and therefore the same problem, recurs in the section on ‘Victory’, where we are told that Jesus’ “death on the cross ... enabled God to execute his judgement on this sin and totally condemn it” (50). At this point, however, not only is judgement becoming separated from the cross, but sin is becoming separated from the sinner. Thus we read, “This evil was allowed to do its worst but through this very process the principalities and powers behind it were exhausted and disarmed ...” (50). Forgiveness of personal sin is included in the consequences of this, but the focus has moved away from ourselves as those who do evil things, and this has important consequences for the picture which emerges. Hence Kuhrt writes in summary,
This understanding of the atonement therefore integrates a model of personal forgiveness completely within a much broader understanding of the death of Jesus as God’s answer to the power of evil in its entirety. Completely maintaining the reality of God’s wrath and judgement, this understanding also removes any sense of God having an internal conflict of attitudes towards us, since the death of Jesus reveals that it is sin that God hates, while loving human beings without reservation. This leads to Wright’s suggestion that saying that ‘the love of God is satisfied’ is more helpful in understanding the death of Jesus and the atonement than talking in a similar way about God’s wrath. (50)
What God hates and condemns, it seems, is ‘the powers of evil’, but this now excludes human beings who, though they may ‘sin’, are loved “without reservation”.
And this brings us to the observation that, extraordinary though it may seem, neither in Kuhrt’s list of Wright’s loci, nor in the rest of the book is there really anything about the theology of grace. There are actually six references to grace in the ‘Index of Topics’ — on pages 13, 19, 20, 57, 60 and 91. (It should be noted, though, that these are not necessarily all the occurrences — the word also occurs on pages 77 and 107, not indexed).
The first of the three indexed references relate to Kuhrt’s early (pre-Wright) experience of traditional evangelical Anglicanism, for example of evangelism which stressed “the priority of God’s grace and the need to make a response of faith” (13) and liturgical confession “leading me to acknowledge my overall need for God’s grace and to seek his forgiveness for the personal sins of which I was guilty.”
The fourth and fifth appear in the chapter on Wright’s theology, as passing references under the topics of ‘Judgement’ and ‘Virtue’. (The un-indexed examples are also merely passing references.)
It is the sixth reference, however, which is the most revealing. Speaking about ‘The development of Christian character’, Kuhrt writes about the idea of ‘letting go and letting God’:
The implication has been that making too much of an effort to lead holy lives might somehow form a denial of the need for God’s grace and the work of the Spirit. In addressing this, we have begun to emphasize that Spirit-filled and grace-driven living is precisely about the concentrated effort to work hard to anticipate the destiny that we will possess in the new creation. (91)
Some of us found an antidote to this sort of ‘quietism’ in J C Ryle’s Holiness, which leaves no one in any doubt about the need to “strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14 — though David Peterson’s Possessed by God provides a useful reminder that sanctification is also ‘by grace, through faith’). Yet to have ‘grace-driven’ living described as a “concentrated effort to work hard” (or even ‘grace’ as a matter of being ‘driven’) leaves one wondering precisely at the pastoral implications Kuhrt is so keen to emphasize.
This reinforces, moreover, the fear that the ‘pop’ version of Wright has indeed rehabilitated ‘works based righteousness’ under the guise of evangelical theology. It would truly be amazing to discover that Wright has overlooked grace. This may be a problem not of what Wright has written but what others have read from (or into) him. Yet it is surely not enough for a rounded theology, such as Kuhrt aims to present, merely to say of grace that the Christian virtues are “brought about by God’s grace and the action of the Spirit” (60) — that and our own hard work.
Furthermore, this does suggest problems inherent in Wright’s approach. The key difficulty in identifying the dispute with Judaism in the New Testament as being about ‘boundary markers’ not traditional ‘legalism’ is that, to the modern mind, this evacuates the dispute of moral content. Indeed, it becomes very hard for us to comprehend in our own terms, since we lack any similar notion of ‘identity’. (Kuhrt later draws a parallel with those who demand that people show a certain ‘keenness’ before they are fully accepted in church. This is not quite the same thing, but it does raise the question of the emotive ‘content’ of these ‘boundary markers’, vis √† vis Wright’s presentation.)
It is then possible to read Wright as saying that Judaism and contemporary Christianity agreed on the moral basis of salvation — they only disagreed on the old boundary markers. That being the case, the revelation of Christ had nothing radical to say about grace to the Judaism of Jesus’ day, beyond that God ‘graciously’ no longer requires circumcision or Sabbath-keeping, etc. And if that was so then, the same is true now.
Yet as we have seen, the disputes of Jesus with the religious authorities cannot be categorized in this way. Nor was the attitude of the Sadducees and Pharisees to sinners without moral content (“God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evildoers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector” Lk 18:11). The problem, as Andrew Das shows, is that whatever might theoretically be true of the Old Covenant, in practice a reduced understanding of election (ie grace) brought moral obedience to the law to the fore in people’s attitudes (A Das, Paul, the Law, and the Covenant [Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001]).
The Reformation was a dispute about grace as well as faith, and not surprisingly since we see in pre-Reformation theology the same attitudes we find in Judaism at the time of Jesus and Paul — that God’s graciousness to sinners means basically a chance for all to try harder. And the worry for some is that a ‘pop-Wright’ theology is bringing the same attitude back into evangelicalism.
The second part of Kuhrt’s book, as the subtitle says, is about “putting the theology of N. T. Wright into practice in the local church”, and by this stage the reader might wonder, with thirty nine areas to consider, just exactly how this is going to apply.
Yet it turns out that Khurt really majors on just one aspect of Wright’s theology, namely the replacement of talk of ‘going to heaven’ with the more biblical language of a new heavens and a new earth. This is indeed a proper objection, although again it is not an observation unique to Wright (I have frequently made the same observation myself, including about our hymns). However, both Wright and Kuhrt seem to take this to mean in practice that nothing which is an expression of love or of ‘working for the kingdom’ is ever wasted as it will be included in the new creation at Christ’s ‘parousia’ (ie the ‘Second Coming’ in ‘Wrightean’ terms).
Thus in the fourth chapter, headed ‘Tom Wright’s theology in pastoral context’, Kuhrt begins by describing how he applies this principle to ministry to the bereaved, particularly those outside the fellowship of the Church. Kuhrt feels he can, as a consequence, be more affirming of the positive achievements of the deceased. As to their fate, however, Kuhrt explains that “unless the person who has died made a profession of Christian faith, I make sure that this presentation of the Christian hope is general rather than specific to the deceased” (68).
In regard to this particular aspect of local church ministry, therefore, one would have to say that Wright’s theology does not make an enormous practical difference. Kuhrt rightly critiques the views of those who speak only of a ‘heavenly hope”, but the implications for ministry to the non-church bereaved or, as he goes on to describe, to children and those facing personal hardship, are not, perhaps, as great as one might be waiting to hear.
What the reader would like to hear, of course, is the difference Wright’s theology makes in ministry to the dying. Kuhrt touches on this with reference to his own grandmother and her ambivalence about leaving this life. Wright’s theology, Kuhrt argues, would affirm this desire “to continue living for God on earth and enjoying his good creation” (70). What we really want to know, however, is what Wright’s theology of justification and judgement says to the person who asks on their deathbed, “Vicar, what is going to happen to me?” This is surely important, but nothing is said.
When it comes to ‘Tom Wright’s theology in a mission context’ (chapter 5), the same ‘new heavens, new earth’ theology is to the fore. The immediate outcome at Christ Church New Malden has been the establishment of a ministry to the homeless and to “marginalized local people”. In general, people are encouraged to see what all the good things they are doing in terms of ‘kingdom theology’, and for some of them this provides an avenue to a more personal faith.
When it comes to more traditional ‘personal’ evangelism, Kuhrt’s church uses the Alpha course. The only difference Wright’s theology has made here is that Kuhrt has “built more kingdom theology” into it (80). Since the content of Alpha courses is fairly tightly regulated, however, we may assume that in most respects the course follows the lines laid down by Holy Trinity Brompton.
That being the case, though, the evangelistic message about the cross, sin and personal salvation that many people will hear at Christ Church will be exactly the same as in any entirely ‘traditional’ evangelical context (albeit with Alpha’s ‘spin’ — unfortunate, to my mind — regarding the Holy Spirit). And this must surely be taken into account when assessing Kuhrt’s thesis about the difference made by Wright’s theology.
As we have noted, the more particular and controversial areas of Wright’s output concern exactly those matters where Alpha is ‘non-Wrightean’ — justification, sin, grace and so on. It may be asking too much, but a true assessment of the pastoral impact of Wright’s theology could surely only be made in a context which did not rely on such traditional methods. As it is, Kuhrt’s congregation doubtless contains many whose coming to faith relied largely on the old theology.
Meanwhile, Kuhrt also stresses Wright’s argument that the gospel has ‘political’ implications. People are encouraged to see that the principalities and powers are ‘dethroned’ by actions that proclaim Jesus is Lord. In practice, though, the results again seem modest — support for Fair Trade and debt relief for the Third World — and, frankly, ‘soft left wing’ providing an opportunity to proclaim that “Jesus is Lord and, therefore the free market economy isn’t!” (81).
In terms of preaching, the cross is presented as “as God’s answer to evil rather than simply ‘my’ personal sin” (81). And in terms of personal spirituality, people are encouraged not to worship “modern day idols”, such as the size of house, make of car, nature of holidays and their children’s achievements. As Kuhrt recognizes, then, the application of Wright’s theology is very much conditioned by the relatively wealthy and middle-class context of the congregation — which is undoubtedly as it should be. Once again, though, one would like to know how this would work out in a different socio-economic context.
In chapter 6 ‘Tom Wright’s theology in church life’, Kuhrt describes how Christ Church has become “more of a parish church and more inclusive of ‘unchurched’ people in the local area” (83), whereas previously the church seems to have been rather stand-offish.
It has to be said that the latter is often a feature of a particular kind of ‘eclectic’ Anglican evangelicalism, which is not much interested, for example, in the traditional points of local contact through baptisms, weddings and funerals. From my own point of view, I think it is a thoroughly good things when churches move away from this ‘isolationism’.
Kuhrt interprets this in terms of removing ‘boundary markers’, as in the Wrightian view of the Jew-Gentile divide. I would see it in terms of acknowledging the cultural expectations and context of Anglicanism. Either way, the outcome is very similar, and a careful reading and application of Ephesians 2:14 would similarly work wonders for the internal life of a congregation containing people from different races and cultural backgrounds.
Throughout, Kuhrt emphasizes that the good things of creation are to be enjoyed, and bolsters this with a ‘Wrightean’ view that everything good in this world will form part of the ‘new heavens and new earth’.
I do wonder, however, whether there is enough recognition of the biblical counterpart to this, namely that “the first heaven and the first earth” will pass away (Rev 21:2). Sometimes Kuhrt reads as though all that will happen after the resurrection is ‘business as usual’. Yet that would be to overlook the inherent properties of this world, its built in decline and decay (remember entropy!). Personally, I have long thought that this world is to the new heavens and earth as the womb is to birth or the chrysalis to the butterfly — connected, yes, but utterly and unimaginably different as well.
Nevertheless, with this caveat, I found the emphasis on the continuity to be one of the strengths of the book and worth thinking through. Particularly in the section on ‘The encouragement of the use of gifts and talents’ (pp 93-94), there is food for thought about getting people to see ‘gospel ministry’ as more than just preaching and teaching about Jesus.
Interestingly, however, there are points in the book where Kuhrt disagrees with Wright. For example, Wright apparently argues strongly for traditional elements of Anglican liturgical practice — the lectionary of set readings, liturgy, the church calendar and the historic buildings (94 — coming from a former bishop, this is perhaps not surprising).
Kuhrt, on the other hand, departs from the lectionary, achieving (as he puts it) “a greater depth of focus” (5) by working through biblical books. Kuhrt also rejects Wright’s traditionalism for the less-traditional outreach services in the morning and evening. Again, Wright questions the absence of narrative in modern ‘worship songs’ (95). Kuhrt, on the other hand, finds in a ‘postmodern’ context that, despite weaknesses, they “powerfully express our calling to reflect creation’s praise to God” (96).
In the end, this is a very important aspect of the book, for even Kuhrt feels free to pick and choose from Wright. On the ministry of women, for example, Kuhrt relies very much on Wright’s handling of the Gospel material and its “radical transformation of the previous all-male apostolate ... presented in John 20” with the commission to Mary Magdalene (97 — although, as I have endeavoured to show elsewhere, this is a dubious and tendentious line of argument).
Similarly, Kuhrt appreciates the way Wright also stresses “the importance of the man and woman reflecting in their unity the image of God as they are given stewardship over the earth.” (97) At Christ Church this means deliberately twinning men and women, for example in leading services and preaching or in the dual office of churchwarden.
But Kuhrt opposes Wright’s view on husbands ‘taking the lead’ in marriage and therefore discourages brides from using the word ‘obey’ in marriage (100). Yet this is no small matter, since the theology of the husband-wife relationship relates so much to the theology of Christ and the Church and hence — arguably — to what is done in the congregation. One would like to have heard more of Wright at this point, and some of us might like to have seen more of him in practice!
As we have noted, Kuhrt disagrees with Wright on church traditions and he is also, unlike Wright, an ‘annihilationist’.
What this comes down to, though, is simply that one does not have to embrace all of Wright, or even necessarily Wright’s central ideas, to benefit from Wright’s contribution. Certainly that contribution to Christian thinking has been significant. But Kuhrt’s thesis of a ‘Wrightean’ model for church life is going too far for most people — or even, as we have seen, for much of what happens at Christ Church New Malden.
Similarly, the final chapter may have less to do with Wright than Kuhrt or his readers might think. Titled, ‘The challenge of Tom Wright to the church’ it is, as much as anything, Kuhrt’s challenge to evangelical Anglicans with whom he disagrees.
Kuhrt states quite explicitly his belief that “there are major weaknesses in areas of theology traditionally regarded as evangelical strengths, namely our understanding of the Christian hope, sin, the atonement, mission and the nature and authority of the Bible” (102). In contrast, he argues, “fresh insights from the Bible” should be constantly changing our “evangelical tradition”.
And it is his conviction that in the era of the first three National Evangelical Anglican Congresses (1967, 1977 and 1988) this was happening, along with the development of Alpha and ‘mission shaped church’. In the 1990s, however, he thinks there was a loss of confidence. The older generation became less urgent about the issues needing to be addressed, charismatics became more concerned with worship and the ordination of women and revisionism on homosexuality created fearfulness.
One result Kuhrt identifies was the emergence of post-evangelicalism. Others became more conservative, and the conservatives became more dominant in the evangelical bodies of the Church of England. The response of Kuhrt himself and his colleagues was the launch of a ‘centrist’ evangelical body called ‘Fulcrum’ during the 2003 NEAC at Blackpool — an event at which Tom Wright himself spoke.
Earlier, however, Kuhrt describes this fourth NEAC as having “a more reactionary agenda” than the others, with “the reassertion of traditional evangelical approaches to ‘Bible, Cross and Mission’ being seen as the priority” (9). The language is revealing, as are Kuhrt’s further comments in his final chapter: “The major issue facing evangelicals,” he says, “... is the overcoming of fear” (105). Similarly, Wright himself is referred to as criticizing “a fear that drives people to create structures to make themselves feel safe and superior to other Christians” (106).
In all this, Kuhrt clearly has traditionalist evangelicals in view. When we allege fear as a prime motivating factor, however, we have moved from theology to psychology. Not that this is necessarily always a bad thing! We have good reason to fear that which might theologically corrupt. “To others,” says Jude of those who may be straying from the faith, “show mercy, mixed with fear — hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
Of course, Kuhrt does not believe Wright falls into this category. But he should surely understand the position of those who genuinely fear a departure from hard-won positions established at the Reformation. And if he wants to win the ‘fearful’, then an attitude of understanding rather than irritation might be a better basis on which to build bridges towards them.
We certainly ought to be aware of a fearful defensiveness, and evangelicals are not without such unconscious drives. However, Fulcrum as an organization, and Kuhrt himself, ought to be more self-aware of the very considerable unease generated by their words and actions. The launch of Fulcrum itself, after all, was organized covertly, behind the scenes, and ‘sprung’ on the organizers of NEAC 4 with little warning — hardly a way to win trust and confidence.
In his conclusion, Kuhrt expresses a desire for a similar engagement with Wright’s theology from liberalism and catholicism as he has urged from evangelicals. He also suggests that holistic mission and a positive agenda on justice by evangelicals can head off the liberal criticism of traditionalists regarding homosexuality. In this way, he hopes the “disastrous schism towards which the Anglican Communion is currently moving yet can be averted” (108).
And yet Wright, and Kuhrt himself, have been foremost among the critics of GAFCON and the actions of its supporters in this country (Kuhrt references three articles by Wright himself on the Fulcrum website). Truth to tell, it is this sort of attitude and action that has done as much to deter traditionalist evangelicals from an engagement with Wright’s theology as have any ‘fears’ about what it might do to their own views.
But here we have moved entirely into the realm of church politics, where motivations and attitudes can become distinctly murky, not to say personal. On this account, even the publication of Kuhrt’s book is likely to be met with suspicion in some areas. Perhaps the element of theology we will all need to major on in the future is ‘forgiveness’.
John Richardson
28 August 2011
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9 comments:

  1. Many thanks for doing this, John - I hope to get round to reading this in a day or so. Like you, I don't find Wright that easy to read, partly because he is so prolix and inclined to go off on tangents defending his own position or attacking others. I have longed to see Wright expound his viewpoint simply and un-polemically.
    Mark B.,
    W. Kent

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  2. Dear John, thanks for this insightful review. Kuhrt's statement that Moore students would read NTW alone in their room without the "tutor" (we don't have those at Moore) knowing is very wrong indeed. It's a pity that this kind of thing is said, it doesn't give much confidence in the author. Every blessing to you, Marty Foord.

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  3. Rt Rev Dominic Stockford29 August 2011 at 09:48

    A long and complicated review - necessarily so.
    Theank you for that.

    But in that lies the problem, to my mind. The most dangerous theology is that which is subtly different from the clear teaching of the Bible. Chalke's rejection of "PENAL substitutionary atonement", whilst retaining "substitutionary atonement", is one such example. NT Wright simply confuses the issue with his defence of Chalke on this matter - unless he rejects the penal element himself!

    But because of the complexity of argument this review would be unreadable or incomprehensible by the majority of Christians who have no systematic theological training. They will merely hear what Wright has to say and think it sounds good to them, and then get upset with those of us who find what he says dangerous. The same applies to the situation regarding someone such as Rick Warren.

    I find it interesting to see "almost evangelicals" using the same tactic as Rowan Williams, with his deliberately obfuscating "indaba" style of throwing loads and loads of long words at a subject and drowning most objections under the sheer weight of words, not their accuracy!

    I have great feelings of concern when I see people like Kuhrt, Chalke and Wright claim the banner "evangelical", and then move the goalposts on the teaching of Scripture as they do. And when they have to spend so long trying to explain what THEY now say the Bible really teaches it adds to my concern - after all, the Bible contains the Word of life for salvation. Did God really ensure it was written in such a way that it requires reams of explanation? I think not.

    What you term "traditional evangelicalism" (which I would call 'Reformed Protestant Evangelicalism') has stood the tests of men over time, is clearly Biblically based, and requires no lengthy argument to justify its teachings. It is "The Bible, as it clearly speaks". I pray that people will continue to hear that Word and not the lengthy self-justifications of those who have now decided that they have seen something there that no-one has ever seen before.

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  4. Thanks, John - have now read it and I would be glad if Fulcrum agreed to publish it as well and to invite comments.
    Stephen K, how about it?
    Some comments:
    1. You rightly point out that lot of what Wright says about the mission and message of Jesus is already contextualized and adumbrated by others before him - to whom I would add Chris Wright on the Abrahamic background.
    2. But the idea that Jesus was teaching that Israel was still "in exile" but his death/resurrection marked the end does not seem exegetically convincing.
    3. Wright's understanding of justification, based on his reading of Romans 2, is still very hard to get one's head around. Is it a form of incipient works-righteousness? I'll have to read those parts again (again)...
    4. How do you preach Wright's views that they can be simply grasped? I don't think simplicity equates with truth, but the sheer weight of words and tangents loses people.
    Mark B.

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  5. ... to continue #3 above: Wright has developed, with his own twist, ideas of the New Perspective, most associated with Sanders and Dunn. This is where Piper has crossed swords with him. But there are heavyweight monographs about Paul and the Law that don't support Sanders' view of 1st century Judaism or Dunn nad Wright on Romans 2: speciifically, Gathercole, Seeyon Kim and Stephen Westerholm. Basically they reassert the Reformation understanding of justification by faith. Does Kuhrt engage with these critics of Wright and dispute them? If not there would be a serious lacuna in the work, because it this, more than anything, that separates Wright from traditional evangelical faith. But I hope Kuhrt will engage and explain here.
    Mark B.

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  6. Tom Watts, Winsford31 August 2011 at 14:20

    I think your observation on "grace" is very interesting.

    There is no doubt from what I've read of Wright that if you ask him directly "Do you affirm sola gratia, sola fide" he would reply wholeheartedly yes. He says in his Romans commentary that if Paul had been asked what he thought of the idea that you can be made right with God by what you do, he would have said "it stinks". Yet he maintains that that wasn't really the big issue that Paul was dealing with, as you say.

    I think the result of that is that what evangelicals have classically meant by grace tends to be assumed in Wright's system rather than positively affirmed and underlined, as it tends to be in Piper and the tradition he builds on. It's as if Wright's saying "Yes of course I believe in grace, but what about all these other things that Paul was really interested in..."

    And so it's really a question about what things are central and what things are peripheral to Paul's concern and more generally to the whole Bible's message. Wright has loads of helpful insights that evangelicals have definitely missed or been weak on, but I wonder if they are really peripheral things, not central things. The danger of assuming what is central and majoring on the peripheral is that the central and peripheral actually swap places in your system.

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  7. To pick up on this thread, Tom Wright's article in the Spectator (20 Aug) is very revealing of his true concerns. It is entitled "How to Save the Church of England." Certainly, Wright affirms preaching and a traditional view of salvation. But, for him, the Gospel is bigger - it means the church must be involved in social justic and establishing God's Kingdom. It seems to me that the real passion and excitement in Wright's remarkable article comes when he talks about the church remaking the nation, even if the traditional evangelical staples are never denied.

    John, what do you make of Wright's article?

    Ro Mody, Bournemouth

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  8. ...disastrous schism towards which the Anglican Communion is currently moving yet can be averted

    except of course - the schism cannot be "averted" - and that large portions of the CoE are in denial does not change this fact. Africa, Asia, Sydney, and GAFCON stand with Christ: TEC, FULCRUM, Affirming Catholics stand with heresy and destruction.

    All we can do now is choose sides: and Wright has chosen Fulcrum, Williams, TEC, heresy, and damnation.


    James, Wellington. NZ

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  9. Dominic identifies "traditional evangelicalism" with "reformed protestant evangelicalism". I would say that traditional evangelicalism is a wider term and includes a Wesleyan or Arminian strand as well as a less theological "simple gospel"

    Dominic is in danger assuming that the theological task is finished so that we accept some statement of Christian belief and then assume that this is what the Bible teaches. Tom Wright's theology begins with finding tensions within the biblical text which he considered the commentators did not adequately deal with.

    And I don't know what the problem with Rick Warren is!

    Regarding Mark's points:

    1. I don't think Tom Wright is claiming originality. He regards himself as a defender of orthodoxy. Stephen Kuhrt seems to have learned everything from Tom Wright, but most of the time he is just passing on what he learned from others. In many ways he reflects the best of the evangelical teaching of his formative period. for example his teaching on the relationship between "heaven" and "resurrection" is not new.
    2. Israel still being "in exile" is not something you can find in the Bible. It is rather a summary of the mood of the Jewish people at the time found from other sources. It colours or understanding or the Jewish expectation of a Messiah and how Jesus fulfilled this.
    3. Wright's understanding of justification comes from Romans and Galatians. His analysis of the eschatological element adds depth. He makes this a "badge" of membership of God's people ( or is that Dunn?). I think it would be better to talk of the implications of justification for the church than to recast it as a doctrine about the church. Wright is correct to criticise an undue individualism "my relationship with God" if this is set against "being members one of another".
    4. I agree it is difficult to approach the Wright corpus. On the other hand he is a good communicator. There are plenty of aricles and talks to sample at http://www.ntwrightpage.com/ Try for example the St John's Nottingham videos, also at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jN_LSIF9ySk&feature=related

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