01 January 2017

N. T. Wright's The Day the Revolution Began: A Few Reflections

This week I read Wright's new book on the crucifixion, The Day the Revolution Began. I'm not a Wright-hater. I owe him a lot. Some of his writings have been instrumental for my own development in understanding the Bible. At least one article of mine spawned from ideas he gave me while listening to him lecture. There are several points of his--such as the notion of a continuing exile in the first-century Jewish mindset, or Jesus as true Israel, or the Israel typology underlying Romans 5-8, or his understanding of our final future (what he calls the after-after-life), or his approach to the relationship between history and theology--where I agree with him against his conservative North American critics. And on top of that I like him as a person. But this book is just awful.

I pretty much agree with Mike Horton's review though I thought he was too easy on the book. I'd like to add three thoughts to Mike's review. I'm not going to do any summary, just critique. For summary read what Mike wrote.

There are virtues to the book too, including the quality of prose and several good insights. An example of the latter is the connection, new to me, between James and John's request to be at Jesus' right and left hand, when these two places, ironically, were reserved for the two thieves to be crucified next to Jesus (p. 221).

But I can't review this book by trotting out a bunch of virtues and then saying one or two things that could have been stronger and concluding that it's a nice book that everyone should read. The problems with this book, unlike the majority of Wright's other books, so outweigh the good things that the net effect of reading it is spiritually dangerous. Many college students will read this book for their understanding of the crucifixion. I wish they wouldn't.

False Dichotomies

This is a problem with other books of his, but here the false dichotomies are so fundamental to his argument, and so frequently rehearsed, that they become not only grating but structurally weakening. The entire book is built on artificial either/ors when a nuanced both/and would be far more true to the facts and convincing.

Thus we are told that 'the question of whether people go to "heaven" or "hell"' is simply 'not what the New Testament is about. The New Testament, with the story of Jesus's crucifixion at its center, is about God's kingdom coming on earth as in heaven.' (p. 40).

Here are some other artificial either/ors:
What if, instead of a disembodied "heaven," we were to focus on the biblical vision of "new heavens and new earth?" (p. 49)

The human problem is not so much "sin" seen as the breaking of moral codes . . . but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces. (p. 74)

The "goal" is not "heaven," but a renewed human vocation within God's renewed creation. (p. 74)

[The apostles] do not simply have some new, exciting ideas to share. . . . They are not telling people that they have discovered a way whereby anyone can escape the wicked world and "go to heaven" instead. They are functioning as the worshipping, witnessing people of God. (p. 166) 

One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of "evangelists" in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with the problems of "sin" and "hell." The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. (pp. 196-97)

Galatians is not about "salvation" . . . The letter is about unity. (p. 234; italics original)

The primary human problem that Paul notes in Romans 1:18 is not "sin," but "ungodliness." It is a failure not primarily of behavior (though that follows), but of worship. (p. 268)
The response in each case is: Really? Doesn't the New Testament teach both, at some level? Are you leaving behind a one-sided view for an equal and opposite one-sided view, when a synthetic both/and is what is needed?

It is indeed a hugely needed corrective that, say, Christians' final destiny is not disembodied heaven. We need to hear this. Our final, permanent state is earthly and embodied. But his correction becomes over-correction when he avoids any affirmation of the intermediate state and seems to leave no room at all for any disembodied existence at any time.

Part of the difficulty is that at times Wright will say 'not simply that, but this' whereas other times he says 'not that, but this.' But that little word 'simply' makes all the difference (see pp. 76-77 e.g.). And the fact that he isn't consistent in this way creates confusion and ambiguity.

Another part of the difficulty is that his dichotomies are sometimes set up in a way that is simply not in accord with the biblical evidence. Thus: 'Almost nobody in the gospels warns about "going to hell." The dire warnings in the four gospels are mostly directed toward an imminent this-worldly disaster, namely, the fall of Jerusalem' (p. 196). I appreciate the way Wright encourages us to read the Gospels in a historically sensitive way and to understand how first-century Jews would have heard Jesus. And the fall of Jerusalem is certainly in view in much of what Jesus says. But it simply is not true that 'almost nobody in the gospels warns about "going to hell."' Jesus himself does, repeatedly, and often with the very image of 'fire' that Wright wants to leave behind (Matt 5:22, 29-30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:3; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5).

Caricature

Closely tied in with the problem of false dichotomies is the problem of caricatures. I say 'closely tied in' because the false dichotomies are themselves caricatures. Wright caricatures a certain view and says it's not that, but this. But the thing he's rejecting would often be largely unfamiliar to those who hold it. It's a caricature.

Here are a few other caricatures--in other words, representations of views which, if the holders of such a view were to read it, they would not discern themselves in it. Caricatures are thus the opposite of love; they are not charitable presentations of a view, but uncharitable, to score rhetorical points.

Thus the 'line of thought' Wright is engaging 'goes like this':
All humans sinned, causing God to be angry and to want to kill them, to burn them forever in "hell." Jesus somehow got in the way and took the punishment instead. (p. 38)
In this view, God hates sinners so much that he is determined to punish them, but Jesus more or less happens to get in the way and take the death blow on their behalf. (p. 42)
Never mind that Wright will go on 200 pages later to admit that in Jesus' death he was 'bearing the punishment' (Wright's words) that God's people deserved (p. 211), and so the view that Jesus 'took the punishment instead' turns out to be Wright's own view. For now I just note: Who in the world would see themselves in the view that God is angry and wants to kill people? That he 'hates sinners so much'? Aside from perhaps a few fringe hyper-fundamentalistic types I see none of Wright's critics, not the thoughtful ones, in this view. It is a caricature. It is irresponsible. It is fundamentally writing for Self rather than writing out of love. 

In another place Wright seeks to distance himself from 'the idea of an angry, bullying deity who has to be appeased, to be bought off, to have his wrathful way with someone even if it isn't the right person' (p. 44). What careful Christian believes that? How many biblically responsible evangelical/reformed pulpits (which is whom Wright designates as the critics from whom he is distancing himself) preach that, and in that way?

In yet another place he casts his opponents' view as 'a dualistic rejection of the "world," with a smug "otherworldly" pietism, and with a severe story line that cheerfully sends most of the human race into everlasting fire' (p. 98). Hands up all cheerful hell-lovers?

Again: 'At the center of the whole picture we do not find a wrathful God bent on killing someone, demanding blood' (p. 185). The Bible is not about "an angry God looming over the world and bent upon blood' (p. 349). But of course. Who would describe the God of the Bible that way? Later he speaks of the Bible as 'a narrative not of divine petulance, but of unbreakable divine covenant love' (p. 224). Who preaches a gospel of divine petulance?

At other times he caricatures the academic community more than the church community. For example: 'comparatively modern readings of Luke and Acts have shrunk the meaning of the "kingdom" simply to the final return of Jesus' (p. 161). I know of no respectable Bible scholar who believes the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts is only about Christ's second coming.

Sometimes the caricature is so misleading as to actually say the opposite of what evangelicals believe. For example: 'The common view has been that the ultimate state ("heaven") is a place where "good" people end up, so that human life is gauged in relation to moral achievement or lack thereof' (p. 147). Yikes. Heaven is for the morally good people? This is gospel confusion at its most basic. This is the same error my 4-year-old tends to still make but which my 6-year-old and 10-year-old now know to be error. From one of the world's leading NT scholars?

Wright complains in other books and in lectures of being misrepresented by conservative American evangelicals. Much of the time I sympathize with his point. He does get misrepresented. Why then does he turn around and do the very same thing, misrepresenting others?

How? How, How, How?

There's an even deeper problem with the book. Wright is unclear on how the cross does what it does.

Throughout the book I kept writing HOW in the margin. Wright tells us (if you'll forgive a run-on sentence) that 'the death of Jesus has opened up a whole new world' (p. 82) and 'the death of Jesus launched the revolution' (p. 83) and 'by six o'clock on the Friday evening Jesus died, something had changed, and changed radically' (p. 156) and 'Jesus believed that through his death this royal power would win the decisive victory' (p. 183) and that in the crucifixion 'the covenant was renewed because of the blood that symbolized the utter commitment of God to his people' (p. 194) and that the crucifixion is 'the personal expression of [the love of God] all the way to his death' (p. 201) and that 'something has happened to dethrone the satan and to enthrone Jesus in its place' (p. 207) and that 'a new sort of power will be let loose upon the world, and it will be the power of self-giving love' (p. 222) and that 'the cross establishes the kingdom of God through the agency of Jesus' (p. 256) and that 'Jesus in himself, and in his death, is the place where the one God meets with his world, bringing heaven and earth together at last' (p. 336) and that 'when Jesus died, something happened as a result of which the world was a different place' (p. 355). We are even told repeatedly that 'sins are forgiven through the Messiah's death' (p. 115).

But Wright doesn't divulge how this worked. Notice how vague and foggy the above statements are.

Why did Jesus need to die? How did his death begin a revolution?

Then in the course of a few pages in the middle of chapter 11 (on Paul) I began to understand, in part anyhow, why Wright is evasive throughout the book. He writes: "Nowhere here does Paul explain why or how the cross of the Messiah has the power it does, but he seems able to assume that' (p. 230). A few pages later he writes of 'modern Western expectations' and the 'supposed central task of explaining how the punishment of our sins was heaped onto the innocent victim' (p. 232). Later, speaking of 1-2 Corinthians, 'At no point does [Paul] offer anything like a complete exposition of either what the cross achieved or why or how it achieved it' (p. 246).

Wright is vague on how the crucifixion works because he thinks the New Testament is.

At times he tries to explain that in Jesus's death the powers of evil are conquered and we idolators (not sinners so much as idolators) are freed through that great act of self-giving love. But even in these places where he tries to explain the how, he doesn't really explain the how. I still don't know how it works. In what sense does Jesus' death free us?

Part of the solution, I think, which would go a long way toward strengthening the book, is to build in to a book like this a thick understanding of the holiness and justice of God--complementing, not competing with, God's covenant love which Wright rightly emphasizes again and again as God's most fundamental internal motivation. But without God's holiness and justice, you cannot explain the way Christ's death works. Even though Wright says in the book's opening pages that the crucifixion is not simply a beautiful expression of the great love of Christ but is something more than merely exemplary, his own exposition often seems to explain the crucifixion in just this way. Related to this one-dimensional view of God as benevolent but not really wrathful in any traditional way (also prevalent in Doug Campbell's writings on Paul) is Wright's explanation of divine punishment as simply the consequence of sin (p. 338).

Conclusion: A Street-Level Test

I agree with Wright regarding so much of what he wants to leave behind, even if he uses caricature to cast it. For example I agree with his rejection of a 'works contract' as the framework for understand the work of Christ. But the answer to those who have drilled the theological screws in too tight and made the crucifixion artificial and overly formulaic is not to under-explain it as Wright does.

I've been strongly critical of this book because Wright is otherwise one of our (our) strongest authors and because there is so much that is helpful in his corpus that it is frustrating to have such a weak book at this stage in his career. And it is sad that many younger people may read this as their first substantive book on the meaning of Christ's death.

At the end of the day here's the question to ask of a book that claims to be a popular level book on Christ's crucifixion. A street-level test for someone trying to track with Wright in this book would be: If your college-aged son or daughter came to you in abject distress at their idolatry or sinfulness or addictive behavior or enslavement to the world's priorities, and sought your counsel, what comfort would you have for them according to this book? Beneath all the clever cuteness about how all reformed evangelicals have been asking the wrong questions, after all the ornate assembling of the Bible's storyline, what is the actual comfort of Christianity for your beloved child? What can you give them? What can you say? This book does not give you much to latch onto. And that is a problem, a problem of a fundamental and not peripheral nature, especially for a book pitched at a general Christian population. 

I will not be recommending this book to the people at my church. Those who want to read about the meaning of the crucifixion should go to Donald Macleod's Christ Crucified or John Stott's The Cross of Christ. And I look forward to Wright's next book, which I will read and, I expect, enjoy.

15 comments:

Teresa said...

Hi
I haven't read the book...but I wonder...

Possibly Wright was not writing for his professional critics to read but to street level secular people who hold a caricature of Christianity as their view of what it is--people who likely never read the Bible and live where almost no one sets foot in a church. I have heard these views you say would not be recognized....but not from Christians...just a thought.
Teresa

FGZ said...

Good review, Dane. Thanks much.

Dr. Timothy Mills said...

I wrote my DMin dissertation in "discussion" with NT Wright's works, but before this book. Wright wants scholars and pastors to see everything in the New Testament in the context of Second Temple Judaism (STJ), and he says so directly. Not having done this is the reason everyone, including and especially the Reformers, have got everything about doctrine completely wrong; justification, ecclesiology, hymnology, eschatology - everything wrong. Wright denies the existence of human souls, for example. Wright says directly in his other tomes that the immediate kingdom of God is what the gospels, and especially the Gospel, is all about. This STJ interpretation of the gospels, and Paul, is exactly what Jesus and Paul refused, Wright's argument is not with the Reformers, but with Jesus and Paul! Jesus called the Pharisees, Saducees, and other Jewish factions on their misunderstanding of Scripture. For example, Jesus said the Saducees were greatly mistaken because they did not understand the Scriptures! Jesus challenged Nicodemis, the teacher of Israel(!), because he of all people should have understood what Jesus was saying about being born again. At His ascension, Tje disciples were still interpreting Jesus' message in light of STJ expectations: "Will you at this time restore the Kingdom?" Jesus did not answer them, instead giving them the Great Commission. Paul, in Acts, went to the synagogues of the cities to present the gospel to them first. They refused to believe, counting themselves as unworthy of salvation, Paul went to the Gentiles who heard him gladly!
Wright is very verbose, but that is a mask for his errors in doctrine. Wright greatly errs, he understands the Scripture, but he rejects it's teaching. Trevin Wax interviewed NT Wright a few years ago for The Gospel Coalition in the journal Thelimous, where he asked if indeed the Holy Spirit had allowed the entire Christian church to get the Gospel wrong for 1,500 years, until a certain young Englishman began reading the New Testament in his Greek classes. In 1999, Christianity Today weighed in on the dispute between John Piper and NT Wright on the doctrine of justification, giving a chart with both men's views of Justification in the magazine.
Not only is this book problematic, the entire corpus of Wright's works are so.

Dr. Timothy Mills said...

I wrote my DMin dissertation in "discussion" with NT Wright's works, but before this book. Wright wants scholars and pastors to see everything in the New Testament in the context of Second Temple Judaism (STJ), and he says so directly. Not having done this is the reason everyone, including and especially the Reformers, have got everything about doctrine completely wrong; justification, ecclesiology, hymnology, eschatology - everything wrong. Wright denies the existence of human souls, for example. Wright says directly in his other tomes that the immediate kingdom of God is what the gospels, and especially the Gospel, is all about. This STJ interpretation of the gospels, and Paul, is exactly what Jesus and Paul refused, Wright's argument is not with the Reformers, but with Jesus and Paul! Jesus called the Pharisees, Saducees, and other Jewish factions on their misunderstanding of Scripture. For example, Jesus said the Saducees were greatly mistaken because they did not understand the Scriptures! Jesus challenged Nicodemis, the teacher of Israel(!), because he of all people should have understood what Jesus was saying about being born again. At His ascension, Tje disciples were still interpreting Jesus' message in light of STJ expectations: "Will you at this time restore the Kingdom?" Jesus did not answer them, instead giving them the Great Commission. Paul, in Acts, went to the synagogues of the cities to present the gospel to them first. They refused to believe, counting themselves as unworthy of salvation, Paul went to the Gentiles who heard him gladly!
Wright is very verbose, but that is a mask for his errors in doctrine. Wright greatly errs, he understands the Scripture, but he rejects it's teaching. Trevin Wax interviewed NT Wright a few years ago for The Gospel Coalition in the journal Thelimous, where he asked if indeed the Holy Spirit had allowed the entire Christian church to get the Gospel wrong for 1,500 years, until a certain young Englishman began reading the New Testament in his Greek classes. In 1999, Christianity Today weighed in on the dispute between John Piper and NT Wright on the doctrine of justification, giving a chart with both men's views of Justification in the magazine.
Not only is this book problematic, the entire corpus of Wright's works are so.

Christopher said...

Excellent Critique!

I haven't read this book yet, but I have read several of Wright's other books and articles and can attest that the false dichotomy seems to be one of Wright's favored rhetorical techniques. So glad to see Crossway has such clear headed young thinkers at the helm.

Chris Taylor

Hakam Adam said...

Are we sure that NT Wright is saved? And what evidence is there for that? Didn't Jesus promise that the Holy Spirit would guide us in all truth, and aren't we told that 'we have the mind of Christ'? If God were truly illuminating NT's thoughts on Scripture, how could he be so wrong -- and write so eerily like Brian McLaren?

To a young person who's a fairly fresh convert (5-7 years), this is enough of a stumbling block for me that I wonder if it isn't devastating to the less theologically learned within the universal church?

It baffles me why solid theologians refer to Wright as if he simply must be one of us. Could it be that the church's discernment crisis does indeed affect the leadership as well?

This is a continuing concern for me.

Matt G said...

Thanks, Dane, for the review. I too share your appreciation for Wright, but was also disappointed with this book. I got the sense that it was very quickly written and not thought out in the same depth as some of his other writings.

Marty said...

Dear Dane, thanks for this helpful, clear, and concise review brother! Excellent, but no doubt difficult to write.

David Greenhalgh said...

I'm just in process of reading this book but strangely (I'm in UK) my cover clearly says Tom Wright (not NT Wright as in review cover). This is the name he often writes under for his less academic works so perhaps the first poster is on the right track in suggesting he is writing for a wider readership.

geoffrobinson said...

"Wright is very verbose, but that is a mask for his errors in doctrine. "

I'm not a Wright expert, but it seems to me that lack of clarity is not a good thing or a good sign.

Jon Paul, MD said...

As Jewish grandmothers used to say in the first century " Again vit the strawman arguments?"

Ray said...

I have read several of Wright's books and have found them mostly profitable, however not without points of disagreement along the way. But his latest work (of which I haven't yet read and probably will not after reading the above review) leads me to seriously question where Wright's Christianity is evolving, or maybe devolving. To not explain the biblical purpose of the crucifixion with clarity and confidence is beyond acceptable for an author of Wright's statue and influence. It's these types of negations that brings Wright criticism, and well deserved at that. If this is where Wright is moving I wouldn't hold my breath expecting his next book to be anymore inspiring or encouraging for the believing reader. Thank you for your review.

Andy Dean said...

Hi

Having some familiarity with Wright's work (and with the caveat that I haven't read this one), I believe you are misrepresenting him. This seems to be one of his more popular-level, as opposed to academic, works. My impression of such writings are that they are often intended to challenge the prevailing cultural worldview of Christianity being about going to heaven if you're good and going to hell if your bad. That is, a disembodied state of dull bliss as reward for morality (or being in the club) or a disembodied state of fiery torment as punishment for immorality (or being outside the club). It seems to me that Christians can be as guilty of such lazy thinking, governed by culture rather than Scripture, as non-Christians.

As such, I believe that Wright's intent is to get us all to think more carefully about our preconceptions. I know for me that the understanding of 'heaven' not being the end point, but rather an intermediary state before God creates a new earth for us, was revelatory. And surely we should think about eternal life starting now on earth, as part of God's kingdom which he established with the death and resurrection of Jesus, rather than something that happens after death? Is that not what John is getting at in his gospel when he recounts Jesus saying that eternal life is knowing God and his son (John 17:3)?

That said, your criticism that Wright is vague about what the cross does sound fair, although I can't comment in detail as I haven't read it. I don't think the 'false dichotomies'or 'caricatures' criticisms are warranted though.

Best,

Andy

Kwadwo Obeng Kyei-Baffour said...

As a fan of NT Wright it's tough to read a serious criticism of him but I thank you for doing that. I have learnt the best way to honour your heroes is to engage and challenge them, something Wright has been doing for much of his career and he has expressed the desire for others to do the same to him. I believe the enduring legacy of Wright's will be the critical discussion of his body of work which will last for years if not many decades to come. I find it quite interesting when someone effectively points out the flaws and deficiencies in his work people jump on the bandwagon to question everything including his faithfulness to Christ.
If Wright was perfect I'd have a serious problem with that. In spite of his prodigious talent he is as human as we all are.

Luke said...

David Greenhalgh, Wright's books are typically published in North America under the name N.T Wright. It is purely a marketing tactic intending to cater to NA audience preferences. Tom Wright is used in UK publishing for the same reason, albeit UK audience preferences...