Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright

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Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Conversation with Derek Vreeland
Brian Zahnd

Derek Vreeland is my friend and a fellow pastor at Word of Life. He has written a book on N.T. Wright’s latest “big book” — Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Derek’s book, Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright is a 118 page summary of Wright’s 1,700 page behemoth. Here’s what I’ve said about Derek’s book:

With Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright Derek Vreeland has rendered us a great service. N.T. Wright is the most respected New Testament scholar of our era and his work on the theology of Paul could not be more important. But the fact remains that many are not up to the task of wading through 1,700 pages of dense scholarship. Derek Vreeland’s reader’s guide is an excellent distillation of Paul and the Faithfulness of God and thus a true gift.

Recently I sat down to talk with Derek about this project. Here’s our conversation:

BZ: How important is N.T. Wright to you personally and to the church at large?

DV: Wright has become the rockstar theologian of our generation. He is as influential in our generation as C.S. Lewis or Karl Barth were in their generation. I think we can understand his wide-reaching influence in a couple of ways. He is biblical theologian grounded not in a particular theological tradition, but in the historical context of the New Testament. He wants to reconcile the divorce between theology and history. I appreciate systematic theologians who can work with the biblical texts and help construct a cohesive picture of what the biblical writers were trying to do, but sometimes our system forms too rigid of a grid and we actually miss the heart of what the biblical writers were trying to say. Wright has pledged no allegiance to one particular theological system, so his books seem to speak to people across the spectrum of Protestant traditions. He also has the rare ability to communicate effectively at both the academic level and the popular level. His academic books like Paul and the Faithfulness of God are filled with countless footnotes where he interacts with so many scholars and his popular books like Simply Christian speak on a level that the average churchgoer can understand. For me he has become my hero. His interpretation of Jesus and Paul within the context of first century Jewish world have revealed a Jesus and Paul who have everything to do with my life as a 21st century pastor.

BZ: How would N.T. Wright describe Paul’s use of the word “justification”?

DV: In Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright works to reconstruct the very complex world of Paul. We better understand the words Paul uses when we understand the world around him. One common word in Paul’s vocabulary is “justified,” which (in the ESV) appears 11 times in the book of Romans alone. The common evangelical assumption has been that to be justified means an individual has received an official pardon from God whereby that person now has a right relationship with God. However, when we survey Paul’s historical context this interpretation loses its persuasiveness because individuals seeking a right relationship with God was simply not the core issue for Jews or for Greek-minded Romans. The key issue in the form of a question was this: Who is a part of God’s family? One question Paul deals with in many of his letters is how are Gentiles a part of God’s covenant people without become Jewish? A simple answer is because God has declared them to be within the covenant family through the faithfulness of Jesus. Justification is not a matter of how individuals “get saved,” rather it describes God’s act of declaring who is a part of God’s covenant community.

BZ: Eschatology is always a popular topic. What does N.T. Wright do with Paul’s eschatology?

DV: Wright frames Paul’s theology around three central themes: monotheism, election, and eschatology, so God’s future for the world (eschatology) is a massively important subject. In reading Wright, I have found that eschatology is not the caboose at the end of the train, but the engine driving Paul’s theological project. From Wright’s perspective, Paul’s view of God’s future is one of renewal and reconciliation. The rhetorical climax of Romans 8, for example, is not people indwelt with God’s spirit crying out “Abba, Father,” but with creation groaning, longing to be set free from corruption. This future is one of new creation, where human being are reconciled to one another and to God, and the division between heaven and earth is reconciled and God’s dwells with and reigns over his people in an age of peace. This future reign is the age to come, which has broken into the present evil age through Jesus and the Spirit. We are people shaped by the age to coming, living in this age colonizing it with the values and culture of the age to come. In this regard, Wright connects ethics to eschatology. How we live now is not based on the values of this present age that is passing away, but on the age to come where Jesus is King. We are people of the light living in the land of darkness, bringing the light of new creation into a tired, broken-down world.

BZ: How does ecclesiology and the role of the church factor into N.T. Wright’s understanding of Paul’s theology?

DV: The church is the a the very center of Paul’s worldview and his theology. While Paul was a thinker on par with the Greek philosophers, he did not write speculative philosophical essays. He wrote letters to churches to instruct and encourage them, and to help them think “Christianly” to use a term from Wright. Paul envisioned a holy, unified church at the heart of all of his work. In fact, the unity of the church is the single thread binding together all of Paul’s letters. Paul never thought of his letters as a new Christian torah. He was clear; Jesus the Messiah is the fulfillment, the telos, of the torah. Paul does theology in his letters as a way to help his churches think theologically. For Paul this renewal of the mind was integral to the viability and flourishing of the church. Wright goes so far as to say Paul created what we know as Christian theology. While Paul remained a Jewish thinker who wrote using Jewish language and metaphors, he was creating something very new for the people of God. He demonstrated for the church how to think prayerfully about God, God’s people, and God’s future in the light of Jesus and the Spirit.

BZ: Who did you write your book for? Do people need formal theological training to read your book?

DV: I wrote this book for the church. This is not an academic book for scholars and professional theologians. This is a book for the average church member sitting in the average church in America. I wrote it for people who may not have heard of N.T. Wright. I open the book with an introduction to Wright. I also wrote this book for N.T. Wright fans, because I am one after all. I wrote it for those who have tried to read through Paul and the Faithfulness of God and were unable to finish. I believe Wright is first and foremost a bishop, a pastor, who loves the church. He does his best academic work for the church and so I see my book as a way to help him bridge the gap between the academy and the church. My book is best read as a companion to Wright’s big book on Paul which is why I call it a “reader’s guide,” but I understand many people will only be able to work their way through my summary. N.T. Wright is so massively important that I want to do what I can to help spread his ideas for the building up of the body of Christ.

  • Roger Cary

    Derek writes, “The rhetorical climax of Romans 8, for example, is not people indwelt with God’s spirit crying out “Abba, Father,” but with creation groaning, longing to be set free for corruption.” DId he mean “free from corruption?”

  • Yes. The typo has been corrected.

  • Danu Vino

    Brian, thanks for this. From my understanding, Wright and Douglas Campbell have, slightly varying approaches to Paul. So I’m curious to know how you read Paul – new perspective like Wright or Apocalyptic like Campbell?

  • Derek Vreeland

    N.T. Wright’s new book, The Paul Debate, coming out next month will address some of the criticisms he has received from the Apocalyptic camp. More on the book here:http://www.baylorpress.com/Book/464/The_Paul_Debate.html.

    BZ and I both read and interpret Paul from Wright’s perspective.

  • Danu Vino

    Thanks Derek. I will make sure to check it out. and thanks for your work with this book as well.

  • Donny

    Nice!
    I hope you guys will read Romans 8 and Galatians 5 now as argumentative/polemic of the covenantal shift/dispensation as he contrasts the two communities of flesh & Spirit! What’s he’s not doing is exhortation or “preaching” per se 🙂
    Thanks

  • Matthew

    I´ve heard both sides of the argument as it relates to the new perspective on Paul paradigm (although it´s really not that new). My question is, even though the cultural context may not suggest the same understanding of justification that the reformers had, couldn´t it be argued that Paul was simply introducing something new and revolutionary regarding justification by faith?