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

I will not be recommending this book to the people at my church

“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.”

 

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 so much 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? What evangelical/reformed pulpit (which is whom Wright designates as the critics from whom he is distancing himself) preaches 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, referring this time more to the academic than the church community: ‘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 evangelical scholar who believes the kingdom of God in Luke-Acts is only about Christ’s second coming.

‘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?

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. But why then does he turn around and do the very same thing, misrepresenting others?

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