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Flying into our Future with the Wright Brothers

Recently I was asked where theology was headed. I assured my reader that I wasn?t ?in the know? but that I would hazard a guess or two. First I thought we were likely to see a more robust Trinitarian theology, one deeply anchored in the great Cappadocian theologians like Gregory of Nyssa. But in some ways all the main lines of Trinitarian thought have already been sketched by great theologians like Karl Barth, James B. Torrance and others. With this first idea now set aside, I had a second idea of where theology is going: ?The Wright Brothers.?
[I have a monthly column for Out of Ur Blog and this was posted there last week.]
Question: If you had to name one or two authors or themes that will be at the forefront of the future of theology, what would you choose?
No, not those Wright Brothers, but another set of Wrights (who aren?t even brothers, except in Christ): Tom and Chris. Even if they don?t map where all of theology is headed, these two scholars and devoted churchmen, both Anglican, do set before us two words that have become increasingly fruitful and I think will be the subject of serious theological reflection in the future. The two words are ?earth? and ?mission.? Each scholar discusses both, but I will focus in this post on Tom Wright?s focus on ?earth? and Chris Wright?s focus on ?mission.?
Increasingly we are seeing more and more Christians own up to the earthly focus of biblical revelation?the claim God makes upon this earth through his Eikons (humans made in his image). We are seeing a deeper reflection on what it means to participate in the historical flow, in government and politics and society and culture, and we are seeing a renewed interest in vocation and work. One of the more striking elements of this new surge is that theologians who are deeply anchored in the Bible also see our eternal destiny having an earthly shape.
And not only are we seeing the increasing presence of ?earthly,? but we are seeing a reshaping of theology itself so that God?s mission in this world becomes central. Everyone knows that the latest buzz word is missional but not enough are thinking carefully about what mission means in the Bible and what it means to speak about ?God?s mission? (missio Dei). But there is a surge of thinking now about this topic and it will continue to spark interest both for pastors and professional theologians.
Now to the Wright brothers.
Tom Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, relentlessly critiques the gnostic-like preoccupation so many have with heaven as a place for our spirits and souls?the place where we really belong, and the sooner we get there the better. It is not that Tom Wright denies heaven; no, he affirms it robustly but he argues that the eternal home for the Christian is not that old-fashioned view of heaven but the new heavens and the new earth. And he argues the new heavens and new earth are something brought down from heaven to earth. (Read Revelation 20?22.)
I think some have made far too much of this, as if it is a revolutionary insight. What it is, in my judgment, is a strong critique of how dualistic we?ve become. And it is a welcome call for us to see that what we do now prepares us for what we will do in the new heavens and the new earth. I think Tom Wright?s emphasis here is spot-on: we need to grapple more directly with the connection of what God calls us to do now as continuous with what we shall be called to do for eternity. I hope many will see their way to read Tolkien?s Leaf by Niggle, for it addresses similar themes.
This emphasis of Tom Wright?s actually forms a foundation for Chris Wright?s exceptional study The Mission of God. Here we find yet another theme that is reshaping so much of where theology is going: mission. I wish people asked this one simple question: What is the mission of God in this world? Chris Wright, taking his cues from the Old Testament?he?s an Old Testament scholar?says the mission of God is to make his glorious Name known throughout the whole world. This mission, found so often in the prophets, shapes how we not only read the Bible but how we live out the Bible in our world.
God makes his Name known through God?s people, first Israel and then the Church. Most centrally, God?s mission with a Name becomes fully visible in Jesus Christ?in his life, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit. This Story, this grand narrative of God?s mission, is reshaping how theology is being done.
There is a converging hook here: Chris Wright ends his book on the theme of God?s mission involving the earth?the whole earth. Tom Wright ends his book about earth on mission?the mission of God in this world. I think they are both right.
I can?t see into the future, but I can see down the road a bit, and what I see is an increasing emphasis on earth and mission. Those two themes are likely to take us into the next two decades.

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posted August 26, 2008 at 1:59 am

I would just like to say that i agree with you scot! Although i am not so familiar with Chris’ work, i like the posts that you did on his book ‘Mission of God’. The future looks bright when we are redirected to two important issues. It makes me wonder what the future of theology and Christianity will look like when these two issues are being understood again!

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posted August 26, 2008 at 5:35 am

So do you see a reaction against pie in the sky dualism to another extreme or a more holistic theology in the ‘middle’?

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posted August 26, 2008 at 6:50 am

Scot: We’ve been enjoying your series on The Mission of God and this article. Today, Chris Wright wrote a post on the Koinonia blog on the Olympics, Lausanne III, and the New Creation. He also references his forthcoming The God I Don’t Understand. Forgive me for the plug!

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John Frye

posted August 26, 2008 at 7:35 am

But what will we do with songs like “This world is notta my home, Imma just apassin’ through; my treasures are laid up somewhere(?) beyond the bluuuue…”?

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Dana Ames

posted August 26, 2008 at 11:03 am

Excellent piece, Scot.

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posted August 26, 2008 at 12:24 pm

it’s interesting that when asked about theology, you cite two works by biblical scholars, who, as far as I know, have no more advanced training in theology than a standard seminary curriculum. in the academic theological world, these emphases do not really dominate much at all.
what do you think is the difference between theology and biblical studies? the two disciplines seem closer in the evangelical world than in the mainline academy or in the catholic world. (the consequences of the closeness in evangelicalism are good in some says, but not always; see this disasterous exchange on ben witherington’s blog:

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posted August 26, 2008 at 4:03 pm

as i read this i couldn’t help but think of Jurgen Moltmann’s “The source of Life: the Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life.” Sean, this gives you a thologian who is speaking to these issues. You might want to check out Jenson too in these matters although he is perhaps abit more convoluted than Moltmann. If my reading of several contemporary theologians is right or if i’m getting their jist, the themes of “earth” and “mission” are a movement towards the rescue/recovery of Biblical eschatology which is VERY MUCH concerened with “earth” and “mission.”
Scott, Moltmann’s chapter in The Source on “The New Spirituality” is a strikingly “strong critique of how dualistic we?ve become.”

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Sam Andress

posted August 26, 2008 at 4:20 pm

Scot, you are spot on. When I finished up at Fuller in 2007, both Tom Wright and Chris Wright were the most highly touted scholars/theologians. Marianne Meye-Thompson was speaking highly of The Mission of God and she said on many ocassions that Tom is doing a “world of good” for bringing solid theological work into the church.
It is quite interesting that these two increasingly influential theologians would first, methinks, see themselves as “church theologians” and only then “academy theologians.”

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posted August 26, 2008 at 4:27 pm

C’mon – both Wrights owe much to David Bosch, who’s no longer here to make that case.

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posted August 26, 2008 at 6:20 pm

The future of the discipline of theology « At the Crossroads

[…] The future of the discipline of theology Scott McKnight offers some thoughts… […]

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Bob Brague

posted August 26, 2008 at 9:10 pm

sean (#6), I have just come from reading what you call “this disasterous [sic] exchange” on Ben Witherington’s blog. What exactly about this rather spirited exchange of 49 comments concerning the Trinity causes you to categorize it as disastrous?

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posted August 29, 2008 at 9:13 am

Links of the Week « My World

[…] Scot McKnight on the future of theology […]

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posted August 29, 2008 at 10:53 am

If it is any indication of the future I am soon off to begin grad school and will eventually teach as a professor, God willing of course. I have read through Wright’s Christian Origins twice (yes all three of them) and am profoundly influenced by him. I have not read much of the other Wright, but I will in time.
And one need not wait for the next generation of scholars, the new and profound writing of Andrew Perriman is also heavily influenced by the good Bishop of Durham. Although he takes his conclusions a bit further, risky but potent.

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posted September 1, 2008 at 11:04 am

Blogspotting at Between the Trees

[…] I’ll be enormously pleased if Scot McKnight is (w)right on this one… […]

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