In the series: Considering N.T. Wright
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In my last post in this series I gave a short overview of N.T. Wright’s synopsis of the grand Christian story in his book Simply Christian. In order to know God, Wright argues, we need more than theological pronouncements. We need to pay attention to the story of God’s work in the world, the story God has revealed to us in Scripture. It is incumbent upon us to pay attention, not only to certain verses and themes, but also to the big story, the narrative that begins with creation in Genesis and ends with the new heaven and new earth in Revelation. This story is centered in Jesus, who proclaimed and embodied the kingdom of God, and who opened up access to that kingdom through His death and resurrection. The biblical story ends with God reigning as King of king and Lord of lords, and with the new creation of heaven and earth. Yet we who have put our faith in Jesus do not simply wait around for the story to end. By God’s grace and by His Spirit, we participate with God in the work of putting the world to rights.
I find Wright’s summary of the biblical story to be a compelling one. It takes seriously the whole of Scripture, and not merely certain favorite parts. The evangelical story that I summarized in my last post, the story that focuses on personal salvation and life after death, is drawn largely from a few passages in Paul’s letters and the Gospel of John. It bears little relationship to the actual preaching of Jesus, not to mention the long story of God and Israel. Now I should say clearly that I believe this evangelical story to be true, but only as part of the larger biblical story that begins with the first creation in Genesis and ends with the new creation in Revelation. Jesus did indeed die for my sins on the cross, thus opening up for me the way to life after death. But Scripture clearly reveals that His death accomplished far more than this, however wonderful this might be (see Ephesians 2, for example).
Wright is not saying that the biblical story leaves me out. But he shows, convincingly, that this story is not primarily about getting me and lots of other people saved so we can “go to heaven” after we die. Rather, the grand story of God’s salvation includes me, not only as a recipient, but also as a participant. As a believer in Jesus, I get to join with God in His saving work. My old evangelical story also drew me in, but almost entirely as one who could tell the good news to others so they might believe in Jesus and go to heaven. The biblical story, according to Wright, draws me in, not just as a sharer of the good news, but also as one who lives out that good news in the world, joining with God and His people in His work of putting the world to rights.
The phrase “and His people” in the last sentence is a crucial one. When we put our faith in Jesus, we are joined to the church, the body of Christ in the world. The Christian life is not to be lived alone. Rather, as a member of Christ’s body, I give and receive mutual care. Moreover, I join with other Christians to live out God’s kingdom in the world. Though the ultimate restoration of creation comes only through God’s effort, we who are His people in the world get to have some part of that effort, even today.
N.T. Wright has spoken of the church as “the people of God for the world.” This is a wonderful summary of who we are together. We are not just the individuals who know God. And we are not just individuals who serve God in the world. We are not the people of God who exist merely for relationship with God. And we are not just the people of God who care for each other. We are the people of God, bound together as one through the Spirit. And we are the people of God who exist, not just for God and ourselves, but also to serve God in the world.
As you can tell, I respond rather favorably to N.T. Wright’s summary of the Christian story. It’s not just that I like what he says, but that he takes the whole of Scripture seriously. There may well be better versions of the Christian story. But, from my point of view, they will only be better if they do a better job narrating the whole of Scripture. I’m sure Wright’s critics will pick at this or that part of his narrative, perhaps with valid criticisms. But I would challenge them to see if they can tell the the whole biblical story more accurately.
Today, if someone were to ask me, “Where can I find the best summary of Christian faith?”, I’d point people first to the Bible. But this is a rather long summary, and it won’t be helpful to all people at first. So, next, I’d point people to pages 55-140 of Simply Christian. I know of no better synopsis of what Christianity is really all about.
Yet this isn’t the end of Simply Christian. Tomorrow I’ll address the last part of the book.