When I first learned that NT Wright had written a book from his Gifford Lectures on history and eschatology, I knew I had to read it. Wright is a masterful New Testament scholar. He is a true academic in the highest sense of the word.
The Gifford Lectures were established by Adam Lord Gifford (1820-1887) in Edinburgh, Glasgow (Scotland). His endowment for the creation of these elite lectures were to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God.”
Wright argues in his lectures and now published book, History and Eschatology, that the Gifford Lectures themselves need a worldview shift in order to fully and successfully engage their mission. His argument unfolds in great precision throughout his book. It is an argument relevant to all historians, biblical scholars, and believers.
‘Natural Theology’ developed as a practice that sought a solely natural path to discovering the ‘knowledge of God’. It excluded special revelation of Jesus and of Scriptures. It marked out a rationalistic Enlightenment path forward from nature to God. Wright argues that you can never reach the Christian God doing ‘natural theology’ in this manner. Wright says, “trying to argue up to God—especially the God of creation and new creation!—on reason alone is like buying a can of petrol and hoping that it will, all by itself, somehow get you home.” (p. 247)
However, he also critiques the position of notable theologian Karl Barth who argues that the only way to arrive at the truth is from the starting place of divine revelation. And yet he maintains a nuanced position that derives from what one would be getting at in suggesting we argue from the starting place of the Christian God and not up to it.
Wright’s argument is for an epistemology of love. He spends a great deal of much needed time to make his argument. I cannot even begin to do it justice in such a short book review. My humble summary is to say that the incarnation brought God into history. Jesus led a human life on earth (Philippians 2) and died a physical death which in turn birthed a physical resurrection changing the nature of creation itself into a new creation (not fully realized – but a ‘now and not yet’ transformation). Thus, Wright suggest that the case for reaching the real God, in the real nature of old and new creation is one where we do history responsibly including the real accounts from biblical history (which is real history) and from the real life of Jesus.
When we take into account all of the broken signpost within history within the worldview of this Creator and His creation (new and old) we begin to see a full picture of true knowing (epistemology) and being (ontology) rather than a splintered division born out of Epicureanism or Gnosticism. We then arrive at a more real (eschatology) realizing that it has never been about an “end” but the “goal” of all of creation being filled with the glory of God. The world is not ending, but it is becoming new.
Wright summarizes, “The task of ‘natural theology’ might then be conceived as the attempt to speak about God outside the private world of the church. But the church’s world should never have been ‘private’ in that sense. The kingdom of God is not from this world, but it is emphatically for this world. What the church says to the world is one part of what the church does within the world.” (p. 253) (The bolded statement made me smile, because I have heard this first from Vishal Mangalwadi many times – so many I often say it myself).
Within this argument, Wright makes several other arguments which are stellar theology. One is eschatological. He writes, “[m]ost Western Christians have assumed that ‘the Kingdom of God’ meant ‘going to heaven when you die’. That is flat wrong. . .” (He is not arguing against the truth that to be absent from the body is to the present with the Lord – but ‘going to heaven’ is not the end goal of this adventure we are living out in the Kingdom).
Moving forward he writes, “Temple and Sabbath belong together as forward-looking symbols. The new age towards which they gesture is the new creation, the completion of the project of Genesis 1 and 2, accomplished through the redemption of the disaster of Genesis 3. On both counts, biblical eschatology resists the idea that if the kingdom of God were to arrive it would mean obliterating the present world, or at least shoving it to one side.”
The point he is drawing down on is that this world is not going to be destroyed. It is an ancient myth called Gnosticism that informs us that this world is worthless. That physicality is less important than spirituality. Because of Gnosticism, we have equated sin with the body and the earth as if we must get free of it ‘go to heaven’ with a ‘spiritual body’ to get free of sin. Mixed with Plato we are taught there is a secular sacred divide and Christianity becomes reduced to a religion mattering only to spirituality and not to all of life.
We have come to believe that a spiritual after life in paradise is where believers are ultimately going to enjoy eternity. In real Christian doctrine, we do not have an ‘after life’ but a life after life (as Wright argues elsewhere). Our life continues. The real me will be even more the real me when I am changed at the bodily resurrection of the saints. And yet I am already a new creation seated in heavenly places with Jesus. There is the Kingdom at hand and a heaven that is merging with earth. Physical human beings on a physical earth who rightly align with their Creator is the plan. The plan never changed. We got off course and God has been getting us back on course ever since. He did that with the cross. The new creation has been birthed and is yet still coming to fruition. We are now new creations.
“The point,” explains Wright, “has been that the creator God has always intended that his glory would dwell with humans, so that the glory of heaven would live on the earth and indeed fill it. It is impossible to exaggerate the difference this makes to virtually every other topic in theology.” (p. 172)
Read that again. “. . . it is impossible to exaggerate the difference this makes to virtually every other topic in theology.” Yes! This is why this message is so important. You can find Wright’s argument distilled in a more popularized writing style in his book Surprised by Hope. I highly recommend it. If you are a more academic reader read both that book and this one reviewed herein.
We must understand this. Our eschatology matters to the rest of our present theology. The more our macro worldview (big picture theology) about where this is all going is off kilter the more our present way of doing life will be affected. We err when we make good doctrine about assurance of salvation. Good doctrine is about having a good life that is in proper alignment with what is true and thus is lived in liberty, free of the bondage of what is false. Doctrine matters to life just as much as relationship with God matters. We cannot choose just one of these.
Wright explains that the old idea that this Christian life is only about going to heaven when we die has become “so engrained in our culture that any mention of new creation, or of bodily resurrection, is either ‘translated’ into a fuzzy metaphor for ‘heavenly life’ or is met with shock and incomprehension.”
I push a lot on this topic with people so that we can have a real conversation again about what this is all about. We cannot boil it down to trying to match metaphors in Revelation with the real counterparts to decode a book and get the directions for how God is going to destroy the earth. God is not going to destroy the earth. He is going to make this world new and fill it with His glory. The mature Bride of Christ is going to fulfill the Great Commission with our Lord. Arriving at the goal – the end of the Age – will certainly have its conflict with the spiritual forces of darkness – but we only empower those forces when we do not disciple the nations. We leave them under the power of darkness when they do not have to be. No power of darkness can prevail against the truth – nor can any conspiratorial human faction we can imagine.
Wright’s Gifford Lectures are a game changer. They shift the worldview of the Gifford Lectures – should his argument be heeded – to a theology that incorporates special revelation from a place of history in the context of a new creation worldview that looks at the cross backwards through this world being interpreted by that most historic moment of all of human history.
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