An Interview with N.T. Wright

If you don’t know who N.T. Wright is let me start off by saying you need to. One of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars and former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright’s influence on Christian Theology in the 21st century cannot go unnoticed. Below is an excerpt from an interview I had with him as well as some links to a few of his more popular works. Enjoy!

In the variety of local Protestant churches there seems to be a divide of those who focus primarily on Jesus and those who focus primarily on Paul. How can the church going forward move towards a unification of these expressions?

N.T. Wright:  One needs to see what it is that these churches are getting out of Jesus and Paul. Often the Jesus-focused churches are leaning towards a ‘social gospel’ interpretation of the kingdom, and the ‘Paul’ churches are talking about being saved from sin and going to heaven. But when we understand both Jesus and Paul in their historical contexts within the first-century Jewish world, the issues become both more complex and ultimately (I believe) more clear. God’s kingdom is launched through Jesus and particularly through his death and resurrection; but, by the Spirit, this kingdom is not an escape from the present world but rather its transformation, already in the present (starting with Jesus’ resurrection) and in the ultimate future (the new heaven and earth including our own resurrection). Once we get this clear then the gospels and Paul can equally contribute to the larger vision which the NT offers, which most western churches have only ever glimpsed from time to time . . .

How did you combine the scholarly aspect of who you are with the pastoral responsibilities you had in your stay as the bishop of Durham and what advice would you give those in ministry who find themselves leaning more towards one than the other?

N.T. Wright: It was difficult! I had supportive and understanding colleagues who encouraged me to go on reading and writing and taking on various lecturing assignments, taking a week here and there for research and to write up books and articles. It was very labour-intensive. However there were all sorts of things that worked both ways: pastoral and ecclesial issues that sent me back to NT scholarship, and scholarly debates that then came to life in actual church settings. Sadly the administrative demands of episcopal office on the one hand, and the increasingly complexity of high-level NT studies on the other, forced me to choose between them rather than continuing to try to combine them. I regret having to make that choice but I don’t regret the choice I made — though there are many things about my life as a bishop which I miss a lot.

What is your opinion regarding the Christian nonviolent movement’s growing momentum? Do they have theological ground, based on the life and teachings of Jesus and the epistles for saying Christian’s should practice a nonviolent lifestyle?

N.T. Wright: There is all the difference in the world between the nonviolence that the ordinary Christian should embrace and the duty of civic authorities to police their communities. The end of Romans 12 is quite clear about the first; the start of Romans 13 is quite clear about the second. The two go together, since if you don’t have properly constituted civic authorities you will encourage vigilantism and solo efforts at retributive justice — which is anarchy, and God doesn’t want his world to be anarchic. The question of war between different jurisdictions (the word ‘state’ gives us a modern anachronism) is different; I have always taken the view that sometimes war may be justified, as police action can be justified, to protect the weak and vulnerable (a major preoccupation in scripture). But this is an old and difficult question and very wise people take different views.

How should the Christian participate in the coming presidential election? Should they participate? Or does it matter one way or the other?

N.T. Wright: Christians living in a democracy should always vote if they can. If they cannot in conscience bring themselves to vote for any of the candidates on offer (in the UK quite often there are several candidates for a parliamentary seat) they might consider deliberately spoiling the ballot paper as a sad protest which still says ‘but I believe in being involved’. In the United States at present — this is the view of an outside observer but a friendly one who loves the USA and has many wonderful friends there — the ‘culture wars’ of the last thirty years have now produced a horrid stand-off which compels you all into a binary either/or with all kinds of spin-offs. This is deeply unhealthy. The trouble is that the way the system is set up in order to get in and try to change it you have to be (a) a millionaire, (b) someone who can work inside the system long-term, (c) someone prepared to make deals and compromises . . . Which does rule out the vast majority of committed Christians. What we are seeing is the creaky old age of an eighteenth-century settlement, deemed at the time to be the new flowering of humankind-come-of-age (the ‘Enlightenment’) and so deemed to be above revision. At this point the urgent need is for prayer and prophecy.

What books are you reading currently?

N.T. Wright: Richard Hays’s astonishing new book, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels. Steve Mason’s big blockbuster on the Jewish War. Mako Fujimura’s Silence and Beauty. Bruce Longenecker, Hitler, Jesus and our Common Humanity (and people should not miss the same author’s remarkable study, The Cross Before Constantine). I am hoping soon to read Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (I read Gilead for the first time this spring and want more). For poetry I have been digging in to Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons; and the work of Micheal O’Siadhail continues to be a rich inspiration, though his heart-stopping sequence of poems about his late wife’s final illness, One Crimson Thread, is so powerful I can only take it in short bursts. I am intending to go on this summer reading my way through Plutarch’s Moral Essays; what many people today assume Christianity to be is basically Plutarch plus Jesus, and I want to get deeper into why that devastating mistake was made in the first place.  Last thing at night I often read from the collected works of Bernard Levin, the greatest English journalist of the last generation, perennially interesting and amusing even when I totally disagree with him.

Outside of theology, what is stirring your interest in life?

N.T. Wright: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, as always. Golf — both trying to play it and watching the big boys do so to near-perfection. A young hare that has taken to coming into our garden from the surrounding fields. The moon rising out of the sea and setting over the mountains. The Isle of Harris with its turquoise sea, white beaches and mountains behind. Friends near and far. In and around it all, my dear if slightly complicated family, from my 93 year old mother in a care home to my ten week old newest grandchild. Maggie, my wife for nearly 45 years…

Comments

  1. John

    Really insightful interview, Sam! I love witnessing you go after your heart desires. NT is without doubt a brilliant provocative mind leading us to deeper revelation concerning life in the Kingdom.

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