Interview with N. T. Wright: The Reality of the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church
Nicholas Thomas Wright, otherwise known as N. T. Wright, is the Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Formerly the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, Wright is hailed by Time as “one of the most formidable figures in Christian thought.” He is one of the world’s leading Bible scholars, and is widely known for his scholarship on the resurrection of Jesus and second coming, as well as the Pauline Epistles and their impact on the Christian doctrine of justification. Wright is the award-winning author of Surprised by Hope, How God Became King, Surprised by Scripture, and many other volumes. He also engages with the public in mediums such as ABC News, Dateline, The Veritas Forum, and Google.
Q: What criteria do you use to judge whether a historical document is a reliable source of evidence? Why do you think the Gospel accounts fulfill these criteria?
A: Any document from the past raises questions: how do we know whether we can trust it? What angle of vision does it seem to use? Are there independent sources by which we can verify what is being said? This applies to everything, whether to a historical document from the fifth century BC or to a newspaper report from last week. Of course, if the source is a letter from somebody we know, love, and utterly trust, we will be strongly inclined to believe it even if it says some extraordinary things—though, if we then wanted to explain the contents to someone who did not know the sender, we might well use other arguments to convince them.
That is rather what it is like with a Christian reading the gospels. We are used to reading and praying these texts not just as historical documents but as living words from God himself. (That is why Christians have often spoken of the inspiration of Scripture.) But since many people (both ancient and modern) do not share this perspective, it is important as well to be able to say that actually the gospels make really good sense in their own frame as well. Within that kind of task— explaining and expounding the gospels to people who do not share a personal trust in them—it is impossible to give proof for everything they contain. As with almost all ancient history, most events are reported once and once only, and that applies to many things in the gospels.
But the question, then, must be whether the reports as a whole ring true, and whether they make sense in their historical and social context (i.e. Palestine in the first half of the first century). There are all sorts of reasons—which I explore in detail in several of my books—for saying, “Yes, they do.” One small example must suffice. People have often said that perhaps the gospels were written up later to address controversies in the early church; but it is curious that the sharp controversies in the gospels (like Jesus healing on the Sabbath) are not reflected elsewhere in the New Testament, and that the sharp controversies in early Christianity (like the admission of Gentiles without circumcision) are not mentioned in the gospels. This is not a knock-down proof, but it is a straw in the wind.
Q: For the gospels to be interpreted as the Word of God delivered within the temporal and cultural context of first-century Palestine, it would follow that its overarching messages and story must speak to all generations and nations that follow if the universality of Scripture is to be accepted. Yet there are moments and stories in the gospels (indeed, in all of Scripture) that seem vitally significant for understanding the overall picture and yet approach inscrutability without a detailed, unintuitive knowledge of the cultural context in which they were written. Can Scripture be universally understood without some form of external aid, and if not, what form must this aid take?
A: God can and does, by the Spirit, enable people of all sorts to glean the overall message of Scripture in a thousand ways. You do not need to know ancient Greek and Hebrew to understand “He loved me and gave himself for me.” But it is vital for every generation that church teachers and leaders, and as many of their folk as are able to do it, should study and ponder and probe the original meanings in fresh ways using the finest tools available. This always has the potential to refresh and rejuvenate the church’s witness—which is why, I guess, this exercise itself can be corrupted by sceptics and cynics into a negative mode, which then generates the reaction of many Christians (“Don’t give us that academic stuff, it will destroy our faith!”). The gospel was and is public truth, not private or secret knowledge. There is always a danger in saying, “This is for all times, so we must back off from the first-century specifics.” If the living God reveals himself and accomplishes salvation in actual space/time/matter/ historical reality, then the more we know about that reality, the better. It always seems safer to back off from this into a timeless statement, but that is the kind of safety that Peter wanted for Jesus in Matthew 16.
Q: Does the case for the reality of the resurrection depend on the reliability of the Gospels? Do you think that the resurrection can be established on independent grounds? If so, what are they?
A: No: one cannot first establish the reliability of the gospels and then say, “So therefore, the resurrection stories must be true.” That would be a kind of rationalist attempt at an apologia and it would not work, because the resurrection would itself always be cited back as a reason for not believing the gospels as a whole. If anything, it works the other way round (though I would not really want to put it like that). The main argument for taking seriously the unprecedented and (under normal circumstances) incredible claim that Jesus was indeed bodily raised from the dead is that you cannot understand the rise of early Christianity without it—i.e. why the disciples of Jesus so quickly did what they did and said what they said. But— this is really important—this is not a matter of establishing the resurrection on independent grounds. What could such grounds be? The whole point of the resurrection is not that it is a very odd event within the present ongoing world (in which one would find such independent grounds), but that it is the defining, programmatic, and symbolically dense event which launches the new world, the new creation in which the old (corruptible, decaying) is transformed into the new heavens and new earth.
So you cannot start somewhere else and work in towards that, because in the nature of the case, the resurrection of Jesus is itself the center and starting point for a truly Christian epistemology. But since a Christian epistemology is rooted in the renewal of creation, not the abandonment of creation and the setting-up of a different, unconnected parallel universe, the resurrection tears a hole in ordinary history which poses the great challenge: how else can you explain the rise of Christianity? And serious historical investigation can actually be very good at showing just how inadequate all other answers to that question really are. Thus, all the lines of historical investigation point inwards to something that really must have happened two or three days after Jesus’ death, but they cannot in themselves prove that God raised Jesus from the dead, and so launched the new creation. I have said a lot more about this in Surprised by Hope.
Q: Could you further define what you mean by a Christian epistemology? How does the reality opened by the resurrection offer different ways of knowing what is true?
A: The resurrection of Jesus is simultaneously the major act of new creation, the launching of the new creation that will one day do the same for the whole cosmos, and also the major act of redemption and transformation of the old creation. Knowing the new is thus not entirely separate from knowledge of the old, but rather gives the fresh dimension to the latter—indeed, this is what the old was intended for all along. Knowing the risen Jesus in Scripture, prayer, sacrament, holiness, suffering, and service to the poor will mean that as we look out on all his creation, not least its presently broken and wounded parts, we see it all in a new light—not to ignore the evidence that anyone else might see, but to give it a new dimension. This, I think, is what Paul means by “having the mind of the Messiah” (1 Corinthians 2:16; compare Philemon 2:5) or “being transformed by the renewal of the mind” (Romans 12:2).
Q: Some may argue that an appeal to Christian epistemology to properly understand the resurrection is circular reasoning. For example, you claim that Christian epistemology is required to fully understand the resurrection, but the resurrection is required to launch a new Christian epistemology. So why believe in a Christian epistemology in the first place?
A: The question of a new-creational epistemology is fascinating, isn’t it? But an epistemology is not something you believe in; it is the lens through which you look, not the thing you look at. The resurrection of Jesus, as witnessed to by his followers from the first Easter to now, makes its impact on human beings through the power of the Spirit in the preaching of the gospel (however that happens; i.e. overt preaching in church is only one of many ways). The resurrection thus both challenges people to think differently and, by the power of the Spirit, opens people’s minds to do so. There is, to be sure, a mystery here which many theologians and philosophers have pondered, but it certainly is not circular. The resurrection, as an event within real history, launches the new creation, and the new creation sets the context within which new forms of knowing are generated.
Q: New Testament scholar Géza Vermes once dismissed the belief in a literal resurrection as being “not susceptible to rational judgment.” Indeed, there is a sense that a lot of Christians and skeptics see the belief in the literal resurrection as one that is dependent on faith. How would you respond to Vermes’ assertion? If you believe that the evidence for the resurrection to be compelling, why do you think so many people nonetheless reject it?
A: To believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, you have to believe in a life-giving creator God. It is not just something you can believe as an odd fact that just might be true, like learning that someone had flown around the world on a new kind of personal jet pack, the kind of thing where you would say, “Well, I didn’t know that would have been possible, but I guess he did it.” This is of a different order altogether, and that is why believing in the resurrection is a key element in justifying faith (Romans 4:24-25; 10:9-11), not just an odd item of information.
Géza Vermes (whose own very candid autobiography says quite a bit about why he lost his early Christian faith) is in this sense correct: if by “rational,” you mean conforming to the standards of modern European/American rationalism, then of course he is right. The question is whether the rather shrunken world of modernist rationalism is really good for very much. Falling in love is not susceptible to rational judgment, but for a lot of people, it is the most important thing in the world. Ditto for the beauty of music, or of a sunset. But this does not mean that believing in the resurrection of Jesus is simply dependent on faith in the sense people normally mean by that.
When people look closely at who Jesus actually was, and when they ponder the claims about what happened to his body and how early Christianity began—and, in particular, when they meet the announcement that he is alive and that he is the true Lord of the whole world—then something can happen deep inside, again, like falling in love or discovering music, which alters their entire worldview. Faith is a key part of that alteration—not in the sense of credulity, but in the sense of finding oneself grasped by the love of the creator God made known in the “faithfulness unto death” of his Son; and, since all of that is about the new creation happening in the person themselves, it is natural, then, to believe that actually the new creation began when Jesus came out of the tomb on Easter morning.
The Mission of the Church
Q: In Surprised by Hope, one of the topics you touched upon was that the church works to usher in the Kingdom of God. However, the church has not been viewed in the best light historically. How can we look for the church ushering in the Kingdom throughout history despite its many failures?
A: The church at its best has never been triumphalistic. Obviously, that has been a regular temptation and the church has not always resisted it; but the prayer Jesus gave us included the line, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and there is a reason why we need to pray that every day. So, yes, the church has got a great many things wrong again and again. The litany is well known: crusades, inquisitions, witch-burning, and so on. However, we often forget that the church was the first company ever to believe in, and to start to practice, education and medicine for all, irrespective of social status or wealth; that the church has, throughout its history, taken the side of the poor against the oppressors (with some horrible exceptions, of course); that the church is not basically about big, pompous people making big, pious announcements, but about ordinary praying people loving their neighbors and being, in their own localities, the light of the world. The best book I know on this recently is John Ortberg, Who is This Man?, which I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to find out more.
However, let me correct one thing. I do not say, and would not say, that the church works to usher in the Kingdom of God. Only God brings God’s kingdom. That is really important. What we are called to do, however, is to work for the Kingdom; to build for the Kingdom. We are like the stonemasons carving small bits of stone for a great cathedral; we are not building the cathedral, but we are working for that building. The key thing is 1 Corinthians 15:58: “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.” What we do in the present, in love and wisdom and justice and beauty and preaching and teaching, is not wasted; when God brings in his kingdom, like the master mason actually putting the building together, he will take all the smaller things we have done and put them in their proper place, in ways we could never have imagined. The church’s failures will be burnt up… that is all there in 1 Corinthians 3.
Q: What are practical ways that individual churches can work for the Kingdom in their local communities?
A: In Surprised by Hope I propose three things which go together: justice, beauty, and evangelism. When the church tries to do evangelism without any care for justice and beauty, what people hear and see is a message that says, “Don’t bother about the world— just turn to Jesus.” But the Jesus to whom they ought to be turning is one who has already launched the new creation in which (a) all things are to be put right at the end, and he has already begun that; and (b) the beauty and power of the present creation will be enhanced and fulfilled in ways we can hardly imagine—that that, too, has already begun. So when the church is active in working to put things right, in the local or international context, talking about Jesus will make the sense it ought to make; and when the church is active in promoting and celebrating art, music, dance, etc. it is saying, “Just imagine! There is a whole new world out there, already launched, and we get to be part of it and in our small way help to create it.” Then, too, when we talk of Jesus, that talk will mean what it ought to mean: that to repent and turn to Jesus is to join a family who, though broken and wounded, are already celebrating new creation and struggling to see it come to birth.Tags: apologetics, art, beauty, church, community, epistemology, evangelism, faith, Géza Vermes, historicity, history, hope, Incarnation, John Ortberg, justice, love, N.T. Wright, philosophy, poverty, reason, resurrection, truth