Some thoughts from THINK image

Some thoughts from THINK

I’ve read NT Wright, and listened to him online, but before last week's THINK conference had never sat under his teaching in the flesh. It was a stimulating day, and throughout this week, we'll each be reflecting on the parts that particularly stood out to us, and linking to the session audios. Here are a few of my observations to kick us off.

A fresh gratitude for systematics

In response to a question about how he interprets eschatological passages in terms of apocalyptic literature referring to the fall of Jerusalem compared with a more traditional approach of a focus on the parousia, Tom illustrated the case from Matthew 25. The story told by Jesus of the judgment of the sheep and the goats is – said Tom – both very precise and very imprecise. It is like the map of the London Underground – something that very precisely tells you how to get somewhere, yet at the same time is very imprecise in its reflection of geographical realities.

I would use the same illustration to describe the contrast between systematics and biblical theology. Wright’s biblical theology is like being plonked down in a busy London street you are not familiar with and being told to make your way – on foot – to Gloucester Road tube station. In such a situation one would obtain a very 3D impression of location – the buildings, the people, the traffic. One would get a sense of the narrative of the location. But it would be rather tricky making that walk to Gloucester Road. However, set down in South Kenton station and handed an Oyster Card and a map of the underground it would be a piece of cake to get to Gloucester Road. Systematics is like that map.

I love biblical theology, and my normal habit when teaching is to try and set whatever I am teaching within the grand biblical narrative, but I am grateful for systematics. It helps me navigate.

Everyone works from within a system

A couple of times during the day we touched on the crux translation issue of Galatians 2:16 – is Paul writing of (traditional view) “faith in Jesus Christ” or (Tom’s view) “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”? This is a real biggie, and from within the narrative picture that Wright paints it makes complete sense to translate it as he does. However, I am not convinced that his narrative is the best picture at this point, but his narrative almost dictates that he must translate pistis Christou as he does.

Whatever the translation issues, this does at least demonstrate for me again that even biblical theology is in a sense systematic. We all have our systems, and we tend to stick to them!

Even the best minds employ weak arguments

Tom Wright is intellectually brilliant. Depending on how you count them he has authored around 70 books. In his one lifetime he has acquired more knowledge than most of us would in ten. But even Tom can bring out the odd non sequitur. For instance, asked a question about the roles of men and women he based his argument for an egalitarian position on the fact that Mary Magdalene was the first witness of the resurrection. That it was Mary rather than one of the male disciples is an important point – theologically and culturally – but it is not a sufficient point to bring such weight to bear on how churches are structured. The biblical example and teaching of churches led by teams of male elders, functioning as ‘heads of houses’ has to be reckoned with. Of course, I’m sure Tom has an answer for that too, but it was interesting to note the weakness of his first argument – at the least it made me feel better about some of the weak arguments I have employed!

All of us are shaped by our culture and personality

Wright is an Anglican, and it has long felt to me that at least part of his theological emphasis is a reflection of his Anglicanism more than a reflection of what he is digging out of the scriptures. I think his views on justification are – at least in part – a reflection of his Anglican ‘inclusiveness’. The strength of Anglicanism is that it is a ‘big tent’ and Tom’s own attitude to a number of issues touched on during the day reflected this, along with the counterpart observation that he is then not as resolute on some things as he might be. By contrast, the church tradition which I have been shaped by is more resolute on a number of things, but correspondingly occupies a smaller tent.

All of which means that we all need to be alert to where our ‘theological’ standpoints are more culturally shaped and personality driven than truly biblical. It also means that we all have lots to learn from one another!

Exceptional people are exceptional

One of the challenges of a day like this is that it is easy to come away feeling somewhat discouraged by one’s own lack of intellectual ability. Wright is right up there on the intellectual mountain tops. He has phenomenal ability, including the remarkable talent to write on the go – snatching moments in the backs of cars and in airport lounges to churn out thousands more words of incredibly dense theology.

Rather than being intimidated or depressed by the exceptional (which is simply a manifestation of the deadly sin of envy) we should celebrate it. Thank God for the exceptions!

The Bible, and scholarship, and teaching, should be celebrated

The final session of the day was a whirlwind tour of Romans. On one hand this was frustrating. Forty-five minutes is just not sufficient to tour Romans! I gave up trying to take notes, and trying to pause and think about the things Tom was skipping over; there simply wasn’t time. But, on the other hand, how magnificent to hear a forty-five minute distillation of forty years of scholarship and love for the story of Jesus!

And here it is for you to hear, too.

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