N.T. Wright on Authentic Church Unity #UMC

Anyone who’s spent much time in church will know that disagreements happen. If those disagreements aren’t resolved quickly, they may soon become full-on conflict. Factions form. And the long term unity of the church is jeopardized. This can happen on different levels, whether it’s a local church or a whole denomination, as is presently the case in my own United Methodist Church. However a particular conflict plays out, the cultivation and maintenance of authentic church unity requires robust reflection on what constitutes authentic church unity, which brings me to N. T. Wright.

I’ve been reading through Wright’s little book, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, as part of my sermon prep for a series I’m preaching called Live Worthy: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  One of the key contextual issues in Philippians is what appears to be a budding conflict that centers around two leaders in the local church (see Phil 4:2), and much of what Paul says throughout the letter is aimed at reconciling that conflict and maintaining the unity of the Philippian community. Reflecting on that situation, Wright says

Unity by itself can’t be the final aim. After all, unity is possible among thieves, adulterers and many other types. Those who commit genocide need to do so with huge corporate single-mindedness, as the Nazis showed when killing millions of Jews, gypsies and others.

No: what matters is that Christians…should focus completely on the divine drama that has unfolded before their eyes in Jesus the king, and is continuing now into its final act with themselves as the characters. Bringing their thinking into line with each other wouldn’t be any good if they were all thinking something that was out of line with the gospel. The love that they must have is the love that the gospel generates and sustains. Their inner lives, which are to be bonded together, must be the inner lives that reflect the gospel. The ‘same object’ which they must fix their minds on must be the facts about Jesus the Messiah,  and on the meaning which emerges from them (98-99, italics original).

It should be clear that authentic Christian unity is never unity in name only. Authentic Christian unity can only be had when it is gospel-oriented unity. And that unity is bound together by love – but not just any love – gospel-motivated and gospel-oriented love. All that, of course, means that unity is only possible among those who have the same understanding of the gospel. And that further means that unity is achieved not primarily by talking about unity but by talking about the gospel. Only when we are deeply and passionately committed to the same gospel will we be able to  work toward authentic Christian unity.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Click here to get a copy of N.T. Wright’s Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters.

3 Books to Understand Revelation

Revelation is the hardest book in the New Testament. With all the numbers, symbols, and images, it’s intimidating (and even scary!) to the average reader. On top of that, there’s plenty of unhelpful material out there. This video gives a quick intro to 3 books on Revelation that are accessible and rewarding. Read these and you’ll be well on your way to understanding Revelation.

  1. Revelation for Everyone by N.T. Wright
  2. Reading Revelation Responsibly by Michael J. Gorman
  3. Revelation by Robert Mulholland

Also, here’s a short essay of mine called “How to Read Revelation in Church.”

Do you have a favorite book on Revelation? Leave a comment and tell us what it is.

Objectivity Redivivus? Holloway vs. N.T. Wright

If you live in the world of biblioblogs, you’ve heard about Paul Holloway’s criticism of N.T. Wright and (Holloway’s own) Sewanee, the University of the South, for giving Wright an honorary doctorate for his work in New Testament studies. Holloway’s attack was met with surprise by many and hurrahs by others. In light of the many criticisms of his criticism, Holloway has attempted to further justify his insistence that Wright is a mere apologist and not a scholar. One of his claims struck me as particularly interesting: 

What I dared to say in my letter is that properly speaking Wright is not a “scholar” who comes to the evidence with honest questions to be puzzled out and whose conclusions are always subject to revision, but an “apologist” who comes with ideologically generated answers that he then seeks to defend.

Two points and a question are worth raising:
  1. If ideological motivation an apologist makes, then everyone is an apologist. I thought we had all learned this grand lesson of post-modernity. Neutrality is a myth. There’s no such thing as objectivity. Everyone comes to the data with presuppositions, ideologies, perspectives, prejudices, and their own matrix of subjective experiences that drive the questions they ask and the answers at which they arrive. Does ideology somehow preclude honest questions? Is not the distrust implied in the historical critic’s maxim to “doubt everything” not also ideologically driven? And if ideology has no place in scholarship, then why are so many sections at SBL focused on narrow ideological topics? That Holloway frames his criticism of Wright in terms of the contrast between honest (and supposedly objective) questions in contrast to Wright’s ideologically driven research reveals Holloway’s own attempt to resurrect modernistic ideological presuppositions. The trick is not somehow to achieve objectivity; the trick is to be clear on one’s biases. And Holloway’s attempt to justify his critique suggests he may not be altogether clear on his ideological motivations.
  2. Holloway criticizes Wright for holding to a sola scriptura presupposition. Very well. But it’s not as if Wright has gone around defending the traditional Protestant readings of the New Testament. He’s been roundly criticized by traditional Reformed folks for his work precisely because it shook up standard Protestant interpretation. They don’t call it the New Perspective on Paul for nothing. 
  3. And the question: Why must one choose between scholarship and apologetics? Shouldn’t we hope our apologists have done their research and submitted their findings to the wider world of New Testament scholarship as Wright has done? Perhaps Wright hasn’t published in as many of the journals Holloway would have liked, but this does not mean that his work has not been evaluated by the scholarly community. In fact, entire journal issues have been devoted to evaluating Wright’s work. Much of his work has been accepted while portions of it have been criticized more heavily. It seems to me that this is precisely how scholarship is supposed to work.
What do you think? Is defense of the faith mutually exclusive with scholarship?

Connecting the Pauline Dots: Not Whether but What Sort of Imputation? #PFG

The following is from David I. Starling and seems to me remarkably clear and thoroughly Pauline:

At this point in the discussion, the topic of imputation arises – not only because it is a notorious point of contention between old perspective and new perspective but also (and more importantly) because of the language and imagery implied by words such as “righteous,” “justified,” and “condemned.” In Rom 3:24, for example, the justification that is accomplished through the work of Christ is conferred on its recipients “by his grace as a gift” (δωρεὰν τῇ αὑτοῦ χάριτι) – language that anticipates the discussion in the following chapter, in which the justification of the ungodly is described as a metaphorical transaction in which righteousness is “reckoned as a gift” (λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν; Rom 4:4, 6, 12; cf. 5:16-15) and sin, conversely, is “not reckon[ed]” against the sinner (Rom 4:8; cf. 2 Cor 5:19).

Imputation, then (or “reckoning”), of one sort or another, is not an un-Pauline intrusion into the doctrine of justification; it is part of the conceptual array that the texts themselves bequeath to us as a framework within which to articulate our understanding of the righteous status of those on whom God’s justifying verdict has been pronounced. If we are to follow Paul’s lead in constructing our doctrinal formulations, the question is not whether we will have a doctrine of imputation but merely what sort of doctrine of imputation we will construct – which metaphorical credits or debits we will speak of as being imputed to whom – and how much work we will ask it to do within our doctrinal system. If Paul is happy to speak of God as “reckon[ing] righteousness,” “as a gift,” to “ungodly” people whose record of conduct could hardly warrant this verdict; if Paul speaks of this gift of righteousness as having been made possible by the faithful obedience of Christ, culminating in his atoning death; and if the forensic and covenantal background against which Paul makes these assertions is one in which “righteousness” is language not only for the status created by a judge’s verdict but also for the record of conduct with which this sort of verdict ought normally to correspond, then surely, one might argue, we are only connecting Pauline dots, not drawing a whole new picture, if we speak in terms of God’s imputing our sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us.

From “Covenants and Courtrooms, Imputation and Imitation: Righteousness and Justification in Paul and the Faithfulness of God,” Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters 4:1 (2014): 37-48, here 43-44. This issue of JSPL was devoted to reviewing N.T. Wright’s recent and substantial Paul and the Faithfulness of God

Christ the Lord Is Risen Today

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem

Your sweetest notes employ
The Paschal victory to hymn
In strains of holy joy.

How Judah’s Lion burst his chains,
And crushed the serpent’s head;
And brought with him, from death’s domains,
The long-imprisoned dead.

From hell’s devouring jaws the prey
Alone our Leader bore;
His ransomed hosts pursue their way
Where he hath gone before.

Triumphant in his glory now
His sceptre ruleth all,
Earth, heaven, and hell before him bow,
And at his footstool fall.

While joyful thus his praise we sing,
His mercy we implore,
Into his palace bright to bring
And keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
While endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen.

-N. T. Wright

A Meditation for Holy Saturday

Here’s the opening chorus from N.T. Wright’s Easter Oratorio, a meditation of hope for this Holy Saturday.

On the seventh day God rested
in the darkness of the tomb;
Having finished on the sixth day
all his work of joy and doom.
Now the word had fallen silent,
and the water had run dry,
The bread had all been scattered,
and the light had left the sky.
The flock had lost its shepherd,
and the seed was sadly sown,
The courtiers had betrayed their king,
and nailed him to his throne.
O Sabbath rest by Calvary,
O calm of tomb below,
Where the grave-clothes and the spices
cradle him we did not know!
Rest you well, beloved Jesus,
Caesar’s Lord and Israel’s King,
In the brooding of the Spirit,
in the darkness of the spring.

Easter Hymn

Ye choirs of new Jerusalem

Your sweetest notes employ
The Paschal victory to hymn
In strains of holy joy.

How Judah’s Lion burst his chains,

And crushed the serpent’s head;
And brought with him, from death’s domains,
The long-imprisoned dead.

From hell’s devouring jaws the prey

Alone our Leader bore;
His ransomed hosts pursue their way
Where he hath gone before.

Triumphant in his glory now

His sceptre ruleth all,
Earth, heaven, and hell before him bow,
And at his footstool fall.

While joyful thus his praise we sing,

His mercy we implore,
Into his palace bright to bring
And keep us evermore.

All glory to the Father be,

All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
While endless ages run. Alleluia! Amen.

-N. T. Wright