John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel: N. T. Wright’s Perspective, Part 1

endangered gospelNugent’s perspective is different from N. T. Wright’s. Wright’s perspective is important because it has influenced so many theologians and teachers — myself included. I’ve expressed some doubts about Wright’s thinking in the past, and so maybe this will be a good opportunity to sort through the question in more detail.

The point of this final section of the book is that a proper grasp of the (surprising) future hope which is held out to us in Jesus Christ leads directly and, to many people, equally surprisingly, to a vision of the present hope which is the basis of all Christian mission. To hope for a better future in this world—for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact for the whole wide, wonderful and wounded world—is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to ‘the gospel’ as an afterthought. And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of ‘mission’ and ‘evangelism’ in the present. It is a central, essential, vital and life-giving part of it.

So Wright sees benevolence and social justice efforts as central to the gospel because of his understanding of the new heavens and new earth.

Mostly, Jesus himself got a hearing from his contemporaries because of what he was doing. They saw him ‘saving’ people from sickness and death, and they heard him talking about a ‘salvation’, the message for which they had longed, which would go beyond the immediate into the ultimate future. But the two were not unrelated, the present one a mere ‘visual aid’ of the future one, or a trick to gain people’s attention. The whole point of what Jesus was up to was that he was doing, close up, in the present, what he was promising long-term, in the future. And what he was promising for that future, and doing in that present, was not about saving souls for a disembodied eternity, but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the way the world presently is so that they could enjoy, already in the present, that renewal of creation which is God’s ultimate purpose—and so that they could thus become colleagues and partners in that larger project itself.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 204.

Interesting … And I agree that Jesus was demonstrating in his miracles the nature of the new heavens and new earth (NHNE) that would come. People were healed because in the immediate presence of Jesus, disease and brokenness must give way to wholeness and health. Amen.

When we turn to Paul, the verse which has always struck me in this connection is 1 Corinthians 15:58. Paul, we remind ourselves, has just written the longest and densest chapter in any of his letters, discussing the future resurrection of the body in great and complex detail. How might we expect him to finish such a chapter? By saying, ‘therefore, since you have such a great hope, sit back and relax, because you know God’s got a great future in store for you’? No. Instead, he says, ‘Therefore, my beloved ones, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’

What does he mean? How does believing in the future resurrection lead to getting on with the work in the present? Quite straightforwardly. The point of the resurrection, as Paul has been arguing throughout the letter, is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters, because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics, as in 1 Corinthians 6, it certainly also applies to the various vocations to which God’s people are called. What you do in the present—by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself—all these things will last into God’s future. They are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether (as the hymn so mistakenly puts it, ‘until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away’). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 204–205.

Even more interesting … and I’m not sure that I agree. This sounds a lot like the Post-millennial view that human effort will bring about the Millennium, except in this case, it’s not the Millennium but the NHNE.  That is, if I dig a well, not only will the people I bring to Jesus will be a part of the NHNE, but so will the well itself. Just so, if I make the world a better place through my poetry or painting, not only will the people touched survive into the NHNE, so will the poem and painting.

And I don’t see it. I mean, most Christian poetry is really pretty bad. I’m  hoping for better. And will we need wells in the NHNE when there’s a river of fresh water flowing from Jerusalem (per Eze and Rev)?

It’s no good falling back into the tired old split-level world where some people believe in ‘evangelism’ in terms of ‘saving souls for a timeless eternity’ and other people believe in ‘mission’ in terms of ‘working for justice, peace and hope in the present world’. That great divide has nothing to do with Jesus and the New Testament, and everything to do with the silent enslavement of many Christians (both ‘conservative’ and ‘radical’) to the Platonic ideology of the Enlightenment. Once we get the resurrection straight, we can and must get mission straight. If we want a ‘mission-shaped church’, what we need is a hope-shaped mission. And if that is surprising, we ought to be getting used to it by now.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 206.

Now, I couldn’t agree more that mission includes both evangelism and benevolence (which includes social justice). There should be no such divide, because love compels us to feed both spiritual and physical and thirst. We cannot claim to love  someone and not help them find fresh water. But does that mean the well will be present in the NHNE?

For the first Christians, the ultimate ‘salvation’ was all about God’s new world; and the point of what Jesus and the apostles were doing when they were healing people, or being rescued from shipwreck, or whatever, was that this was a proper anticipation of that ultimate ‘salvation’, that healing transformation of space, time and matter. The future rescue which God had planned and promised was starting to come true in the present. We are saved, not as souls, but as wholes.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 211.

I agree to this extent: salvation is to bring backwards into the present the future salvation promised in the NHNE. That is, today’s church/Kingdom is a preview, down payment, or firstfruits of the salvation we’ll enjoy in the NHNE. Just as Rev 21-22 describes, our role will be and now is to serve/worship God. Just as there are beings in heaven singing “Holy,  holy, holy” to God in the great throne room  of heaven, we sing his praises in church anticipating the worship of the NHNE.

And we’ll be with the same people. The people we worship with today are the people we’ll worship with in heaven. And so Jesus’ healing of diseases and casting out demons anticipated the healing of brokenness and defeat of demonic powers that will happen when Jesus returns. And to some lesser degree, we enjoy healing and cleansing in this in-between time as we find strength and comfort among our brothers and sisters at church — at least.

[The gospel] is the story of God’s kingdom being launched on earth as in heaven, generating a new state of affairs in which the power of evil has been decisively defeated, the new creation has been decisively launched, and Jesus’ followers have been commissioned and equipped to put that victory, and that inaugurated new world, into practice. ‘Atonement’, ‘redemption’ and ‘salvation’ are what happens on the way, because for people to engage in this work demands that they themselves be rescued from the powers that enslave the world, in order that they can in turn be rescuers.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 217.

This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to fall over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something which will become, in due course, part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings, and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed which spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honoured in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation which God will one day make. That is the logic of the mission of God. God’s recreation of his wonderful world, which has begun with the resurrection of Jesus and continues mysteriously as God’s people live in the risen Christ and in the power of his Spirit, means that what we do in Christ and by the Spirit in the present is not wasted. It will last all the way into God’s new world. In fact, it will be enhanced there.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 219–220.

That is a truly beautiful picture. And I disagree. Well, more precisely, maybe God will do all that — but I can’t find anywhere that the text actually says that. I think there’s a better, truer reading.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel: N. T. Wright’s Perspective, Part 1

  1. Maybe we need to think of new ways to offer new wine: MEANING THERAPY https://issuu.com/collegeofmentalhealth/docs/jesus_the_messiah

  2. Ellen Williams says:

    I wonder if Tom Wright meant all of that as literally as you’re taking it.

  3. Dwight says:

    I am admittedly a newbie to this whole argument of the NHNE, as I have always thought of it within the realm of “New Jerusalem” or basically an physical allegory of the spiritual world. I mean we live in the Kingdom even as we speak, but we do it spiritually, as God has written our names in heaven.
    I’ve always thought that NHNE was along the same line as “New Jerusalem” or “streets of gold” as poetic imagery of the spiritual world. And that our spirit connects with God’s spirit to which we will one day be in the spirit separated from the physical bonds of flesh. Maybe not.

    Jay, you wrote, “The people we worship with today are the people we’ll worship with in heaven.”, so do you not believe that the NHNE will replace our physical world with another improved physical world?
    Or do you believe in the resurrection to a spiritual plane of existence?
    I am not trying to nail you to the wall, but I see this as an incoming dividing point among brethren and I am trying to make sense of it, without relying on what I was taught in Sunday school.
    Unfortunately those that promote the NHNE do so without seemingly taking the (spiritual) heaven where God and Jesus is dwelling into account and those that talk of heaven often do it without NHNE jargon.
    There must be a way to look at both arguments at the same time to see if they merge or are separate concepts of where or how we will dwell that the point exclusively points to.
    And I am saying this because while I don’t think it changes anything, it will be taught this way even as the other has been taught that way and people will take sides despite the fact we don’t know what we don’t know until we are there.

  4. Chris says:

    It’s interesting how many of the gifts of the Holy Spirit are meant for the building up/edification of the body of Christ.

  5. Larry Cheek says:

    It is not hard at all for me to disagree with N. T. Wright upon this subject. One of the major factors is, the part of us that is a Spirit which God has placed in us is almost totally out of the equation. Every living human on earth is dead in their trespasses (sins) unless they have been born again. Alive physically but still dead. How? Well we know that the physical body does not die as we are lowered into the waters at baptism, so it is not dead. What is dead? The scriptures speak of a new Spirit being placed into this body, it is not represented that it replaced a spirit that was there. So what about the object that is called a soul? Is it dead and being renewed in a new birth? If that was true than all who are dead needing a re-birth would not have a living soul. Then this dead soul which gained the whole world could not be lost. Yet, this born again object which God has placed in us is not a partaker in the death of this physical body, it is immortal, it survives the body, it will not even be in the grave. When the body that is in the grave is resurrected will it be only a body without this Spirit? If it is only a body without a Spirit than it cannot be like God or His Son. The scriptures state expressively that God is a Spirit. If God is a Spirit then his Son obviously would be also. Where is this Spirit in the projection of the NHNE?
    I guess that the Angels will also have a new home. If both Heaven and Earth are merged then all the heavenly host will also be merged with the saved. Will they have to be given a body that is different from their identity now to be in the same NHNE where we are? The scriptures also state that we will like the Angels. How does that fit? It does not say that they will be changed to be like us.

  6. Dwight says:

    I think some of the thoughts that are coming through are based on some bad thinking.

    One of the thoughts is that to think of spirit and flesh is dualistic and thus Gnostic.

    Yes, thinking of spirit and flesh is dualistic, but it is not Gnostic.
    Jesus came in the flesh, which meant that he was previously like God in the spirit, The spirit was housed in the flesh of man. In the beginning God formed the flesh and then gave man the spirit. Paul made it clear that he fought within himself trying to be spiritual, while living in the flesh which pulled at him.

    But Gnosticism is based not upon spirit and flesh, but mind and flesh.
    They thought that pure thinking would elevate one from the creator…the demiurge (who created God).
    Some of the ECF think in terms of the demiurge in their writings.
    But while they mix the mind and the spirit, the scriptures focus on the spirit and strangely the heart of man.
    Paul was not a Gnostic. He understood the difference between the spirit of man and the tent in which the spirit dwelled. And his mind wasn’t focused on his mind, but the spirit.
    Rom.8 “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”

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