How Public Is the Gospel?
Has anyone seen N.T. Wright sleep? It seems like no week can end before the Anglican bishop of Durham publishes yet another groundbreaking book. Christianity Today recently excerpted his latest effort, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.
As with his other works, Wright has encouraged his many fans on both sides of the Atlantic even as he has provoked some critics. Wright's position as a leader in the Church of England exposes him to jabs from all sides. But this role also makes him quite influential. He wants to hold out the gospel for a largely post-Christian United Kingdom, in part by refuting the faulty scholarship of biblical critics. But he also wants to challenge Christians to see the gospel in a new way. Thus, he takes issue with Luther's view on justification by faith alone. He also worries that many Christians have unbiblically privatized the gospel, stripping the Good News of its public imperative.
This last point has renewed a vigorous theological debate. Wright argues in Surprised By Hope that the "mission of the church is nothing more or less than the outworking, in the power of the Spirit, of Jesus' bodily resurrection. It is the anticipation of the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made."
Echoing the long-standing concerns of evangelical leaders such as John Stott, Wright goes on to explain that Christians must never choose between saving souls and doing good works.
"Thus the church that takes sacred space seriously (not as a retreat from the world but as a bridgehead into it) will go straight from worshiping in the sanctuary to debating in the council chamber; to discussing matters of town planning, of harmonizing and humanizing beauty in architecture, green spaces, and road traffic schemes; and to environmental work, creative and healthy farming methods, and proper use of resources," he writes.
"If it is true, as I have argued, that the whole world is now God's holy land, we must not rest as long as that land is spoiled and defaced. This is not an extra to the church's mission. It is central."
Now here's where the controversy really begins. How, then, should Christians lobby? How can we know what issues to prioritize? Wright says the "number one moral issue of our day" is relieving Third World debt.
"I've studied the problem of global debt quite intensively," Wright told blogger Trevin Wax. "In fact, I've read probably more books about contemporary economics recently than I have contemporary biblical studies. Curiously, I find myself drawn into that world, and it's quite likely that I'm getting a lot of things wrong."
Idaho pastor and blogger Douglas Wilson sure thinks so. He believes relieving Third World debt could only end in "horrific humanitarian disaster" or "resurgent neo-colonialism." In typically pointed fashion, he says Wright is inadvertently "insisting on the humanitarian disaster option in the name of Jesus." In response, Wright says he is calling for mercy, not a complicated debate over the effect of debt on national economies.
In his talk two weeks ago at the Together for the Gospel conference, pastor Mark Dever also criticized Wright. Dever's lecture, "Exercises in Unbiblical Theology," (mp3) became the meeting's hot topic. Unlike Wilson, Dever did not engage Wright's politics. In fact, he wondered whether church leaders should enter such discussions at all.