I've been hearing about N. T. Wright for a few years now and have yet to read anything substantive by him. I have purchased some of his smaller books in hopes of getting acquainted with his work, as I don't think I have the time to read his larger works. I do feel out of the loop in not knowing more about him - all I have read is a few internet articles of his and then I have read and heard many critiques of him. So, to spur myself along I have downloaded pretty much anything I could find of his for free on the internet in .mp3 format, many of which can be found on the N. T. Wright page. And I'm trying to listen to his stuff on my Ipod as I drive around.
I haven't gotten to any of his work on the apostle Paul, for which I know he is most famous, and most controversial. So far, the bulk of what I have listened to deals with Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
I realize you can't summarize his thought on this in one sentence or even a few sentences, but a common theme I have picked up (which comes across in various lectures over a number of years) is this - what was new about Jesus' teaching on the kingdom of heaven was not that He was showing a new way to get to heaven. Rather, He was teaching that heaven had come down to earth in His embodied presence, thus, the bulk of His instruction to His followers was dealing with the implications of that fact.
I won't claim to understand all of Wright's thought on this, nor do I think I can agree on everything I hear him saying. He has some new ways of expressing the deity of Christ in terms of vocation that are unfamiliar to me and that I will need to go back and re-listen to or read up on. He takes the discussion of the presence of the kingdom in poitical directions that I am uncomfortable with.
Yet, having said that I have benefited greatly from what I have listened to and think it's a shame that he has become such a controversial figure that people are afraid to touch him, or they read and listen to him through a hermeneutic of suspicion. I was in on a discussion of a paper of his one time and the leader of the discussion found something nefarious in nearly every sentence, things which I didn't see myself.
I truly believe that anyone with a modicum of discernment can read or listen to him profitably. On this issue of the present reality of the kingdom he often makes an analogy between Jesus' words on repentance and a reference from Josephus.
The story goes like this - there is a section in Josephus, in his "Life" I believe, where he talks about going to a brigand who was involved in revolutionary activity, and Josephus told the brigand he needed to quit pursuing his own way of bringing about revolution and follow Josephus' way. However, in the Greek, the words were more literally, "repent and believe in me," exactly as are Jesus' words in the gospel.
From this, Wright suggests that when we speak of repentance, we usually wrongly think of it merely in terms of a means of going to heaven when we die, or as an individualistic turning away from particular sins.
To be sure, repentance and following Jesus includes going to heaven, but Wright suggests that Jesus first century hearers heard "repent and believe in me," in a different way than we hear it today. We hear it in individualistic terms and mainly in reference to what happens after we die. He says they probably heard it in more corporate/communal terms and with reference to the hear and now.
In Jesus day, the Jews were looking for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. And, they assumed that a Messiah would bring this through military means. Jesus had a different agenda, but the diference wasn't in postponing the individual's possession of the kingdom of heaven till after they died, but rather in describing a different kind of here and now kingdom of which His followers could be a part.
Wright's contention is the same as many, that we must understand what the text said to the original hearers, and then use that as a means of understanding what it says to us today. He contends that we have either erred, or at least had an insufficient understanding of what was said to the individual hearers. Hence, our overemphasis on individualism and what happens after we die.
As I said, I find that helpful and not injurious at all. I thought of the following illustration to show the contrast between what Wright is saying and what how we often think.
Imagine that I want to go visit Beijing in 2008 and that I have found a super duper travel agent who already has access to some super duper deals on airline and hotel tickets. I make the reservations and buy the tickets now. If I do this, those tickets can never be taken away from me. My ID will be required to redeem the tickets in 2008 so I can never lose them.
Or, try a different scenario. Suppose, instead of finding a super duper travel agent with tickets to Beijing, you run into a super duper sports agent who negotiates for you to have a spot on the U.S. Olympic basketball team. With this, you get to live, train, work, play and generally spend your life with the team living the life of an Olympic basketball player, in short your whole life and identity is now shaped by being a member of the team. And, to boot, you get to go to Beijing in 2008.
You can see the gist - the first example is how we tend to think about the Christian life whereas the second gets at what Wright is talking about. Both illustrations break down in a hundred ways and the second in particular - participation on the Olympic basketball team is a merit based thing whereas the Christian life is a grace based thing.
But as you can see, in the first instance, what happens in 2008 doesn't necessarily affect what happens today. It would be good if your upcoming trip shaped your life today. You could learn some Chinese, learn about the culture and so on and so forth, but failure to do so wouldn't prevent you from going.
In the second example, one's future reality is intimately tied in with present reality. Of course, this illustration raises the troubling issue of salvation by works. It seems to suggest that our eternal destiny is somehow contingent on present performance, not grace.
Yet, it seems to me that the second example is really saying the same thing as the traditional protestant (as opposed to modern evangelical) expression that we are saved by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. Or, to borrow R. C. Sproul's formulation, the traditional protestant view is faith = salvation + works, as oppposed to a common evangelical view that salvation = faith - works.
Or in still other words, we are elected and called to be on the team by grace, and this same grace enables us to do all the things a basketball player does and this same grace takes us to Beijing. Grace is a total package deal.
I think one of the helpful aspects of Wright's formulation is that it expresses things in such a way that there is more of an organic unity between the present and the future.
One of the weaknesses I have heard and seen in followers of Wright (I haven't read enough of Wright to know if he falls into this criticism) is that they are so enamored with the corporate and present that they make the individual and future to be of almost no consequence. I have read in a few places where people, seemingly following Wright, claimed to have learned that the gospel is not about where I as an individual go when I die, it is about being a part of God's wholistic plan to bring about the kingdom in our day.
In my mind they divide what should always be united. Sure, it is right and commendable to bring the present reality of the kingdom to the forefront of the discussion. But it seems to me that many times these folks beg the question of who is a citizen of the kingdom. It seems that some treat almost anyone who is working on a "kingdom agenda" as a citizen of the kingdom, without reference to personal sin, repentance, faith and without reference to the cross and substitutionary atonement.
There is a citizenship process for inclusion in the kingdom that involves all of these things. While Wright affirms substitutionary atonement (see page 8 of this interview in the Criswell Journal) others who follow his lead on the present reality of the kingdom seem to have minimized it, if not outright denying it. In other words, to speak of the communal aspect of bringing the kingdom into to the present, you first have to speak of the individual aspect. Unless a person acknwoldges their sin, repents of it, and trusts in Jesus, they aren't in the kingdom and thus can't be agents of the kingdom in the present.
Some treat this "present kingdom" motif as if it is contradictory to what the church has taught in the past and as if new ground is being broken which can overthrow outdated and false concepts. This is just my impression and I will be happy to be proven wrong, but really, what Wright and others are saying here should be treated as complimentary to what has been said before.
So I do find Wright to be helpful here, and again I offer all of this as one who has only the barest acquaintance with him. This post should not be taken as an endorsement of all his work since I know so little of it. But this idea of the prominence of the present reality of the kingdom of heaven in the ministry of Jesus seems to me to be very beneficial in our day.