NTW Letter

Bishop WrightN.T. Wright replies to someone involved in translating Judas and the Gospel of Jesus, who wrote to him, troubled by some of the libellous claims about Wright and his beliefs that he encountered online:

Dear —–

—– has passed on your message to me. I am distressed that you have been so misled about my views. I believe firmly and passionately in scripture, and even more firmly and passionately in Jesus himself. I have no idea where you get the notion that I don’t believe in the virginal conception, which I have never doubted and which I have defended in public, in person and in print several times. I have no idea why you think I deny the credibility of John’s gospel, or for that matter Ephesians and Colossians. Indeed, I have defended all of them. And where do you get the idea that I think that ‘men are being saved by baptism’ (unless, of course, it might be 1 Peter 3.21, of course)? All this is simply wicked and unpleasant libel. Who has made these accusations? Have they read anything I have ever written?

When it comes to Paul, I have spent my life trying to understand his letters in great detail. If you want to disagree with my interpretations, please disagree with what I say, and show where I am getting it wrong, rather than listening to people who tell you that I am saying (for instance) that my belief is some kind of new revelation. Of course it isn’t! I am teaching what Paul is teaching, and I am happily and gladly open to anyone showing me that my understanding of the text is wrong. But please read what I have said, and the reasons I have given for it, before you say things like ‘we don’t need God’s righteousness to stand before righteous God’. Read what I say about the meaning of ‘God’s righteousness’ in Paul. Weigh it with what the whole scripture says — the Psalms and Isaiah and so on as well as Paul himself. Do what the Beroeans did in Acts 17: search the scriptures to see whether these things are so, rather than assume, like the Jews in Thessalonica, that any interpretation of scripture which you haven’t met before must be angrily rejected.

This brings me to ‘heaven’. Yes, in the New Testament of course there is the hope for being ‘with Christ, which is far better’ (Philippians 1.26). But have you not noticed that the New Testament hardly ever talks about ‘going to heaven’, and certainly never as the ultimate destiny of God’s people. The ultimate destiny, as Revelation 21 makes abundantly clear, is the ‘new heavens and new earth’, for which we will need resurrection bodies. Please, please, study what the Bible actually says. When Jesus talks in John 14 of going to prepare a place for us, the word he uses is the Greek word mone, which isn’t a final dwelling place but a temporary place where you stay and are refreshed before continuing on your journey. The point about Jesus being our hope is that he will come again from heaven to change this world, and our bodies, so that the prayer he taught us to pray will come true at last: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven. That is God’s will; that is why Jesus came; that is our final hope. Of course, Christians who die before that time go to be with him in heaven until the time when the whole creation is redeemed (Romans 8.18-27 — have you studied that recently?). That isn’t a ‘symbolic meaning’, and I confess I don’t know why you should think it does.

The problem is, I think, that there are some Christians who have not been taught what the Bible actually teaches about the redemption of the whole creation. The Bible doesn’t say that the creation — including earth — is wicked and that we have to be rescued from it. What is wicked, and what we need rescuing from, is sin, which brings death, which is the denial of the
good creation. When we say the creation is wicked we are colluding with death. Sadly, some Christians seem to think they have to say that.

I am particularly disturbed when you say that I am not much different from the gnostics I am attacking, and that I have no hope for the lost world. Hope for the lost world is precisely what I have in abundance, precisely because of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us not so that we could let death have our bodies for ever while our souls go off into a disembodied eternity — that was Plato’s mistake! — but so that we could be redeemed, rescued from sin and from the death it produces.

Dear —–, you have been deceived by what you have found on the internet. Of course I believe in Jesus. He is the centre of my life and, though I am a very imperfect disciple, I adore him and will preach him to my dying day. Of course I believe in his gospel. It is the good news that God so loved the world (not that God so hated the world). Yes, there is always a danger that all of us may distort the gospel, that we can be deceived, that we may need to inspect our hearts. But when you suggest I don’t believe in the whole scripture — well, I’m sorry, but exactly that belief is the rock on which the work of my whole life has been based.

I do hope that you will think again, continue to translate the book, and publish it in due course. But perhaps before you do that you might like to read one or two of my other books on the major subjects you have raised. Particularly The Resurrection of the Son of God, which has already been translated into various languages.

With greetings and good wishes in our Lord Jesus Christ

Tom Wright

N. T. Wright
Bishop of Durham

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, N.T. Wright, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to NTW Letter

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  2. John H says:

    He shoots, he scores…

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  6. Hans says:

    Hello Alistair, my comment has nothing to do with the good bishop’s defense of his orthodoxy at all but I do not have an email address for you.

    Some months/years ago you posted some thoughts on the question of the use of fluids other than wine in the Eucharist. I found your review very helpful, do you still have it? Can you email it to me? Have you any further thoughts? Have you pondered the issue of individual verse common cup?

    I am a reformed christian from new zealand and our church has started using individual cups, disposable plastic of course, as well as offering a choice of wine or juice.

    My own thought is that both of these innovations are detrimental to the purpose of the eucharist and at odds with the institution of the supper and obviously with tradition.

    I remember enjoying your analysis hence my request for a copy if you have it available and have the time.

    regards,

    Hans

  7. Al says:

    Hans, my original post is here. If you want to follow anything up with me by e-mail, you are quite welcome to e-mail me at 40bicycles at gmail dot com.

    My position may have slightly relaxed since my 2004 post, but I still hold to the position laid out in my post. I am still firmly convinced that wine is the appropriate element and that unfermented grape juice is not.

    That said, there are occasions when compromises might be justified. If someone has an allergy then I think that the church is justified in providing a substitute for that person. The crucial thing to remember is that these are exceptions born of necessity and should not be permitted to become a generally accepted practice. Using grape juice or some other substitute is an anomaly, and not what God intends to be the norm. For instance, there are some people who are physically incapable of kneeling and, in their cases we are justified in making exceptions. However, when God calls His people to kneel before Him we cannot excuse ourselves from doing so because those with physical disabilities are excused. Theirs is an exemption of necessity and does not represent a fitting way for the able-bodied person to worship.

    A lot of these things come down to our attitude to our Lord and Master. As James Jordan has remarked, the good servant is attentive to the slightest indication of what his master wants of him. The smallest gesture is noted, because the servant wishes, more than anything else, to be pleasing to his master. Contrast this with the attitude of many churches on the issue of wine. They will go to great lengths to find some loophole or get-out clause to God’s instructions. The Scriptures are very clear that God wants alcohol on His table and ideally the good servant will pick up on this straight away and not make a fuss about it.

    On the issue of the common cup, I am less sure. I am not even sure that there was a common cup at the Last Supper. There were a series of cups of wine drunk as part of the Passover celebration and it is possible that, rather than passing one cup around, the ‘cup’ referred to the particular serving of wine that they were about to drink as part of the celebration. The ‘cup’ would perhaps function like the way that a toast does in our celebrations. Each individual would have an individual cup. Passing around individual cups and drinking at the same time might therefore be closer to the original celebration.

    That said, it would be great to see more substantial servings being given. I suspect that the twelve would have received more than a crumb of bread and thimbleful of wine. I also suspect that the Corinthian Christians would not be getting drunk on a miniscule serving of wine. It would be encouraging if churches were to serve larger glasses of wine (at least swig, rather than sip-sized!) and hunks of bread to every member of the congregation. This would serve to reinforce the meal nature of the Eucharist. It might also encourage a more joyful celebration!

    However, important as these things are, they are not worth causing division over. God is gracious and does not judge us as harshly as we tend to judge each other. I can understand why this would be a difficult and sensitive issue for a pastor of a church to work through. Even if you want to reform the church’s practice, you don’t want the sort of reform that tarries for no one. Such reform needs to be taken slowly, in order to avoid unnecessarily alienating people. Reform is important and, if we are obedient we should be working towards it. However, there is a sort of unloving and impatient reform that actually causes great damage, despite its noble intentions. God gives us time to grow out of old practices and does not force us to change completely overnight (witness the significant overlap of the old and new covenants, for instance).

    I hope that this is of some help.

  8. Kevin Bush says:

    Alastair,

    Thanks for posting this.

    Kevin

  9. Anonymous says:

    Queensberry Rules

    As someone who has read only a small amount of NTW’s copious works perhaps I am not best qualified to respond. Nevertheless, on the basis of ‘fairness’ I do think it is somewhat unfortunate that Wright has been clearly misrepresented. From the small amount of his writings that I have read it seems painfully evident that NTW is a theologian with a high regard for the authority of scripture, and therefore deserving of a fair hearing. This makes it all the more unfortunate that he would misrepresent those who hold to a view of PS that differs from his own. In all that I have ever read in my years as a student of the scriptures, I have never come across any conservative theologian who believes that the best reading of John 3:16 ought to be- “God so hated the world…” It seems more of a political spin than a fair reflection of those with whom he has so much in common. Someone of Wright’s intellectual and academic ability clearly does not need, and in my opinion ought to refrain from, such use of caricatures. Keep it clean lads!

  10. Al says:

    Anonymous — and I really would prefer commenters to identify themselves (avoiding anonymity helps in ‘keeping it clean’ in my experience) — I think that you are misreading Wright here. The issue of the cross is never raised in Wright’s letter. It seems to me that Wright is using John 3:16 against Gnosticism’s denigration of the world and the material order, rather than against a particular doctrine of penal substitution.

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  12. Alex says:

    Anon, I will echo Al’s comments and say that Wright’s quote about hating the world, is a rhetorical device used in order to counter the Gnostic assumption of an evil world. Having read all three of his COQG series, his Romans commentary, and many articles and interviews, I could tell this was written by Wright, even if Al hadn’t pointed it out. He is consistent in the major themes his brings to the table and I can tell as someone who has read him more thoroughly than most, that this was not a caricature of his modern day interlocutors so much as an accurate characterization of ancient Gnosticism.

  13. Steven Carr says:

    WRIGHT ‘What is wicked, and what we need rescuing from, is sin, which brings death….’

    PAUL ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24)

    Paul had seen what happened to corpses and he wanted out of there.

  14. Steven Carr says:

    I should point out that Wright’s book on the resurrection never quotes ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24)’

    A strange omission.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Dear Al and Alex,
    Thank you for the clarification. This makes better sense. Guess I need to read a bit more of NTW. Sincere apologies for the mistake.

  16. John H says:

    Steven: what are you implying from Wright’s non-citation of Romans 7:24? Are you saying that the Christian hope is that we escape bodily existence altogether?

  17. Steven Carr says:

    I was simply pointing out that both Wright and Paul use the language of being ‘rescued from’ something, but differ about what Christians should be rescued from.

  18. Al says:

    Steven,

    Have you read Wright’s treatment of this verse in his Romans commentary?

  19. Mark says:

    Steven, I may be completely misreading you, but if you are arguing against the doctrine of the resurrection, I think it would be good for you to say so openly.

    If not, I apologize for my statement above.

  20. Ben D. says:

    Okay, can I ask a question about communion rather than about NTW?

    I believe that the NT teaches that wine should be used in communion. However, what about the bread? It seems a bit difficult to be dogmatic about the type of bread used (unleavened? white bread from the grocery store? tortillas? one loaf broken and distributed?), and likewise this gives me some pause over being too dogmatic about wine as well.

    Ben

  21. John H says:

    Ben: True, the Bible is undogmatic about the nature of the bread, but it still needs to be bread, not digestive biscuits or flakes of wheat-based breakfast cereal.😉

    In the same way, there is no requirement that the wine be red or white, or that it be of a certain alcoholic strength, but it still needs to be wine, not just grape juice.

  22. Al says:

    Ben,

    I don’t think that the type of bread is quite as much an issue. Despite zymite/azymite controversies, the Church has come to the conclusion that both leavened and unleavened bread can properly be used in the celebration of the Eucharist. The same cannot be said on the issue of wine. Alcoholic wine is important in communion for a host of symbolic reasons. The departure from the use of alcohol has generally been undertaken with little attention to the biblical symbolism of the sacrament.

    Nevertheless, the use of leavened bread is not symbolically neutral. The use of leavened bread can symbolize the introduction of the new leaven of the kingdom at Pentecost (following the pattern of Leviticus 23). The lack of leaven can symbolize the removal of the old leaven of wickedness (in which case the symbolism of the Passover takes priority — cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Our practice in these areas is best guided by the particular situation in which we find ourselves and the dimension of the symbolism that we see fit to highlight.

    There can be flexibility in certain details of the celebration the sacrament, but not in others. On occasions, for example, it might be good to celebrate with white rather than red wine. This is an issue on which we have freedom. This does not mean that the colour of the wine used is something that lacks symbolic meaning though. On occasions we might choose to use a sweet or a fortified wine; on other occasions we might not. The use of alcoholic wine, however, is non-negotiable.

  23. Steven Carr says:

    Wright’s commentary on Romans?

    Do you mean page 132 of ‘Romans for Eveyone’ where Wright quotes Paul as saying ‘Who is going to rescue me?’

    I wonder why Wright truncated Paul’s statement.

  24. Al says:

    Steven,

    I really don’t want to get into a discussion on this issue. Your accusation against Wright on this issue really is quite odd. Wright hardly ignores Paul’s statement here. The comments in his For Everyone commentaries are always sketchy and leave many details unexplored. To accuse him of error on the basis of an omission in such a commentary is quite unfair.

    I was referring to Wright’s real commentary on Romans (in the New Interpreter’s Bible series), not to his popular For Everyone commentary. Within the NIB commentary he explores the meaning of this expression. He also comments on it in The Climax of the Covenant (p.199) and in a number of places in lectures that I have listened to. I have written a brief commentary on Romans 7:14-25, which follows a similar line to that of Wright, if you want to read it here.

    I suggest that you study Wright a bit more closely on this and related issues before you rush to a premature judgment.

  25. Al says:

    John,

    Thanks for your comments. They are helpful as ever. You seem to have done something to annoy my spam filter, because this is the second time today that it has held one of your comments.

    I must confess that I would like to see some evangelical churches switch to using white wine in communion, just to see what some people’s reactions would be! There seems to be an understanding of the sacrament that regards any dark reddish-black liquid as appropriate, although ideally it should not be alcoholic. I have been in congregations that celebrate using Ribena. The use of white wine might serve to shock people out of an unbiblical way of understanding the liquid element in the sacrament. The sacrament isn’t a flannel-graph, but is there to be eaten and drunk of. The wine is not primarily a ‘picture’ of Christ’s blood; it is Christ’s blood.

  26. Steven Carr says:

    Alister makes good points in his commentrary on Romans 7:24 ‘ The source of the problem is identified as ‘the body of this death’—the state of being flesh and being bound up in the solidarity of Sin.’

    The ‘state of being flesh’ is something Paul wanted to be rescued from.

    Paul wanted to be rescued from the state of being flesh.

    I’m sure Wright would agree that Paul wanted to be rescued from his body, unlike the gnostics who wanted to be rescued from their bodies,

  27. Zack says:

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  29. Al says:

    Zack,

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this. I have mentioned your product in my latest links post.

  30. Dave says:

    First, I was looking at all the comments.

    Piper is analytical. “spiritual warfare?” consisting of personal attacks is unbecoming of Him. You don’t know this author. He is a heavyweight conservative reformed theologian. This means He will criticize NTW on justification. He will then criticize NTW by countering parts of the interpretation in scripture.

    He will hit NTW from the Bible and from the Reformed/protestant understanding of that scripture. The best example will come from the paul/james interpretation of works and faith which allows judgment to be on faith, not works. Then followed up by a rejection of merit. NTW stands to be lambasted on this point. It would not be hard to do this.

    As for NTW, no one should be as stupid to consider him dumb. This is almost as bad as evangelicals, believing catholic lack any interpretion of the bible whatsoever.

  31. Sarah Poulin says:

    Wright was not only lying about where the Greek word monē is used, but is lying about the actual translation. Where on earth does he get this idea of “a temporary refreshment before continuing your journey?!”

    In John 14, when the word “Mansion” (NOT place) is used, the word monē is used. Monē (μονή – pronounced “mon-ay’”) is actually translated as staying, that is, residence (the act or the place): – abode, mansion. HOWEVER, where the word “place” is used, topos (τόπος prounounced “top’-os”) is the Greek word. Topos is primary word and means a spot (generally in space, but limited by occupancy; whereas chōra is a larger but particular locality: ie coast, county, fields, grounds, land, region, etc), that is, location (as a position, home, tract, etc.).

  32. Al says:

    Sarah,

    I am not myself convinced by Wright’s argument for the meaning of the word μονή at this point, particularly in light of the use of the word μονή in 14:23. Also, as you rightly observe, μονή isn’t the word that Christ uses when he speaks of preparing a place. It is sad that you would accuse Wright of ‘lying’ here. I think that we have a duty to avoid such negative interpretations of people’s actions until we have clear evidence. I see no evidence of a desire to deceive on Wright’s part; his point was just made in a sloppy manner and he should have checked it more carefully first.

    Furthermore, I don’t believe that a different reading would need to change Wright’s overall argument much. The house that Christ is preparing is the house that he will receive us into when it comes down to earth in the new heavens and the new earth (Revelation 21:2), not primarily a place that we go to when we die.

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