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Tom Wright’s theology applied

You may be familiar with Tom Wright’s …For Everyone series of popular Bible commentaries. Now Stephen Kuhrt, a Church of England vicar, has turned the label back onto Tom Wright himself in a stimulating book that outlines how the application of Wright’s theological insights has benefited his church. It is Tom Wright For Everyone: Putting the Theology of N.T. Wright into Practice in the Local Church by Stephen Kuhrt (SPCK, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-281-06393-2).

The author is frank about the fact that he and his church in New Malden are still on a journey of learning, but equally frank about the practical ways in which the application of Wright’s theology has brought huge advances. He gives lots of examples. He writes well, too, and while he touches on some deep issues, the book remains easy to read.

It begins with a summary of the main aspects of Wright’s theology and the history of its reception before going on to explain the practical ways in which their application in New Malden has affected Kuhrt’s congregation in terms of (1) its pastoral approach, (2) its evangelism and mission, and (3) its church life.

He looks at things from an Anglican perspective, of course.  But evangelicals of any stripe will benefit from his experience and insights. The book will appeal particularly to those who are open to the belief that the Holy Spirit continues to open up of new aspects of theological truth from God’s Word—even in our own generation.

It’s a fairly short book, so give it a go. [Available for Logos software as well as Kindle and hard copy]

‘…going to heaven when we die’… One problem that occurred to me as I entered my teens was the difficulty of attracting people to this message unless they were particularly concerned with the question of what would happen to them after death.  (p14)

The 2001 hymn ‘In Christ alone’ by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty has become quite a classic in recent years but the lack of resolution to its final line (‘’til Christ returns or calls me home’) reflects this continuing uncertainty.  (p15)

…the extent to which evangelicals were more comfortable presenting ‘the evidence for the resurrection’ than really reflecting on its theological significance… the significance of Jesus’ resurrection appeared limited to the supporting role of ‘showing that the cross had worked’.  (p16)

Standard evangelical explanations of how the death of Jesus brought us forgiveness, for instance, tended to present the idea of sin as something that was essentially individual, since this understanding appeared to fit best with the idea of its transfer onto Jesus… my increasing realization that many of the most damaging forms of sin and evil afflicting the world were those of a structural and collective nature.  (p20)

Sustained themes in the Gospels were therefore being neglected, the most obvious examples being their focus upon Jesus’ inauguration of the kingdom of God/heaven…  (p23)

Evangelicalism’s strong doctrine of ‘the fall’ often fails to be balanced by an equally confident and thoughtfully applied doctrine of creation.  (p25)

Establishing that biblical orthodoxy is radical and truly ‘good news for the poor’, rather than being oriented towards the status quo…  (p29)

Rather than God’s people living in God’s land being an inadequate earthly prototype for a later ‘more spiritual’ understanding of salvation, the covenant with Israel indicates the start of God’s plan for a renewed earth ruled over by his renewed people.  (p34)

…the emergence of the term ‘gospel’ or ‘good news’ to describe the end of Israel’s exile and this expected liberation of creation.  (p37)

Wright…emphasizes how the full story of Israel and the covenant, the nature of the Gospel narratives and the messianic meaning of ‘Christ’ are all indispensable for understanding ‘the atonement’.  (p46)

According to Wright, the gospel does not refer to the means by which individuals can be ‘saved’ and ‘go to heaven when they die’. It refers to the royal proclamation that in and through Jesus, declared by his resurrection to be Messiah and Lord, YHWH the God of Israel has become King and begun his process of putting his world right.  (p48)

Wright’s understanding that everything that is done in the name of Jesus and seeks to be part of ‘building for the kingdom’ is ‘gospel work’. It solves instantly the conceptual problems that many have had with relating traditional ‘evangelism’ to the seeking of social justice and care for the environment and creation.  (p48)

One consequence of Wright’s insistence on distinguishing God’s ‘righteousness’ from ours is his rejection of ‘imputed righteousness’ (the idea that through the death of Jesus, God transfers his righteousness to us).  (p53)

All this radically challenges any understanding that Christians should be politically quietist.  (p55)

The ordinary and earthly nature of the sacraments is an indispensable sign of the goal of Christian salvation being a renewed and transformed earth, rather than escape from it.  (p62)

…my presentation at funerals of the hope of resurrection and ‘new heavens, new earth’.  (p67)

Since Jesus is in heaven, affirming that ‘the Christian departed’ have ‘gone to heaven’ can perhaps be justified. But the fact that the Bible avoids this language, and the danger of reinforcing this as the Christian hope, has led me to prefer to use the language of believers ‘going to be with Jesus’ ahead of their future resurrection.  (p69)

The world is so precious to God that rather than ‘chucking it away’ when it went wrong, he was committed instead to completely restoring and renewing it.  (p71)

Tom Wright has argued that evangelism flourishes best when the Church displays such advance signs of God’s new creation because it is then embodying the salvation that it is offering to people.  (p78)

…the innate desire for justice that Wright argues is present within all human beings and frequently provides a surprisingly strong impulse to be part of the solution to injustice rather than its cause.  (p80)

What has helped here is Wright’s explanation of the eschatological basis behind the different praxis of Jesus and the Pharisees. This has led us to a more determined effort to eschew a ‘pre-kingdom’ ecclesiology of separation from the outside world in favour of an approach reflecting the radical and life-changing inclusion that Jesus used as a sign of the arrival of God’s kingdom.  (p83)

We have begun to emphasize that Spirit-filled and grace-driven living is precisely about the concentrated effort to work hard to anticipate the destiny that we will possess in the new creation.  (p91)

Use of the Psalms, much advocated by Wright, particularly promotes the naming of evil and vocalizing of anger at its effects, both of which have great pastoral significance.  (p92)

Wright’s emphasis upon the Bible as foundational for calling Christians to live within its story of God’s redemption of the cosmos has led him to stress the value of the public reading of Scripture and also the use of the lectionary (an authorized list of appointed Scripture readings) to ensure an even coverage of its contents.  (p94)

Tom Wright has expressed concerns about the postmodern nature of the recent ‘worship song’ approach, where the narrative of God’s saving actions (present within many older hymns) is often replaced by a pastiche of Christian images selected by their ability to create resonance.  (p95)

Going back to the original goodness of creation, Wright also stresses the importance of the man and the woman reflecting in their unity the image of God as they are given stewardship over the earth. Fractured through ‘the fall’, the re-establishment of this ‘image-bearing unity’ through the full role of women’s leadership, alongside that of men, is therefore a central aspect of the coming of God’s new creation, which the Church is called to reflect in its role as ‘priests and rulers’.  (p97)

The challenge we face and our way of being truly faithful to our Reformation heritage is to revisit the Scriptures to review our doctrine and practice, knowing that there will always be vital insights there that we have missed and that are needed to augment, and in some cases replace, our existing understanding.  (p102)

Many Christians, Wright suggested, including evangelicals, were living in one or two rather scruffy rooms of a house whose other rooms, full of beautiful furniture, art treasures and libraries, remained locked and forgotten. His call was that it was therefore time ‘to open the locked doors and explore all the treasures of the gospel, especially those to which Scripture itself points but our traditions, not least our evangelical traditions, have screened out’.  (p105)

…holistic mission. The utterly clear biblical foundation established for this by Wright’s eschatology remains, in my opinion, the most significant outcome of his thought.  (p107)

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