Tom Wright Part 2

I decided to go to both of Wright’s lectures.  The guy is very intelligent and has had numerous debates with Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan on the issue at hand.  He has also written a considerable amount of biblical theology and is hard to dismiss.

During Brian Baker’s sabbatical he had spent time reading some of Wright’s works.  I asked him, if he had time to read only one of Wright’s books in preparation for Wright’s time in Sacramento, what would he recommend.  He recommended Surprised by Hope.  I read it during our vacation time in early September.  The first part drove me nuts because of Wright’s continued insistence on a physical resurrection and his lack of a valid argument for that.  I could not and cannot believe that, given his thoroughness in biblical exegesis as well as his discussions with Borg and Crossan, he could continue to play games with what he actually meant.  About half way through the book he did make it clear that he was talking about a physical resurrection.  (He used the word “physicality”!)  But he still did not address the sarx/soma distinction.  His justification of his position was weak.

I wrote a review:

Life After Life After Death and the Demise of Halloween

                    A Review of N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope

The combination of scripture, reason and tradition has long guided the efforts of Anglican theologians.  Unfortunately N. T. Wright throws out the combination of the first two and ignores the development of the third in his work.  And yet he remains the current hottest thing in Anglican theology.  It’s not difficult to understand; Anglican theologians are few and far between.

Wright has made his mark by falsely insisting on the evangelical scriptural interpretation of the Easter miracle as being about Jesus’ physical resurrection from a tomb.  Opponents of the Westar Institute’s work (their most infamous project is “The Jesus Seminar”) cheer him on.  Unfortunately his scripture work is obtuse and his reasoning leads to confusion.  This is clear in almost all of his work, including Surprised by Hope; Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church.

It all starts with Paul’s letters, as is meet and right.  Paul gives us the first words in the New Testament.    Wright argues that the Easter event is about a physical resurrection of Jesus.  A reasonable argument to cast doubt on this claim of physical resuscitation (Mark Borg distinguishes “resuscitation” from “resurrection” in The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions, as well as elsewhere) is that Paul does not mention this supposed phenomenon.   He is silent about a physical resurrection and/or an empty tomb when he relates the tradition passed on to him (I Cor 15: 3-8).  That Paul just forgot to mention this claimed singular historical event of Jesus being raised from the tomb in all of his “physicality” (yes, sports fans, Wright actually uses this term [p. 154]) is very, very strange.

This argument is similar to that which, among numerous other things, supports the contention that Jesus’ virgin birth is a myth rather than a historical reality.  If, in that case, again, we have such a singular, physical unique event, why doesn’t the earliest gospel, The Gospel of Mark, begin with it or mention it?  Hmm.  Maybe there is something else going on in both cases.

Let us continue to focus on what Wright thinks we celebrate at Easter (and every Sunday, as he correctly notes [p. 261]).  Wright tries to distinguish his stance from that of the evangelicals (pp. 225; 271) but cannot.  However, he certainly is not a literalist.  But he glosses over some very important distinctions in his argument for a physical raising of Jesus’ body.  (Wright consistently and correctly uses the passive in talking about Jesus’ resurrection, i.e. Jesus was raised [by the Divine].  Many translations gloss over this important point about the Easter event).

Wright fails to mention that Paul makes a clear distinction between the flesh (sarx) and the essence (soma) of a person.  The references are too numerous to cite in this brief paper (see Sarx and Soma in the New Testament by Daniel Yordy for a clear start on this matter  []).  Neither Paul nor the Gospel writers use the ward sarx in the resurrection narratives about the Christ Jesus.  In his discussion of Jesus’ physical resuscitation on Easter morning, Wright glosses over this difference.  Nowhere in Surprised by Hope does he deal with this New Testament contrast of the two types of “body.”

However Wright does mention that Paul and the Gospel writers do distinguish between sarx and pneuma (Spirit; Divine breath) (e.g. p. 135).  The latter, as referring to God’s spirit, is familiar to many scripturally literate Christians, including Wright.  But that’s a different matter.  That has more to do with the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christians and the Church than what happened to Jesus after his physical body was laid in a tomb.

I do not want to belabor this point even though it is critical to understanding Wright’s misunderstanding.  Others have dealt with it more expertly and more extensively (see works by Willi Marxson, Marcus Borg; Dominic Crossan, to name a few).

So what do we do with this physical Jesus who is now up and walking around with his disciples?  There are other REASONABLE explanations for the post-resurrection stories (see James M. Robinson, ‘Jesus from Easter to Valentinus (or to the Apostles’ Creed)’, JBL 101 (1982), pp. 5-37).  What Wright wants to do with this Jesus (as opposed to the “Christ Jesus” that St. Paul proclaims) is have him physically resurrected into heaven to be the first of many who will be part of the real physical heaven after life after death (pp. 109-186).  Wright’s arguments for the fleshly resuscitation of Jesus from the tomb are tried and false.  But, as far as I know, this post-Ascension “vision” is new stuff.  Wright realizes that he needs to develop the “So….what happens after that?”  In doing so he creates the double talk of “life after life after death.”

Wright’s response to this question of “What happens after that?” is that Jesus will come back for those of us who have been “good,” that is, those of us who have continued to work for the realization of the Kingdom of God.  If we don’t have this second worldly time, says Wright, we are likely to fall into despair, thinking that God has left us on our own to save the world.  Despite the witness of the saints, Wright claims that overwhelming despair is the likely outcome of the Gospel that proclaims a “love that is stronger than death” (I credit Rev. Brian Baker, Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento, CA for this version of the Christian proclamation).

Part III of Surprised by Hope, focuses on the post-Ascension task of building the Kingdom or, in Wright’s context “Building for the Kingdom (italics added).  Wright makes this distinction because of his previous assertion that Christians cannot be motivated by living in the knowledge that Christ is alive in each of us!  The Good News is this proclamation.  “The Kingdom of Heaven is here!  Rejoice and be glad!”  This is the meaning of Easter.  This is what Christ’s disciples who have gone before us as well as current disciples mean when they proclaim, “I have seen the Lord!” or, more formulaic, “The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!”  Non-believers from the first century onward have not understood these faith proclamations and, unfortunately, N.T. Wright does not seem to understand them either.

I suggest that Wright read and reflect upon the famous conversion stories of Saul of Tarsus, Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Merton.  These and others struggle with the language to explain the miracle of new life in Christ.  Expression in action is not necessarily easier but rather clearer to the hearer/observer.  I can see faith in action and it does not include overwhelming despair.  I may not always understand the verbal proclamation but the active one is hard to miss.  “Why do you do what you do?” “Not because I am building for the Kingdom to come but rather because I see the Reign of God before me NOW!”

I invite Wright to minister to those adults who are preparing for baptism through the catechumenate.  Witnessing conversion through this ministry is witnessing miracle.  I recommend that Wright step out of the realm of academia and the institutional church to take part in an emerging church where the ministers do not fall into despair, because there is no despair in life with Christ.  I challenge Wright to leave his double talk of “life after life after death” in the university and proclaim the gospel in action and story as Jesus did in forming his disciples.

We need the correct understanding and use of scripture; we need a sound knowledge of the tradition and we need to be reasonable in our theology and, more importantly, in our efforts to evangelize.  Unfortunately, Surprised by Hope fails in all three guidelines for decent Anglican/Christian theology.

O yes, why the demise of Halloween?  Well, it is just wrong, wrong, wrong in Wright’s post physical resuscitation Easter world (p.23).  Do lament.  All Soul’s Day also needs to jettisoned (p. 168).

October, 2011

I wrote the review for several reasons:

  • Reading the book drove me crazy.  (My poor brother Etienne & his wife Kelly had to endure my rantings about idiotic theology.)
  • Making the “seeing of the Lord” (i.e. the Easter event) about something that happened to Jesus 2,000 years ago gives this entire, very significant part of Christian faith an aspect of “O well, that happened then; what does it have to do with me now.”
  • I knew I wouldn’t get much of an opportunity, if any at all, to ask my questions at the talks.  This way, I might be able to get the review to Wright and get his response.

About Jerry

Catechumenate ministry is my passion. I have been involved in the catechumenate since 1980 in both the Roman Catholic and Episcopal branches of the Church. I am a "progressive," ecumenical Christian who is realistic enough to know that the Church has never been "One"; is often not "Holy"; strives to be "Catholic" and is "Apostolic" only when members respect the Tradition rather than the latest customs. I have been fortunate to be able to focus on various elements of philosophy, theology and Christian history during my studies. I am able to bring them all to bear in catechumenate ministry.
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