August 15, 2008
The Wright Brothers (in Christ)
Scot McKnight says N.T. Wright and Christopher Wright show the future of theology.
Recently I was asked where theology was headed. I assured my reader that I wasn't "in the know" but that I would hazard a guess or two. First I thought we were likely to see a more robust Trinitarian theology, one deeply anchored in the great Cappadocian theologians like Gregory of Nyssa. But in some ways all the main lines of Trinitarian thought have already been sketched by great theologians like Karl Barth, James B. Torrance and others. With this first idea now set aside, I had a second idea of where theology is going: "The Wright Brothers."
No, not those Wright Brothers, but another set of Wrights (who aren't even brothers, except in Christ): Tom and Chris. Even if they don't map where all of theology is headed, these two scholars and devoted churchmen, both Anglican, do set before us two words that have become increasingly fruitful and I think will be the subject of serious theological reflection in the future. The two words are "earth" and "mission." Each scholar discusses both, but I will focus in this post on Tom Wright's focus on "earth" and Chris Wright's focus on "mission."
Increasingly we are seeing more and more Christians own up to the earthly focus of biblical revelation - the claim God makes upon this earth through his Eikons (humans made in his image). We are seeing a deeper reflection on what it means to participate in the historical flow, in government and politics and society and culture, and we are seeing a renewed interest in vocation and work. One of the more striking elements of this new surge is that theologians who are deeply anchored in the Bible also see our eternal destiny having an earthly shape.
And not only are we seeing the increasing presence of "earthly," but we are seeing a reshaping of theology itself so that God's mission in this world becomes central. Everyone knows that the latest buzz word is missional but not enough are thinking carefully about what mission means in the Bible and what it means to speak about "God's mission" (missio Dei). But there is a surge of thinking now about this topic and it will continue to spark interest both for pastors and professional theologians.
Now to the Wright brothers.
Tom Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope, relentlessly critiques the gnostic-like preoccupation so many have with heaven as a place for our spirits and souls - the place where we really belong, and the sooner we get there the better. It is not that Tom Wright denies heaven; no, he affirms it robustly but he argues that the eternal home for the Christian is not that old-fashioned view of heaven but the new heavens and the new earth. And he argues the new heavens and new earth are something brought down from heaven to earth. (Read Revelation 20 - 22.)
I think some have made far too much of this, as if it is a revolutionary insight. What it is, in my judgment, is a strong critique of how dualistic we've become. And it is a welcome call for us to see that what we do now prepares us for what we will do in the new heavens and the new earth. I think Tom Wright's emphasis here is spot-on: we need to grapple more directly with the connection of what God calls us to do now as continuous with what we shall be called to do for eternity. I hope many will see their way to read Tolkien's Leaf by Niggle, for it addresses similar themes.
This emphasis of Tom Wright's actually forms a foundation for Chris Wright's exceptional study The Mission of God. Here we find yet another theme that is reshaping so much of where theology is going: mission. I wish people asked this one simple question: What is the mission of God in this world? Chris Wright, taking his cues from the Old Testament - he's an Old Testament scholar - says the mission of God is to make his glorious Name known throughout the whole world. This mission, found so often in the prophets, shapes how we not only read the Bible but how we live out the Bible in our world.
God makes his Name known through God's people, first Israel and then the Church. Most centrally, God's mission with a Name becomes fully visible in Jesus Christ - in his life, death, resurrection, and the gift of the Spirit. This Story, this grand narrative of God's mission, is reshaping how theology is being done.
There is a converging hook here: Chris Wright ends his book on the theme of God's mission involving the earth - the whole earth. Tom Wright ends his book about earth on mission - the mission of God in this world. I think they are both right.
I can't see into the future, but I can see down the road a bit, and what I see is an increasing emphasis on earth and mission. Those two themes are likely to take us into the next two decades.