NT Wright and the People of God

3 Unmissable Ideas from NT Wright’s New Testament and the People of God

I was very pleased to receive a copy of NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” which is the opening and foundational work in Wright’s on going project “Christian Origins and the Question of God” which also includes “Jesus and the Victory of God” and “The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

This is such a vast tome covering so many important issues, by way of review let me give you 53reasons you should read this book, particularly if you are interested in evangelism (and who wouldn’t be?).

1. The World(view) is not enough

As a young evangelist I was brought up on the books of James Sire and Francis Schaeffer. These writers introduced me to the concept of worldview the way in which our intellectual prejudices and presuppositions shape the way we interpret the universe. Sire’s book the Universe next door provides a catalogue of worldviews: (Deism, Existentialism, Nihilism and Pantheism ) that help readers understand the benefits of a Christian (theistic) worldview. Francis Schaeffer’s work explains how exposing the presuppositions and assumptions someone holds and through interrogating these assumptions it is possible to “wobble a worldview” and thus helping someone to see the way that the Christian gospel fulfils the longings and fills in the inadequacies of their current way of thinking.

 

NT Wright’s magnificent book the New Testament and the People of God offers a greater degree of sophistication in exploring how worldviews function in concert with other belief forming and shaping activities. The interaction of story, questions, praxis and symbol in concert shape the heart of a culture. The “questions” that Wright describes are the closest thing to the worldview analysis of Sire or the presuppositions of Schaeffer and so they are shown to be an elements of a belief system. But by adding the other dimensions – Wright helpfully leaves open other areas which need to be addressed when thinking of the revangelisation of the UK. That engaging with the stories, the symbols and the praxis of every day people is as important as engaging their worldview. In fact our worldview is actually formed by participating in a story, the impact of symbols and our daily praxis. Because we are more than just rational beings. Everyone that wants to communicate the gospel in today’s culture could benefit from the depth and breadth of Wright’s work in this area.

Evangelists need to be aware that our audiences are not a blank slate ready to receive the gospel. They come preloaded with assumptions and ideas. Engagement with culture, questions and the practices of daily life and ritual.

2. Epistemology matters

How do we know what we know about anything? How do we know what we know about God? If you are interested in helping people explore the Christian faith working out your theory of knowledge is important. Many apologists assume a theory of knowledge without realising it. Some of them are philosophically naïve, others simply optimistic. Wright offers a really helpful approach with an articulation of “critical realism” – his intent is not to train apologists but to set up a framework for his biblical studies, a prologue to his reinvestigation of the the Christian story. Wright refuses to make the hard and fast distinction between subject and object and argues for a “relational expistemology” that emphasises the “storied nature” of all knowing. Rather than a bottom up approach to knowledge bases on a series of unshakeable assumptions or epistemological axioms – Wright grounds his theory of knowledge on the way the Bible operates – by fixing our knowledge within a wider story.

Evangelists – we need to rethink the way in which we know what we know. Beware of just picking up the assumptions of your favourite apologist, sadly many have imbibed an enlightenment way of understanding of truth without noticing. Wright offers another model well worth engaging with.

3. Scripture is the authoritative Story

Wright’s approach to the authority of scripture is intimately related to his theory of knowledge. Rather than imposing an Enlightenment approach to knowledge onto scripture and looking for proof texts that can justify a foundationalist approach to knowing. Wright instead offers an approach to the authority of scripture that makes sense of the form, structure and content of the Bible. Namely the way that the Bible tells the story of God, his people and his universe and that the way to treat a story as authoritative is to allow it to shape the life and beliefs of the church. “The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer an improvisatory performance of the final act as it leads up to and anticipates the intended conclusion.”

For the evangelist wright offers another reason to preach:

a) the whole story of scripture

we need to explain not just the death of Christ but also the whole story in which it makes sense. Its why we were given 66 books not just Romans 6:23.

b) the story as a story

there are good reasons for us to allow the narrative parts of scripture to be preached as a narrative rather than trying to convert them into systematic theology. Stories are not substandard or secondary they are part of the way in which we come to form our worldview.

Conclusion

I hope this has whetted your appetite for the rest of the book and why it is a must read for aspiring evangelists and apologists, not to mention anyone seeking to better understand the New Testament.

4 thoughts on “NT Wright and the People of God”

  1. Hey Krish,
    Love the review. Classic book. Just thought I’d flag up the contribution of Benno van den toren’s new book, Christian Apologetics as Cross-Cultural Dialogue (2011). My only sadness is that hes still focussed on mind, will, embodied in traditions, but doesnt deal with the affective or aeshetic – what may be there in wright’s analysis of “symbols”, but Benno’s phd back in the day was on Barth, postmodernism & apologetics, asking whether there was a universal rationality (he went off to teach theology to tribal pigmes in central African republic) and I’ve been on mission with him in French balieues, so it’s all fleshed out in practice – like with wright and yourself! His analysis of culture as a weaving together of various threads worldview, ethos & competing allegiances which pull things into & out of tension is what he seeks to relate to a christian & biblical anthropology as created & fallen, and what can be exploited in Christian apologetics. I think You’d like it. http://wetlenses.blogspot.com/2008/08/christian-worldview.html

  2. This makes me want to read the book! Thank you.

    Could you expand on the final point – “allow the narrative parts of scripture to be preached as a narrative rather than trying to convert them into systematic theology”?

    I am used to sermons that effectively point out truths in a Bible text and then help us to understand their significance (intellectual, practical or otherwise). How would a “narratival sermon” work?

  3. This looks like it’s well worth the read – thanks for the review. I just wanted to point out that it’s not only Christians who have bought into Enlightenment thinking when it comes to epistemology. Plenty of others in the West have, and this hasn’t changed completely with the presence of postmodernism. Many people think they hold to “a series of unshakeable assumptions or epistemological axioms”, and that is how they would centre their discussions around faith. Like you say, people come “pre-loaded with assumptions and ideas”.

    So I suppose the question becomes, how do Christians respond to that in conversation? How would we bring them around to see “the storied nature of all knowing?” It would take a lot of re-thinking of a modern theory of knowledge on not only the evangelist/apologist’s part, but also on the part of the person they are speaking to. This is not an easy thing.

  4. Long tie since I read it – my recollection is that I loved his summary of alternate attemps to complete the OT story – Josphus, Pharisees etc.

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