N.T. Wright on Attempting to Restore New Testament Christianity

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“Many writers…have seen the religious experience of the early Christians…as the normative element within Christianity. This has the apparent advantage that it enables one to conduct the ‘scientific’, supposedly ‘objective’ study of early Christian religion and theology, with the knowledge that when one has found them one is in touch with the real model of what Christianity is supposed to be like. On might then, it would be hoped, reactivate this model by preaching and prayer.”

– N.T. Wright. The New Testament and the People of God, 16

He goes on to talk about the authority of scripture and whether or not scripture is authoritative because it is closer to the actual events. He also talks about what is in scripture and whether or not what was selected is normative of all early Christian belief and practice and what was ommitted and how that bears on the discussion of re-establishing early Christianity when we do not know the whole of what early Christianity was really like.

For those who read this blog who come from a background in the Church of Christ these words are very challenging. Any thoughts?

0 Responses

  1. I think that Wright’s argument weakens when he begins to suppose whether or not we can really learn anything about first century Christianity from the Bible.

    But he does rightly criticize the “scientific” or “objective” pursuit of the New Testament, or as those in our fellowship attempted, to erect a sort of pyramid of intellectual progress based on the post-new-dispensationalist texts of the NT (a canon within the canon that excludes the OT & the Gospels).

    Monte Cox dubbed a catch-phrase that I often use: “I don’t want to be a 1st century Christian; I want to be a 21st century Christian.”

  2. He constructs his own epistemology in the book that does posit that we can know some things for certain about the NT culture and the truth that is contained in the pages of scripture. It is hard to tell that from this little snippet.

    His point here is that we cannot fully engage as the church of the 1st century because we are going on a limited number of texts that may never have been intended to be read that way.

    Monte Cox always has a way with words. He is one smart cookie. I think you are right on with your middle paragraph.

  3. It’s interesting, Philip, that folks from Churches of Christ have put out journals with both of those names. From the right, one group responded to “Twenty-First Century Christian” by publishing “First Century Christian.” (Not sure that last one–I mean “First”–is still being published).

    Seems to me that the emphasis on “First” ignores the historical chasm between us and them. As I see it, it gives up real questions that shouldn’t be ignored in order to “gain” the security of identity: “We are now what they were then.” No wonder the movement has avoided historical studies. Just a little bit of history blows the lid off of any easy connection between first and twenty-first.

  4. “His point here is that we cannot fully engage as the church of the 1st century because we are going on a limited number of texts that may never have been intended to be read that way.”

    Well, during the Apollo 13 mission, the lunar module was never intended to achieve the kinds of objectives that those astronauts & Houston engineers made it accomplish. But they did it anyway. The writers of Scripture likely had no idea that what they were writing would be poured over & dissected with such intensity. But, still, Scripture is the best thing we’ve got going for figuring out God’s will for mankind (including, what Christanity looks like, what the church should look like, etc.) today.

    I could be wrong, but I do think I understand where Dr. Wright is going. Given the difficulties of transmission (not the least of which are the great historical & cultural gaps that exist between writing and current reading), we ought to be humble in the “authoritative conclusions” that we reach based on interpreting Scripture.

    Still, authorial intent & divine intent are two different entities altogether. And sometimes I grow suspicious when scholarship venerates the former over the latter a little bit too much for my taste.

  5. I think this goes to a similar issue I’ve been debating in my heart recently.

    I’ve been studying the history of the Church of Christ movement and have come to a point where I am have to ask, “Has the Church of Christ become the Church of Paul?”

    Are we so caught up in the re-enactment of the 1st Century Christians that we only look to Paul for instruction? If we took away all the verses in the Bible and only left the words of Jesus could the traditional Church of Christ movement survive?

    When we get caught up in the rules do we lose the spirit of what the re-enactment is all about?

    Great discussion. New reader and very appreciative for everyone’s comments.

    Rodney McCarthy

  6. I think Wright has to be a little careful here because it has huge implications when it comes to the inspiration of scripture. You really have to read the first 100 pages of the book to do justice to his view and it is too vast for me to cover or review here. I think we have to try to take our understanding of what 1st century Christianity was like, the best of our ability, and try to apply those lessons to our churches and culture today.

    Another thing, what was first century Christianity based on at its heart? The life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus Christ. That was their interpretive framework and it needs to and can be ours as well. That doesn’t mean you leave Paul out or count his words as less important. It does mean that we don’t want to “get Paul right” but “get Jesus wrong.”

    Rodney, many emergent church folks are pondering that same question.

  7. I’m not in the Church of Christ denomination, Matt, but I do think Wright is correct. I don’t think he is saying, as Phillip II suggests, that we have nothing to learn from the First Century church. Wright’s question seems to be, what can we learn? Is it possible to extricate the writings in the New Testament from the cultural perspective that are woven throughout the text and be faithful to the core message of the Gospel in the 21st century? That’s the $64,000 question.

  8. @Wyatt Roberts

    Yes, we can be faithful to the message if we hold Jesus first. If we elevate Paul and others found in the letters of the New Testament to the same stature we become consumed by the issues they faced at the time instead of the essence of Jesus’s ministry.

  9. I would like to make a couple of points that I hope add to this discussion. As it relates to ‘the authority of scripture’, Wright has written a book called ‘The Last Word’ where he provides an exhaustive explanation of his view. I think his book is incredible.

    Secondly, in his excellent work ‘The New Testament and the People of God’ Wright discusses his epistemology. He adopts what he refers to as a ‘critical realist’ position.

    This position is an attempt to escape the dichotomous view between 1st Century Christianity as ‘normative’ and the view that only a subjective reading of the text is appropriate.

    Summarily, Wright asserts that the deepest level of meaning for scripture is to understand the worldview of the 1st Century. Understanding their worldview gives birth to a new worldview for the reader. This is, in fact, new creation.

    Wright compares scripture with the first four parts of a five part Shakespearian play. The first four parts are 1)creation, 2) the fall, 3) Israel, and 4)Jesus. We modern Christians are the fifth act and are improvising. But the better we know the first four parts, the better we can act in accordance.

    With that said, we must not imagine that Paul was at odds with the teaching of the Master. Paul was simply trying to build on the foundation Jesus had laid.

    I hope this helps.

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