One of the world’s best published Scripture scholars and an Anglican bishop, N. T. Wright’s latest book blends biblical competence (particularly with respect to Paul’s letters) and pastoral experience. The blending is usually smooth, although the examples and stories can feel a bit windy. This is a book for a general audience with evangelical leanings about how a Christian goes about developing virtue, character or habits of thinking, feeling and acting. At various points the book will put the reader in mind of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue and Stanley Hauerwas’s A Community of Character, writers to whom Wright is “massively indebted” and whom he mentions in the afterword.
Being Christian, Wright explains, involves a lot more than keeping rules, although rules are certainly important in the process of individual growth as well as in the ongoing life of the believing community. Ultimately, following Jesus should lead to an internalization of the example Jesus sets for his followers in the Gospel narratives. This internalization leads to the formation of a distinctively Christian character and the adoption of a Christ-self. Or as some ancient Christian writers said, having been created in the divine image, over a lifetime we put on the divine likeness, which is Christ. Our being clothed with Christ (Gal 3:27), or putting on the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16, Phil 2:5), entails practice and great moral effort—the exercise of virtues. We learn by observing the evangelical practice of other believers. We need to immerse ourselves in reading and praying over Scripture. And because salvation is corporate, the strength and inspiration that come from participating in the liturgical life of the church are indispensable for our becoming fully human.
To speak of becoming fully human supposes that we have an idea of what this fullness consists of, and so we are led to think about divine intention. What does God want for us? Why have we been created? God wants to give us the kingdom, the very kingdom of God that was at the center of Jesus’ teaching and mission. Jesus’ resurrection makes clear that this kingdom will be nothing less than the “new heaven and new earth” of which Rv 21:1 speaks (thereby fulfilling the vision of Is 65:17). When that kingdom finally arrives, Jesus’ followers will be worshiping and governing as priests and rulers in the new reality, the splendidly recreated world that the Creator intends for us. He writes: “When God redeems the whole creation, redeemed humans will play the key role, resuming the wise, healing sovereignty over the whole world for which God made them in the first place.” The mission or vocation of each disciple now is to live in such a way that every thought, word and action somehow anticipates the glory that awaits us. The intelligibility of Christian existence, in other words, derives from the future and is patterned on the past. The future is a world transformed; the pattern is the selfless love and service of Jesus that found its most intense expression in the Cross. The practice of discipleship is going to involve suffering; but as with Jesus, the Messiah who gave his life, so too for us: first suffering, then glory.
Sometimes Wright’s view of the future sounds close to science fiction. “In the new heavens and new earth, there will be new vocations and new tasks,” he says, an idea he develops in Surprised by Hope (2008). But is the goal or telos of the human race coincident with the telos of the whole universe? Here theologians and biblical scholars (and biblical writers) should measure their words when they begin thinking, for example, that human beings “will eventually reign in glory over the whole creation.” After all, we may not be alone in the universe.
Notably absent from the present work is a nod to the work of liberation theologians or political theology. Wright characterizes as a “would-be Christian vision” those who believe that Christian practice here and now should consist of “working and campaigning for justice, peace, and the alleviation of poverty and distress.” In its place he advocates “the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope, and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory to the world.”
Yet later he argues against those who focus on the Cross as atonement (“epistles people”) without taking into account the history that led up to it (“gospels people”). He writes: “Kingdom and cross belong together. The whole story is the whole story.” But this is exactly the point liberation theologians have been insisting upon, except that they focus less on character formation and acquiring virtue and more on the kind of historical practice that is truly liberating for individuals as well as for societies. If there is one virtue particularly appropriate for our time, solidarity, with its political and social overtones, would certainly qualify. The integration of the cultivation of personal holiness with working for justice, which Wright calls for very briefly toward the end of the book, is what political holiness is all about.
Wright advocates “eschatological authenticity.” What this amounts to is “no violence, no hatred of enemies, no anxious protection of land and property against the pagan hordes” and, instead, “a glad and unwavering trust in the creator God.” But while the New Testament characterizes Jesus in priestly and royal terms, it also presents him as prophet. And so we might want to consider what exactly he was doing such that people interpreted his actions in terms of the category “prophet.” The closest Wright comes to answering this seems to be when he connects prayer with feeling the pain of the world and when he attends to the work of peacemaking. Wright understands very well that in the end Jesus stood before the Roman governor and the chief priests. Yet it strikes me that it was the prophetic dimension of his life that made his death increasingly likely, whereas Wright highlights the “royal” and “priestly” aspects of Jesus’ vocation. Given the extensive attention to Paul in the book—from which readers certainly stand to learn a great deal—I find myself concluding that, in the end, Wright seems to be more of an epistles person.