Author, New Testament scholar, and former Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright recently spoke at an event in Washington, D.C. Here, Sojourners contributor Juliet Vedral asks Wright about his latest book, Paul and His Recent Interpreters; how to read current events alongside Scripture; and the books that have stayed with him through the years.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Juliet Vedral: In a recent Trinity Forum event, you said that Christians should learn to "read the news with Jesus." Could you explain a bit more what you mean by that? What are some concrete ways to read the news through a gospel lens?
N.T. Wright: It was a deliberate double meaning. First, we have to “read” and understand what Jesus, and the four evangelists, meant when they spoke of the “good news” of the gospel – Jesus’ announcement that now at last God was becoming king on earth as in heaven.
Second, we have to read the actual news of our own day and ask: If it’s true that with Jesus God’s kingdom truly was inaugurated, how do we as his followers respond to, understand, and engage with the real events of our own day?
Vedral: During that same event, you spoke about the role of government— how it is meant to work for the common good and to promote justice (among other things). Would you elaborate more on how you see the role of government and the responsibility of the church in relation to it?
Wright: All human governments are intended by God to do justice and mercy — to look after, in particular, the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. The great messianic passages like Psalm 72 are very, very clear on this. And Jesus absolutely endorsed this. But since all human governments, like all human individuals, are subject to temptation, especially the temptation to use this God-given role for their own ends, there must be clear and wise critique, and holding to account. God will himself one day hold all humans, and all human governments, to account, but the church has the responsibility in the present to speak words of truth and judgment in advance of that final holding-to-account. This is where John 16 comes in — the Spirit will hold the world accountable on the issues of sin, righteousness, and judgment. And the way the Spirit will do that is through God’s people following the example of Jesus in John 18 and 19, and speaking the truth to power.
Vedral: Your latest book, Paul and His Recent Interpreters, is a survey of recent scholarship on Paul and his writing, which seems to be geared toward graduate study. How might an average lay person in the church approach this topic?
Wright: The easy answer is that I have written a smaller and more popular book called The Paul Debate. I would hope that the average thoughtful lay person would be able to understand that, and then perhaps graduate on to books like Paul and his Recent Interpreters, which is I think comprehensible even for non-academics.
My advice for the average lay person who wanted to study Paul would be to make their own study analysis of one letter after another — perhaps start with the shorter ones like Philippians — but to [also] make sure to have two or more quite different English translations. Paul’s Greek doesn’t always go easily into modern English (or American!), and we need to get as many angles as we can on what’s going on.
Once someone has made their own analysis of a letter they will have discovered the puzzles and questions for themselves and be more open to reading what others have written about them. First-hand acquaintance with the actual texts is always the best way, though.
Vedral: Given the new perspective on Paul and an emphasis on God's kingdom coming to this world, rather than an escapist concept of heaven, how should the average Christian view themselves and their work in the world?
Wright: The so-called “new perspective on Paul” covers many different actual “perspectives.” My own work has often been in sharp dialogue with other NPP writers like Sanders and Dunn. In my own work I have tried to explore these issues in a number of places, particularly the final section of Surprised by Hope and in some of the essays in Surprised by Scripture. The key thing is this: (a) God has in Jesus launched his sovereign, saving rule on earth as in heaven; (b) God is, by the Spirit, going to complete that work one day by bringing heaven and earth together in a great act of renewal and redemption (1 Corinthians 15, Romans 8, Revelation 21 and 22); and (c) that same Spirit is enlivening and enabling Jesus’ followers in the present to do and say things through which that final act of renewal is anticipated in the present time.
The trick then is so to understand what (a) was and what it meant, and so to understand (b) and what it will entail, that we get a clear sense of vocation for what we ought to be doing in (c). We are to produce signs and foretastes of the kingdom. We do not “build the kingdom” by our own efforts, but we build for God’s kingdom, doing things in the present which are true advance symbols and elements of that coming reality. Justice and beauty are central to God’s new world and should be central to our work. Together they frame the good news of Jesus.
Vedral: If you could have the world read one book — besides the Bible — what would it be?
Wright: An impossible question! Shakespeare, of course ... George Herbert, of course ... Augustine’s Confessions, of course...
Of contemporary theological works, I still regard Miroslav Volf’s book Exclusion and Embrace as having a real and urgent importance for our times. Of my own works, I guess I would hope people would read Surprised by Hope in particular — I get more letters, emails, and other messages about that book than all my other books put together, and I think it articulates what the Bible and the Gospel are really all about in ways which importantly cut across what so many western Christians take for granted.