Wrightsaid Q&A – February, 2006

Webmaster’s note: Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has agreed to answer a few questions occasionally from the Wrightsaid email list.  I am pleased to make this Q & A available on the N.T. Wright Page.  These are his responses for February, 2006.

1) When you discuss God’s three-foldeness (see “Who Was Jesus?”) do you mean that *this* three-fold God is YHWH, or one of the persons (Father) of this Trinity is YHWH?  I read a sermon of yours that mentioned YHWH on the cross.  But, in Climax of the Covenant, in discussing Colossians 1:15ff, you mention that Christ is to be distinguished from the Father, and yet identified as totally and fully divine, like the Father (which of course is the basic idea of the Trinity).  And when Paul mentions “Father,” he typically means “God” and vice versa.  Is the Father YHWH, or the entire deity we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit collectively known as YHWH?

Great question but it doesn’t admit of an easy answer.  We can see the beginnings of NT wrestling with this question in 1 Cor 8.6, where Paul takes the Shema and glosses it as though ELOHIM (i.e. THEOS)comes out as ‘God the Father’ and YHWH (i.e. KYRIOS) comes out as Jesus Christ.  I’ve explored this a bit both in Climax of Covenant and in chapter 5 of the new book on Paul (Fresh Perspectives).  I think we are here tiptoeing round a huge question much like canoeists paddling round about Niagra Falls and might be in danger of being swept over in one or another theologically disastrous direction, but let me recklessly press on just one more stage: I think that the early Christians might say, The God we Jews knew by the generic word ELOHIM and by the personal name YHWH has made himself known in person in and as Jesus of Nazareth.  That in-person-ness, coupled with the fact that YHWH is a personal name, coupled with the fact that Jesus is Lord (KYRIOS, which is the regular Greek rendering of YHWH, or rather of ADONAI which substitutes for it) makes a YHWH-JESUS fit seem natural.  Yet the Spirit is also called ‘Lord’ (KYRIOS — see, not least, the famous passage at the end of 2 Cor 3).  It feels to me more as though ELOHIM and YHWH together are put into one and then as it were rolled out again and this time it all comes out threefold.  But that’s an impression which it would be interesting — for someone else! — tocheck through the second and third centuries…

2) While reading your “big books”, and, following up on a few footnotes, I was led to read several works of the “context group” scholars (Malina, Neyrey,Rohrbaugh, etc.).  They certainly changed my whole perspective on reading the NT.  How valuable do you find their contributions to current scholarship and how necessary do you think it might be to bring some of their insights to the church?

I see the work of the ‘context group’ as basically a sharp-edged form of history.  That is, I don’t think they are doing anything other than what historians always ought to do: studying the specific and particular context, the social assumptions, the implicit narratives, etc., of the people we’re interested in.  Insofar as people in that group go beyond that, projecting larger theories about how societies work, they are only as valuable as the evidence they assemble for such constructs.  What they succeed in doing, and what we need to pay close attention to, is joggling us out of our comfortable assumptions that, as I think Neyrey puts it, the ancient Mediterranean world was much like ours except without electronic toys.  They are putting under the microscope things that a lot of historians — and a great many non-historically minded Christians! — have glanced at with the naked eye.  As such they deserve our close attention.  My sense, though, is that sometimes at least members of that group come with an explicit anti-theological agenda, almost a sociological reductionism.  That’s a big generalization and it wouldn’t apply to all of them, or to any of them all the time, I think.  But it’s something to watch out for.

3) Is the existence of denominations an overall positive or negative for the Church?  What are the benefits?  What are the harmful effects?  How do we proceed from where we are at today?

Overall it must be judged a flagrant disobedience to the NT’s regular position that part of the point of the church is that it brings together people of the most widely differing kinds.  So many denominations, not least in N America, simply reflect the ethnic and cultural origins of different parts of the population.  In my country it tends to be class-driven more than ethnic, though sometimes it’s both: e.g. in my diocese there are some large pockets of solid Roman Catholic adherence because in earlier generations Irish labourers were drafted in to the steel industry.
The benefits are of course that we avoid a sense of one size fitting all.  But the harmful effects are wasteful duplication of effort, to look no further; the refusal to behave as the one people called from every nation, tribe and tongue; the projection of cultural preferences on to a theological screen to give ‘doctrinal’ legitimationto differences that don’t originate there (I am NOT saying there are no doctrinal differences that matter — there are and they do!), and so forth.  I am not a relativist (I shouldn’t have to say that, but I find I do!) but I really do believe that we must work together across denominational lines at everything we possibly can, whether it’s feeding the poor or campaigning for global justice, and that wherever possible we should be praying together and reading the Bible together even if it’s informally in twos and threes.  Where possible we should share buildings, pulpits, sacraments. . .  I am horribly aware of how difficult this is and how little progress my own church is making in this direction, and indeed of how easily ecumenical work gets bogged down in endless committees always sending minutes to one another, watching out for people being offended or excluded, rather than preaching and living the gospel.  But occasionally there are moments of breakthrough.
I guess it comes down to this: I can’t read Ephesians and collude with the way things are.  And I guess the principalities and powers are very, very happy with the way things are: according to Eph 3.10, the unity of the church across barriers that have hitherto divided humankind is the sure sign to the powers that their time is up, that they are not masters of the world and that Jesus is…

4) Your work is appreciated by Christians across the denominational spectrum, but how did you come to be in the Anglican Church?  How do you see the goal of your ministry within the Church of England?  What particular joys or frustrations do you encounter in your ministry within the Church of England.

Born and bred, I’m afraid, like a lot of Anglicans in this country at least.  To answer this question fully would take an autobiography for which I don’t have time just now.  But one thing is worth saying strongly.  The Church of England (things are very different, I know, in many of the Anglican churches around the world) has never seen its mission and ministry in simply (a) converting outsiders and (b) ministering to those who regularly worship in this church.  We have always seen our mission as being to the whole nation.  This is sometimes mocked by free church folk who accuse us of watering down the particular and personal challenge of the gospel, and sometimes resented by secularists who want religion off the public square altogether.  But we persist: for instance, about one fifth of all primary schools in England are officially ‘Church of England’ schools, though without a necessary ‘faith qualification’ to attend; in most cases clergy chair the board of governors; and this is seen as a commitment to the good of the country as a whole, irrespective of the gospel impact on particular children, though of course we hope and pray that will be significant.  Other examples: over the last 20 years the report called ‘Faith in the City’, and the follow-up resource called the Church Urban Fund, has contributed massively to urban regeneration in the UK, energized by people who, out of loyalty to Jesus, cannot stand idly by and watch social injustice flourish. When people see that the gospel really does mean housing the homeless, providing play groups for kids who otherwise spend all day on the streets, etc etc., we are seeing a massive impact.  Many of our leading local politicians etc recognize the role the church plays in the wider health of society and are deeply grateful for it and want to work with us.
Some people still regard this as pandering to the old ‘Christendom’ model and wish they could get on with ‘real’ evangelism etc instead.  I persist, and this is a typical Church of England attitude, in thinking it has to be a both/and not an either/or.  Of course, if the church gets so immersed in social projects that it forgets to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to every individual it meets, then something has to be put right.  But that’s like saying that if I see a friend hopping down the street because he’s forgotten that he’s got a right leg as well as a left one, I could remind him that walking is easier, more effective, and even more elegant.
The specific ministry I am trying to exercise as Bishop of Durham is the subject of a paper on the ntwrightpage website — and also of a sermon I preached at the installation of my new chaplain a couple of weeks ago, attached to this email.

Thank you to everyone for the questions, and God bless you in your lives and ministries.  Please, please pray for me as I try to minister to this wonderful (but poverty-stricken!) diocese, as I try to help the Anglican Communion steer away from disaster, and as I try to maintain my own close walk with the Lord in prayer and study day by day.  Thanks again

Tom Wright