Wrightsaid Q&A – November, 2004

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 November, 2004.

Question:

What do you see as the Biblical justification for infant baptism?  What does baptism signify for our children?  Does Covenant Theology play a role here?

Answer:

Covenant theology certainly plays a role here, and I’m grateful you leave it that vague, because describing what covenant theology is and how it works would take too long right now!  The cross-over from circumcision to baptism, as the people of God move from BC to AD, is significantly marked in e.g. Colossians 2, and though there are obvious differences (only males got circumcised, whereas females too get baptized, a point with resonances in Gal 3.27-28) there is a strong sense in the NT that God’s people in Christ are all, including children, to be marked with the covenant sign.  This of course raises all kinds of other well known questions and problems, but actually granted the more or less universal practice of the church until comparatively modern times the real question ought to be, what is the biblical justification for NOT baptizing children?  Baptism signifies membership in Christ… of course the follow-up question is always, how can children have the faith which is the sole badge of that membership, and part of my answer (only part, but it needs to be said) is that as a parent I know I can communicate with a tiny child, can give and receive love — and if God, the father of all, from whom all families take their name, cannot likewise give and receive love, then I am shocked and surprised.  And how might God do that?  Well, perhaps it might have something to do with bringing the child into the family of the church under the sign which speaks powerfully of the death and resurrection of Jesus…

Much more to be said of course but that’s a start!

Question:

In your Romans commentary on 8.3-4 (page 578) you wrote, “What was at stake was not simply God’s judicial honor, in some Anselmic sense, but the mysterious power called sin, at large and destructive within the God’s world, needing to be brought to book, to have sentence passed and executed upon it, so that, with its power broken, God could then give the life that sin would otherwise prevent.  That is what happened on the cross.”  You have affirmed substitionary atonement, but what do you see as the limitation with the Anselmic penal substitution view?  Does it rely too heavily on a Greco-Roman legal understanding rather than a more Hebraic covenant-relational model?  Or is it insufficient in taking into account the God whose honor was at stake was the one who sent Jesus in the first place?

Answer:

A full analysis of Anselm himself and (a different matter) of those who have in some way or other invoked him is beyond possibility at this moment, but the key thing is that in his scheme God’s honour was offended and needed to be restored, like a mediaeval prince who had been publicly shamed.  This is to import into Paul’s picture ideas quite extraneous to it.  There are in fact all kinds of different ways of speaking of substitutionary atonement, and using that last phrase as a shorthand often in my experience masks disagreement between different types of theology.  Paul is concerned to speak here, which I think is if not his clearest statement of the doctrine then certainly one of the two or three most clear, not about God’s honour being wronged and the death of Jesus making satisfaction for that wrong — something he never puts like that, actually — but of sin as a force and power at large in the world which needs to be condemned and executed, which condemnation and execution took place in the death of Jesus. This makes sense, yes, within the larger Jewish world of thought to which the entire section and indeed entire letter belongs.

Question:

You state in your 2003 Gordon College Convocation address: “The heart, and its redemption and renewal, remains central to a genuine biblical soteriology and spirituality.  Loving God with the heart is the true response to the unmerited and boundless love of God, of God’s own heart; this response is itself, as Paul insists, the result of the Spirit pouring it out into our heart.”  Do you think that because of the focus on corporate aspects of salvation, NPP writers have neglected individual salvation?  Has there been an over-reaction to the romantic movement in the opposite direction of denigrating the renewed heart in the individual?  And how does one hold the corporate and individual together in Paul’s theology in an organic, non-artificial way (does Paul’s understanding of union with Christ play an integrating role here)?

Answer:

Some NPP writers may have neglected individual salvation but I’m not sure which they might be.  I think some disciples of Sanders may have wanted to go that route.  But Jimmy Dunn and I have never neglected it to my knowledge and (as he and I agreed in a public debate last week!) it is very frustrating to be harangued and vilified for doing something we are not guilty of!  Yes, there may have been an over-reaction to romanticism, but I don’t think I am guilty of that and anyone who reads my published sermons will surely see what I mean.

Holding together corporate and personal (I prefer ‘personal’ to ‘individual’, because the idea of the ‘individual’ is almost self-defeating: as Paul says, we none of us live to ourselves or die to ourselves) is not difficult.  Actually, you need to start wider again, as does Ephesians: with God’s plan to sum up all things in Christ (1.10), which then plays out in terms of the church as a whole (1.15-23), before focusing in on each individual being saved by grace through faith (2.1-10) which in turn indicates, exactly as in the best NPP writing, that Jew and Gentile are brought together in Christ (2.11ff.).  In fact, Ephesians is the first real NPP author… go figure!

Question:

In your article on “Romans and the Theology of Paul” you wrote: “What is not so often seen, though, is the way in which the theology of the cross, so dear to the hearts of Lutheran expositors as it is so close to the center of Paul, lies at the heart of this critique as much as it ever did in the old scheme.”  I was wonder if you could perhaps explain what you mean by that?  In particular, in Lutheran theology the cross exposes individual human pride and self-confidence (which, it was assumed, first-century Jews possessed in abundance)?  Does the new reading still allow this or does the critique of Judaism on the basis of the cross only function at redemptive-historical level?

Answer:

Sorry, I can’t now recall what exactly I meant just then and haven’t time to look.  But let me pick up your last line: what do you mean, ONLY function at a redemptive-historical level?  The whole point of what I have been saying about Paul for many years now is that the distinction between the personal salvation and redemption-history is misconceived, an attempt to salvage some of the false antitheses of post-reformation theology… for Paul, salvation is that which God will give at the very end when he renews all things in Christ, that which is given already in the resurrection of Jesus, and that which, between these two, is given to all who, ‘called’ by the Spirit at work through the word of the gospel, believe that gospel and have their lives transformed by the Spirit.  This is the gift which God promised to Abraham, that he would have a worldwide family characterized by this faith… So the cross (this may be what I meant) stands over against all the boasting which would say (see Romans 3.29f., so often marginalized in anti-NPP exegesis) that God is basically the God of the Jews…

Question:

From reading your article “My Pilgrimage in Theology” it appears that during that time period you found many of your insights not from intellectual efforts, but from other means – sometimes even under strong emotional stress.  Either by intention or circumstance, it appears that you not only balanced your professional and domestic life, but also your intellectual intensity/strategem with patience and alternate traditions.  Where are you today, and how do the answers come?  How is the pride and fear (or in total, the psyche) controlled?

Answer:

Oh boy, I don’t know I can go too far into this without writing more than there is space and time for here.  I hear the question, and I think it’s a good one; though actually I would assume, perhaps wrongly, that all genuine Christian maturity is attained by learning to love God simultaneously with heart, mind, soul and strength.  It shouldn’t surprise us, then, if hearing in a new way the call to love God with heart and soul should precipitate new challenges for mind and strength, or any other combination.  And certainly, yes, patience is of the essence in all of these, as we glimpse what it might be to see the truth perfectly and then it clouds over again (not that we lose our grasp on Jesus Christ and the gospel, but there are times when we see some aspects of the truth of that gospel in greater clarity and times when it appears harder), and as we glimpse what it might be to love God and adore him perfectly and completely but of course we know at that same moment that we fall so far short… and so on.  I’m not sure what you mean by ‘alternate traditions’ — could sound flaky and new-agey, which wouldn’t be me at all.  As an Anglican I have always been aware, at least from quite early in my life, that there were resources available to me in various parts of church life, some of which (unaccountably to me) didn’t seem to acknowledge one another’s existence.  E.g. praying in tongues on the one hand and richly liturgical worship on the other… or classic reformed bible study on the one hand and using the Jesus Prayer on the other… why not have it all?

Question:

Secondly, how is this balance in your pilgrimage related to your answer to the earlier question of what is the most under-investigated item in Christian scholarship? In your words: “the unspoken and unexamined assumptions about the split between religion/faith and real life”?

Answer:

I think my answer there was related principally to the post-enlightenment split which has allowed `religion’ and ‘real life’ to float free from one another.  I have to say that I see this in my own culture in various ways and in American culture in various, sometimes different, ways (e.g. we make prayer in schools compulsory by law and you make it illegal, even though 50% of your population go to church compared with 10% or less here).  I also had in mind the way in which the Enlightenment split has allowed e.g. big business to control the way people think, vote and do foreign policy without reference to the gospel of Jesus Christ…

Can I add one more thing, conscious that an election has just taken place in America and that many in my country were surprised as well as alarmed by the result? I take the view that whatever we wanted to happen, even if we think that this is a terrible result, even that puts us in the position of the children of Israel in Babylon commanded to pray for the peace of the city where they were held captive.  More positively, I want to say to George W Bush and those who help him run the world: OK, fine, you have a world empire.  We had one of those and we have spent a century counting the cost of it.  You have a world empire with a strongly Christian flavour in the vote that sustained it.  We had one of those (though not always the same type of Christianity that many in America now embrace, but never mind); and we learned, painfully enough, the deep ambiguities of thinking that in bringing Christ to the world we could ignore the things that were being done in his name. More to the point, the idea of a Christian empire came to first embodiment under Constantine, whom most Americans (if they’ve heard of him) learn early in life to reject, partly because it reminds them of George III sending bishops to the colonies.  For generations now people have criticized Constantine and his empire. If you now have a Christian Empire, could you perhaps begin to think about how to avoid the mistakes both of Constantine and of Victorian England, and about how to get it right this time?

Warmest good wishes to my readers far and near

+Tom

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