Book Review

"Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church" by N. T. Wright

Kim Riddlebarger
N.T. Wright
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

N. T. Wright's book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church is a running complaint about the dominance of fundamentalist and liberal approaches to death, the resurrection, the intermediate state, and the mission of the church. Surprised by Hope is more polemical than insightful, too condescending to be comforting, and too dismissive of opposing views to be convincing. Surprised by Hope is not a book of comfort one can give to a grieving Christian. Nor does it offer the depth of insight into difficult biblical passages that we have come to expect from Bishop Wright. I am not usually of the mind that the tone of a book (its "feel") is a suitable basis for a negative review. But in a book such as this’and I want to say this carefully’a book that purports to be about "hope," the tone of the book does matter. Prospective buyers need to know what they are getting. This book is a polemic, not a work of pastoral comfort.

My first encounter with Wright's work was some years ago when I read Climax of the Covenant (1991). It was immediately apparent that he was a force with which to be reckoned. Would that all scholars write with such a persuasive wit and clarity! I devoured his "Christian Origins and the Question of God" trilogy: The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), and The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003). Wright's powerful defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ made him a hero to many conservative evangelical scholars.

But the conservative embrace of Wright quickly went south as he had been simultaneously publishing his work on Paul. What Saint Paul Really Said (1997), his subsequent volume, Paul: A Fresh Perspective (2005), along with various essays, as well as his commentary on Romans (2002), revealed that Wright was also the leading spokesman for that movement widely identified as the New Perspective on Paul (NPP). Although Wright convinced many of his own version of the "New Perspective," others openly challenged him, mounting a rigorous defense of the Reformation's understanding of Paul. Critics of Wright argued that Paul was indeed addressing the question of how sinners were declared righteous before a holy God. The NPP failed, it was argued, because the "old perspective" on Paul makes much better sense of Paul's letters.

While a review of Surprised by Hope is not the place to interact with Wright's view of justification in any detail, this book repeats the most problematic formulations of his understanding of justification and the gospel. According to Wright, the doctrine of justification is not about how people "get saved" but about identifying those already numbered among the people of God (140). Wright complains that "although people often suppose that because Paul taught justification by faith, not works, there can be no room for a future judgment 'according to works,' this only shows how much some have radically misunderstood [Paul]" (139). This reviewer, apparently, is among them. The common NPP refrain resurfaces: I get in by faith, but I will be judged by my works. Wright sees no conflict in this formulation because the judge is not a "hard-hearted, arrogant, or vengeful tyrant, but the Man of Sorrows" (141). So, if I understand correctly, the "hope" of which Wright speaks is that the judge will not be as strict as I was previously led to believe. Where does that leave me on the Day of Judgment if Christ's merit is not enough to secure my final vindication? Without much hope.

Wright defines the gospel as "the good news that God (the world's creator) is at last becoming king, and that Jesus, whom this God raised from the dead, is the world's true Lord" (226-27). Not a hint here that Jesus' death removed God's anger from sinners, or that the cross reconciled God to me, and me to God. For Wright, preaching the gospel is "the powerful announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God's world has begun" (227). This is a truncated gospel indeed.

Surprised by Hope reveals a "new" N. T. Wright as well. By "new" I do not mean that Wright has changed his views on NPP or eschatology, but that Wright's tone is different. Because Wright has been challenged so resolutely and so often, perhaps this explains the dismissive and defensive tone of Surprised by Hope. This is problematic in a book that purposes to answer two critical questions: "What is the ultimate Christian hope?" and "What hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?" (5).

There is much of value in Surprised by Hope, especially in the first part of the book. Wright laments the influences of Plato and Dante on our thinking about death and resurrection (Part I). He directs us to see in Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead the dawn of the new creation. This fact not only establishes and frames a biblical view of hope (75), this is also the point at which the Christian faith challenges and threatens paganism (67). Wright offers a spirited defense of our Lord's bodily resurrection, as well as a surgical decimation of those specious arguments raised against it (58-74).

In Part II, Wright defines the nature of Christian hope, rejecting the stress upon individualism (80), the utopian myth of progress (81), as well as the Gnostic preoccupation with the "spiritual" at the expense of creation (88). Wright identifies the goodness of creation (94), the reality of evil (94), and directs us to the redemption of the earth. Says Wright, "What I am proposing is that the New Testament image of future hope of the whole cosmos, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus, gives as coherent a picture as we need or could have of the future which is promised to us" (107).

Wright offers a number of admittedly speculative proposals about death, eternal punishment, and the second advent of Jesus Christ. His discussion of our Lord's second advent is also vague and confusing’very un-Wright-like. After dismissing the preoccupation of North American Christians with the second coming ("the rapture," 117-22), Wright discusses our Lord's appearing. Wright contends that Jesus coming on the clouds is an "upward" event (Jesus is being vindicated), not a "downward" event (his return in judgment, 125). After informing us what Paul doesn't say in a number of verses that seem to say otherwise, Wright takes us to a dead end. "We must remind ourselves yet once more that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist" (132). But mist is not a basis for hope.

Wright concludes that when Jesus appears, "he will in fact be 'appearing' right where he presently is’not a long way away within our space-time world but in his own world, God's world, the world we call heaven. This world is different from ours (earth) but intersects with it in countless ways, not least in the inner lives of Christians themselves" (135). No question, it is difficult to understand exactly how Christ will return. But Scripture says, "This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Wright cites this passage when discussing the ascension but ignores the critical point about Christ's return. The signposts say much more than Wright acknowledges. One thing the signposts do clearly tell us is that Jesus will return in the same way he ascended, in the same body, complete with nail wounds and a scar from a Roman spear.

Wright's discussion of Jesus as judge (145) contains many of the problematic comments regarding justification and the gospel cited above. Wright is insightful when discussing the resurrection of Jesus and the nature of the resurrection body. He rejects the notion of purgatory; and although he rejects conditional immortality (181), he nevertheless offers a highly speculative proposal regarding eternal punishment. According to Wright, people suffer eternally, but they cease to be fully human (182-83).

Part III of Surprised by Hope is the most problematic section of the book’I learned more about Wright's personal politics and cultural tastes than I did about the biblical basis for the mission of the church. Throughout, the formerly politically active bishop presents his own political opinions as though these opinions self-evidently constitute the proper mission of the church.

The wittiness and insight that characterized Wright's earlier books, and the material found in Parts I and II (to a lesser degree) give way to a quick dismissal of opposing views, followed by a boorish moralizing in Part III in which Wright sets us straight about things Christians ought to be doing, especially those readers who are Americans. Wright addresses justice (213-22), beauty (222-25), and evangelism (225-30), before closing the book with a discussion of how Christ's resurrection should inform the mission of the church, in terms of the Sacraments (271-76), prayer (276-80), Scripture (280-83), holiness (283-85), and love (285-89). Space does not permit detailed discussion of these matters, but readers of Modern Reformation likely will not find Wright's approach to these matters satisfactory or helpful.

One egregious example of Wright's propensity to moralize must suffice. He expresses his heartfelt concern for developing world indebtedness, which he says is caused by the social Darwinism of Western capitalism (213-22). Wright draws an outlandish moral equivalency between capitalism and slavery and Nazism (217), followed by this caustic remark: "Reading the collected works of F. A. Hayek [author of the Road to Serfdom, a capitalist critique of socialism] in a comfortable chair in North America simply doesn't address the moral questions of the twenty-first century" (218-19). I suppose that it doesn't. I hope Wright would feel the same way about someone reading Keynes or Marcuse. Is Wright lamenting the fact that the hypothetical reader of Hayek wasn't doing anything about the problems in the developing world? Or is the lament that the hypothetical reader was wasting his time reading a defender of capitalism? Wright's smug moralizing rings very hollow in a book that purports to "surprise" the reader with hope. When it comes to the church's mission, Wright's politics, like my own, are pretty much irrelevant.

I was surprised, but not by hope. I was surprised by how easily and deftly Wright's own political agenda was set forth as the proper basis for the church's mission.

Friday, December 17th 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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