N. T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: A Few Reflections

The problems with this book so outweigh the good things that the net effect of reading it is spiritually dangerous

Wright is vague on how the crucifixion works because he thinks the New Testament is. At times he tries to explain that in Jesus’s death the powers of evil are conquered and we idolators (not sinners so much as idolators) are freed through that great act of self-giving love. But even in these places where he tries to explain the how, he doesn’t really explain the how. I still don’t know how it works. In what sense does Jesus’ death free us?

 

This week I read Wright’s new book on the crucifixion, The Day the Revolution Began. I’m not a Wright-hater. I owe him a lot. Some of his writings have been instrumental for my own development in understanding the Bible. At least one article of mine spawned from ideas he gave me while listening to him lecture. There are several points of his–such as the notion of a continuing exile in the first-century Jewish mindset, or Jesus as true Israel, or the Israel typology underlying Romans 5-8, or his understanding of our final future (what he calls the after-after-life), or his approach to the relationship between history and theology–where I agree with him against his conservative North American critics. And on top of that I like him as a person. But this book is just awful.

I pretty much agree with Mike Horton’s reviewthough I thought he was too easy on the book. I’d like to add three thoughts to Mike’s review. I’m not going to do any summary, just critique. For summary read what Mike wrote.

There are virtues to the book too, including the quality of prose and several good insights. An example of the latter is the connection, new to me, between James and John’s request to be at Jesus’ right and left hand, when these two places, ironically, were reserved for the two thieves to be crucified next to Jesus (p. 221).

But I can’t review this book by trotting out a bunch of virtues and then saying one or two things that could have been stronger and concluding that it’s a nice book that everyone should read. The problems with this book, unlike the majority of Wright’s other books, so outweigh the good things that the net effect of reading it is spiritually dangerous. Many college students will read this book for their understanding of the crucifixion. I wish they wouldn’t.

False Dichotomies

This is a problem with other books of his, but here the false dichotomies are so fundamental to his argument, and so frequently rehearsed, that they become not only grating but structurally weakening. The entire book is built on artificial either/ors when a nuanced both/and would be far more true to the facts and convincing.

Thus we are told that ‘the question of whether people go to “heaven” or “hell”‘ is simply ‘not what the New Testament is about. The New Testament, with the story of Jesus’s crucifixion at its center, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven.‘ (p. 40).

Here are some other artificial either/ors:

What if, instead of a disembodied “heaven,” we were to focus on the biblical vision of “new heavens and new earth?” (p. 49)

The human problem is not so much “sin” seen as the breaking of moral codes . . . but rather idolatry and the distortion of genuine humanness it produces. (p. 74)

The “goal” is not “heaven,” but a renewed human vocation within God’s renewed creation. (p. 74)

[The apostles] do not simply have some new, exciting ideas to share. . . . They are not telling people that they have discovered a way whereby anyone can escape the wicked world and “go to heaven” instead. They are functioning as the worshipping, witnessing people of God. (p. 166)

One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of “evangelists” in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with the problems of “sin” and “hell.” The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. (pp. 196-97)

Galatians is not about “salvation” . . . The letter is about unity. (p. 234; italics original)

The primary human problem that Paul notes in Romans 1:18 is not “sin,” but “ungodliness.” It is a failure not primarily of behavior (though that follows), but of worship. (p. 268)

The response in each case is: Really? Doesn’t the New Testament teach both, at some level? Are you leaving behind a one-sided view for an equal and opposite one-sided view, when a synthetic both/and is what is needed?

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