Wednesday, September 17, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Two)

Last week we discussed the structure of the first part of Wright's new book Surprised By Hope and the historical argument concerning the resurrection of Jesus found there. Having introduced his readers to hope-in-person as he stepped forward on Easter, Wright turns to our future hope in the second part of the book. This part moves in three steps: (1) the cosmic dimension of future hope [ch. 5-6], (2) the central figure of new creation [ch. 7-9], and (3) the personal dimension of redemption [ch. 10-11]. In this series, we'll spend a week on each of theses steps, starting with the first this week.

Wright makes a good case for starting with cosmic rather than personal hope. We have a tendency to make the future all about me. Now there is hope for my personal life and identity, but that hope must be located within a larger vision. In fact, some of the mistakes made regarding personal hope (e.g., forgetful of the body) are more easily remedies when one begins with the big picture (e.g., space, time and matter). So I think it is helpful that Wright starts here.

But I will raise a concern: the central figure of Jesus and his return as the risen Lord should not be controlled by a concept of cosmic hope already constructed before turning to him. The future of Jesus Christ is the key to the future of the world. In Jesus Christ the cosmic and the personal meet. So despite the wisdom of moving from the cosmic to the personal, there is a risk of turning Jesus into the prime instance of hope and thereby obscuring that he instigates hope. For example, Wright refers to the personal presence of Jesus as "the other vital element of the New Testament picture of God's ultimate future" (108). Jesus is certainly vital to Christian hope, but he is not just an element alongside others. Wright acknowledges this problem at certain points and makes clear statements concerning Jesus's centrality in the coming kingdom. But the structure of his presentation and the general trend of his thought placing the accent on the cosmic dimension as the determinative context for understanding Christian hope. This fits with Wright's overall tendency to emphasize continuity over discontinuity in his understanding of history and eschatology.

Having raised this concern, I want to say that Wright has some wonderful insights on the cosmic dimension of Christian hope. After addressing the debate between optimism and despair in chapter 5, Wright succinctly presents the fundamental structures of hope and the biblical images or themes of hope in chapter 6.

The three fundamental structures of hope are
  1. The goodness of creation,
  2. The nature of evil as real but not created by God, and
  3. The plan of redemption as re-creation.
The biblical six images or themes of hope are
  1. Seedtime and Harvest [1 Cor 15],
  2. The Victorious Battle [1 Cor 15],
  3. Citizens of Heaven, Colonizing Earth [Php 3:20-21],
  4. God will be all in all [1 Cor 15:28],
  5. New birth [Rom 8], and
  6. The marriage of heaven and earth [Rev 21-22].
Since Wright is already summarizing his own previous work in this chapter, it would be unwise to attempt a summary. Instead, I'll just highlight my favorite one: "citizens of heaven, colonizing earth." This section is both classic Wright in its style of argument and a helpful alternative to the reduction of Christian hope to 'going to heaven.' Let me just quote this passage (pg. 100-101) at length and let you consider it for yourself.
...[W]e look across to another royal image, found in Philippians 3:20-21. It is very close in theme to I Corinthians 15, quoting in fact at a crucial point from the same psalm (Psalm 8), emphasizing Jesus's authority over all other powers.

Philippi was a Roman colony. Augustus had settled his veterans there after the battles of Philippi (42 B.C.) and Actium (31 B.C.). Not all the residents of Philippi were Roman citizens, but all knew what citizenship meant. The point of creating colonies was twofold. First, it was aimed at extending Roman influence around the Mediterranean world, creating cells and networks of people loyal to Caesar in the wider culture. Second, it was one way of avoiding the problems of overcrowding in the capital itself. The emperor certainly did not want retired soldiers, with time (and blood) on their hands, hanging around Rome ready to cause trouble. Much better for them to be establishing farms and businesses elsewhere.

So when Paul says, "We are citizens of heaven," he doesn't at all mean that when we're done with this life we'll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King--all of those were of course imperial titles--will comes from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. The key word here is transform: "He will transform our present humble bodies to be like his glorious body." Jesus will not declare that present physicallity is reduntant and can be scrapped. Nor will he simply improve it, perhaps by speeding up its evolutionary cycle. In a great act of power--the same power that accomplished Jesus's own resurrection, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:19-20--he will change the present body into the one that corresponds in kind to his own as part of his work of bringing all things into subjection to himself. Philippians 3, hough it is primarily speaking of human resurrection, indicates that this will take place within the context of God's victorious transformation of the whole cosmos.
Any thoughts?
  • Do you agree that it is a good idea to move from the cosmic to the personal when discussion future hope?
  • Is this movement of thought a logically necessary one? Or is this move a response to the contingent fact of modern individualism?
  • What do you think of Wright's exegesis of Philippians 3:20-21? Does it make grammatical and historical sense?
  • Is Wright's re-direction of the meaning of heavenly citizenship helpful for understanding Christian hope?
  • What is the benefit of displacing going to heaven with coming from heaven? What is the cost?


Anonymous said...


What do you mean by "otinsher"?

JohnLDrury said...

Whoops. Thanks for pointing out the typo. It's "other" and I fixed it.

Ken Schenck said...

I used to be very attracted to Wright and Caird's this world emphasis. It is excellent to create reflection on the common emphasis of "when we all get to heaven." Over the years, though, I've begun to wonder if it goes to the opposite extreme, if there is an increasing otherworldly emphasis in some later books like Hebrews and John.

JohnLDrury said...

This is a good point. I agree that Wright tends to be a one-sided response. As I noted in the review: "This fits with Wright's overall tendency to emphasize continuity over discontinuity in his understanding of history and eschatology." He is right to counter certain kinds of discontinuity, but he stresses the continuity between creation and redemption a little too much in my mind.