How Tom Wright Changed My Life

Yesterday (7 February 2020), St. Mary’s College of Divinity at St. Andrews had an event to honor and remember Tom Wright (a.k.a., N.T. Wright) for his tenure at the university. Professor Wright held a distinguished chair in New Testament for nearly a decade (a chair previously held by Richard Bauckham). As Professor Alan Torrance mentioned yesterday evening, he was responsible for millions of pounds being poured into St. Mary’s via student enrollment and grants. He was also instrumental in Logos (the program I study in) starting and being developed at St. Andrews. But I want to point out a few other ways that I have benefitted from his lifetime of scholarship.

When I was a high school student, I first heard the name N.T. Wright when my pastor and worship pastor wanted to take a group from the church to Oklahoma Christian University where he was speaking. The trip ended up being cancelled, and I didn’t get to go. (I would then meet him New Orleans some years later where he signed every book I had by him at the time, and then I would have classes with him some years after that.) Instead, I wouldn’t interact with Wright’s work for another couple years until I picked up the book Simply Christian and then Simply Jesus after that. Again, I wouldn’t interact with his work in any meaningful way until my undergraduate years.

The two primary things I learned from N.T. Wright which I should have known, but never did, were: the Jewishness of Jesus and the New Testament, and the Christian hope of future resurrection. I grew up in Christian communities that never spent much time thinking about how deeply Jewish Jesus was or the four gospel accounts which talk about him or Paul’s letters or any of it. Jesus is Jewish—not formerly or temporarily Jewish. Jesus continues to be Jewish, as does the New Testament. How are we to read the gospel accounts, Acts, Paul’s writings, the letter to the Hebrews, or the letters from Peter or John or Jude if not as profoundly Jewish texts? Yes, they often write to a wider audience—especially Paul’s letters, but they do so from a religious background and history of thought which is profoundly Jewish.

Finally, Tom Wright taught me the Christian hope. I always imagined death to be the end. I don’t mean that I thought we would just die and that there would be nothing. But I did imagine that we would die and go to heaven—some would go to hell—and that everything would just be disembodied and ethereal. However, in reading Wright’s works, I realized that the New Testament teaches something profoundly different. It teaches that God will raise us bodily from the dead in the end and bring heaven to earth. It teaches that if God doesn’t raise us like Jesus, then we ought to be the most pitied because we are wasting our lives. I can’t even recount the experience of reading The Resurrection of the Son of God for the first time. If I could get everyone to wade through its hundreds of pages, I would want every Christian to read it.

In summary, Tom Wright changed my life. His teaching impacted how my professors read the New Testament. In reading his work, I realized how profoundly he impacted my own professors. In reading his work, I realized essential truths of the Christian faith for the first time. In reading his work, I realized the Christian hope, and in reading his work, I realized that the story of Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel. I, like many, am forever indebted to the life and scholarship of N.T. Wright. May God bless him abundantly in his retirement (even if, it’s just “in name only”)!

Christian Worldview with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian worldview. Anderson is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Assistant Director of the Honors Program at Oklahoma Baptist University. He co-authored An Introduction to Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World which released in 2017. Anderson frequently speaks on issues concerning Christian apologetics, worldview, and philosophy for churches, seminaries, universities, and schools.

See my previous interview with Dr. Anderson on Christian Apologetics here: Christian Apologetics.

Thank you to Dr. Anderson for taking the time out of his schedule to answer these questions for us. My questions and comments appear in bold font, and his responses follow them.

Two years ago, you and your co-authors published An Introduction to a Christian Worldview: Pursuing God’s Perspective in a Pluralistic World. Could you explain what “worldview” is? What a “Christian worldview” is? And why you chose that subtitle?

We define worldview as “the conceptual lens through we see and interpret the world and our place within it.” Worldview is like a set of glasses that we wear, through which we view and interact with reality. If we wear pink-colored glasses, the world looks pink (even if it’s not); if we wear the wrong-prescription lenses, the world will look very distorted. So having the right set of glasses is important—it helps us to see the world the way it really is.

The subtitle of our book was chosen as an indication that a Christian worldview is, ultimately, a pursuit of God’s perspective on reality. Christians recognize that God alone has a true and accurate understanding of life, the universe, and everything—our goal is to chase after God in relationship, but also in understanding. If God sees reality truly, then we want to see the world the way that God sees the world, so that we also might understand reality truly.

A Christian worldview, broadly put, is one which embraces the biblical contours of Creation – Fall – Redemption – Glorification, places the Triune God at the center of reality, and embraces Scripture as the inspired and authoritative self-revelation of God to His people.

If our worldviews are really so pervasive in how we interpret things, then how can we ever reach consensus? How could we ever get people to see things “our” way?

We talk about worldview impacting people in four ways: confirmation bias, experiential accommodation, the pool of live options, and life motivation. Confirmation bias describes our tendency to look for and accept information or arguments that agree with or support what we already believe. Experiential accommodation is the process of interpreting new data or experiences in a way that fits with our existing worldview. The pool of live options is the set of possible explanations that our worldview will permit. Life motivation describes the way that our worldview encourages us to behave and react.

With respect to those first three worldview influences, we can see how people with different worldviews will generally fail to reach consensus, and why it seems nearly impossible to get people to ‘see things our way’. Our very fundamental worldview means that we see the same data, but interpret that data in very different (perhaps even contradictory) ways. Within my Christian worldview, for example, the sudden remission of Aunt Martha’s cancer will readily be interpreted as an answer to concerted desperate prayer; but within my sister’s non-Christian worldview, such a miraculous interpretation of events is outside the pool of live options—there will have to be some other explanation.

With a plurality of competing worldviews, and the strong influence that worldview has upon us, how can we pursue consensus?

The first step, I think, is promoting worldview awareness—we need to be aware of the impact our worldview has upon us when interacting with other people. When are my worldview presuppositions causing me to dismiss someone’s position or arguments? Do I reject this piece of data for good reason, or simply because it doesn’t fit with my pre-existing understanding?

But, of course, it doesn’t help much if we are aware of our worldview influences but other people are not. Hence, it is important to try to educate people broadly about the existence and influence of worldview presuppositions—not in a way that challenges people to re-think their fundamental commitments, but rather asks them to become consciously aware of their worldview.

Why should Christians think through their own worldview and those of others?

We confess that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6), that Christ has come to “testify to the truth,” (John 18:37) and that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). So, it seems, truth has a central role in a Christian worldview. Hence, a Christian should be in constant pursuit of truth in his or her own worldview. Obtaining an increasingly true worldview will bring us closer to a full knowledge of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The only way to obtain an increasingly true worldview is to subject our worldview to rigorous, conscious, and logical self-examination. We talk in our book about three “worldview truth-tests” that can help us adjudicate the accuracy of our worldview (and those of others): internal consistency (logical coherence), external consistency (evidential correspondence), and existential consistency (pragmatic satisfaction). Applying these tests to worldview components can help us apprehend truth more accurately.

How has studying Christian worldview changed your relationship to Jesus?

Probably the most fundamental impact has been my increasing awareness that I do not possess the full truth. I have always known this in some sense, but I have generally been overly confident (and dogmatic) about particular stances or beliefs that I hold. There are two sides to this.

First, many of those beliefs end up being secondary within a Christian worldview—not unimportant, but not central to the faith. In our textbook, we differentiate between “Core,” “Secondary,” and “Peripheral” worldview beliefs, and note that what identifies overarching worldviews (like Christianity, atheism, Islam, Buddhism) are Core beliefs. Worldview study has helped me to more clearly (I think) identify the core tenets of the Christian faith—those beliefs, attitudes, loves, and behaviors which are central, and without which there is not an authentic Christianity. Gary Habermas likes to crystallize core Christianity around the deity, atoning death, and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I think that’s helpful, but prefer to think of the ancient creeds (Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed) as fuller articulations of essential Christian doctrine. I have had a tendency to make secondary things ‘hills to die on,’ and I feel that as I grow in worldview awareness (and hopefully Christian maturity), I am less likely to make mountains out of molehills. For example, there was a time in my Christian life when I would have held that someone who embraces theistic evolution has left behind orthodox Christianity. Today, while I still reject the modern Darwinian synthesis (random mutation and natural selection as a sufficient explanation for the diversity of biological life), I recognize that someone can be an authentic orthodox Christian and embrace divinely-ordained evolution as the means of God’s creative activity. The issue of how and when God created are secondary; the doctrine that God created is primary (core).

Second, my growth in worldview awareness has helped me better identify the perspectival nature of human knowledge. Other people who are just as intelligent and well-meaning as I am come to radically different worldview conclusions. They, like me, are triply f’ed-up: we are all finite, fallen, and fallible. Hence, I cannot claim to have a monopoly on truth, and neither can they.

How has studying Christian worldview changed your relationship to those around you?

Four things to say here.

First, with respect to non-Christians who hold different worldviews, I think I have become more gracious. I am able to enter into their worldview, and understand why they might see the world the way that they do. This does not make me any more likely to believe that their fundamental worldview is true, but it does help me to understand who they are and why they stand where they do. In turn, this helps to build bridges between my worldview and theirs, such that I can (Lord willing) help them consider the winsomeness and truthfulness of the Christian worldview.

Second, with respect to non-Christians who claim that their worldview is obviously true and Christianity is obviously false, I think I have become more stringent. It pains me to see people who are so blinded to the possibility that they could be mistaken, and who seem to mock those who would embrace the ‘ridiculous superstitions’ of traditional religion.

Third, with respect to fellow Christians who think differently than I on secondary or peripheral issues, I have (again) become more gracious. I have a long ways to go here, and I know that in the past I have hurt fellow believers by arguing too vehemently about secondary issues. The biblical appeal for unity within the body of Christ requires that we accurately identify the core of Christianity, such that we fight for that, and never fight over the secondary issues. I’m getting there, but clearly am not there yet.

Fourth, with respect to people who profess Christianity but reject the historical core of the Christian worldview, I have become less patient. I would join the late Ronald Nash in appealing for ‘honesty in advertising’. If one is going to reject the objective existence of the Triune God, reject the inspiration and authority of God’s self-revelation in Scripture, reject the objective divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, reject the historical resurrection of Jesus on the third day, reject the notion of Christ’s death on the cross atoning for sin, and reject belief in life after death—then that person has no more right to call themselves a Christian than I have to call myself a black woman.

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for more interviews with Tawa Anderson and others in the near future! If you missed his interview on Christian Apologetics, you can view it here: Christian Apologetics.

What Are We Flying Away From? When the Gospel Meets ‘Gospel’ Music

As someone raised in the church and in the “Bible belt”, I have often heard the famous song “I’ll Fly Away.” It has been the center piece of churches, including my own, as well as secular social gatherings where everyone comes alive to sing that beautiful melody which speaks of freedom from oppression. Although many are likely to have heard this song, the lyrics are as follows (I’ll refrain from rehashing the chorus between every stanza of verses):

Some bright morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away

Chorus:
I’ll fly away, oh glory
I’ll fly away in the morning
When I die, Hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly
I’ll fly away
Oh, how glad and happy when we meet
I’ll fly away
No more cold iron shackles on my feet
I’ll fly away
Just a few more weary days and then
I’ll fly away
To a land where joys will never end
I’ll fly away

Having shared the lyrics, I cannot help but wonder: “What, according to this song, are we flying away from?” It seems fairly obvious that, according to this song, the oppression of which we will be freed is an oppression of our earthly state—more specifically it seems our bodies are the prisons. In this brief article, I will first explore the claims made by this song about the ultimate goal of humanity (specifically referring to its goal after death) and the good news about Jesus (i.e., the gospel), and second, I will provide a more biblical picture of these concepts.

The song speaks of “flying away” from the earth to “that home on God’s celestial shore.” It praises God (i.e., “Hallelujah”) for our flying away once we die, and it speaks of this death and flying away as being freed from the “shadows of this life” and from the “prison walls”, or birdcage of the world. It speaks as if one needs only to leave our earthly bodies and return to our original home in heaven in order to receive the heavenly reward mentioned by Jesus. This flying away is a happy occasion hence the words “how glad and happy when we meet” and “no more cold iron shackles on my feet.” Everyday life for the writer is a persistent survival of these “few more weary days” before going to a “land where joy will never end.” All this is expressed with the constant refrain “I’ll fly away.”

The worldview of this song has more in common with ancient Greek philosophy than the Bible. If philosophy reveals truth previously testified to in the Bible then we say “praise God” and “amen”, but when the philosophy does not match the Bible’s claims, then we must remain willing to let it go (here, I clearly display my Protestant leanings on these matters). The philosophy of this song has more in common with Plato than Paul and more in common with Athens than Jerusalem. It provides its listener with the Gospel according to Plato in which “salvation” becomes a matter of escaping the physical word.[1] N.T. Wright describes the Platonic view with extremely similar language to the song “I’ll Fly Away”; he writes, “It [death] is the moment when, and the means by which, the immortal soul is set free from the prison-house of the physical body.”[2] According to this gospel, our souls need to escape our sinful bodies and evil creation to return to a spiritual realm with God.[3] In contrast, the famed German theologian and minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his work Creation and Fall: “The body belongs to a person’s essence. The body is not the prison, the shell, the exterior of a human being instead a human being is a human body. A human being does not ‘have’ a body or ‘have’ a soul; instead a human being ‘is’ body and soul.”[4] As I will contend below, it is not our bodies or creation that are inherently sinful and evil, and God wants to save them as much as he wants to save our souls. 

The story of being a celestial being in the sky by and by with my harp and colorful robes has always bothered me. As a child, I was scared of death because this did not seem like a fun place. It sounded like eternal boredom. In my daily life, I never desire to sit around and play the harp or anything of the sort. I fill my day with activities, hobbies, projects, worship, friendship, etc. I am thankful that I have since learned that the future described in the Bible sounds more like a continuation of the latter on a far grander scale.

According to the Bible, God creates the world and calls it good (Gen 1). Humans and creation only became sinful and evil once they worshiped the wrong thing by disobeying God and desiring something other than a relationship with him (Gen 3).[5] Therefore, he punishes humanity and creation, but with this punishment, he makes a promise to put the world right-side up again (Gen 3:15). Fulfilling this promise, God takes on humanity (John 1:1-18; Phil 2:7-8; and Col 1:15), and he lives the life and dies the death that we could not for ourselves (Romans 5:8). But the story does not end there because he comes back from the dead, and he comes back in his physical body (Matt 28:5-7; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:24-29). This resurrection is supposed to be the first fruits of the new creation (1 Cor 15:20). The Bible promises that one day Jesus will reappear to fully bring heaven on earth and to bring all the dead followers of Jesus back from the grave, and they will rule and reign over the earth with him continuing the project started in the beginning (1 Pet 2:9-10; Rev 21).[6]

If the previous paragraph is remotely true, then it seems “I’ll Fly Away”, despite its beautiful melody, is false. All Christians should affirm at least three things from the previous paragraph: (1) God created everything, and he called it “good”; (2) God took on physical form as a human called Jesus; and (3) Jesus was resurrected thus becoming physical again and forever (ST III q. 54 a.1).[7] If those three things are affirmed, then “I’ll Fly Away” describes a different gospel than the one proclaimed by Paul or Jesus or any other author of the New Testament.

Before his death, Jesus once said that “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth…” (John 4:23). How can Christians maintain this duality of worship if they knowingly sing untruth? Many people even sing it with the assumption that they are singing the gospel itself! No small number of sermons, blog posts, and books can convince our people that this song is not the gospel truth because the message has been engrained through repetition and melody in a way that propositional truth cannot be communicated. James K.A. Smith writes that “We become what we worship because what we worship is what we love.”[8] If we want to correct this error, we will need to do so through several greater means.

To eliminate the teaching of false doctrine in our churches, we will have to make several difficult decisions. First, we must stop singing songs that falsely portray God, the gospel, and the human condition. The target song for this blog post is “I’ll Fly Away”. Second, we must correct for these erred ways of understanding Christianity by instilling new repetitions into the life of the local church via intentional liturgies. James K.A. Smith writes that liturgy “is a shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with an ultimate Story about who we are and what we’re for.”[9] If local congregations would combat the liturgies and narratives of our cultures and intentionally replace them in the worship service with the recitation of creeds and confessions and practices like the Lord’s Supper, then we would have congregations being informed by biblical truth instead of 20th century constructions that have more in common with Phaedo than Scripture. Third and finally, we must specifically teach against these philosophies especially those that cloak themselves in Christianity. We should point out music, literature, films, and other cultural artifacts that claim to present a vision of the world contrary to biblical truth. 

Although each Christian has a personal responsibility to act on these issues (not singing false songs, alerting leadership to these issues, and not presenting these songs as good sources of knowledge for young Christians or non-Christians), the primary responsibility lies on the leadership of the church to teach truthfully and avoid letting our people’s hearts and minds be shaped by false doctrine. It can be difficult as a worship pastor or senior pastor or whatever pastor/leader/minister to shirk our responsibility or to assume that someone else takes the blame on this issue, but we must stand up and represent Jesus well to the world. Many will read this and still sing “I’ll Fly Away” on Sunday mornings. I entirely suspect that the habit and the tune will live on despite the contrary evidence (humans are often bad on acting on the knowledge they gain). We still love this song more than we love truth, which is why we need to instill new habits, new songs to replace the ones that we must reject for the sake of the truth of the gospel.

Citations

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3) (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 48. For a discussion on competing views of the human person, see Paul R. Williamson, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions (New Studies in Biblical Theology) (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), 33-38. In his discussion of human anthropology, Williamson compares the views from Ancient Greek philosophy, such as Plato’s, and from the Bible for the purpose of explaining the post-mortem fate of the dead. 
[2] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 48. 
[3] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016), 74.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004), 76-77.
[5] N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 77, 99, 101-103. 
[6] This Christian understanding is articulated by the Athanasian Creed wherein it states, “He [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead. / At his coming all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds. / Those who have done good will enter eternal life, those who have done evil will enter eternal fire.” https://www.rca.org/resources/athanasian-creed 
For a discussion of how humanity is to rule/reign after Jesus’s death, see N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 160-167.
[7] This citation ought to be read: Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, third part, question 54, article 1.
[8] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), 22.
[9] James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love, 46.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2004.

Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016.

Williamson, Paul R. Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions (New Studies in Biblical Theology). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Wright, N.T. The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2016.

_. The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, vol. 3). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003.