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 Apologetics with Tawa Anderson

In this article, I interview Dr. Tawa Anderson about Christian apologetics. 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.

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.

Could you please define and briefly explain “apologetics”? What are its purposes and goals? How does it relate to Christianity?

Apologetics, in general, is the reasoned defense of a particular position, belief, or worldview. An apologist provides evidence and arguments for their stance. Christian apologetics, then, is the explanation and defense of the Christian faith, in fulfillment of the Apologetic Mandate in 1 Peter 3:15 (Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have).

There are, I think, four primary purposes/goals of Christian apologetics, which can be related to the thrust and audience of apologetics. There are two thrusts of apologetics: positive and negative (or offensive and defensive). Positive apologetics sets forth reasons to believe that Christianity is true, while negative apologetics responds to objections (or doubts or questions) that others have with respect to Christianity. There are also two audiences for apologetics: evangelistic and devotional. Evangelistic apologetics focuses on those outside the Church and seeks to provide reasons for them to consider the claims of Christ. Devotional apologetics focuses on those within the Church and seeks to strengthen them in the faith.

1. Positive evangelistic apologetics seeks to give non-Christians reasons to believe that Christianity is true: this is the evangelistic function of apologetics.

2. Negative evangelistic apologetics seeks to respond to the doubts and objections that skeptics bring against the faith, providing them with reasons to not disbelieve in Christianity: this is the pre-evangelistic function of apologetics.

3. Positive devotional apologetics seeks to give Christians reasons to continue believing that Christianity is true, providing them with more confidence and boldness in holding and sharing their faith: this is the discipling function of apologetics.

4. Negative devotional apologetics responds to the natural questions and doubts that arise in the minds of believers, providing reasons to not start disbelieving in Christianity: this is the preservative function of apologetics.

So, in summary, I think apologetics serves as pre-evangelism, evangelism, discipleship, and preservation.

As Western civilization becomes increasingly post-Christian, there will be an increasing need and call for strong apologetic ministries of all four types. Christians find their beliefs under intellectual and social attack at every turn, and need to be able to see strong rational and evidential defenses for the core tenets of orthodox Christianity.

What led you to study apologetics?

I had the privilege of serving for seven years as the English Pastor at Edmonton Chinese Baptist Church. Our congregation was nearly all younger than me (and I was young at the time!): junior high, high school, and university students. These were predominantly sharp and thoughtful young men and women, who had lots of questions and doubts about Christianity. They would also bring friends to the church who were not Christians, and these friends would also have lots of good questions about the faith. I also served as part-time chaplain at the University of Alberta, where I would meet and talk regularly with dozens of college students with, again, lots of good and deep questions about life, the universe, and everything.

In the context of ministry, I was basically ‘forced’ into apologetics. The Holy Spirit made it clear to me that it was my responsibility as their pastor to walk alongside people amid their questions and doubts, and seek to help them find reasonable answers to the questions and resolutions to their doubts. So as they would ask questions, I would read and study in order to help them answer those questions. I found the process, frankly, both exhilarating and exhausting. I loved mentoring and shepherding young adults with serious questions and doubts—the answers I found were not always satisfactory to them (or to me), but the process of questioning and seeking was very rewarding.

So while serving as pastor and chaplain, I fell in love with apologetics, and became convinced of the necessity of apologetics in contemporary ministry.

Eventually, that love led to a calling back to school, to pursue a doctorate in philosophy and apologetics.

You are currently writing a book on apologetics. What material do you hope to cover? And what has been your approach to the topic?

The book I’m currently writing is intended to be an accessible lay-level introduction to apologetics. I am primarily focused on positive apologetics—that is, presenting reasons to believe that Christianity is true—which will hopefully resonate with Christians and normal people (those who are not Christians) alike.

My approach to positive apologetics is known as the ‘classical’ or ‘two-step’ approach. The first step is providing evidence and arguments for the existence of God (the classical God of western monotheism—omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent). The second step is providing evidence and arguments for the deity, atoning death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth—the central historical and doctrinal claims of Christianity specifically.

I should mention that I do not believe the evidence and arguments for God or for Christianity to be what philosophers would call demonstrative (or conclusive). That is, the reasons I present do not arrive with 100% certainty at the truthfulness of the conclusion. I don’t think that any apologetic arguments can do that—for Christianity or for any other position or worldview!

What role do you think apologetics plays in belief formation?

In general, I think apologetics plays a relatively minor role in bringing people to Christian faith. William Lane Craig draws a helpful distinction between knowing and showing that our faith is true.

Craig argues that most of us know our faith is true primarily via ‘the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit.’ That is, we come to faith in Christ through experiencing the redemptive power of Christ in our lives. Oftentimes, however, apologetics lurks in the background of that personal experience. For example, in my own life, my conversion to Christianity was very immediate and experiential—God reached down and grabbed a hold of me, convincing me directly of my need for a Savior. But in the two years prior to my conversion, I had four Christian friends who were answering questions I had, and providing reasons that I ought to consider Christianity. In terms of conscious awareness, their apologetic and evangelistic efforts did not play a part in my coming to faith; but behind the scenes I have no doubt that they were instrumental in paving the way for me to come to the cross of Christ.

Thus, again, in terms of coming to faith, or (in Craig’s words) knowing that our faith is true, apologetics plays a more minor role.

But when it comes to showing that our faith is true, apologetics is front and center. If we are going to share our Christian faith with those outside the walls of the church, we need to be able to identify good reasons and evidence that supports the truthfulness of Christianity—and this is increasingly important as society continues to move in a post-Christian direction.

Furthermore, while apologetics may have relatively little to do with becoming a Christian in the first place, I think apologetics is essential in remaining a Christian, particularly in a hostile post-Christian culture.

In what ways do you think local churches ought to promote apologetics?

In every way possible. First, church leaders must always be cognizant that there are non-Christians in their midst, who will not just take their word for things. Skeptics need to be given reasons to consider the faith, arguments that support the contention that Christianity is true. Second, church leaders (pastors, preachers, teachers, etc.) must also recognize that the most difficult questions and doubts may exist in the hearts and minds of the most faithful Christ-followers in their midst. So, taking these first two pieces together, we must always preach and teach with the awareness that there are people with doubts, questions, and objections who are listening.

Third, because of that, we can and should cultivate a church culture of openness, where it is safe to share one’s doubts and questions and thoughts. We as church leaders should never feel threatened or attacked when people in the congregation (Christian or not) ask difficult questions—the questions are out there anyway, and it is far better if they can be asked and answered in a healthy, faith-nurturing fashion by church leaders.

Fourth, we need to live a life of constant growth and study, seeking answers to people’s questions and resolutions to people’s doubts. That will mean reading works by snarky skeptics, honest doubters, wavering disciples, and confident apologists. If people in our congregation are reading Richard Dawkins, we should read Dawkins to be familiar with his thoughts and arguments, and we should read Alister McGrath (or others) who respond forcefully to Dawkins.

Fifth, there are tremendous apologetics resources available, in print, online, via video, etc.—we can and should make these resources available to folks as readily as possible, so that they have the means of seeking answers to their own questions and resolutions to their own doubts. The long-term goal should be discipling a congregation of confident apologist-evangelists, who are solid in their faith, who grasp the rational and evidential foundations for orthodox Christianity, and who are passionate about defending and sharing that faith in the public marketplace.

What advice would you give someone interested in apologetics who’s unsure of where to start?

I’ll mention a few very helpful resources that can get someone started in apologetic equipping.

First, in print, the series of books authored by Lee Strobel are accessible, and provide very helpful introductions to major questions while also pointing readers in the right direction if they want to dive more deeply into particular subjects. The Case for Christ, The Case for Faith, and The Case for Easter are particularly helpful.

Second, for online apologetics ministry, the cream of the crop is http://www.apologetics315.com – an apologetic clearing-house which has helpful articles as well as links to apologetic ministries around the world. You can find literally everything there!

Here are a few more helpful suggestions:

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity – excellent communicator with some persuasive arguments.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God and Making Sense of God

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition – also his website, http://www.reasonablefaith.org

Thank you again to Dr. Anderson! Look for more interviews with Tawa Anderson and others in the near future! If you liked the content, please like this post and leave a comment. To receive updates when more interviews are released, subscribe to the blog with your email.

Radical Forgiveness and Love

It was only a little over a day ago when I saw the video being shared from ABC News of Botham Jean’s brother forgiving his brother’s killer (Amber Guyger). If you’re unfamiliar with the story, I won’t try to retell it. You can look at the news article that I have linked below; as someone not trained in journalism, I would rather not accidentally include or exclude certain details. What I will say is this: it was a terrible incident that led to outrage in various communities.

However, I don’t want to comment on the legal, moral, or racial issues surrounding this story. I want to focus on that video I mentioned before. In that video, a brave young man shared his heart and soul in front of a courtroom of grieving people including his own family and to an international audience. Looking on his brother’s killer, Brandt Jean admitted that he didn’t want Guyger to go to jail. He wants what’s best for, and he forgives her and loves her. He wants the same thing for her that he says his brother Botham would have wanted; he wants her to accept Christ. After repeating this, he leaves the stand to hug Guyger with audible tears being shed throughout the courtroom.

If you watch that video, you will see what I can only describe as radical forgiveness and love. That cannot have been easy for him. I cannot imagine being in his place and being able to say those words. I can hardly watch it without tearing up. Looking at comments on social media, it becomes clear that some people think that she doesn’t deserve it. Many people think that he shouldn’t have done this. But I don’t think for a second they’ll change his mind. When someone does something so astounding, it’s hard for the world to understand. When someone shows love and forgiveness to the least deserving person in their life, the world may call them crazy or misguided, but God calls them blessed. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

This act was a fulfillment of the ministry done for us and given to us by God: the ministry of reconciliation. Paul writes:

So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21; emphasis mine).

I honestly cannot get that young man’s act of love out of my head. It convicts me. Could I do the same? It confuses me. Is this really what love is? It calls me. Go and do likewise. I cannot watch that video and not see Jesus. Following in his footsteps, the judge went to Guyger before she was taken away after her sentencing. She went to her and gave her, what was reported to be, her personal Bible. She read her John 3:16, and she told her to start by reading the gospel according to John. She told her that God loves her and has a plan for her. She, like Botham Jean’s brother, embraced her. What another beautiful act of Jesus-love. We cannot forget that radical forgiveness and love are the means by which God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

For the news story, http://abcn.ws/2puWKDl.

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.