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”)!

Pastoral Theology with Matthew Halsted

In this article, I interview Dr. Matthew Halsted about pastoral theology. Halsted is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of McLoud, OK and a lecturer at Oklahoma Baptist University. His academic research has focused on biblical hermeneutics (i.e., interpretation) and the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament especially in Paul’s letters. He is the founder and director of Trinityhaus (a center for Christian thought). He has presented papers and given talks nationally and internationally, and he is passionate about bringing academia into conversation with the local church.

Thank you to Dr. Halsted 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.

What is pastoral theology? And what interests you about pastoral theology?

Broadly speaking, “pastoral theology” can be defined as fleshing out theological truths within the context of Christian ministry—particularly at the local church level. It is, by definition, applying God’s unchanging truth to the ever-changing circumstances of the lives of a worshiping congregation.

I suppose what interests me most about pastoral theology is that it requires attentiveness to both the needs of the congregation and to the biblical text. This relationship between Scripture and congregation is fascinating to me. Pastors must remain faithful to the Bible as God’s Word and, at the same time, be creative in how the truth of the Bible is fleshed out into the life of the congregation. This relationship between the truth of the fixed text and its fresh application to the contingencies of parish ministry is the heart and soul of pastoral theology.

Because pastoral theology covers several different topics, I would like to give you space to share your thoughts on a few different ones. How about we start with the office of pastor? Do you think pastors have a special kind of authority? Why or why not?

That’s a good question. There is a sense in which pastors should recognize that their position is one of “authority.” It has to be remembered, though, that it is a derived authority. That is, pastors are not ultimately in charge of, or responsible for, the church (thank God!). Rather, a pastor’s authority is authoritative in so far as it is connected to the truths of Scripture. My Protestantism may be getting the best of me here, but under no circumstances is a pastor to be considered authoritative unless that pastor is operating within the boundaries of biblical, orthodox truth—which has been handed down through the ages.

I have to add one more thing, if I may. Our culture is obsessed with “authority” and “being in charge.” I immediately think of the situation in Mark 10. In that chapter, James and John requested positions of power and glory in the kingdom, but our Lord admonished them to be cautious. The pagan leaders, Jesus said, were too fixated on how they could “exercise authority” over people (v.42). This is not to be the way of Christ followers. Because I think Jesus remains the best mentor for pastors, I think his own model is worth following: Instead of being preoccupied with notions of power and authority, people would do well to become servants. Pastors ought to be the first servants of the church—if they desire to be faithful followers of their crucified Lord.

Prayer seems vital to pastoral ministry. How does your theology of prayer shape your ministry? And how do you teach your congregation to pray?

There is a huge temptation for pastors to reduce their entire ministry down to nothing more than “talking about God.” In many ways, this temptation is always present because—to state the obvious—the pastoral vocation seems to be about doing just that: talking about God. As pastors, we are expected to preach about God, teach about God, and talk about God. To make matters worse, we are expected to teach others to do the same! But if were are not careful, we will make God into an object to be analyzed instead of the One with whom we are to commune. Prayer helps us in this regard.

Indeed, prayer is communion with God. Of course, this involves making requests, lavishing praise, raising doubts, and confessing sin. But these things are not what prayer is; prayer is communion. If we are truly communing with God, then of course we will be doing these things.

Eugene Peterson made a statement once that prayer is not so much about being nice before God but rather about being honest with him. I also agree with Peterson that, if Christians want to develop a prayer life, the Psalter is necessary curriculum. It is indispensable.

Do you think prayer changes how God acts, and if so, in what ways?

I recall reading C.S. Lewis on this very question. His musings, as always, are helpful as we navigate this topic. Following Lewis, I think the ideal prayer request is a request for something good. But if God is good, then surely God would already want the good for which we are praying—independently of our praying or not praying. And if God is powerful, then surely he would be capable in his own strength to bring it about—again, independently of our praying or not praying. So, why pray?

I’ll be the first to admit that prayer is a mystery in this regard. But I think something along the following lines is true. First, because prayer is fundamentally about communion with God (as C.S. Lewis also observes, as I recall), then it only makes sense that God would want to involve his creatures—the objects of his love—to engage him in communal acts such as prayer. Second, if a relationship such as this is to be meaningful in any sense, then a person must be capable of making choices that are significantly free. This leaves open the possibility for God’s people to pray or not pray. And if prayer is to be one of these significantly free acts, it must be—in some way or another—effectual.

What this means is that some things will not happen if we don’t pray. In other words, some prayers are acts that bring about change that, all things being equal, would not have been brought about except through prayer. This seems to be what is meant by certain passages of Scripture such as James 4:2 (“you do not have because you do not ask”). Here, something is not happening because of the lack of prayer.

It is reasonable to suppose that God, in his sovereignty, has set up this world such that his creatures have this sort of significant freedom. This does not imply, of course, that everything depends upon our prayers or that God’s overall plan is itself dependent upon our praying. I have certain metaphysical commitments that permit me to think God, as the Absolute Good, will always get his way no matter what his free creatures choose to do or choose not to do—a subject for another day!

To change the topic a bit, John Calvin argued that a rightly ordered church includes the Word and Sacraments. What are these two different things? And could you explain your approach to both?

I think Calvin is largely correct here. The Protestant emphasis on the preaching of the Word is absolutely important to maintain. It is God’s Word, for example, that brings forth faith; it is God’s Word which instructs, guides, and corrects the church. So the proclamation of the Word, if it is not central, will result in a church that is not rightly ordered. The same can be said of the Sacraments—that is, the Eucharist and Baptism. The Eucharist, mysteriously, functions in the life of the church as a gracious benefit. It is a reminder of God’s goodness—one that is loving and confrontational all at the same time. Baptism, too, is inherently confrontational. It is an initiatory rite into a Kingdom that is opposed to this world’s powers. Like the proclamation of the Word, if the Sacraments are not properly placed within the life of the church, then our witness to the world will go impeded.

For pastors young and old, how would you encourage them to develop their pastoral theology? What resources or biblical passages would you direct them towards? What mistakes would you encourage them to avoid?

Every pastor needs to be a praying pastor. It’s essential. Prayer serves as a reminder that we are insufficient to bring about the Kingdom of God. I think one mistake pastors make is to treat their ministry as if everything depends on them. As a result of this mindset, pastors get emotionally discouraged and burned out. The truth, however, is that the success of the church depends on God, not us. All we are required to do is be faithful to do what he has given us to do, and he will take care of the results.

Again, I think the Psalms are super important for pastors. The main reason is because they will teach us to pray. I also think becoming familiar with the prophets, particularly Jeremiah, would be good for modern pastors. I have found the prophets to be encouraging friends and colleagues. In terms of other resources, I highly recommended Eugene Peterson’s works. His insights are gold.

Thank you again to Dr. Halsted! Look for more interviews with Matthew Halsted and others in the near future! If you missed my interview with Tawa Anderson on “Christian Apologetics” or my interview with Timothy and Faith Pawl on “Mary, the Mother of God”, you can view them here: Christian Apologetics and Mary, the Mother of God.

Encounters of Kindness

I grew up like many others reading picture books that wanted to teach us about kindness. I’ve even heard some in the church bemoan these books because it teaches people to be moral without teaching them about Jesus (the ultimate exemplar of virtue/morality), and it teaches them to care more about kindness than conviction. I’m less concerned about those particular issues when it comes to children’s books in public schools and doctors’ waiting rooms. However, I find it funny that with all these books and lessons that I have grown up with how unkind people can still be. It only takes a few minutes scrolling through social media or flipping through channels on television to learn that lesson. But despite this lack of kindness, there is actually so much around us. In this post, I want to share a point made to me about kindness and a couple experiences that I have recently had.

1. Can you do anything for Christ in an un-Christ-like way?

Without much information and perhaps as an act of faith, I trusted the advice of two people I barely knew (I met one in London and the other in Cambridge), and I reached out to a stranger living in St. Andrews. He welcomed me to his home, shared a pot of tea with me, invited me to stay for dinner with his family, and gave me some great advice and encouragement. I don’t want to rush to judgement, but he was possibly one of the wisest people that I have ever met.

While I met with him, he emphasized kindness as an important virtue for Christians to have. (This was unsurprising because of how well he was treating me.) He had just returned to town after teaching a week-long ethics course at a seminary. There he posed this question to his students, “Can you do anything for Christ in an un-Christ-like way?” It’s a question that hits you like a ton of bricks as you realize how un-Christ-like you have been in many situations where you once felt justified. It’s a question that demands only one answer, “No!” The ends do not justify the means. Jesus approached people with love—even his enemies. We are without excuse.

This question has been on my mind ever since.

2. A Cup of Tea, a Kind Concern, and the Power of Love

With this question deeply on my mind, I got sick. It was a week or so after that meeting (this last Saturday), and I woke-up with a sore throat. I was distracted all day with a day trip to Loch Tay, but that evening it returned. Sunday was rough again. Monday was dreadful. I barely made it through class. Tuesday was better, but when I arrived for class in the afternoon, one of the other students had brought me a green tea with ginger and honey from the shop he was studying in before class. (He commented that the person making the drink really wanted to add whisky to it.) It was one thing that he remembered that I wasn’t feeling well; it showed how thoughtful he was. It was an entirely other thing that he was also kind enough to do something for me. He didn’t just pray, which would have been enough, but he went beyond what was hoped, expected, or encouraged of him.

I have also had an instructor take special care to help me intellectually and pastorally with some of the content covered in class. He has taken the time to meet with me to discuss the content covered, and he has stayed after class and during breaks to ask me about the questions that I brought-up during the class time. He has not only been kind enough to meet with me, but he has also taken the initiative to reach out to me. Again, it’s been a time of seeing people be intentionally kind and loving to me.

I can’t think of anything greater, or more meaningful, than experiencing God’s love, and it can be difficult sometimes to have those experiences. But God has chosen to work through the church, through a community of Jesus-people. When we join in fellowship and discipleship with the Jesus-people around us, we can quickly and joyfully find the love of God waiting for us.

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.