In this monumental episode, Kurt interviews the famous English New Testament scholar and Pauline theologian, N. T. Wright!
Kurt: Good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It is episode 100. We did it. We are here almost two years every Saturday coming to you at roughly 1 PM Central time in the western suburbs of Chicago and our program here has sought to bring well-reasoned arguments for why we should adopt any sort of particular position from a Christian worldview and in order to help us with our mission, we’ve invited guests from afar, from close and afar, to help us in our goal whether they are folks that are dealing their lawyers, dealing with a certain case, or they’re academics thinking about a certain issue. I know we’ve had just a number of guests from so many different perspectives and I want to thank you for your support along the way here, making it all the way to episode 100 and as I look at other podcasts, I see, boy, how did they ever make it to 100 episodes? It really just seems like a lot for them to put into it. Lo and behold, it is a lot, but it seems that as the old saying goes, slow and steady wins the race. Here we are every Saturday putting out new content and almost two years later here we are at episode 100. I want to thank you for being part of this program, for helping us make this happen. I know today we’ve got a great interview for you with the preeminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, but before we get to that interview, let me just say one more time how grateful I am for your continued support, especially those of our patrons and our sponsors. Our patrons are folks that just chip in $10 a month, $20 a month, to really help make the podcast happen and our sponsors are those that really take an interest and investment in what we’re doing here and so I want to say thank you to all those that have been with us along the way. If you’d like to learn more about how you can help this program to continue to grow online and perhaps even as a radio ministry, which is our goal for the future, please check out our website, Veracityhill.com and click on that patron and give button where you can learn more about what we’re trying to do here. For those that are new to the program, that has been our vision, to first provide a high-quality podcast and then eventually transition it into a radio program nationwide and so hopefully here, perhaps sometime this year or next, we’ll be starting to make not just a transition, but an addition to radio markets to air our program so others that are just tuning in on the radio still can hear the content that we’re creating week after week. I’ll stop talking now and let’s go on to the interview here with N.T. Wright.
Tom. Thank you so much for joining me on today’s program.
Tom: Thank you. It’s good to be with you.
Kurt: On today’s episode, I want to at least start by talking about Paul’s view of Israel and I’ve got some questions for you about Paul’s biography a little later, but as you know a few weeks ago, the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem and President Trump called Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and for many Christians, especially here in America, they believe that this is part of the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, that God would bring back the Jews to the promised land and so I’d like to get your take to start. Is this really what Paul is talking about in the New Testament?
Tom: No. Paul has nothing whatever to say on such a subject. As far as he’s concerned, with Jesus’s resurrection and the gift of the Spirit, the whole world is now God’s holy land and God intends now to reclaim the whole world as His own, hence the Gentile mission, so for anyone to suggest that actually there is still a small holy land back there is to mistake the signpost for the reality. As far as Paul’s concerned, like all the early Christians I think, the temple in Jerusalem and Jerusalem itself were advance signposts of God’s claim on the whole creation and actually that’s a view that goes right back into Israel’s Scriptures themselves. I would say whatever happened in 1948, apart from the fact that it was the year I was born as well conveniently, there is no biblical warrant for treating that as a particular fulfillment of long-range eschatological prophecy. Paul, after all, says in 2 Corinthians that all the promises of God find their yes in Him, that is Jesus the Messiah, and part of the problem with the sort of view you mentioned is that it ignores the real solid and actual fulfillment of prophecy which did take place in Jesus and has downgraded that as though that’s a purely spiritual thing, which of course, much of the Christian tradition has allowed for. What I think we’ve seen in the sort of speculations you’ve referred to is what happens when many generations forget that the gospel is already God’s claim on the whole world and think that it’s simply about enabling some people to go to heaven after they die and then all the promises about the actual reality of the world get pushed ahead to some future date. Actually, the view you described has a long history, but it’s a history which comes out of some very confused times in modern western culture and theology and has really, I think, nothing whatever to do with the New Testament. I’m sorry to speak so strongly and I’m sure some of your listeners will not like what I’ve said, but I’ve thought about this a great deal over many years and have engaged with people in different things and this is the view to which I have come.
Kurt: Yes. While it’s true that there is the language of bringing all things, a sort of grand reconciliation, a recapitulation, making all things new, which would include the Jewish people, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is this physical state or place. Is that accurate in your opinion?
Tom: Well, the trouble is we today find it difficult to think of geography in the way that people in the ancient world thought of geography. We think of nation-states with borders and custom controls or whatever. In the first century, the present thing we call the holy land or the Middle East or whatever, was never one single country like its tried to be although contested obviously in the last seventy years. It was rather a succession of quite different towns and cities with their immediate geographical district so Judea was basically Jerusalem and its surrounding villages and there were not far away, lots of other towns and cities, not least on the coast, which were not Jewish, which were thoroughly pagan, which had their own people, their own language, their own customs, their own religion, their own temples, so it’s very odd when people then read the New Testament as though what was happening back then was something called the state of Israel or the nation of Israel. It really wasn’t like that. We have to be careful not to project back our ideas, this is the standard thing that people do of course, until you actually study the history and realize how difficult it was.
Kurt: In Romans and other letters, Paul talks about, he uses this term Israel.
Tom: He uses the term, he says all Israel shall be saved in Romans 11:26 and that’s part of the very constructed argument of Romans 9-11 as a whole as I’m sure you know. That argument has often been misunderstood as though it’s a discourse on predestination or something like that. It really isn’t. It’s addressing the necessary question, isn’t it bizarre that the Messiah has come, Israel’s Messiah has come, and the majority of Paul’s fellow Jews have rejected the message about HIm. Paul then retells the story of Scripture from Romans 9:6 through to the end of chapter 10 and he tells basically the story of Torah from Genesis through to Deuteronomy with the prophetic narratives woven in and he’s absolutely emphatic and this is the very center of Romans 9-11, that the Messiah is the goal of the Law, Romans 10:4, Christ is the end or the goal of the Law, and the result is with Deuteronomy 30 which he quotes in verses 6-8 that now, the command is near you on your lips and in your heart so that you may do it and this from Deuteronomy 30, this is the long-awaited covenant renewal. This is what Scripture had promised. To take that away from Paul and say, “No, no, no. There’s a further covenant renewal which is later on.” This simply won’t do. When he’s then wrestling in Romans 11 with what then do we say? Where have we got to? We have to remind ourselves the main thing he is talking about in Romans 11 is against what he saw coming else in Rome and elsewhere which was an implicit anti-Judaism among some of the Gentile Christians who were tempted to say, “God may have started off with the Jewish people, but now this new religion we’ve got is clearly a Gentile thing because we’re mostly Gentiles so God’s cut off the Jews and there’s no future for them and they’re all out of it.” Paul is saying, “No, no. Not so fast. I too am a Jew. Jesus Himself, the root, the basis of it all, was of course, and is, of course, Jewish, and God always wants to save more Jews.” Then there is the question of what does he mean by “All Israel”, but he has already in Romans 9:6-7 used the word Israel in two quite different ways. He says specifically not all who are of Israel are in fact, Israel. He comes back to this at the end of Romans 11 and he talks about all Israel in the sense rather like the rabbis did. They said all Israel has a share in the age to come and then they produced exceptions. Not Sadducees. Not people who deny the resurrection, and so on. So for Paul, all Israel does not mean every single Jew. Either every single Jew who ever lived or every single Jew who’s alive at the parousia or anything like that. We have to be very careful about how we exegete Paul. As far as he’s concerned, the point he’s making, Romans 11:23 is that if they do not remain in unbelief, God can graft them in again. That’s the question. He looks for Jews to come to faith in the one who is after all their own Messiah and so to be saved. I think to try to take out of that this idea that somehow the Jewish nation has a this-worldly purpose in God’s ongoing projects, well no doubt, the whole world, every single nation under heaven has in the strange providence of God some purpose, but I think it’s very very dangerous and basically anti-scriptural and anti-gospel to think that that happens as a sort of special thing which now we all have to reorganize around. Sorry to speak so strongly, but I’ve studied this question and debated it many times over many years. I don’t think there’s any point to beating around the bush and pretending to don’t think what, in fact, I do.
Kurt: Right, and certainly I’m sympathetic with your read here as someone I haven’t really ever read Romans 9 in a sort of individual predestination sense, but a corporate sense, you gotta read the whole chapter, not just a couple verses here and there.
Tom: Yes. That’s absolutely right. Particularly, you have to see the way in which Paul is retelling the story of Genesis from Abraham onwards, Romans 9:6 following, and he works through then the Exodus and through then he’s looking at the time of the prophets and the time of the exile and then he brings in that great passage from Deuteronomy which when you go back to Deuteronomy and look at it, it’s all about how the covenant finally gets renewed and he says this is what’s happened in the Messiah. Part of our problem is we Christians have forgotten the Jewish element in Jesus’s own story. It’s not a Jewish element. The meaning of the story of Jesus is the God of Israel has fulfilled His promises, as Luke makes clear at the beginning of his Gospel, as all the Gospels make clear. In order to understand Jesus, you cannot avoid treating Him as Israel’s Messiah, but we western Christians have tended to tell the biblical story in terms of, we sinned, God sent Jesus so we’re alright again, instead of saying God made the world, we messed up, God called Israel to start the project of rescuing the world, He brought that project to its climax in Jesus, and now the world is to be renewed. That’s how the story has to be told. Because we haven’t done it like that, we’ve as it were left out the Jewish bit, so now we try to put it back in later as if that will make it alright again, and you know what happens if you try to do that with a jigsaw, oh dear, here’s a bit we left on the table, let’s stick it in on the end here. This is not going to improve the jigsaw.
Kurt: For you, the Christus Victor model, the idea that Christ conquers death and is victorious over sin, this plays up in your theology and your writings and there’s been a little bit of some recent development. I guess we have someone here who came online ahead of time asking if you have any thoughts on William Lane Craig and his model of the atonement. I don’t know if you’ve studied that much.
Tom: No, I haven’t. Bill Craig, I knew he was writing a book on the atonement because when he found out I was writing one he emailed me and said could I send him my book so I sent him a pre-publication draft of it and he was quite cross with it and said all sorts of rude things about it, which I was quite cheerful about, and then when I did a presentation on it at the American Academy of Religion a couple of years ago, he was the first one on his feet afterward objecting, and happily the other people on the panel with me answered him better than I could have done, so we’ve had a bit of a two and fro. I’ve known Bill Craig for many years and we agree to disagree on things, but I haven’t actually read his book because it came out after mine and I’ve been working very hard on other things since then. However, let me say this. The reason that I have foregrounded some elements of a Christus Victor view is because the Gospels are all about the Kingdom of God and that is absolutely central and the question we’ve never really addressed in western theology or not well is how the kingdom and the cross go together and the answer that all four Gospels give very clearly when they say that Jesus was executed with the words King of the Jews above His head is that the crucifixion of Jesus is His Messianic enthronement because this is the moment when the defeat of the dark powers which really was launched with His victorious incident over the temptations in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, that this comes to its height on the cross and when He says in John 12, “Now is the ruler of this world cast out,” this is the moment when the kingdom of God takes on the kingdoms of the world, the dark powers and the political powers and wins the victory and the proof of that is the resurrection. If the victory hasn’t been won, Jesus couldn’t be raised from the dead as Paul says in 1 Corinthians. If the Messiah is not raised, you’re still in your sins, but then for me, the problem with saying Christus Victor is that’s as often in the last generation of two been played off against other theories of atonement like say substitution or whatever. Gustaf Aulen wrote a famous book on Christus Victor saying because it’s really Christus Victor we don’t need to worry about all that substitution stuff which gets so tangled up, and I think that’s exactly wrong. The way that the Gospels tell the story of Jesus’s victory over the dark powers is through precisely His substitution so that Jesus dies and Barabbas goes free. Jesus dies and the brigand on the cross next to Him is told, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise, etc.” Jesus takes on the fate of His people so that His people may be rescued from it. It’s victory through substitution which then plays into the much larger issues of why all this happened in the first place and what God’s eventual purpose which we in western theology have not done very well in articulating, so for me it’s all rooted in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and I notice that most western atonement theologies pay no attention to the Gospels other than one or two prooftexts. It’s time to get the four Gospels back where they belong.
Kurt: That’s great. For you, the notion of the Kingdom of God and salvation, this is a very much here, but not yet, concept.
Tom: Yes. Clearly, once Jesus is raised from the dead, Paul says that the gospel has already been preached to every creature under heaven. He says that in Colossians 1. That’s an extraordinary statement. He doesn’t mean that he, Paul, has been around every country in the world and every city in the world and told everybody in the world about Jesus. He means that when Jesus rose again from the dead, there was a kind of cosmic shockwave went through the whole creation so that the dark power of corruption and decay that had held it captive had had time called on it and now there was a new power released in the world, the power of the Spirit, the power of the gospel, the power of world-renewing love which was now going to transform the world and thank God has been doing so for the last 2,000 years, not in the way that many Jews of the time expected, certainly not in the way that any Gentiles at the time expected cause they weren’t expecting anything like that. Not in the way we modern post-enlightened people wish God had done that, but actually very much in the way that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said God was going to do it. So the transformation really has begun and even though it is partial and fitful and we don’t see it all, one should not gainsay the enormous transformation of the world that has already taken place which is a signpost pointing forward to the great transformation that will take place when Jesus comes again.
Kurt: For many westerners, their life is just sort of what they do, they’re waiting to pass through this Earth until they live for all eternity in heaven. I know for me, I read Surprised By Hope about ten years ago and it really helped to confirm what the apostles’ creed teaches, that we believe in the resurrection of the dead. Tell us about that.
Tom: The problem there was that 500 years ago the Protestants and Reformers were faced with a western medieval church that was totally fixated on purgatory, that really believed that almost all Christians which they meant basically all Europeans who were sort of baptized into the Roman Church, because they were all still sinful at death except for the one or two saints, they would have to go through a long period of purgation after death and so they developed this huge system of praying and saying masses and singing chants and so on in order to get grandfather and Uncle Joe and who knows who out of purgatory and into heaven at last, and the Reformers were so horrified by this and all the corruption and abuses that that doctrine and system produced that they said no, no, no, there is no such thing as purgatory or if there is, it happens in this life with the suffering and death that we experience here and that once you die, that’s it. That’s it you purged so you are now ready for the presence of God after death. They then saw the whole thing in terms of dying and going to heaven, end of conversation. Then the Reformers, as actually Karl Barth saw very clearly, they never really sorted out their eschatology, because if you’re going to believe in new creation, in heaven and Earth being renewed, which is what the New Testament teaches, then you have to envisage some kind of an interim state. They were so frightened of interim states because that’s what purgatory was for them that they didn’t want an interim state. As a result, we in the west have been muddled ever since and particularly because of other philosophical and cultural things that have happened. We have embraced all sorts of Platonism which says basically this material world is rubbish, it’s trash. God is going to explode it all, get rid of it, and then our souls will fly free and we will end up our souls going to heaven. I say to the students again and again here where I teach, if you go to the first century looking for somebody who says that we human beings are exiled from our true home which is in heaven and one day our souls will go back there, then there is somebody in the first century who says that very clearly and it’s Plutarch, not Paul, and Plutarch is a pagan philosopher, biographer, and priest, who teaches middle Platonism and Paul would not agree with that at all. We have a great deal of unthinking and rethinking to do and I think my book, Surprised By Hope which you’ve mentioned. I get more comments and questions and letters about that book than probably any others that I’ve ever written. I had an email from somebody in Hawaii about that book just this afternoon, just before you came on the phone. I think this is a really really important thing which we have to rethink our way around.
Kurt: You mentioned here for the Reformers, they had to think about sort of their eschatology or really they had trouble with it or maybe didn’t do enough thinking about it, and trying to think about the eternal state and so Mark here online, he asks a question about, he’s wondering what your thoughts are on hell. Who goes? What happens? How long?
Tom: Sooner or later, forgive me for saying this, sooner or later when I talk to Americans they always want to know about hell. Almost nobody else that I talk to, I’ve been in all sorts of places, recently Switzerland, Sweden, here in Britain, and other countries, Romania, usually nobody wants to know about hell. I’m puzzled as to why it is that in American culture hell seems to play such a prominent role. Let me say very clearly I’m not a universalist, I’ve never been a universalist, I do believe that we humans are gifted with the terrible responsibility of worshipping the true God and the danger of worshipping false gods and that if we worship false gods, then our humanness basically deconstructs. We are designed to reflect God’s image. We are made in His image, designed to reflect Him into the world. If instead, we worship what’s in the world, idols of whatever sort, then we are basically saying I don’t want to be a true human being. I want to be something different. I’ll have a bit of fun at the moment burning up this bit of my humanness and then whatever’s left, whatever’s left, so I want to say and I do say in Surprised By Hope that whatever’s left is perhaps, you could say, it’s difficult because the New Testament doesn’t say very much exactly how to construe, a creature that if you like once was an image-bearing human but now isn’t anymore. The advantage if it is an advantage of saying it like is that otherwise you end up with a situation like certain countries in the world today where you get this blissful heavenly realm with everyone having a good time and then in the middle you have a concentration camp where people are being tortured. That is, of course, one of the medieval images of the future, which came through even as far as the nineteenth century and the idea that one of the joys of heaven is witnessing the torments in hell. I think from the nineteenth century onwards, many many good devout Christians have looked at that picture and said something is drastically wrong with this. C.S. Lewis wrestled mightily with this in his book The Great Divorce and elsewhere. I think he was absolutely right because those who are in hell cannot as it were blackmail those who are in God’s new creation. Part of the difficulty is this binary of heaven and hell which goes back to Dante and Michaelangelo. It’s basically a medieval thing. If instead we take the biblical view which is new heavens and new Earth, then we’re not talking about a Platonic disembodied heaven. We’re talking about God’s whole new creation and then what happens when people say I don’t want to be part of this new creation that God is making. That, you can call it hell if you’d like, that’s a traditional word for it. Jesus sometimes talks about Gehenna which is the rubbish dump outside of Jerusalem where the fire never goes out. It’s like a scary signpost to an awful impossible possibility and He’s saying basically don’t go there.
Kurt: We’ve got one more question from one of the commenters online here before we head to a break here. This is actually from a theologian Thomas Jay Oord. He’s wondering does God have the power to defeat evil singlehandedly? If so, why doesn’t God do so?
Tom: Questions about God ultimately for a Christian come down to questions about Jesus because we know who God is by looking at Jesus. John says this very clearly. No one has ever seen God. The only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known. When we look at Jesus and when we read the Sermon on the Mount and when we read the story of Jesus, we discover that this is how God is dealing with evil and the idea that you can address the question of God and evil without that sentence passing through the cross is an eighteenth-century fancy, ever since the middle of the eighteenth century, the Lisbon earthquake in particular, theologians have separated out God dealing with sin on the cross from what God ought to do about “evil” in the rest of the world. I think we have to put those questions back together again and this all goes back actually to the nature of creation itself and to the fact that creation has a Trinitarian shape. What do I mean by that? I mean this. That God made one creature within His world, namely humankind, to reflect His image in order to work in the world through humans and through one human in particular, and that God from the beginning always intended that the one we now think of as the second person of the Trinity would become the Lord of the world. When then humans sin, God doesn’t say, “Oh well. We won’t do it like that. I’ll have to send in the tanks and do it differently.” God is still going to work in creation through an obedient, devoted, servant human being who will reflect His will into the world. Following human evil and all the cosmic evil what this looks like is the story of Jesus. So singlehandedly? Well, yes, in a sense, because God in Christ comes and takes the weight of the world’s evil precisely onto Himself singlehandedly well, getting His hands pierced on the cross. I’ve graven you on the palms of my hands as Isaiah says. Then the question of how that relates to all the rest of the evil in the world, has to do with the mission of the church and with God’s promise ultimately to rid the world of corruption and decay as in Romans 8. The way I put it is like this. God is going to put the world right at the end. He’s promised to do that. God has launched this project by raising Jesus from the dead, declaring thereby that He has dealt with evil in principle, and God now recruits through the gospel people who will be putting right people through the world. Justification and justice go hand in hand. That is how God is dealing with evil.
Kurt: Again, to summarize, does God have the power to prevent evil singlehandedly? In a sense, yes, He’s working on it.
Tom: In a sense yes, because, well, singlehandedly Trinitarianly I would say, God has dealt with it through the death of His Son and His resurrection and His launching of the Kingdom. That is the only appropriate way for God to do that. Otherwise, He would unmake creation itself and the creation is made in such a way that it works in such a way and the reason it’s made like that is because it’s Trinitarian in shape, but then the outflowing of that is about the Holy Spirit, about the work of the Spirit both now in the present age and in the full final flooding of creation when the Earth will be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea, so yes God does have the power to do it, but that power, Jesus Himself says I’m redefining power. He says that in Mark 10. He says that in John 18 and 19. When we talk about God’s power, we have to think, “Hang on. What do we mean? Is God just a celestial CEO who can hand a dictate down to the office floor to say from now on we’re all going to do this.” No. God has come in Christ and He’s coming by the Spirit to do it in the way which is appropriate within a Trinitarianly shaped creation.
Kurt: That’s great. Alright. We’ve got to head to a short break here, but on today’s program I’m joined by the right reverend N.T. Wright and we’re talking about a number of different topics and after this break we’ll get into his recent publication, Paul: A Biography. Stick with us through this short break from our sponsors.
Kurt: Thanks for sticking with us through that short break from our sponsors and today, I am joined by the right reverend N.T. or Tom as his friends call him, Tom Wright, and we’re talking about Israel. We’re talking about Paul. We’ve got some questions from folks that have pre-submitted them ahead of time for today’s program, but Tom, before we continue into today’s discussion, we’ve got this nice segment on the show that we call Rapid Questions. It’s just fun, goofy questions here, sort of asking about your favorite things and we’ve got a sixty-second game clock here, so as soon as I start that I’ll ask the first question and we’ll go forward. Are you ready?
Kurt: Alright. What is your clothing store of choice?
Kurt: Where would you like to live?
Tom: Right where I do, in the East of Scotland.
Kurt: What is your spouse’s favorite holiday?
Tom: We go to the west coast often to an island called Harris.
Kurt: What’s one person you’d like to have dinner with to discuss a topic you disagree on?
Tom: Goodness. Maybe Jordan Petersen, the Canadian psychiatrist and thinker and see whether in fact, he may have a sneaking belief in Jesus after all.
Kurt: Do you drink Dr. Pepper?
Tom: Happily, no.
Kurt: Pick a fictional character that you’d like to meet.
Tom: Wow. Aslan.
Kurt: The hokey pokey, electric slide, or the macarena dance?
Tom: I don’t know anything about either of them?
Kurt: What’s your favorite movie?
Tom: Probably Chariots of Fire.
Kurt: Alright. The sixty seconds is up. Tom. Thank you so much for playing that round of Rapid Questions. Let me follow up with you here. Jordan Petersen? He’s been sort of a YouTube rockstar.
Tom: So I gather. I don’t see much YouTube, but people keep emailing me about him and so I did read his book, the Twelve Rules For Life.
Kurt: What did you think? He’s an interesting character, a thoughtful follow.
Tom: He is. It’s interesting. I used to live in Canada in Montreal many years ago. I’ve known quite a few Canadians over the years. He strikes me as a typical sassy sort of country Canadian who’s come to the big academies and he talks in Harvard and so on and he’s not fazed by, well to put it bluntly, the political correctness, the intellectual establishment of the elite. He’s perfectly happy to say, “A plague on you all. You’re just not thinking straight.” He’s so smart. He’s very shrewd and smart.” He can see straight through the fluffy business that people often do follow. This isn’t to say I do agree with him down the line. I’m quite worried that he’s being taken over by what some people call the Alt-right. I don’t think that’s really where he is. I think people hear him saying some anti-political correct things and think, “Oh good. Here’s somebody who’s singing our tune.” I don’t think he is. I don’ t think he’s singing anybody’s tune. I think he’s just calling some shots on some current follies which are out there in the public domain.
Kurt: He’s walking to the sound of his own drum.
Tom: Fair enough.
Kurt: That’s for sure. I want to transition now to your recent publication, put out by HarperCollins, Paul: A Biography. You’ve written on Paul, a number of times in the past few decades here. What has been your motivation for writing a book which tells the story of his life?
Tom: Well, I have done quite a lot of stuff on Paul, but quite a lot that I’ve written has been more for academics, apart from, I did a little popular series of commentaries, Paul For Everyone, etc. which are available, which will walk you through the letters. I’ve had this sense down the years that when people read Paul, they simply pick up a bit of Galatians or Corinthians or whatever and they see it as Holy Scripture, whether or not they believe in Holy Scripture, and they see it just as having sort of fallen down from Heaven into this book called the Bible and they don’t really get into what was actually going on and what made Paul tick and what the pressure points were in his life. As I was thinking about that and the publishers wanted me to do something that was more accessible than my big academic works on Paul, then I read a couple of novels by the British novelist, Robert Harris, about the Roman politician and thinker Cicero, that is three novels, the trilogy about Cicero, Imperium, Lustrum, and Dictator, and what Harris manages to do there is that instead of Cicero being just a thinker way back when, you find yourself walking down into the Roman forum with Cicero with his bodyguards around him and the enemies whispering in the backstreets and remembering what his wife said to him before he set off for the forum that day and what the speech he was going to make and how he was going to have to shorten it and this and that. You’re actually living in Cicero’s skin and so understanding why he had to say what he had to say and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to try to do the same thing with Paul, to try to get people to be walking around with Paul, to be debating with him, to be weeping with him, to be in prison with him”, and then when you suddenly find that he’s writing Galatians or Romans or whatever it is, you say to yourself, “Of course. That’s exactly what he had to say.” Instead of the text coming to us as a rather strange discourse on something, by the time we’ve got to the point of he now sits down to dictate this letter, we almost know in advance what he’s going to have to say, because we’re there with him. Some of the nicest comments that friends and reviewers have said about the book is that it seems to do just that. I’m really pleased with the reception it’s had so far.
Kurt: You’ve been thinking about Paul for decades. Was there anything that surprised you as you were writing this book?
Tom: Writing this book? I forced myself to face some questions which I just basically put off, like for instance, what about the ten silent years? People, when they read the Gospels, talk about the silent years of Jesus between age 12 when He goes up to Jerusalem with Joseph and Mary, right through to His baptism, there’s twenty silent years there, give or take, but with Paul, when he has his experience on the Road to Damascus, then he preaches in Damascus briefly, then they send him back to Jerusalem, then he’s too hot to handle so they send him back home to Tarsus. Hang on. Tarsus is where he came from, that’s in Southeastern Turkey as we would say today. It’s another ten years before Barnabas comes from Antioch to say, “Hey. You. Saul. Come with me. You can help me with what we’re doing in Antioch. We’re planting churches like you wouldn’t believe and we need somebody to help teach us. What’s going in between? Nobody knows, but from what we know later about Paul, we have to surmise that he was praying, he was studying the Scriptures, he was working as a tentmaker, that was the family business, and no doubt, he was trying to persuade his family, his parents, his siblings, maybe he may have had a fiance, may even have been married at one point. We don’t know. His wife may have left him. There may be a hint of that in 1 Corinthians 7. Trying to probe into that very key passage, probably most of his twenties when we know nothing for sure, but because of what we know about him in his thirties and forties, we have to say quite a bit that was going on there, the person that he then became. That’s one of the things. Another thing is that I was trying to probe into what he says in 2 Corinthians 1 where he talks about the time when he suffered from a terrible, terrible, depression, so crushed that he deeply despaired of life himself. Then he says this was to make me rely on the God who raises the dead. Now when I was writing this book, I thought, “Hang on. I know a bit about depression. I’m a trained counselor, etc.” You don’t just tell somebody who’s suffering from depression, “Oh you need to trust God.” They will be justified in slapping your face. If you’re really depressed as Paul was, that’s not going how to work. I found myself saying, “How did he get out of that? What did it mean for him to rely on the God who raises the dead?” That caused me to probe into Paul’s prayer life, because however depressed you are, if you’re a good devout Jew, you don’t stop praying. The prayer just is happening in your heart and mind and soul. It may be in angry prayer, it may be frustrated prayer, but for Paul, the prayer is Jewish prayer reshaped about Jesus and then you realize, “Hang on. In Paul’s writings we have quite a few Jewish prayers shaped around Jesus”, like Ephesians 1, like Philippians 2, like Colossians 1, like 1 Corinthians 8. Maybe those prayers come out of this time that Paul had experienced, that as I think he used the image in the book, like a plant in harsh winter. He has to put his roots down through the earth into the deep soil beneath and what he comes up with is Christian poetry, the beginning of Christian theology in the form of poetic prayers and praises and for me, as soon as I realized that there’s a kind of aha, this makes sense, makes psychological sense, makes theological sense, makes personal and I think biographical sense.
Kurt: You noted here how there was sort of one tidbit that we learn of his depression. It seems like while many of us might struggle to understand the big chunks of Paul’s writing, that sometimes these small details are really what can illuminate more about his life. Is that right?
Tom: Exactly. Of course, if you’re studying Paul’s theology then you want to look at the big passages about Jesus, about justification, about resurrection. Fine. Let’s do that, but often in those little throwaway remarks or just two or three verses here and there, they don’t seem to be part of a great theological exposition. Nevertheless, they are very illuminating and that’s been part of the fun of it, actually rereading cause I mapped out this biography before trying to write it, I sort of sketched it out and then I went back and reread the letters carefully looking for precisely the little hints which would fil in some of those blanks and details.
Kurt: That’s great. So what do you think will be most beneficial for the reader to understand as they’re going through your book?
Tom: Wow. I think the most beneficial thing to remind yourself every day that Paul is a real human being living in a three-dimensional world which is political, which is social, which is cultural, which is a dangerous world for a Jew because it’s the world where pagan culture sneers at the Jews or tries to do them now in one way or another. Once you think into that complex )Unclear at 44:55) reality, you realize that what we mean by religion in the modern world corresponds to absolutely nothing in the ancient world, nothing that Paul would recognize. Sometimes in a train and I meet somebody and they say, “What are you working on?” “I’m writing a book about St. Paul” often they will say, “Oh. I’m not religious at all.” I feel like saying to them, “Why did you just change the subject?” We’re not talking about religion in the modern sense at all. We’re talking about a whole way of life. We’re talking about stuff that happens in the real world which involves as I say, politics and philosophy and culture and everything, and Paul is right there in the middle of it and when we learn to read the letters like that, then my goodness, they relate to us in all sorts of ways, not just in the great doctrines that we have to believe if we’re Christians. They’re important and I’m not saying anything against that. I spent a long time trying to sort that stuff out, but in actually doing business as whole human beings ourselves with this whole human being we call Paul.
Kurt: Yes. It seems that for many people, they come to the text, and because it’s the sacred book, it’s almost as if they ignore the human realities of the authors.
Tom: Yeah. This is like the early church swung to and fro. Those who were saying Jesus is divine found it hard to also say Jesus was human, and those who wanted to insist that He was human found it very difficult to say He was divine. The church has always struggled with balances like that. That’s one of the reason why I say the poetry is so important, because in poetry you can say two or three things simultaneously, or at least the structure of the poem shows that they’re to be understood simultaneous in a way that music can do that straight prose often can’t. We have tended in the western world to think of poetry and music as the little decorative bit around the edge, which we then forget when we get to the real business. I want to say, “No, absolutely not.” The older I get, the more important poetry and music and stuff are as roots to the very center.
Kurt: Yes. That reminds me, when you speak of poetry and music and Psalm, how important it is for communicating these truths, you wrote a song with Francis Collins. Is that right?
Tom: Yes. I did. Francis invited me ten years ago to be part of his project, the Biologos foundation, though that hasn’t been my world. I’ve never done science and faith stuff because I’m not a scientist at all. I did hardly any science at school, but they wanted someone who could sit with them as it were while they were thinking about where all of this might land in terms of biblical theology and New Testament and so on. That was kind of fun. Then, almost by accident, a few years ago, I forget when it was, five or six or seven years ago now. On my way to a Biologos meeting, for various odd reasons, my wife and I were in Rome at the time and she had just been in a cab, and the cabbie had been singing to her, amazingly, serenading her with Paul McCartney’s song Yesterday and I was thinking about the Biologos meetings and my wife comes into the room singing Yesterday and I was thinking about Genesis and so I thought “Genesis” and I sat down that afternoon and I wrote the first verse and sent it to Francis. He wrote the next verse and it went from there.
Kurt: Yes. That first verse. Genesis. Earth and Heaven in a cosmic kiss. Just think of it to the tune of Yesterday.
Tom: That’s right. If somebody were to Google, Tom Wright Genesis, they’d probably find me singing it somewhere or other.
Kurt: That’s great. Before we move on from the biography to a couple of other questions, I do want to ask you this and it’s something I think people might feel a little uncomfortable with. I’d like if you could, tell us your perspective on Paul’s Damascus Road experience.
Tom: Obviously, this is a unique experience and Paul himself says that in 1 Corinthians 15. He says it was like somebody being ripped from the womb. In other words, the resurrection experiences have happened. This show was on the road already and I wasn’t ready to take part in that, but God snatched me like somebody being snatched from his mother’s womb, in order to see the risen Jesus before the appearances stopped. Paul is very clear that his was the last of these resurrection appearances. He says last of all, and that’s really important, but when we say “What was this experience?” Some people say he maybe he had an epileptic fit or he had been out too long in the hot sun, something like that, I think that’s just modern rationalistic explanations, but the Jewish prayer traditions which are part of the tradition to which Paul belonged, often went back to the start of the book of Ezekiel where you get the whirling wheels and the flashing angels and so on and it’s basically the throne chariot, and later than Paul but we think these traditions actually go back to his time, there are texts which speak of people meditating on Ezekiel’s throne chariot in order to try to get a glimpse of the one who is seated on the throne of God Himself, and this is only a guess, but I like this idea and lots of people have thought this that maybe what Paul was doing as he was walking along or possibly riding a horse or donkey or something, that he was meditating on the throne chariot and trying in his mind’s eye to get his eye to get up to see God Himself, because Paul was a zealous Jew. He was doing God’s business. He wanted a vision of God in order to be fired up for what he had to do in Damascus, and when his eye gets up to the figure on the throne, it is Jesus. I can’t prove that that’s what happened, but it makes very good sense within precisely the Jewish prayer traditions that are part of Paul’s larger world, and if it was some other way then it was some other way, but the point is this is a real seeing of the real Jesus, because for Paul, heaven and Earth are not separable by a great gulf. It’s just sort of like a thin veil between them and on the circumstances the veil can be removed and that’s what seems to have happened. The really important thing is terms of what people often say about this today, is that for Paul this was a real saying of Jesus. It was not a vision. He has other visions. He has other revelations. There are later visions which are recorded in Acts, but this was a real physical seeing of the real physical resurrected Jesus. I’m not sure which bits of all that I mentioned might be objected to.
Kurt: Yes. I think maybe the concern is that some might come away thinking that this is only in Paul’s mind, but you’re saying here this is a real experience.
Tom: But the trouble is even the word experience can be very slippery, but people use the word experience, oh you have this wonderful experience, and implying well that was true in your fevered imagination sort of thing, but of course, we know it wasn’t in the real world, but for Paul it’s of that sequence of events in 1 Corinthians 15 which include Jesus appearing to 500 people all at once of whom most are alive to this day he says. These are real seeings of the real Jesus. Of course, the risen body of Jesus is one of the greatest mysteries in the world, because the accounts of it make it clear that it is a real body inhabiting a real physical space. Jesus could walk down the shore. He could break bread at Emmaus. He could cook fish by the sea of Galilee, but at the same time He could come and go through locked doors. He could appear and disappear. At the end, He could disappear into God’s space, into heaven. Fine. Okay. This is a new sort of physicality which is equally at home in Earth and in Heaven and we aren’t used to that. We find that difficult to grasp so we Platonize it and we imagine a disembodied heaven where Jesus is really just a disembodied ghost. With that, we have just falsified the whole New Testament.
I want to transition here, justification has been something that you’ve spoke
on, preached on, written on of course, and so we’ve got one commenter who’s
wondering, sort of a plain question, but it can be so complex too at the same
time. Seth asks, “What does Paul mean by works of Law, works of the
Tom: There’s a huge debate about that. If you look at the context in Romans 3 and Galatians 3 particularly, what he’s actually talking about is the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God. That’s impossible for a first-century ordinary Jew because the people of God consist of the family of Abraham whose markers are the temple, the Sabbath, the food laws, the family identity, all the things that mark Israel out as the people who keep Torah, so Paul says that actually Torah cannot be the marker of the new people of God because if that was so, Abraham would end up with two families, a Jewish and a non-Jewish family and in fact, God intends there to be one family, and so the works of the law are the things which the Jews do, not in order to earn salvation, but in order to express and celebrate their membership in God’s family and Paul says, “The family of Abraham has now been redefined because God has sent the Messiah.” In the Old Testament, there’s a long nexus between Abraham and David, Abraham and the king, and Paul says, “Now Abraham and the Messiah, now that the Messiah has come, you are no longer under that regime. The law was a good thing which was designed for a temporary purpose. That temporary purpose is now fulfilled.” We moralized all that in the modern western tradition, especially since Luther, but particularly since Immanuel Kant so we imagine that works simply means behaving yourself morally, and for Paul that is part of it but never the whole of it, and the works which he says do not justify are very specifically the works which would mark out the Jew from the Gentile. Obviously, that’s controversial. Anyone who wants to know more about it, just go to the index of Paul and the Faithfulness of God, my big book on Paul, and look up the word works in the index and you’ll find plenty more to be going on with.
Kurt: The next question here comes from Charles. It’s a bit technical perhaps for our audience. What does the word metanoia mean in the context of believing by faith for salvation?
Tom: The believing which?
Kurt: The believing by faith for salvation.
Tom: Oh. Metanoia literally means a change of mind. It then comes to be more and less a technical term for repentance, but when Jesus says repent and believe the good news, part of what that means can be seen by the fact that Josephus, a near contemporary of Paul’s, he talks about telling people to repent and believe in him by which he means, give up your political ambitions and aims and trust me for mine. I think Jesus of Nazareth meant much more than Josephus, but I don’t think He meant any less. I think He meant you’ve got to abandon your ideas of how you would like the world to be reorganized and trust me and come with me because I am launching God’s kingdom and you’ve got to get on board. Of course, part of that is the challenge that you’ve actually been worshipping idols and your being human has been corrupted and defaced as a result. This goes all the way back to Deuteronomy and Jeremiah that says when Israel is in a mess in exile, then if they turn back to God with all their heart and soul, then He will restore them. Jesus is picking up from that and saying to His contemporaries, “You’ve got to do the Deuteronomy and Jeremiah thing because this is what’s going to affect the great turnaround”, or rather Jesus is affecting the great turnaround and if you want to be part of it you’ve got to give up what you’ve been doing, thinking, planning, and trust me for my doings, thinkings, and plannings, and then this, of course, comes through into early Christianity when the Christians and like Paul talking to the Thessalonians and he says you turned from idols to serve a living and true God. In other words, repentance is what a Gentile does to say I’m not going to worship these idols anymore and I’m not going to do the behaviors that go with that idol worship and I’m simply going to worship the true God and I’m going to follow and serve Him. That challenge remains just as powerful and potent now as ever it did. The trouble is again, we’ve overmarked this, we’ve failed to see that it’s primarily about worship and then necessarily about behavior after that, but we’ve treated it as though it’s just behavior, but actually worship is at the root of behavior and wrong worship is at the root of wrong behavior and it’s from all of that that we have to turn away.
Kurt: Two questions here about denominations. Cole asks, “Why did you choose to be an Anglican over any other denomination?” Jonathan asks for your thoughts on Eastern Orthodoxy. So first, why be an Anglican?
Tom: I was born an Anglican. My grandfather was an Anglican priest. There’s more clergy in my family than I can easily shake a stick at. I just grew up going to church every Sunday and there was one point in my life when I actually seriously thought about becoming a Baptist and I looked at it hard and then decided actually, no, I was going to stick where I was. There were other times when I thought, “Oh my goodness, this whole thing is a bit of a mess”, but I have found that all denominations I know have seriously messy things with them and you don’t gain anything by saying, “Let’s get out and start a new pure one.” The last two or three hundred years not least in America show where you get with that. Yes. It may be exciting. It may be very effective in some ways, but it leaves you with big puzzles down the track. For me, I have found that certainly in England itself, the Anglican church can still play a mediating role. It can stand in the middle and bring together Christians from very different traditions to pray together, to work together, to do things together, and that’s been really exciting for me.
The other question was about Eastern Orthodoxy I think?
Kurt: Yes. That’s right.
Tom: I don’t know very much about the Eastern Orthodox Church. I know bits. I have a great respect for Eastern Orthodoxy. Timothy Kallistos Ware and I were colleagues in the faculty in Oxford, one of the great Orthodox thinkers of our day. Let me put it like this. The Western church has made many mistakes. The Eastern church has made many mistakes as well, but they’re not the same mistakes, or not usually the same mistakes. They’ve got some things exactly right like the very strong stress on the Trinity and on prayer and the importance in liturgy sharing the worship that’s going on in heaven right now. This is something nobody ever told me when I was young, but when we are worshipping, we’re joining in with the songs of the angels. That’s second nature to the Eastern Orthodox. I’ve found in my contacts with the Orthodox, I was curiously having a coffee with the archbishop of Cluj in Romania, just about six weeks ago or so, and he was so keen on church unity and so keen on being able to pray together and on the fact that the love of Jesus unites us. I’ve found that in many many denominations, that many of my Roman Catholic friends as well. I think we’re in quite a new day where many of the traditional churches that used to be set apart from one another as warring factions are able to get together and pray together while sadly then within some of the denominations themselves, there are new divisions appearing, especially on some ethical issues, which are so tragic at the very moment when in other ways, a fresh burst of unity is actually happening.
Kurt: Nice. This is my final question to you. Imagine if you’re entering an elevator and you’re going up to the tenth floor and let’s say it’s a slow elevator. Let’s say you’ve got 90 seconds and there’s a skeptic there and the skeptic asks you, “What is the gospel?” What would you say to someone like that?
Tom: The gospel is the good news that this world has a creator who loves the world and is putting it right and that He has launched this putting right project through Jesus Himself who is His own living embodiment and that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, extraordinary thought that might be for us to imagine, He has in fact, set this project in motion and now He is summoning us, all human beings anywhere in the world, to become part of that putting right project for the world, though it’s going to be mean being put right in ourselves, which is often a challenging and painful process. Are we up at the ninetieth floor yet?
Kurt: That’s great. I really just appreciate how simple you can make that message sound for some…
Tom: Simplicity hides a multitude of complexity, but you have to start somewhere.
Kurt: That’s right. Great. Tom. Thank so much for taking time out of your evening, my late morning…
Tom: You probably heard the clock striking six just now.
Kurt: I think I did a minute or so ago. Thank you so much and God bless in all that you do.
Tom: Thank you very much. It’s good talking to you. Okay. Bye Bye.
Kurt: That does it for our show today. Episode 100 is on the books. I’m grateful for the continued support of our patrons, and the partnerships that we have with our sponsors, Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, The Illinois Family Institute, Fox Restoration, and Non-Profit Megaphone. I want to think our technical producers now, we have Chris and Robb for their continued support and labors for our program to keep chugging along, and I want to thank our guest today, N.T. Wright, but last and certainly not least and above all, I want to thank you for listening in and for striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.
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