I spent last night in a frenzy. Let’s just call it a nerd frenzy, because there’s only about 13 of us in the world that would do it. I heard something awhile back and, for some reason, it crossed back into my mind, debilitating my ability to actually relax or sleep. I had to get the the bottom of it! A few months back, I heard N.T. Wright say the following words: “…as a good Calvinist…”
So, I’m aware that the Reformed tradition in general and even the Calvinist tradition is much larger, broader, flexible, and open than what the Young, Restless and Reformed crowd make it out to be. Still, while I knew Wright fell largely within the Anglican tradition as a Reformed theologian, the “Calvinist” label through me for a loop. I needed to get to the bottom of it.
Alas, I didn’t get to the bottom of it. I called friends, opened up a thread, scoured the internet. What kind of Calvinist is he?! Obviously he and Piper disagree on a good bit, but does Wright actually think that God elects some individuals to salvation while electing the 99% of everybody else who has ever lived to eternal damnation?! Wright had never given me any reason to think so, but his “as a good Calvinist” just ninja-punched my brain.
Though I didn’t get to the bottom of it, I did decide one thing: that man is more slippery than an eel dipped in olive oil.
That’s not to say that he’s not brilliant. He absolutely is. In my opinion and many others, he is the greatest New Testament scholar currently writing today, he has taken both the scholarly world and the popular world by storm and challenged us with new ways of thinking about God and being Christians, and he even once landed himself on the Colbert Report (which just proves it in and of itself!). As a friend of mine remarked, while the last generation was known as being for or against Rudolf Bultmann, this next generation will be known as being for or against Wright. I agree.
Nonetheless, his “question behind the question” and his focus on foundational epistemological assumptions led me to one other question: what must it be like to watch an argument between him and his wife?! Of course, I’ve never met the guy, so obviously I’ve never seen his private life bickering. But Wright is human; and he is a male; and…well, that’s enough. So, I created an argument for them. Here you go.
Wife: “Tom, did you take out the trash?”
Tom: “Dear, if by “trash” you mean one of the central symbols of God’s judgment upon sin and evil, then we must understand that the Jewish narrative pointed forward to the coming Messiah who would judge those realities. Gehenna was a growing eschatological symbol in the Jewish world, of course, but equally a forecast of what God had promised, and still promises, to do with evil in and through the person of Jesus. The trash was a first century symbol; one of the concrete metaphors by which Israel understood God’s judgement of the world and one which Jesus saw himself calling the world away from.”
Wife: “Tom, I asked you to do this last night! Now there are ants absolutely everywhere. It’s gonna take me an hour to clean this up?”
Tom: “Sweetheart, that is the whole point of the Gospel, the point on which everything turns and finds its true significance: God is the one who puts things right, not you or I. The grand metanarrative, which Scripture points to time and again, is one which speaks of God entering into Act 5 to clean up the mess with and through his people. If eschatology was one of the central points of Jesus’ own self-understanding, and it surely was, then we must understand that our hope is found in what God did in Him and promises to do in us! We find ourselves as characters in Israel’s story, where God has promised to deal with the Trash in himself. The resurrection, first of Jesus and later of us all, is the point where the Trash is finally dealt with. But we are equally called to participate in that work of redemption in the here and now. Perhaps the question should not be, “Has Tom taken out the trash? but, rather, “Is the Church taking out the trash? or, even more specifically, “Are we participating in Jesus’ own recycling (or more appropriately restoration) project?”
Wife: “I’m getting real tired of this Tom! Everything is not a metaphor! I just want a straight answer: Did you take out the trash? I know you didn’t, I just want to hear you say it.”
Tom: “It all depends on what you mean by “trash”? In one sense, absolutely. But in another sense, the answer is clearly no. I think we have to get back to the real foundational assumptions of the matter: where do we find our starting point? The post-Englightenment worldview would, of course, demand that the answer to your question is an either/or: either I did take the trash out or I didn’t. But in the resurrection, we are offered a new eschatological starting point: the now and the not yet. So, in a sense, I have already taken the trash out but in another sense, a thoroughly modernist sense which I think we are called to reject as having the only epistemological value, then the answer is…ummm….no.
Tom: “I like to go by N.T.”
Wife: “Don’t you N.T. me! Just a simple yes or no question!! Did you take the trash out!?!”
Tom: “Well, you see when you approach the question of…”
Tom: No dear…I forgot.
Of course, nobody can really get at Wright’s voice…nor did I want to put 15 hours into trying to do so…The man–he’s brilliant…But I can’t imagine trying to argue with him.