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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

An illustrated guide to Tom Wright and an introduction to “transtomism”

I have been reading an excellent little “visual guide” to the thought of Tom Wright by Marlin Watling. The book is called The Marriage of Heaven and Earth, it’s self-published, and is available as a paperback or on Kindle. Coincidentally, my copy of Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion arrived today. Will it never end?

The book kicks off with an introduction to “Tom” the person—a “veritable rock star of contemporary theology”—which gives a mildly hagiographical slant to it. Then we have three main sections: a summary of the four concepts that Watling thinks are key to the thought of the popular Wright (Bible as story, the good news about Jesus, the kingdom of God, and a “new take on morals”); his proposal about a new worldview; and, quoting from the press release, an “overview of humanity’s mission, with an eye toward the end times”. It is not a summary of Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God books.

It is clearly and simply written, well edited, it doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail, it keeps a basic storyline in view, and it gets across Watling’s conviction, no doubt grounded in his pastoral experience at Mosaik Heidelberg, that the church urgently needs to start thinking along these lines.

It is also sweetly illustrated by Katja Tonn. Watling explains in his prologue that the book began as a series of sketches illustrating various ideas drawn from Wright’s popular works.

A picture speaks more than a thousand words. With the following images you will get an introduction to the big picture of the Bible and its implications for our time. You will get NT Wright in a few hours (a feat impossible until now). You will get images that connect your story to the larger story of the world. You will be called into your life’s mission.

It’s a pity, in a way, that when you read the book, the text inevitably comes first, and the images float past more as illustrations than as the starting point for thought. They are also perhaps a little conventional, which rather works against the claim made in the press release that the book offers a “mind-blowing new perspective on the nature of God and humanity’s place in the world today”.

But I like the approach. I find that drawing can be a powerful tool for the exploration and development of new ideas, even if images sometimes underperform at the communication end of the process. In any case, I could see the book working very well for a reading group of lay people who are unfamiliar with Wright’s work. Check out the dedicated website for further information.

Introducing transtomism

All that said, I found reading the book a frustrating experience—and the fault lies not with Marlin Watling but with Tom Wright.

Reading Wright’s massive output over the last decade and a half has helped me, as it has helped many, to grasp the fundamental point that what the New Testament gives us is not a how-to-be-saved manual with a how-to-do-church appendix but the climax to the story of Israel as a historical community in the first century and an explanation of the critical rule that Jesus played in that story.

Here we have what is perhaps the most important development in recent evangelical thought—the shift from narrative to history. In the spirit of Watling’s book and in honour of “Tom” I present this idea in a simple diagram.

Diagram of theology, history and NT Wright

At the modern Reformed/evangelical end of the scale priority is given to theological constructions of what it means to be Christian. At the theoretical level this takes the form of systematic theology; in the everyday discourse of the church we have doctrinal statements and a simplistic gospel of personal salvation. These constructions are ostensibly biblical, but they were developed at various stages during the history of the church and are basically “Christian” or traditional or even ecclesiastical re-readings of scripture. Scripture is interpreted through the powerful lenses of Patristic, Scholastic, Lutheran, Calvinist or Modern theologies.

Over the last few decades a radically different method for constructing what it means to be Christian has emerged. The theological approach has always been to make the Bible work within the Christian worldview by rationalising and reducing it. New Testament Studies, however, which is essentially a historical discipline, has persuaded many to pay much closer attention to the Jewish-historical character of Christian origins. As a result, we have come to understand Jesus—in different ways, and to varying degrees—not as a universal saviour figure, who merely becomes incarnate, dies, and returns to heaven, but as a figure inseparable from the story about ancient Israel given to us in the Old Testament and the writings of second temple Judaism.

Tom Wright has been by far the most significant figure in this enterprise. He has led the church from the front in the direction of a historical reading of the New Testament that has the power, nevertheless, to form, inspire and galvanise the church for mission. But inevitably some have followed more enthusiastically and more devotedly than others.

Reading Wright’s massive output has helped me to grasp the fundamental point that what the New Testament gives us is not a how-to-be-saved manual with a how-to-do-church appendix…

Lagging behind are those who either don’t quite get Wright’s historical method or who think it won’t sell or who want to have their cake and eat it. But they like his emphasis on narrative, on the one hand, and new creation, on the other. So we have a lot of evangelical narrative theologies on offer that begin with creation, vaguely mention the story of Israel as a prelude to Jesus, who redeems the world, initiating the “now” of a new creation which will come to fulfilment in due course in the new heavens and new earth. I would call these “subtomist” (sub-Tom-ist) narrative theologies.

My view is that Wright is partly to blame for these half-baked popularisations of his thought because he does not himself differentiate clearly enough between the dominant historical narrative about Israel and the kingdom of God and the creational backdrop against which the historical drama is played out. I half suspect he has fostered the confusion in his more popular works for the simple reason that we are much more directly interested in creation today than in the political crisis facing first century Israel. Notice that the title of Watling’s book highlights the new creation theme.

I may come back to this in the next week or so, but in brief I think that Wright misrepresents the matter when he says: “The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection” (Simply Good News, 56, quoted by Watling). The testimony of scripture is that the creator God has always been, and always will be, in charge of the world. What he does in the New Testament is take charge of Israel’s political situation in the first century, judging and restoring his people and raising the expectation that he will soon judge and rule over the nations. There are important new creation overtones to this development, but its scope is historical, not cosmic.

So I have argued here and elsewhere for a more consistent application of the narrative-historical method—let’s call it “transtomist” (trans-Tom-ist). The stand-out implication of this approach is that New Testament eschatology has in view two blindingly obvious historical “horizons”—first, seen from the vantage point of Jesus and the early church in Jerusalem, the devastating war against Rome; secondly, the eventual overthrow of classical paganism and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world, which increasingly preoccupied the prophetic mind of the church as it spread across Asia Minor and Europe. Elements of this outlook are apparent in Wright’s work, but they have been overshadowed by his wish to present Jesus to the church and to the world—for understandable reasons—as the beginning of God’s new creation.

On this subject, hopefully more to come…

Comments

I feel like the relationship of the historical to the creational is one of the softer points in my own thinking, and I’m looking forward to more on this topic.

I agree with you that there’s not a clear enough differentiation between the historical narrative and the creational backdrop in Wright, especially in his popular level books - which is why I find it helpful to keep your writings handy as I work through his books. I’m also reading his The Day the Revolution Began now as well, so I’m looking forward to seeing your thoughts on it.

I think to truly go ‘trans-tomist’, you’ll need to complete the circuit, connecting historical redemption all the way to new creation. The path to do this, of course, seems clear:

New Creation is nothing other than the fulfillment of God’s original intention to partner with humanity in the ongoing work of creating and cultivating life. God’s creation week was put ‘on pause’ while humanity was prepared—this is why Jesus has import for Israel, which has import for the people of God, which has import for all humanity, which has import for all creation (Romans 8).

he does not himself differentiate clearly enough between the dominant historical narrative about Israel and the kingdom of God and the creational backdrop against which the historical drama is played out.

I think it’s not as thoroughly worked out by Wright as it could be, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that he’s playing to the gallery of a greater interest today in creation than 1st century politics.

In one of his popular books Simply Jesus, he does develop the significance of the resurrection as the inauguration of the new creation: citing the significance of the eighth day, the sabbath, the saying on the cross and Genesis 1, and so on. These are set against the backcloth which Wright also highlights of the new exodus, which contains the new creation material.

However, it’s a popular book rather than a carefully worked through account.

On the other hand, I balance what Wright says with your own handling of ‘new creation’, which is to separate it from immediate 1st century history and to postpone it to the distant future. I think this is equally problematic, particuarly in view of the two key texts, 2 Corinthians 5:11 and Galatians 6:15, which locate it in the 1st century present.

I look forward to seeing how you will try to square this circle.

This is very helpful, Andrew. I feel a lot like a transtomist. There were two reasons for me to push beyond Wright’s popular model: One was that the theology of principalities and powers I learned from Walter Wink (and, more recently, Richard Horsley) requires you to keep up with actual history. The other is the observation that in the book of Revelation the shift towards another eschatological horizon (God’s judgement of the Roman empire) is so obvious. So the question for me is, how much of that pattern (of confrontation, suffering, vindication and possibly transformation) can be translated into the present. That way, Church history becomes much more than a collection of facts - it connects us to the biblical narrative and helps us to engage our world.

I really should get a “like” button installed! Great comment (from my point of view).

Let me add one more thing (glad you liked the first comment!): I am a “republican” (as opposed to “royalist”, not to “democrat”) and I believe that we need to get beyond these monarchic metaphors. Some tomists and even more subtomists seem to love these Narniaesque terms. The trouble is that their version of the Gospel narrative turns into a fairy tale. As George Buechner has shown, this is not entirely wrong; but fairy tale language simply does not help to locate either Jesus or ourselves firmly in our historical context. Perhaps that works better in the UK, here in Germany it does not.