Book Review: Surprised by Scripture by N.T. Wright

  • Hardcover: 240 pages9780062230539
  • Publisher: HarperOne (June 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062230530
  • Amazon.com

Many thanks to HarperOne for a review copy of N.T. Wright’s Suprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues.

An Overview

Surprised by Scripture is a collection of papers and addresses given by N.T. Wright in noted places both in the US and Europe, ranging from 2004 to 2013.  While Wright addresses the contemporary Western world in general terms, the reader can’t help but notice the many specific references to the US.  Wright’s reason: because of the powerful influence that the American culture in the rest of the world.  Two important elements through the book is Wright’s repeated attention to the philosophies of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, on the one hand, and the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism in a modern guise, on the other.

The book is comprised of twelve essays, which really are showcase of one of today’s most brilliant biblical scholars engaging contemporary issues, per its subtitle.  The reader must also keep in mind that N.T. Wright is not only a biblical scholar but a historian as well.  As the reader moves through each chapter, he or she encounters both the theologian and historian on each page.  The book is engaging, witty, and often focuses the reader to rethink held positions.  And what is central to the book, the one constant, is the author’s modus operandi: how God is putting the world to rights through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and thereby launching the new creation.

A Critique

Above I mentioned Wright’s modus operandi (so much more can be said).  Readers of Wright’s works would know what I mean.  It is this Wright uses to engage the contemporary issues addressed in this work.  Now what ultimately determines the usefulness of Surprised by Scripture is this: Is Wright’s reading of Scripture correct?

But not all the essays in Surprised by Scripture are engaging and useful.  While there are several gemlike and evenly balanced essays, the one I was expecting the most from turns out to be the most disappointing: “Do We Need a Historical Adam?”  Instead of an assured, challenging and thoughtful Wright, who forces you to rethink, what we get in this chapter is a very speculative and sloppy Wright.  For example, in an effort to draw a parallel between nation Israel and Adam and Eve, we find this: “that just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation” (p. 37).  But Wright offers no explanation as to the origin of these socalled “early hominids” and so on.  However, all is not lost in this essay. I found his bit on the young-earth position both mature and wise.

Wright continues his critique of the Rapture and a Dispensational reading of Scripture.  Before you wonder why.  Because of Wright’s own reading of Scripture, there can be no place for a Dispensational reading, especially the Rapture position.  At any rate, before I bring this review to an end, I would be remiss if I didn’t say something on the essay “The Biblical Case for Ordaining Women.”  I consider this one of the gemlike essays.  For years, I’ve been waiting for an egalitarian to do what Wright does in this essay: “Galatians 3 is not about ministry…” (p. 65).  Instead Wright lays a foundation for his interaction with 1 Corinthian 11 and 14 and 1 Timothy 2.  After interacting with “head” in 1 Corinthians 11, favoring a “source” reading, I wish Wright would have engaged “head” in Ephesians 5, if only briefly.  As a complementarian, I challenge fellow complementarians to read this essay with an open mind.  Briefly back to those gemlike chapters (essays): I especially appreciate the last few chapters and their challenge to the church to be that prophetic voice of the new creation, right here and now, in the public square.

Conclusion

Above all, to see how N.T. Wright’s reading of Scripture engages some of our leading and controversial contemporary issues is what commends Surprised by Scripture for me.  Wright is not for the faint of heart.  But neither can he be ignored.  I’ve even read where senior denomination leaders have asked their younger pastors to stay away from the writings of N.T. Wright.  Why?  Because Wright will challenge you to rethink your beliefs, and worst, even cause you to give up some of them.  Rather than frustrating a reading of Wright’s works, the Body of Christ would be better served if denominational leaders would engage an N.T. Wright, not least in the US, rather than dismissing him out of fear and suspicion.  But a la Luther.  Semper reformanda.

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4 Responses to Book Review: Surprised by Scripture by N.T. Wright

  1. Colin says:

    In one of his essays in Pauline Perspectives (another recent book), Wright reflects gently but pointedly on the seeming approach of many of his detractors. To put it in my own words ( and no doubt miss the full force of his own) he comments that many of his detractors challenge him over apparently tearing up the established orthodoxy of 500 years. Yet as he points out this is much the same argument as used by the Roman Catholic Church against the reformers. I imagine the ancient Eastern churches would have said much the same if they had been directly involved. Has our Reformed/Protestant orthodoxy become ossified in the arguments understandings and conclusions of the 15th/16th centuries? Did they really get everything right in their desire to follow the early church more closely? Or are we open to the Spirit continuing to challenge us through His Word, showing us that sometimes we might have missed other key points? Or even point us towards different expressions of our faith? Clearly some, perhaps many, will not agree with NTW’s exegesis, but to accuse him of ignoring Scripture when his arguments are mostly from Scripture and you can only really engage with his writings with Scripture open in front of you is plain wrong!

    As you say, “A la Luther. Semper reformanda”.

  2. Colin says:

    Incidentally, my wife gave me “Paul and the Faithfulness of God” for my birthday in March. I have just finished my first reading of it. I will go over it again in a few months. Some 1500+ pages to the body of the text. Magisterial is hardly adequate a word.

  3. TC Robinson says:

    “Has our Reformed/Protestant orthodoxy become ossified in the arguments understandings and conclusions of the 15th/16th centuries?”

    Colin,

    Great question. I’m afraid that some have. They bore me. As NWT has embodied, he new generation of believers must read Scripture afresh. This, however, doesn’t mean that they’re not in conversation with those who have gone before us. Rather, it’s the very nature of Scripture to do so, not otherwise.

    Your wife has good tasted. Bravo! I’ve yet to purchase it. But I’m glad that you’ve gotten to read it already. Anything stands out?

  4. Colin says:

    Impossible to do it justice in a nutshell. What is very clear is how NTW perceives Jesus death and resurrection is the central and key event(s) of God’s covenant. It is what everything was pointing to. Hence he sees monotheism, covenant, eschatology in that light. When I pick it up again I will want to probe a couple of specific areas again more carefully to ensure I have grasped what he is really saying and can then consider my own position on a properly informed basis.
    1) He sees justification as how God now declares us in the light of our faith in Christ. The balance/interplay of free will and grace seemed a little woolly. Then there remains the comment about the final declaration and works within it. May be that our reward within salvation reflects our faithfulness (as through fire perhaps?). But he seemed to not follow this through.
    2) He is very clear that Jews can be saved on the strength of faith in the only Messiah. He is strong on God in no way giving up on the Jews. His take is that Christ’s followers are the fulfilment of the promises to Abraham and they will inherit the whole world. In which case I am still unclear where he stands on modern day Israel (topical?). The promise of a land area larger than the 1948 boundaries of Israel appears to be eternal. So how does this fit together?

    I may have missed something obvious so these are aspects I will look for more carefully. I can then weight up his conclusions for myself. However I really appreciate how he demonstrates a single eternal narrative. I struggle so see how his bigger detractors conclude he is little short of heresy! .

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