Wednesday, May 25, 2011

N. T. Wright: No Jonathan Edwards Either

I wrote a post recently criticizing N. T. Wright for criticizing America for killing Osama bin Laden entitled: "N. T. Wright: No Winston Churchill." Well, it seems he is no Jonathan Edwards either.

Trevin Wax has a post in which he discusses (quite insightfully) N. T. Wright's recent answer to a question on Rob Bell and hell. Here is Wright's answer:

"My usual counter question is: “Why are Americans so fixated on hell?” Far more Americans ask me about hell than ever happens in my own country. And I really want to know, why is it that the most prosperous affluent nation on earth is really determined to be sure that they know precisely who is going to be frying in hell and what the temperature will be and so on. There’s something quite disturbing about that, especially when your nation and mine has done quite a lot in the last decade or two to drop bombs on people elsewhere and to make a lot of other people’s lives hell. So, I think there are some quite serious issues about why people want to ask that question.

Having said that, I am not a universalist. I’ve never been universalist. Someone quoted a theologian saying, “I’m not a universalist, but maybe God is.” That’s kind of a neat way of saying, “OK, there’s stuff in Scripture which is a little puzzling about this, and we can’t be absolutely sure all down the line.” But it seems to me that the New Testament is very clear that there are people who do reject God and reject what would have been His best will for them, and God honors that decision. How that works and how you then deal with the questions which result I have written about at some length.

I don’t think myself that Rob Bell has quite taken the same line that I did in Surprised by Hope. I haven’t actually had the conversation with Rob since his book was published. So, one of these days, we will and we’ll have that one out. I do think it’s good to stir things up because so many people, as I say, particularly in American culture, really want to know the last fine-tuned details of hell. And it seems to be part of their faith, often a central part of their faith that a certain number of people are simply going to go to hell and we know who these people are. I think Rob is saying, “Hey wait a minute! Start reading the Bible differently. God is not a horrible ogre who is just determined to fry as many people as He can forever. God is actually incredibly generous and gracious and wonderful and loving and caring. And if you paint a picture of God which is other than that, then you’re producing a monster and that has long-lasting effects in Christian lives and in the church.”

This is, to me, a rather astonishing answer for someone who is revered by American Evangelicals. I don't think really they are feeling the love from him lately.

1. To single out Americans as unique on this point is frankly ridiculous. Wright says he gets asked about hell less in his country, but what I think he really means is that he gets asked less about hell by the liberal Anglicans he usually associates with. American interest in hell simply reflects the fact that America is less secularized. Anyone who reads the Bible very much is naturally going to have questions about something that is widely mentioned in the Bible and obviously affects every one of us in the most pressing and important way.

To take a gratuitous swipe at America by attempting to link war with belief in hell is just more evidence that he hates America as a typical academic left-winger who derives his views of international affairs from Marxist analyses of imperialism and capitalism. He obviously has a fixation on America's evils that is the sun around which individual doctrines like hell revolve. I can't see how that is healthy.

2. To imply that there is something wrong or ill-mannered about a concern about the eternal destiny of the human race is just a bit weird. I can understand why liberals are so dismissive about hell (and heaven too, for that matter), but Wright is supposed to be an Evangelical. But I guess he is a special kind of Evangelical, that is, one who talks like a liberal on many topics and preserves his Evangelical reputation by affirming the bodily resurrection of Christ.

Wright's flippancy about the doctrine of judgment is a bit disturbing. He seems to think it is a topic we ought not mention in polite company as it puts God in rather a bad light. This is rather presumptuous of him, after all. Divine punishment of sin is just and God is just; this is classical biblical teaching and its veracity does not depend on how it makes late-modern, middle-class agnostics feel.

3. And why does he think it is good for Rob Bell to "stir things up"? Bell is a mega-church pastor who preaches part of the counsel of God hesitantly for fear of offending his audience. It is not orthodoxy Evangelicals who need stirring up; it is people like Bell, who are, after all, the heirs of the seeker-sensitive, church-growth, therapeutic-oriented approach that dominated the last generation. What the Emergent types have in common with the kind of watered-down Evangelicalism of the past generation is the clever marketing that seeks a niche between outright heresy, on the one side, and the offense of the cross, on the other.

It is hard enough to be a faithful pastor these days, as Western society become more and more secular and hostile to the Gospel, the Bible and the Church without N. T. Wright commending confusion and compromise with a nod and a wink. Help like that we can do without.

I guess we won't be hearing any "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" sermons from N. T. Wright any time soon. Maybe we might more likely hear ones more like: "A Wrathful God in the Hands of Indignant Sinners."

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