Thursday, August 20, 2015
Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader's Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God. Interview with Author Derek Vreeland
Today I want to post an interview with pastor and author Derek Vreeland. He recently published a new book Through the Eyes of N.T. Wright: A Reader's Guide to Paul and the Faithfulness of God that offers a popular reading of N.T. Wright's understanding of Paul. As such, Vreeland provides a helpful service to pastors and teachers by offering a substantive reading of Wright that is more detailed than an executive book summary. Vreeland also models for other missional leaders and pastors the fruit that comes from engaging the deep thinkers and scholars of our day.
When did you first become interested in N.T. Wright’s scholarship?
I had two seminary experiences and sadly did not read much of Wright. I first stumbled upon Wright in 2007 when I was teaching on Wednesday nights in the summer at the church I was pastoring at the time. I was wrestling with issues of theodicy and I read Evil and the Justice of God as a part of that teaching series. His book was one of many I read that summer and it did not really stand out. That is not the best N.T. Wright book to start with. Soon after I read Simply Christian and my interest in Wright grew. Simply Christian, which is not really that simple, captured my attention because I could see Wright was interested in the big picture of Bible, the grand narrative arc of Scripture, with a particular Christ-centeredness. From there I went on to read Resurrection of the Son and Jesus and the Victory of God, two of Wright’s larger academic books. These books grounded Christology not so much in patristics as in the Jewish context of Jesus. The study of the early church fathers is massively importantly, and I think Wright would agree, but before you see Jesus through the perspective of Nicea and Chalcedon you need to see Jesus through the perspective of the Gospel writers and Paul in the context of second temple Judaism. Wright is a biblical theologian more than a systematic theologian, so he is interested in rooting our reading of Jesus in history. This claim is not to say that the Christ of faith is opposed to the Jesus of history; quite the opposite. As Wright has expressed numerous times: the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith. We desperately need a fresh reading of Scripture within its historical context(s). Wright excels in grounding exegesis in history.
How has studying N.T. Wright’s work impacted your preaching and teaching?
The single most influential N.T. Wright book for me, and so many other people, has been Surprised By Hope. This book helped to ground my eschatology in the story the Bible is telling. Wright’s biggest impact in my preaching and teaching has been in the area of eschatology. I grew up in a Southern Baptist context shaped by a premillennial, “left behind,” rapture-before-the-great-tribulation view of eschatology. My view of the end was heaven for the righteous, hell for the wicked, and the earth...well I hadn’t given the earth much of a second thought. I assume if you would have asked me at 19 years-old what I believed about the earth at the end, I would have assumed it would be destroyed after the battle of Armageddon and final judgment. In my early days of a pastor, I preached a reductionistic “gospel” of “get saved” so you can go to heaven when you die. Wright changed all the gospel I preached. The end according to Scripture and the great Christian tradition is not leaving the earth for heaven, but heaven coming to earth, the resurrection of the dead, and the renewal of all things. This changed the gospel I preached, how I preached funerals, and how I pastored those struggling with chronic illnesses. The gospel is Jesus is Lord. He is ruling the earth from heaven and when he appears he will complete his project of new creation. Getting our eschatology right is important. One of the most helpful parts of Paul and the Faithfulness of God for me was Wright’s discussion of Paul’s reimagined eschatology. Paul connects ethics with eschatology. As a Jewish thinker, Paul’s worldview was shaped by the first-century Jewish eschatological paradigm of “this age” and “the age to come.” We are currently living in this present evil age, but our baptism into Christ connects us to the age to come. In between these two ages we are being transformed into the kind of people fit for the age to come. How we live today is based on who we are becoming. So our understanding of the end is not as open-handed as I was thought. I used to think it doesn’t matter what you believe about the end, because it will all work out the way God wants. Wright has caused me to rethink that false assumption. As I write in the beginning of chapter 6 in my book, eschatology is not the caboose at the end of the train; it is the engine driving the entire theological enterprise.
Can you explain in what ways your book is a “reader’s guide”?
N.T. Wright has written numerous books both on a popular level and on an academic level. Paul and the Faithfulness of God is an 1,700-page academic book on the theology of Paul. I, and many others, consider it to be a massively important book on Paul, offering the church a renewed vision of Paul’s theology. My book is a condensed summary of Wright’s book. I summarize in 100 pages what took him nearly 2,000 pages to write. As a “reader’s guide” my book is like a roadmap to help you navigate through the key conclusions Wright draws in his book about Paul’s theology.
Who is your ideal audience for your book?
I wrote my book with N.T. Wright fans in mind. This includes pastors, educators, and lay people whose theological imaginations have been shaped by Wright. I taught Paul and the Faithfulness of God as a nine-week class at my church last fall. To my great surprise I had 12-15 people come out to the church every Sunday night to listen to me lecture on Wright’s big book on Paul. I created a five-page outline for each class period and those notes became the skeleton for my book. So while I wrote my book for all N.T. Wright fans, in one sense the ideal audience for my book is the average church member who is interested in understanding, at some depth, the theology of Paul woven into the letters he wrote. You do not have to be familiar with Wright’s work in order to read my book. Ideally it would be good to read my book alongside Wright’s book, but I understand for some people that will be overwhelming.
What is one key takeaway that every pastor should know about Wright?
Wright has touched on so many important subjects, but the one thing pastors should know about N.T. Wight is that he loves the church and he has done his best academic work for the church. Not all scholars writing in the area of biblical studies and biblical theology are like that. There are plenty of academics who write in the area of New Testament studies who are not even practicing, confessing Christians! Wright loves the church. Currently he is a professor at St. Andrews University in Scotland, but before that time he served as the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England where he served quite a number of poor parish churches in a struggling diocese. He did not abandon the church when he left his post as bishop to serve again as a professor. He wants to serve the church through his academic work because he believes in the value of the local church for the vitality of towns and cities around the world. One his points of emphasis in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is the important of ecclesiology in Paul’s theology. He argues that the single thread binding together all of Paul’s letters is not salvation but the unity of the church. Paul does theological work in his letters to help his churches think Christianly and N.T. Wright is doing the same thing. He writes to help the church think through complex issues with a renewed mind, through the mind of Christ. I wrote my book because I share Wright’s love for the church and I want to help the church grapple with Wright’s work, because I believe it will help strengthen and mature God’s church.
How can interested readers find a copy?
Paperback and Kindle versions of my book are available from Amazon.com. Churches that would like to buy multiple copies for church use can order them directly from me at a discounted rate. Simply email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Where can we read more of your work?
I blog once a month for Missio Alliance on a variety of topics related to theology and church life. I have written two other books, one on the Apostles’ Creed and the other on spiritual formation. Information on those books is available on my website. I also do some preaching and teaching at my home church. Sermon audio can be found here.
Thanks Derek. I hope that your book reaches a wide audience.