Wright Visits Wheaton

Recently we had the privilege of having my old friend and colleague N. T. Wright for a stint of lecture appearances here at Wheaton College. The event brought back memories of last time Tom was here some seven years ago, when the Wheaton Theology Conference hosted a session dedicated to exploring his work on Paul and Jesus. Earlier that fall, Tom and I were together at Princeton working on our respective projects, and he would feed me early draft installments of Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG).

The “Wright Corpus”

Having gotten some sense of where Tom was going with PFG, I remember being struck a few months later, sitting on the stage at the Wheaton conference, how the conversations we were having about Tom’s work at that time were in fact related to issues arising from the ‘early Wright’ corpus, and that soon enough, the slate of issues we (the guild) would soon need to talk about, relating to the ‘mid-career Wright’, would be of a somewhat different nature.

This is not because Tom’s trajectory has taken some kind of dramatic turn; as far as I can see, it hasn’t. Rather the point is that the scope of Tom’s thinking has widened considerably in the past 10-15 years so to include a much more global integration. I suspect we will see this in spades in his upcoming set of Gifford Lectures.

Yet if there is an on-going string of discussion, it likely has to do with, on one end of the thread, concerns raised in 2010 by Richard Hays involving the relationship between theology and history, and, on the other end, concerns more recently pressed in regards to the “apocalyptic Paul” versus the “creational/covenantal Paul.”

Foundational to both discussions are very large metaphysical (what is the nature of creation?) and epistemological (what can we know and what could Israel know before the Christ event?) presuppositions. No small issues; no small stakes. (For the record, along with Tom, I am quite nervous about overplaying the apocalyptic card, if it implies a nullification of creation as a rational though not entirely explicable entity.) Stay tuned, right?

Wright’s Atonement Theology

As for Tom’s more recent stay in Wheaton, I believe it was an all-out success. His main lecture, designed to unpack his recent book, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion was excellent.

With his book, Tom tries to bring together ‘atonement theology’ and the story of Israel, and, for my money, does a remarkable job with it. (It’s amazing to consider, in the two thousand years since Irenaeus, how little has been done in this regard.) Along the way, he manages to step right between two very commonly touted views of atonement, namely, a caricaturesque cosmic child abuse atonement theory, on the one side, and a no-atonement view on the other side. Well done! (Of course I have one or two critiques which I have already raised with Tom in a semi-public forum, but that’s another and fairly minor story.)

As for the other events, as far as I can tell, faculty, staff, and students were delighted. And I was delighted to bring Tom to Wheaton not because he is necessarily right about everything (though I think he’s right about a lot), but because he is a major voice with fresh and profound things to say about very important topics. I suspect there may have been a handful of Wheaton constituents who were unsure as to whether it was appropriate for Wheaton College to host the Bishop.

If so, my only humble response (speaking personally, not officially for the institution) would be that though Wheaton College has, by God’s grace, served as a kind of flagship of evangelical thought in the West; I hope such constituents would agree, we are not – and were never meant to be — an echo chamber but a Christian liberal arts institution that joyfully and critically engages different voices representing different perspectives.

I am grateful to my fellow Wheaton stakeholders in continuing that vision. I am grateful as well to Tom for his willingness to come.

Nicholas Perrin, Wheaton College