Book Review: N.T. Wright – Surprised by Hope

This is a review and reflection of

Wright, N. T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Hope of the Church.
New York: HarperOne, 2008.  332 pp.  $24.95.

Copyright © 2008 by Alex S. Leung. All rights reserved.

Introduction

N. T. Wright - Surprised by HopeOur future hope is securely grounded in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  N. T. Wright makes this point painstakingly clear in his popular work on eschatology, Surprised by Hope, arising as the major strength of his latest book.  He argues that this assured hope in Christ’s resurrection should convince of us of our own redemption and renewal in Christ.  This is promised and guaranteed by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and as such, it is the very thing that the whole world’s waiting for (107).

For this reason, those who are united with Christ and indwelt by his Spirit should properly await and expect the resurrection of our bodies.  Wright is correct to commend that Christians will be given a new, immortal body on the new earth through and by the Holy Spirit at the coming of Christ, the purpose of which is for us to rule over God’s new creation wisely (159-163).  Wright’s impassioned cry to readers for this very hope to shape the church’s mission is compelling and contagious, and yet it is dangerously so.  He incorporates a significant amount of biblical and theological material in making a strong case for a “hope-shaped mission” (194).  Henceforth, the topic that this paper thus hopes to address is Wright’s understanding of salvation and the gospel.  His definition of salvation and the meaning of it that is presented in his book is confusing at best and misleading to say the least.  As a serious area of concern, we therefore must address the issue of salvation: what did Jesus come to save?

I would argue that Jesus came to save sinners, and that the gospel is the good news of Christ Jesus’ atoning work (his life, death, and resurrection) to save sinners.  Let us then examine this issue through the lens of Wright’s book.

Salvation is Mission

Wright confronts the popular Christian notions of salvation and the gospel in chapter 12, “Rethinking Salvation: Heaven, Earth, and the Kingdom of God.”  While the Christian’s work of mission to the physically dying and impoverished world should be a result of his faith in Christ’s atoning work, Wright seems to advocate that it is an essential part of the gospel.  Consider his words here in this lengthy sentence:

To hope for a better future in this world—for the poor, the sick, the lonely and depressed, for the slaves, the refugees, the hungry and homeless, for the abused, the paranoid, the downtrodden and despairing, and in fact the whole wide, wonderful, and wounded world—is not something else, something extra, something tacked on to the gospel as an after thought. (191-192)

He seems to imply that service to these wounded people from the Christian hope should be included in the gospel, instead of being an afterthought.  I could be mistaken, but his words seem to call for a gospel that includes serving the needs of the needful unsaved world.  He continues,

And to work for that intermediate hope, the surprising hope that comes forward from God’s ultimate future into God’s urgent present, is not a distraction from the task of mission and evangelism in the present.  It is central, essential, vital, and life-giving part of it. (192)

Again, taken at face value, Wright appears to include the mission to the poor and needy as an essential part of Christian missions and evangelism.  Is Wright correct in making this delineation of the gospel and salvation?  He certainly goes on to explain that Christ himself was very active in his earthly ministry to do such a work as healing people from sickness and death, grounding Jesus earthly mission as the “not saving souls for a disembodied eternity but rescuing people from the corruption and decay of the world presently is” (192).

I do not think Wright was clear enough with his gospel / mission presentation, and thus has caused significant confusion in my mind about the meaning of the gospel, what biblical missions is, and how it is directly related to the gospel.((I am not alone in feeling this confusion.  For similar analysis of these issues, see Mark Dever, “Improving the Gospel: Exercises in Unbiblical Theology” (Session IV, Together For the Gospel 2008 conference, April 16 2008).)) Wright is well intentioned to motivate Christians to the ministry of bringing justice in this fallen world through the surprising hope of Jesus life, death and resurrection, but his perplexing commendations seem to stand in opposition to the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15 : “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

God’s concern for societal issues like the welfare of our cities (Jeremiah 29:7) should be an important and vital part of one’s life as a Christian, but it is an implication of and result from the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ’s atoning death.  The work to renew creation through alleviating poverty, hunger and bring forth justice in these areas is not the gospel itself, and should not be confused with God’s work in salvation itself.  While it is true that God’s work of redemption is cosmic and will affect the entirety of creation, the corrupt world needs saving because it suffers from the sins of man.  And because sin has come into the world through one man, salvation of the cosmos and the renewal of the world and all its woundedness is only possible through the salvation of mankind through the one man, Jesus Christ.

The Good News: Salvation for Those Who Believe

What more, Wright caricatures the “normal Western Christian view” of salvation: “that salvation is a about ‘my relationship with God’ in the present and about ‘going home to God and finding peace’ in the future” (196).  Salvation, he argues, must not be seen in terms of going to heaven when we die or saving souls for the future, and he is correct on this point—salvation should not be seen as saved souls but as a “new and gloriously embodied reality” (197).  I would only argue further that a proper understanding of the biblical gospel should not either or, but both and—the salvation of our souls as a present reality and future hope, as well as new, glorious bodies upon the new heavens and new earth.

In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, the Apostle explains clearly what the gospel (εὐαγγέλιον – “good news”) is:  “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, emphasis mine).  Paul thus explains that the gospel is “God’s power for salvation to everyone who believes”—and therefore, there is no reason to be ashamed of it.

“Salvation is the application of the work of Christ to the lives of humans ” (Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 902). What, then, is the work of Christ?  What did he do?  Consider further Paul’s words to the church at Corinth:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Cor 15:1-4, emphasis mine)

The historical authenticity and reliability of the Gospel rests in this four-fold description, and in this is the meaning of the gospel and salvation through Jesus Christ most succinctly expounded: Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God (1) died, (2) was buried, (3) then raised from death to life, as prophesied and recorded by the Holy Scriptures.  To all who trust in the atoning work of Christ, this gospel — the gospel — is the power of God unto salvation.  Since we have been given the gospel by special revelation, let us not expand or shrink it from what it has actually been said to be.  Adding to or taking from the Word of God is not only a sinful act of disobedience, but more than that, it is a outright rejection of God’s word.  Therefore, adding to the Gospel of the Bible is not just detrimental to the spiritual health of the Christian, it is damning (Rev 22:18-19).  We must not, then, proclaim any other gospel than the one we have been given through the Holy Bible.

Theological and Historical Truths

The theological element of the gospel cannot exist apart from the historical event of the atonement, and the historical event of Christ’s salvific work is meaningless if it is understood without the theological element.  For Christ shed his blood cleansing sinners of their guilt and forgiving them of their inequities (theological) through the historically verifiable event of his death and resurrection (historical).  Henceforth, the whole gospel and salvation includes both theological and historical elements.  This means that we must confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:5-13).  The gospel is all about what Christ did on the cross for us (salvation through atonement), and it includes nothing else but that.

Like the theological and historical elements, to accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of your life while confessing that he is the resurrected Savior is utterly futile—the acceptance of a half-gospel is in essence embracing no gospel at all.  Likewise, to serve the needs of the unbelieving poor by bringing cosmic justice and peace to them without first convincing them of their need for Christ is essentially divorcing our response of works from the ministry of faith.  As J. I. Packer has so pointedly portended: “the result of these omissions is that part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole-truth becomes a complete untruth” (J. I. Packer,  A Quest for Godliness, 126).

To say that the gospel is social justice or redeeming our culture is thus to say that the whole gospel means or includes something that the Scriptures does not support.  Such a thing that undermines the purity of the gospel, hence, also denies the fundamental elements of the gospel.  To say something as outlandish as this is not only contrary to the canon of Scripture and the whole counsel of God, but furthermore, it is heretical due to its refutation of the whole, biblical gospel.  Thankfully, despite Wright’s outlandish comments on Western Christianity’s view of salvation, he does reiterate biblical salvation, which is “not ‘going to heaven’ but ‘being raised to life in God’s new heaven and new earth’ ” (198).  But sadly, he brings confusion back to the gospel again with his view that Jesus and his disciples’ work of “healing people or being rescued from shipwreck or whatever was [so] that this was a proper anticipation of the ultimate salvation”  (198-199).

Conclusion

Through the often convicting statements of the Apostle Paul in passages like Ephesians 1:13, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Titus 2:11, we see the unique and united message of the gospel and salvation.  But through the often confusing statements of N. T. Wright, we see the clear and present danger that arises when the implications of the gospel are referred to as part of the gospel message and saving work of God itself.  When such a message is disseminated into the church, the unique message of Jesus’ reconciling death for sinners will be confused and his resurrection will be relativized.  Those who add works to the gospel itself are worthy of being accursed (Gal 1:6-9).

Our gospel witness will be compromised if we only serve the material needs of our society—needs which will be present until Christ’s second coming.  We must not be distracted from genuine gospel proclamation by succumbing to serving just the concrete societal issues of justice, poverty, and peace.  Like how N. T. Wright strived to emphasize, a proper grasp of our future hope in Christ should lead us directly to a vision of the present hope that is the basis of all Christian mission.  However, this future hope must always be the center of all true evangelism and this present hope must also continually be the focus of all authentic Christian mission (Matt 28:18-20).

6 thoughts on “Book Review: N.T. Wright – Surprised by Hope

  1. The point I got from Wright in this book is that western Christians tend to make Gospel proclamation and social action a false dichotomy- it’s either you do one (and be biblically faithful) or you do the other (and be liberal). The reality is that in the New Testament it’s both simultaneously. They proclaimed the Gospel while working acts of social redemption for the poor, sick, and needy. The issue I would have with Wright is what that proclamation is fundamentally. He would say it’s a radical political reorientation between kingdoms- Caesar to Christ.

    I would agree with that, but would rather bring out what lies implicitly in that- that it’s a reorientation away from sin to Christ. A part of that is kingdom reorientation by necessity, but it’s not the way its primarily stated in the Bible. Wright brings up some good linguistic discussion on the use of “repentance” in the political arena, notably from Josephus (I heard this in an mp3, not the book that I can remember, but it certainly underlines part of the book), but that usage does not whitewash the New Testament usage in relation to sin.

    Social action and the redemption of culture are in no way the proclaimed gospel, as you point out, but they are certainly the reality of the gospel lived out. And, as Andy Crouch ably defends in his book “Culture Making,” they are certainly part of a biblical narrative beginning at the fall.

  2. Good review, Alex.

    I haven’t had the time to study this issue, but I know one of Wright’s concerns is that “gospel” seems to carry more meaning than just 1 Cor 15:1-3 states. Wright would contend that Jesus came “proclaiming the gospel of God” (Mk 1:14), which seems to be described in v. 15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

    Any thoughts as to what this “gospel” is that Jesus proclaims at the beginning of his ministry? I have a suspicion that it is connected to his comments in Mk 8:34-35.

  3. Bryan:
    Thanks for your helpful comments, esp. Wright’s “radical political reorientation between kingdoms- Caesar to Christ”. In terms of that false dichotomy between gospel proclamation & social action, I agree. We can’t just take social action as a manifestation of our understanding of the glorious Gospel (“gospel lived out”), nor can we only take social action as a means to getting the gospel to people (as in having an alternative agenda from serving/helping).

    John Stott in “Christian Mission in the Modern World” addressed these ways of seeing the relationship between evangelism of social action. Stott understands them in a different way: as separate and distinct aspects of Christian “missions”, but two sides of the same coin; I would concur.

    Thus, I am not amicable with the relationship that Wright sees between Gospel proclamation and social action; and furthermore, all this reorientation makes me disoriented!

  4. I, too, would agree with Stott’s two sides of the same coin. As Andrew pointed out, the content of the gospel is given to us poignantly by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Though I would say that the content of the Gospel in Mark’s prologue is precisely the kingdom of God- I think this particularly because Mark, nor Jesus, describes the content of the Gospel in his prologue, and thus it must be understood within its Old Testament context- the good news was the reign of God. In Mark, the content of the Gospel (according to 1 Cor, cited above) is not preached until about chapter 8 with Peter’s confession, and then in the 3 cycles of Cross/discipleship that Mark features.

    The problem is that this understanding of “gospel” is carried by Wright into all uses of the word “gospel” and thus it seems he commits the illegitimate totality transfer fallacy. The euangellion of Mark’s prologue is not necessarily the euangellion of 1 Cor. They are, of course, connected by virtue of the reality of the kingdom of God. Prior to Mark 8, Jesus’ preaching was marked at the entrance of the Kingdom- after Mark 8, the focus is shifted into entering that kingdom via being united with Christ in His death and resurrection. So Wright is right (pun not intended) to put forth the idea of kingdom reorientation- but not as the main focus of the Gospel. The main focus is kingdom reorientation THROUGH being united to Christ in his death and resurrection. And it is not primarily political, but spiritual- turning from the kingdom of man and self to that of Christ. Of course, that means political reorientation- but that is a side affect of the Gospel, not the Gospel itself.

  5. I recently came across this review of “Surprised by Hope” and felt a desire to make a comment.
    I was attracted to Wright’s book because of its title. However, unlike C.S. Lewis, my favorite Christian author, Wright seems to have a talent for complicating issues on his way to seeking to explain them. He also seems to have an irresisitible urge to caricature the beliefs of “protestants” and “fundamentalists”, which, in my opinion, is both uncharitable and unnecessary.
    I am of the firm belief that one can make one’s point without seeking to be deliberately offensive and/or antagonistic. And if one must criticise the views of others, then one ought first to truthfully represent those views in the interest of justice and scholarship.
    Someone once said that scholars “should give their audience the benefit of their scholarship not the work of it”. With that I concur. It is also something I would commend to Rev. Wright.
    Having been involved in evangelism, i.e the declaring of the “gospel of Jesus Christ, for many years, I have known no “other gospel” but the “grace of God which brings salvation to all men”. The natural result of that salvation is that those on whom it has been bestowed want to do “good” –  to feed, clothe, house and empower people and to “set captives free”. However, doing good is not the “gospel” only the evidence of what “the power of God” unto salvation” produces.
    Simple put, there is only one gospel, and when applied to the life of a sinner, it releases a power that transforms that individual and inevitably leads him/her to seek the transformation and “good” of others.

  6. Alex, N.T. Wright is a brilliant scholar who has made immesurably important contributions to the church and world as it relates to the “historical Jesus” and his gospel. It seems to me that your criticisms of Wright in “Surprised by Hope” are insignificant and even small minded. Why not write N.T. and ask him what he meant by certain statements, rather than making statements such as, “Wright seems to advocate…” “He seems to imply…” “Wright appears to include…” etc. Finally you say that, “I do not think Wright was clear enough with his gospel / mission presentation, and thus has caused significant confusion in my mind about the meaning of the gospel…” Give me a break. Have you read Wright’s other books? Stop with the arrogant criticism. “straining at nats and swallowing camels” comes to mind when I read such shallow and undeserved criticism of a very worthy scholar and theologian.

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