Sunday, May 29, 2005

My One Tiny Problem with N.T. Wright

I just listened to three fantastic N.T. Wright lectures from a weekend seminar he gave recently in Oxford. His central claim was that the New Testament theme of God enacting a "new creation" is the most central biblical theme to explain what God is up to in redemptive history. Contrast this with the assumption of much of platonized Evangelicalism which says that God is primarily in the business of transporting individuals from this world to the ethereal heavenly realm, from the body to the realm of the spirit, etc. Jesus' resurrection is the inauguration of the new creation, God will one day renew the whole present cosmos from its groaning and fallenness in a like manner, that is, a manner that allows for great continuity between present world and the future new heavens and new earth. To speak this way is a cure for the dualism that makes the Bible into an instruction manual to get us out of this world and into a different realm of being, which is heaven.

As much as I love what Wright brings to the table, my lingering concern is what I seem to never hear him saying: the Bible, even given all of its new creation themes, also tells us that what allows anyone to experience the new creation is that Jesus has first atoned for his sins. I've always thought that the links between Jesus death and the Passover provide a strong reason to see atonement near the heart of Jesus' mission. Granted, the atonement for our sins is more of a means to an end (a restored friendhship with God) than a final redemptive benefit in itself. Wright mentions the Passover context of Jesus' death, but relies instead the allusions that the original Exodus Passover would have made to an act of divine re-creation, specifically, that the typical image of God conquering a watery chaos to bring forth a new creation is what the Red Sea crossing and birth of his covenant people is all about. Wright's evidence is strong that the Red Sea crossing of the Exodus is thick with new creation motifs (which I never saw before, apart from Israel in the desert as a new Adam), but why not affirm this AS WELL AS the atonement motif? After all, the only people who experienced the "new creation" of the Red Sea crossing were those whose lives were saved by the lamb's blood on the doorpost the night before. Can't we admit to both the substituionary atonement and new creation as important motifs? The first describes the entrance mechanism and the second, the nature of the kingdom itself, but both are important. To emphasize God's new creation without dealing with the atonement seems to underappreciate Chist's office as priest (even while doing a good job with his kingly office). In fairness, Wright may not really deny any of this. He is, after all, trying to draw our attention to certain biblical themes that we have often missed (new creation) rather than to articulate an exhaustive system. But still, something in me wishes that I'd hear a few more bones occassionaly tossed to the substitutionary atonement motif that seems so central to the Old and New Testament way of describing how it is possible for a sinner to get right with God. To be sure, thanks to Wright, we will not forget that a forgiven sinner will experience God's full redemption in a renewed body, in a renewed cosmos, not somewhere up in the ether.