NT Wright is, by any estimation, an incredibly smart and disarmingly gracious man. Quick to request you call him “Tom”, the former Bishop of Durham and now Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St Mary’s College in the University of St Andrews in Scotland, is British academics and affability at it’s best.
Tom has authored apologetic books such as The Resurrection of the Son of God, and Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church, works typically hailed for their erudite defense of Jesus’ resurrection, and for the Christian faith and mission generally.
I heard Tom speak at a conference a few years ago. He was representing his position on the Pauline theology of justification against the rest of those on an august panel including a seminary president and authors on major works on that same subject. Tom quoted the pertinent biblical passages by memory in their Hebrew and Greek originals and blithely pirouetted verbally around all opposition. I don’t remember his specific points as much as his humor, depth and breadth of knowledge and the winsome way he won over the audience, if not by argument then by his very persona and demeanor. We were indeed, blinded by his light.
It may sound odd at this point to say I have a major concern regarding Tom Wright and others like him, and it’s this: his very winsomeness and academic stature tend to give him a pass by others when he’s espousing ideas that fly in the face of the plain teaching of Scripture. For instance…
In “Surprised by Scripture— Engaging Contemporary Issues” Wright takes on the issue of the Creation account and the first man and woman, Adam and Eve. His chapter title is illuminating: Do We Need a Historical Adam? As you might guess, the question is the answer— no we don’t.
Wright first disarms us with his big picture analysis of Paul’s use of Adam in Romans and 1st Corinthians, and Second Temple Judaism’s view of Adam. He engagingly develops a theology of how Adam ties to Jesus, until we finally arrive at the end of his articulate analysis only to realize that while Jesus is real and historic, his type is not. Jesus has been foreshadowed in early Genesis by a literary, not a “real” Adam. The “real” Jesus has cast no “real” shadow in the First Adam. The reality of Jesus, the Second Adam, in his person and resurrection is in fact resting on a poetic, imaginary version of a first Adam. Wright’s “Adam” turns out to be a nameless hominid, the product of death filled evolutionary processes occurring over eons of time, for the life of me which I just can’t see in the Genesis creation account.
Tom’s argumentation comes off a bit like a scientist in a laboratory; he looks down on the maze of scripture, seeing the beginning and the end and the connections between, while mere mortals become hopelessly lost. Tom sees the big picture of the creation account while “literalists”, like mice in the maze, see merely the letters and words around which they negotiate themselves but have no idea to what end they may, or may not, be heading.
… it leads me to my proposal: that just as God chose Israel from the rest of humankind for a special, strange, demanding vocation, so perhaps what Genesis is telling us is that God chose one pair from the rest of the early hominids for a special, strange, demanding vocation. This pair (call them Adam and Eve if you like) were to be the representatives of the whole human race, the ones in whom God’s purpose to make the whole world a place of delight and joy and order, eventually colonizing the whole creation, was to be taken forward. God the creator put into their hands the fragile task of being his image bearers. If they fail, they will bring the whole purpose for the wider creation, including all the nonchosen hominids, down with them. They are supposed to be the life bringers, and if they fail in their task the death that is already endemic in the world as it is will engulf them as well.” P 37, Surprised by Scripture
Wright doesn’t believe in reading the Creation account the way Jesus and Paul treat it— as space-time reality. Luke’s genealogy, though according to its author a hard headed and well researched account, resorts to myth telling when it gives us Jesus’ lineage back to Adam (Luke 3:38), or whatever Tom’s first hominid might otherwise be called. The early chapters of Genesis must be treated poetically, read as historical fiction, in order to make sense of them, even though the rest of Genesis should not be read that way. When Jesus or Paul refer to Adam (Matthew 19:4-6; Romans 5:14; 1st Corinthians 15:22, 45; 1st Timothy 2:13-14) they are referring to literary figures, or to otherwise nameless hominids, but not to the Adam and Eve who in Genesis were the direct product of God’s creative acts and word.
Wright’s cause in this chapter is to point us to what he calls a full, rich Christology. Yet, he takes away with one hand what he’s offering us with the other. On one hand he offers his full, rich Christology in Romans and 1st Corinthians, but he’s based that theology on a tortuous reinterpretation of Genesis 1-3. He’s taking away the “rich Christology” by basing that theology not on the first Adam, come straight from God’s creative hand as recorded in Genesis, but on a nameless hominid straight from the mind and hand of the latest “scientific” zeitgeist.
Wright dazzles with his “big picture” theology, but ends up basing that theology on words and passages which he now tells us lack any historic, space-time reality. If the source is fictitious, or untied from space-time reality, why should I believe in an extrapolation of that fiction as being “real”?
In an interview, Wright summarises this critique: “One of the targets of this book is Christians who say: Yes, the Bible is true. It’s inerrant and so on. But, then, they pay no attention to what the Bible actually says. For too many Christians it seems sufficient to say Christ was born of a Virgin, died on a cross and was resurrected—but never did anything else in between. I’m saying: That’s not the way to understand the Gospels.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/N._T._Wright)
To Wright’s critique of others regarding how they read, or don’t read, the Gospels concerning Jesus and the Kingdom, one might fairly ask Wright why he doesn’t read Genesis 1-3 in the same way? Does he pay attention to what the “Bible actually says”? Or has it become merely a lovely myth, retold in lilting English, but without historic merit?
Why does any of this matter? If Tom believes in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s Son, why do I care if he doesn’t believe in a literal Adam? If he believes in the veracity of the historic narrative of the gospel accounts, why do I care if he doesn’t extend that same straight forward understanding to the Genesis narratives?
In the context of the miracles Jesus performed by the power of the Holy Spirit being called into question as to their origin, Jesus said: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” Matthew 12:33. That’s my suggestion for Tom and all of us who attempt to define, or redefine, what the Scriptures affirm or deny. A fictitious tree doesn’t produce “real” fruit.
We need to be as careful with what our friends are denying as what they’re affirming. Tom Wright’s position as laid out in Surprised by Scripture is that the early chapters of Genesis can’t be read as historic narrative. Later chapters in Genesis may record real people, Abraham, Isaac, etc., but not the earlier narrative of Creation. The trouble with that position is that the text doesn’t allow that treatment and the implications of Tom’s position end up, eventually, rendering the scriptures a house of cards, falling under their own weight since the foundation on which they rest is no longer rooted in reality.
Tom Wright is an example of many, many other contemporary Christian theologians, academics, teachers and leaders; they’re taking away with one hand what they’re offering with the other. They tell us they believe in the the Seed of the Woman (Genesis 3:15) but they deny the Scriptural tree that promised and testifies to that Seed.