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Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

If ever there was a book whose time has come, this is it. Drawn against the backdrop of the banking crisis and the U.K. M.P.’s expenses scandal, the prodigious pen of Tom Wright presents a biblical case for the development of ‘virtue’ as one of the main tasks of the Christian believer during the course of a life lived in earth.

Virtue’ is an old-fashioned word and concept, not currently in favour anywhere along the theological or ethical spectrum. We may be used to legalism, where rules are deployed to govern the believer’s behaviour. We may be used to ‘going with the flow’ of the Spirit, in respect of behaviour. Tom Wright argues against both, and puts forward a case for something in-between, where ‘virtue’ is a quality both received by and to be developed in the believer. Wright refers to the ditching of Flight 1549 from La Guardia airport on 15 January 2009, when Captain Chesley Sullenberger III landed his aircraft in the Hudson river, saving all his passengers and crew. It was a moment when the training of a lifetime enabled him to make split-second decisions, aided by a steady nerve, to make the safe landing. Wright compares this with the development of virtue in the Christian – something that is developed with painstaking practice and discipline, but serves us well at the moment of crisis, when we need it.

Wright sets the case for ‘virtue’ on a broad biblical canvas, drawing on his characteristic historicism in which God’s plans for the world are understood against the specifically 1st century background of the New Testament. Here, the believer’s future is not one of being saved out of the world, to be transferred to a non-bodily spiritual dimension called heaven. Rather, the believer is being prepared through the many experiences of life this side of death, for a future on a renewed earth, in a renewed resurrection body.

The New Testament understanding of virtue critiques and contrasts with the concept of virtue as developed by Aristotle and the classical world. Wright argues that the New Testament authors, Paul in particular, were not unaware of classical philospophy, and that a New Testament vision of virtue, although not using the word, was significant and important to its content, and can be reconstructed using the classical arguments.

Virtue is the quality of character which needs to be developed for this continued earthly existence and its future responsibilities. Wright paints this future responsibility in terms of the biblical roles of priest and king which are also part of the believer’s role in the present.

The kingdom of God is another biblical concept which Wright draws on to develop his theme. The future goal of the gospel, according to Wright, is the kingdom of God, when heaven comes to earth at last. This goal has already arrived with the appearance of Jesus on earth. The followers of Jesus can begin to practise, in the present, the habits of heart and life which correspond to the way things are in the kingdom. This is the framework in which to understand the Sermon on the Mount, and the entire ethical teaching of the New Testament.

The Sermon on the Mount, and Paul’s ethical teaching in the letters, are not to be seen therefore as a new set of Christian commandments, rules to live our lives by. Wright insists that the life of the Spirit is indeed the routemap and roadway for our lives. Nevertheless, to provide signposts along the way, or like the steel barriers of the central reservation of motorways and the rumble-strip along the outer edge, the moral guidelines are provided to prevent us veering off the carriageway.

Wright then looks in detail at what it means to be ‘transformed by the renewing of the mind’, exploring in particular the threefold virtues of faith, hope and love as qualities we will need in this life and the life to come. He also explores the ninefold fruit of the Spirit, and the various exhortations to ‘put on’, or ‘clothe ourselves’ with the virtues of Christ. Finally, Wright provides for us a ‘virtuous circle’ of qualities and activities which can be used to create and maintain a life of virtue.

Nobody will find this book an easy read. Although the book is aimed at the popular market, Wright makes few concessions to populism. As in the development of virtue in life, the book requires disciplined reading, and benefits revisiting. Yet the significance of the book’s subject for today could hardly be overstated. One way or another, we all need to grapple with its central theme.

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Comments

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

I haven’t much to say about this report, since I’ve not read the book, other than to note that a few years ago I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981). MacIntyre contrasts virtue-based moral philosophy with what he calls “emotivism,” which probably corresponds to what you’ve called “going with the flow of the Spirit” — moral decision-making based not on external standards or on strength of character but on preference or intuition or feeling. He regards emotivism disdainfully, yet deems law-based morality to be too external to be of much use outside of specifically prescribed situations. Virtues, by contrast, are qualities of character that generate consistency in moral action across a wide range of circumstances.

MacIntyre traces the history of virtue-based moralities, beginning with the Greek Heroic age, through Aristotle, and into medievalism. Virtues are practiced as actions taken in community, so the community defines the set of virtues to which it subscribes. So, for example, Homeric society emphasized competitive virtues whereas Athens valorized cooperation.

The followers of Jesus can begin to practise, in the present, the habits of heart and life which correspond to the way things are in the kingdom.”

There’s a similar concept popular among anarchists and Marxists called “prefigurative praxis,” which characterizes a form of action that creates social interactions in the present that are consistent with what would occur society-wide as the result of a future revolution. Prefigurative praxis relies on community-defined set of virtues to be adopted by its members. It has more immediate practical applications and consequences than does an abstract ideology. I think the Christian Kingdom living praxis came first.

 

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

Wright refers to ‘emotivism’, using that term, and his contrast of this with externally based rules as a guide for behaviour sounds similar to MacIntyre. The comment about the Marxists is intriguing, since in many ways, Marxism/communism is a religion which is a parody of Christianity.

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

Certainly the description of the church in Acts 2 sounds communistic. I think one of the potential benefits of a more collective interpretation of Christianity is that virtues reside not just in individuals but also in interactions and in the community itself. E.g., does the local church or cell or whatever operate collectively in a way that prefigures the way the society will be after the apocalypse/revolution?

Max Weber famously argued that capitalism emerged from Christianity, so I suppose the knife cuts both ways. Capitalism valorizes individual virtues, arguing that anyone with diligence and thrift and trustworthiness (and, more recently, creativity) will succeed regardless of social circumstances. In its strong form capitlism denies even the possibility of interactive or communal virtues, though clearly it is also premised on cooperating with some and competing against others. Capitalism as prefigurative praxis is I think pointing toward the future of the individual rather than that of the society; i.e., I will live now as I expect to live once I become a multimillioinaire. That’s perhaps why so many of the rich capitalists keep at it even after they’ve made their pile: it’s a way of life, not just a future utopia.

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

by DaveY - 24/02/2010 - 22:34

(I re-entered this comment, as it seemed to have encountered a glitch whereby I couldn’t reply to it - peter wilkinson)

On ‘Virtue Reborn’ Tom Wright (not a review, just questions that occurred to me while reading it. If I have misunderstood, I’d be grateful for comments).

Wright thinks that Christians are God’s agents in transforming the world, with work to do now, but also even in the coming Kingdom: he thinks there will be things still needing to be put right even after Christ comes again (DY: so the Kingdom will not be perfect?).
But, in the present world, Christians need to put effort in to be transformed themselves so that they will be able to do these tasks; they need to be complete human beings (DY: what about infants who die?).
This means engaging in behaviours to change wrong brain patterns into right ones (DY: what about Christians with medical brain defects?).
In the present world, they need to get involved in politics and call earthly rulers to account (DY: what sort of fuss are they to make when earthly rulers don’t do the right things?).
Christians, unlike pagans and Jews, are able to do the things they should (DY: is this empirically true?).

Christians receive different rewards for what their efforts achieve, though this reward is the natural result of their managing to be more transformed than other Christians; if some Christians start with more natural advantages (say, having been brought up to have a better character) this somehow doesn’t count, because only those choices we consciously make as Christians count (Chapter 6 Section 4. DY: I don’t know what Wright is saying here about what counts and what doesn’t and why. And, again, what about Christians with medical brain defects, and those with no chance to be transformed such as infants who die, or the thief on the cross who had no chance to change his brain patterns by years of practice? Also, will Christians who have not been as diligent as others or who have been lax to varying degrees be in different ‘castes’ in the Kingdom?).

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

I didn’t read anyhere in the book that things will need putting right after Christ comes again.

I’d imagine that Wright’s response to the comment about babies/infants dying before they have time to develop virtue would be the standard one of different responsibilities for different tasks after Christ has returned.

I’m only answering the question about brain defects as I myself would answer it, which is that there is a difference between the development of moral virtue, which involves responsible choices, and which may affect patterns of activity in the brain, and brain damage over which we are unable to exercise moral or virtuous choices.

Engagement in politics and what Christians should do when politicians/rulers don’t do the right things? This happens all the time, doesn’t it? It doesn’t mean Christians shouldn’t be involved, does it? It does develop the person involved in the skills of campaigning and insight into issues of justice. But sometimes Christians do have an effective (and beneficial) influence.

Christians, unlike pagans, are able to do the things they should’? I imagine you are referring to discussion which raises the issues that are encapsulated in Romans 7:18-25, which directly quotes from the classical moral philosophers. The conflict of conscience to which this refers is resolved, for the Christian, in Romans 8, where it is the enabling power of the Spirit which brings release from the impasse. Wright touches on this; I don’t have the book before me, so can’t quote the page references.

I seem to recall that Wright attempts to resolve the question of natural advantages which some seem to enjoy over others in the area of virtue by arguing that all believers in Christ start from the same baseline as regards being the ‘new creation’ in Christ, and that while some may seem to have advantages over others, there may be unseen disadvantages, such as pride, over those who do not have their advantages. I could think of various other ways of tackling this argument, but Wright, as far as I recall, doesn’t develop these. (Eg virtue is to be judged not simply in comparison with each other, but where we have come from in our  lives. This makes a huge difference in judgments about ‘virtue’).

The question you raise again about infants who die, those with brain defects, and the thief on the cross, that they had no opportunity to develop virtue, I think is answered earlier, though it’s my answer rather than Wright’s. Nevertheless, I think there is an area which you open up here, which Wright doesn’t cover, and which would benefit from further development. I think it takes us into the territory of grace, as opposed to the territory of moral or virtuous advantages which one person may have when compared with another. In this territory, all are uniquely valued.

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

by DaveY - 25/02/2010 - 21:27 (DaveY - you need to re-enter your registration onto the site; your posts are appearing in read-format, but do not appear as entries which are recognised by the site and can be replied to - PW)

I think Christians should be developing the virtues, and contributing in all sorts of ways to making this world a better place, but not for the reasons Wright gives. I think Christians should be doing things because it is right to do them, not because they think that unless they do them there will be something missing (for them, and maybe even for others) from the coming Kingdom.

I didn’t read anywhere in the book that things will need putting right after Christ comes again”

p.63 (though the page may be different in the American version, so it is Chapter 2, end of Section 8) ‘our future role … making the judgements that will put everything to rights’, p.65 (Chapter 3, middle of Section 1) ‘enable the garden to flourish … (and) be extended’, p.79 (Chapter 3, middleish Section 4) ‘the result of this “reign” … the renewal of the whole world’, ‘when humans are restored … creation itself will then be fully restored … become truly etc’, p.97 (Chapter 4, beginningish Section 3) ‘through this people … set the whole world to rights’. Wright also elsewhere intimates that Revelations 22.2 ‘healing of the nations’ means that there will be renovatory work to be done by Christians after the coming of the Kingdom, even putting it into the context of possible salvation of those unsaved (dead or alive) when the Kingdom comes (eg Surprised by Hope, p.117, Chapter 6, Section 8, pp.196-7, Chapter 11, Section 5).

You are right, Peter, that Wright brings in ‘disadvantages’ that may afflict those seeming to start ahead on the development of virtue (p.177, Chapter 6, towards the end of Section 4), but I could wish he had said something more cogent, given what seems to be his general line (you say you see other ways of tackling the issue - it could be interesting to know what they are!) Comparison with others is not so much the issue, surely, as absolute attainment. What God looks at in ‘apportioning reward’ seems to be very much an issue with Wright, because he thinks reward is natural and not an artificial prize. So, presumably, even if someone with a deprived starting point develops more than someone else from a more privileged starting point, yet still finishes up less developed, Wright seems to me to be implying that being less developed they will remain so, so be less rewarded, even though they have worked harder (my impression is, Peter, that you disagree somewhat with Wright here, if I have correctly characterised Wright! But you seem to think it is ok that infants who die never even get a chance to get on the ladder (for more, see below).). Or doesn’t Wright think we experience of the coming Kingdom what we have grown now to be able to appreciate? So, again, that would seem to imply that people disadvantaged in various ways now from developing virtue, or developing in whatever ways, will be less able to appreciate things in the Kingdom than others, perhaps through no fault of their own. So, perhaps infants who die will still be infants in the coming Kingdom and will remain at an infantile level of ability to appreciate it (perhaps this is indeed what you call the ‘standard response’. It’s not one I like! I don’t see why infants can’t grow up in the coming Kingdom, nor why anybody might not be able to eventually acquire in the coming Kingdom whatever they died lacking, whether their own fault or not. Wright himself doesn’t envisage the coming Kingdom as a static state, but does seem to imply some things about us at our death, such as level of acquired virtue, remain constant in the coming Kingdom). Perhaps, according to Wright, if Christians don’t develop athletic physiques now (they may be couch potatoes, though perhaps they were born with physical limitations), they will be unable to enjoy athletic pursuits in the Kingdom (similarly for brain limitations, or merely lack of application in learning, in the case of abilities at intellectual pursuits, and then there are artistic abilities, business and organisational abilities, whatever).

On Christians and politics, I was thinking about the possibility of Christians making a disruptive nuisance of themselves (eg it’s not actually clear to me that the apostles, in Acts, were right to cause commotions at the temple which got the authorities against them. That the Bible says that’s what they did is not necessarily condoning it! Perhaps they were doing their best but didn’t have the requisite wisdom to figure out some other way of witnessing! Should Christians now regularly street evangelise, doing group singing of hymns and megaphone jobs, outside mosques?!). Wright seems to me to suggest Christians should regularly oppose things they consider unchristian even to the extent the authorities have to lock them up. I rather feel that Christians should accept that the ways of the world are not their ways, and certainly make their views known on issues, but not at all costs oppose (eg by shooting abortionists) what the world does they consider unchristian. Further complicated by different Christian groups having different opinions on issues, especially if each group assumes drastic action. The reason I think Wright suggests this is his ideas of the continuities between now and the future Kingdom, which he thinks are very, very great. He thinks we are the agents of making the coming Kingdom happen (p.4 “help make it happen”. Chapter 1, Section 1.). And further he thinks that things we do now will be in the coming Kingdom, and things we don’t won’t.

That the ‘impasse’, over whether people can do as they should, is broken now for Christians may be the reality of the case, and I take it it will certainly be the case in the future Kingdom. I was referring to the empirical situation, where it is not actually experienced as broken by Christians. This leads me to think it worth more consideration whether it is now the reality of the case, or in what sense it is, or whether Biblical interpretation needs some tweaking! I’m not saying we should indulge in it, if we were to conclude that we have not yet been given (theoretically or empirically) the wherewithal to not sin at all! Of course, Wright is in ones sense tackling this issue in saying he thinks Christians have to work at being what they should be, but he doesn’t have an informative stab at how this can be

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

Thanks, DaveY, for a detailed response and questions to my comment: ‘I didn’t read anywhere in the book that things will need putting right after Christ comes again’. To be fair to Wright, his comments about the future restoration of the world after Christ’s return are rather tentative, but nevertheless there. His comment in ‘Surprised by Hope’ does spell out his thinking on this subject - and he is at pains to be tentative. Nevertheless, you are right, he does seem to see some continuity of aspects of the old creation alongside the new.

That what we do in the body now in some way affects the resurrection body we will receive seems to me an entirely NT concept, and in line with the NT concept of judgment and rewards for believers (as well as unbelievers). However, it doesn’t rule out, to me, the possibility of further growth and development within the new creation of its resurrected inhabitants. Surely whatever we say here has to be somewhat speculative, since there is no clear NT statement on the subject. But the connection between the resurrected body and the body of the old creation seems to me to be fairly clear - at least, clear enough to encourage us, perhaps negatively, to do something about it! However, I’m not sure that getting ‘on the ladder’, as you put it, is a helpful way of viewing things. But on the whole, we are getting into the territory here of moral philosophy rather than clear NT statement.

I guess your comment on the Christians in Acts causing commotions at the temple is a reference to Paul being seized in the Temple at Jerusalem in Acts 21? But in what way was Paul being provocative? The account mentions that Paul did not take Trophimus into the temple area with him, as the crowd assumed and accused him of. In fact, earlier, Paul had done something extraordinary, in having Timothy circumcised ‘because of the Jews who lived in that area’ - Acts 16. There is no evidence that Paul went anywhere to be provocative to the Jews.  I don’t see the comparison with Christians doing street evangelism outside Mosques, and even if Christians did this, why should they not, provided it is done respectfully? Maybe you could locate for me in the book your comment: ‘Wright seems to me to suggest Christians should regularly oppose things they consider unchristian even to the extent the authorities have to lock them up’, as I’m not quite sure what Wright may be saying, or even what you are saying here.  

You also say: ‘The reason I think Wright suggests this (disruptive political action by Christians?) is his ideas of the continuities between now and the future Kingdom, which he thinks are very, very great. He thinks we are the agents of making the coming Kingdom happen (p.4 “help make it happen”. Chapter 1, Section 1.). And further he thinks that things we do now will be in the coming Kingdom, and things we don’t won’t.’  But we are ‘agents of the kingdom’ aren’t we? Otherwise, how else is God to express His kingdom (assuming we believe that this is still what God is doing!). And yes, I think Wright does suggest that obedient action by Christians now has a consequence in the new creation to come (this is very evident in ‘Surprised by Hope’). However, he doesn’t spell out precisely what this consequence may be.

You say: ‘That the ‘impasse’, over whether people can do as they should, is broken now for Christians may be the reality of the case, and I take it it will certainly be the case in the future Kingdom. I was referring to the empirical situation, where it is not actually experienced as broken by Christians.’  So what do you actually mean - that the ‘impasse’ is broken (now, for Christians), or (‘empirically’) it isn’t? Could you make clearer what you mean?

I think Wright does have ‘an informative stab’ at the issue referred to in the previous paragraph, but the main emphasis of the book is on the need for disciplined application to virtue, instead of an assumption that since we are remade as new creations, we don’t need to apply ourselves to anything since the Spirit will just do it anyway.

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

Still continuing with the copied versions of posts which the site does not recognise as actual entries! PW

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

by DaveY - 27/02/2010 - 14:51

On Wright on political activism, I read a very recent lecture of Wright’s this morning that I think makes what I previously said on this blog (when it gets posted!) not very much ‘over the top’ at all! It seems to me fighting talk, not hedged around as in Virtue Reborn! Easily obtainable almost at the top of http://www.ntwrightpage.com/, but I give here quotes that seem to me to best demonstrate where Wright is at:

God and Government a lecture by the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright in the Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, Westminster Wednesday 10 February 2010, 6.30 pm

The Old Testament is framed by this notion of Israel as the new model of humanity …

What theologians sometimes call ‘salvation history’ is not about rescuing souls from a wicked world, but rescuing and restoring the human race so that it can fulfil the creator’s intention at last …

God’s people (DY: here Old Testament Israel) are called to live as a society which models genuine human living, justice and mercy and peace …

The four canonical gospels are not about a Jesus who tells people how to get to heaven away from this wicked world. They are about God becoming the ruler on earth as in heaven …

The real reason for opposition to Jesus’ resurrection, apart from a natural scepticism about such an unprecedented event, is that it changes the political landscape as well as the personal …

We must obey God rather than human authorities’, declare the apostles when the Chief Priests threaten them …

again and again Paul, no doubt most annoyingly, presumes the right to tell the authorities their business …

The church was not simply called to be a parallel society, leaving the world to go its own wicked way. The church discovered that, out of allegiance to Jesus, it had the annoying and dangerous task of calling the world to account …

to allow the government – any government, of any party – to dictate terms to the church, to threaten us with legal action for being true to ourselves and our foundation charter, would be to collude with a sort of neo-paganism. The day the church bends to the whim or dictate of secular government or ideology is the day it ceases to be the church …

Jesus has launched God’s new creation, and one day the whole world will be put to rights. The task of governments in the present time, seen from the Christian point of view, is to perform within the world that waits for that eventual day such acts of judgment – the making of decisions, the drawing of lines, the setting of parameters – which will properly anticipate, even in the present time and even if the rulers in question are unaware of this God-given role, that final putting-to-rights of all things …

Christian prayer grows out of the prayer Jesus himself taught, that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven, that we might have bread, forgiveness and deliverance from evil. Those are all political questions just as much as spiritual ones”

And, to be fair, yes, there are even here qualifications! But, still!

(The context of the first being Constantine’s empire)

partly what the monastic movement was all about, creating a new kind of parallel world to remind the newly Christian empire of the dangers of an over-realised eschatology …

not the immediate abolition or overthrow of earthly powers, even of Caesar or Herod …”

new

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

by DaveY - 26/02/2010 - 23:26

I don’t know what to do about reregistering, Peter, I’ve tried but run into problems, I need more help! Another thought is it may be I was posting without logging in first, let’s see if this post goes better!


I think you take Wright to be more ‘tentative’ than I do! But further, it seems to me irresponsible of Wright to be as ‘suggestive’ as he is in very particular directions, and so I don’t find him merely ‘tentative’. I find him suggesting very, very great continuity, to an extent that it would be true to Wright to take him as giving the picture of things that we will find ourselves living in almost the same world as now, just without the painful bits, and not much added even by our having glorified bodies. So, whatever state things are in when the kingdom comes is more or less what state they will be in immediately afterwards. Then, we will need to get to work to remake things. Except, I find him suggesting that certain kinds of things will not be able to be remade. So, if now we have not sculpted a stone for a cathedral, it will not be present in the kingdom and there will be no second chance for sculpting it (fair enough, he does say, if we have sculpted it it will be present not just as it was sculpted but somewhat transfigured. My illustration here is adapted from Wright’s in eg Surprised by Hope, p.220, Chapter 13, Section 1). And the same for virtue, if we don’t develop it now we will be second class citizens in the kingdom. So, infants who die will never have the experience of a full human being. So, what about someone in a wheelchair all their lives, will they have a resurrection body that is made whole, and if so, why not the infant? I feel Wright suggests things which cannot properly be said to be merely tentative but he irresponsibly leads people to entertain certain superficial pictures of how things will be which cannot stand up to more imaginative consideration. I further think that he suggests the things he does about the future kingdom because of where his overall scheme of the Bible story has led him (which comment I’ll not develop futher here, except to say I don’t like his scheme!).


The New Testament does seem to mention rewards and judgements for Christians (and what can judgements be unless involving ‘punishments’, surely a hard one to get one’s head around in relation to the saved!?), but I think theologians need to do a lot of work on possibilities for us trying to understand that (and I don’t rate Wright’s contribution!). I get the impression, Peter, that you think the connection between behaviours of Christians now and rewards etc in the kingdom is not so direct as Wright thinks. So, I suppose you to think that if someone has not achieved very much, their reward may well still be more than someone who has achieved a lot, because they started off different baselines, or whatever. But, I take it that Wright thinks actual level of achievement is what counts: eg why should Wright say things about training up the brain, unless he thought that one’s brain state at death was carried over to the kingdom. Then, if someone was a well practiced administrator on earth now, they would be better placed to administrate in the kingdom. (Though could it be reconcilable with Wright to suggest that if someone has tried very hard to learn to play the piano now they might be rewarded by a miraculous ability to play superbly in the kingdom, and be a better player in the kingdom than someone who died with better accomplishment on earth who had worked less!? But I don’t think that suggestion does fit Wright.)

Yes, I think we are agents of the kingdom, but not agents of ‘making it happen’ as Wright has put here. The picture of ‘making it happen’ seems to me to suggest Christians will gradually make the world a better place till the last touches are applied when Christ comes. I would think it possible the world goes to utter rack and ruin before Christ comes. I do think Christians should be trying to make things better now, but Wright seems to me to imply that they should expect success.


I was thinking of eg Acts Chapter 4 for commotions at the temple. Ok, my criticism of Wright’s call to political activism (eg p.200, Chapter 7, Section 2 ‘campaigning on key issues’) was over the top. I do see how Wright has couched it all around in moderating language, but I still feel Wright’s overall  way of coming at things is liable to stimulate untoward activities. Here, perhaps I’m thinking of his too closely for me connecting how this world is and how the coming kingdom (the kingdom coming to this world) will be, so it maybe looking essential to getting making this world be what it should be, at all costs.


Given the ‘politically correct’ temper of the times, I think there would be no possibility of claiming evangelism outside mosques was respectful, it would inevitably cause adverse reaction, no objective judgement of respectfulness would be entertained.


I mean that since it seems to me empirically the case that Christians do not experience having the ability to not sin, maybe they don’t in reality have the ability to not sin, or if they do in reality have the ability to not sin then Wright doesn’t help me to understand, theologically or practically, why it doesn’t seem to them they have the ability to not sin. (Paul is not a clear writer and it may be we have not yet adequately got on his wavelength.)


The main emphasis of the book does not seem to me to be that we need disciplined application to virtue, rather it is that since what we do now will have an enormous influence on our future experience in the kingdom, then we need to get running around doing all sorts of things now so that we won’t be missing out on anything then.

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

DY - I’m replying to the previous two posts in one - because the website won’t permit me to reply to them separately!

 

Response to Post 1

Your first post, containing quotes from Wright’s lecture on ‘God and Government’, is mostly standard Wright stuff, and nothing controversial, except that the church becomes controversial if it clashes with the state in the political sphere. This should not, of itself, be controversial, however. The issue is how the church handles conflict, or over what issues it seeks to oppose the state.

I don’t know if it was in the lecture, but the recent Equal Opportunities legislation which was going through the UK parliament was attempting to bring the church into line with legislation elsewhere, which meant that it could not discriminate against, for instance, gay people who were applying for a post in the church, or women who applied for church leadership! The church was to be given an ‘opt-out’, whereby those involved in presiding over religious ceremonies, or giving teaching at religious ceremonies, could be chosen selectively (which would be regarded elsewhere as discrimination!), but in other forms of church employment, eg youth leadership, such discrimination could not be exercised.

So Wright would be against gay people being ordained or given posts in the church, but not, I think, against women ministers (or bishops)! This is an example of where the church gets itself into problems over its ethical and moral stances, and where political confrontation may not necessarily be expressing something that all would feel is central to biblical teaching in every case.

A similar issue might be raised, for instance, where the church prioritises campaigning on abortion control, or marriage, or gay rights, over social issues (healthcare and the like).

So the church might well get itself into problems if it saw its role as imposing its agenda on the government of the day, because of disputes over what that agenda might entail.

Nevertheless, it is true that in the 1st century, being a Christian was a highly political issue, not because the church wanted it to be, but because religion (in certain areas) was a political issue, in the Roman and Jewish world.

Today, it’s arguable that, for the reasons Wright gives, the church has tended wrongly to separate itself from political concerns, and adopt a role as seeing itself only concerned with spiritual issues, or the life to come. This oversimplifies the actual state of things, but generally we have a theology which encourages this on the popular level.

So while there are dangers in political involvement of the church, I feel that Wright is, on the whole, encouraging a healthy engagement of the church in politics (though I don’t agree with everything on his personal agenda!). In the Equal Opportunities legislation, it was a conflict which the church had not sought, and, to my mind, showed it (the church) up as rather ridiculous. In the end, the clauses in the legislation were struck out. But the issues remain unaddressed and unresolved.

 

 

Response to Post 2

I still think Wright is tentative (in suggesting what may carry over into the new creation), and in doing that is not irresponsible, but simply raising questions which are in scripture itself (eg the picture of the new creation in Revelation 22:2, 15).

Also, I think you are taking what Wright says, and then speculating unfairly on the basis of what he does not say. Eg he does say that the ‘carry over’ into the new creation of what we do in this life is like stonemasons working on separate parts of the cathedral structure, which are only fully appreciated when put in place in the completed cathedral. But he does not say anything about those who were not working on the stone structure - which you then chide him for.

Also, unless I have not noticed it, Wright does not say anything about those who have not been working on the development of virtue in this life, in relation to the life to come. Maybe he should have said more about this, but that’s another matter. Here again, I feel you are chiding Wright on the basis of a silence. It might have been a fairer criticism to have pointed out the undeveloped side of the argument (by Wright), that this could open it to misinterpretation, and left it at that.

I don’t think Wright does simply talk about ‘absolute’ levels of virtuous attainment in relation to future rewards; he simply doesn’t look at the possibility of rewards on the basis of different starting points or backgrounds, where these might reward one person even thought their comparative level of attainment might not appear very great.

Also, Wright’s comments about patterns of brain activity seem to me to be warnings and encouragements for this life, not the life to come! I think his arguments here were not developed as fully as they might have been, and were therefore open to the kinds of criticism that you bring.

As regards being ‘agents of the kingdom’, I think you interpret ‘making it happen’ one way, and I interpret it another! Nevertheless, the phraseology is perhaps rather careless. I didn’t take it to mean that we should always expect success in every area, but maybe this needs spelling out more, with a better formed theological basis for saying so.

I find your argument about unnecessary provocation odd when applied to ‘commotions in the temple’ in Acts 4. Since Jesus was in himself the fulfilment of everything the temple represented only in shadow form, I think Peter and John had every right to proclaim him in the temple. Not least because the crippled man had just been healed there, as a demonstration of the power of the Jesus they were talking about.

I agree that street evangelism, even of a respectful kind, might not be entertained in this country (UK), or be wise, outside a mosque. However, the Jesus film was publicly shown in the square outside the main mosque of Niamey, the capital of Niger, a mainly Muslim country, not so long back, without any adverse reaction. Interesting what can be done elsewhere, but not in the so-called free West.

Also I think your final paragraph oversimplifies things. My reading of Paul in the NT is that he does not say that Christians will, empirically, never sin any more. Neither does he say that, empirically, they will! He does say that the system which was the source of sin ceases to have power over the believer in Jesus (Romans 6,7,8). Sin is not just an action, or even an attitude; it has roots, which Jesus by the cross has severed for those who trust in him as their Lord.

Re: Virtue Reborn – Tom Wright

Thanks for the exchanges, Peter, they’ve been useful. DaveY

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