N.T. Wright, Christian Virtue, and the Missing Person of God

 N.T. Wright -  'After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters'You can’t run in certain “intellectual” circles of modern Evangelicalism without hearing the name N.T. Wright. To some, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England is the modern day C.S. Lewis, only with more degrees in theology.

I’ve never read Wright, so when his After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters showed up in my local library recently (though the book came out in 2010), I availed myself of the opportunity to finally become hip and cool by claiming, “Oh yes, I’ve read Wright.”

The central idea of this Wright book is that a return to instinctual practice of Christian virtues is the only way to save Christianity. Too many Christians today don’t function like genuine Christians because a true Christian ethic eludes them. Most of this, Wright claims, is due to a misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian postconversion. Too few people grasp how the basic truths of Christianity should inform our practice of the Kingdom of God on earth, and how the Kingdom should undergird our beliefs.

Wright’s solution to the problem is to instill Christian ethics in people the same way a drill sergeant teaches his military charges how to rebuild a gun while blindfolded. Everything about the Christian life needs to be so instinctual and second nature that we no longer think about what we’re doing, but it instead comes naturally. Wright claims this occurs through a synergistic practice and methodical incorporation of five elements: Scripture, Stories, Examples, Community, and Practices.

Quite a few leaders in Evangelicalism would certainly add a hearty Amen to Wright’s plan, especially those who love to talk about the Desert Fathers and Ancient Faith. Practice makes perfect in their regard, and building a new Christian army of those who do without thinking sounds like the cure for what ails us.

While I can certainly see that drilling people in the core truths of Christianity, both truths in fact and truths in practice, is a good thing, Wright’s book has a glaring omission. As someone who has not read Wright before, I see this lack as so enormous, it makes me wonder just how wise Wright truly is and how he ever ascended to gathering such a herd of fanboys.

To me, what cripples modern Christians more than anything else, even when they embody those worthy virtues Wright espouses, is a complete lack of understanding as to what it means to live by the Spirit. The key differentiator between the righteous people of the OT and the righteous people of the NT is that the NT folks now have the Spirit of God living in them always. Say what you will about the Church, but its defining characteristic is that God now resides in men. No other reality trumps this.

That Wright writes almost nothing in his 307-page tome about how to live by the Spirit pretty much renders his entire book useless. Christian virtues are critical, but Wright’s advocacy of a drilled Christian ethic resembles building a Lamborghini and then leaving out the engine. Unless Christians learn to live by the Spirit, all that drilling, worldview, and ethic will lead to just another failed attempt to turn Christianity into a set of rules, with Wright’s entire plan condensed to making those rules reflexes that require no thinking—and no Spirit, either.

What is particularly galling is that Wright goes so far as to downgrade the idea of fully realized Spirit-led living as “romantic.” This smacks of rushing to the polar extreme in an effort to make his point about the need for a practiced, down-to-earth Christian ethic. He makes the mistake of denigrating the key element of the Christian life in his effort to amplify a smaller component he feels has been neglected. In the end, though, he commits the ultimate “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” error that someone of his stature in Evangelicalism should NEVER make.

When Evangelicalism persists in reducing Christianity to a Spirit-less ethic, it substitutes the zombie religionist for the fully alive believer. And we need more “Christian” zombies like we need…well, more zombies. Which is to say, not at all.

How Evangelicalism can continue to mangle life in the Spirit and push out this pale imitation of Christian maturity is beyond me, yet this is what passes for the Christian life in most churches: Here are the rules of the Faith; now live by them. How no one can see that this is no different from any other failed religious system is startling to me, yet this is what I perpetually see in most Evangelical churches. We simply do not know how to live by the Spirit.

Words cannot adequately express my utter disappointment with After You Believe. To me, it’s little more than an intellectual exercise that represents the half-answer now working against restoring the Church in the West to its former glory, despite Wright’s contention that it is the balm for what ails us. A partial balm maybe, but until more reputable Christian authors start writing on how to live by the Spirit, we’ll keep instituting partial balms that ultimately prevent us from becoming all that God intends us to be.

by Dan Edelen

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19 Comments

  1. Posted October 29, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    That’s an interesting observation. I haven’t read this book, but I’m somewhat familiar with his teachings. From what I’ve read and the couple of times I’ve heard him speak, this omission seems uncharacteristic. In fact, I picked up his commentary on Acts just because I heard him speak about the power of the Holy Spirit being so evident in that book and how we miss that now. I wonder if this is a change in conviction (2010 wasn’t that long ago) or if it’s just the case of a scholar getting bogged down in the details that he missed the “engine” (as you perfectly describe). I’d wager on the latter.

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Frank,

      Overcompensation perhaps? However, his constant harping on “living by the Spirit alone” as “romantic” is troubling. What does he think is the deciding difference between the trembling, postcrucifixion upper-room-dwellers and the bold witnesses of Acts? Did they suddenly get serious about Christian virtues and drill more ethics into themselves?

      Hardly.

      Even that aside, I found the whole book to be overly long, repetitious, and with a main idea that could be expressed to its full extent in just 30 good pages. What a bitter disappointment.

      • Posted November 4, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

        Wow. I am amazed, Dan. When I consider that N.T. Wright is something of a hero with the hip, emergent, and pomo crowd, that you would rain on the parade like this is rather cheeky on your part.

        Of course, I am not disparaging any of the genuinely valuable insights Wright might have. I’ve glanced through some of his books, and he does say a few interesting things, although in a very academic, long-winded, and circuitous manner.

        • Posted November 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          I’m at a loss, Oengus. If this is the great mind that the group you mention follows unswervingly (he is sort of the counter to John Piper, I guess), then I’m underwhelmed. The book was exactly as you describe. Another in the increasingly long line of books that would have been great at 100 pages, but are ponderous, repetitive, and filled with bloviation when longer.

          Wright has about three good points in this book, but he gets so tangential in trying to make the case for them, any connection is lost. That he seems to overcompensate in his attempt to counter the other pole of error only swings his pendulum to the opposite extreme, which is something that drives me NUTS about most Christian books nowawdays.

          Where in the heck is that middle ground? And why can no one seem to claim it?

  2. Clint
    Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Dan, any recommended insights or resources on living by the Spirit? I wonder sometimes if I have the essential understanding of what it means. I know that I have a very difficult time explaining it to others. Thanks.
    -Clint

  3. Posted October 29, 2012 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t see a conflict at all here. Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” is filled with the principles, values, and ethics of the kingdom of God without a mention of the Spirit. We embrace these values with our hearts… and find that the only way we can live up to them is a combination of a) practice and b) God’s power… in other words, the Holy Spirit within us. This comes down to a fundamental appreciation for the good news of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and that Wright is trying to expand upon in such works as “Surprised By Hope”. As this is your only exposure to Wright, you’re probably missing a lot regarding his entire paradigm and therefore unable to see how it jives with his perspective of scripture. The one throwing out the baby with the bathwater is probably not named Tom…

    • Posted October 29, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      No conflict at all, Bob. Only that Wright completely fails to connect the dots between his virtue paradigm and living by the Spirit. Like I said (and my blog has borne out repeatedly), I find great value in developing a base from which to enable the Spirit to work.

      But Wright makes it sound as if the base is all that is needed. He totally neglects giving any idea how one connects that base to living by the leading of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, I find this book almost useless in its application. And contrary to what some say, I don’t think the connection happens just because someone has the Holy Spirit in them.

  4. alan
    Posted October 30, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book, but it seems this boils down to the old issue of how much of the believer’s walk is volitional, and how much is Led. Tomes have been written about this topic, and almost always semantics become involved. It’s a hard subject to deal with succinctly – but at the same the more elaborate the explanation of one’s position the less likely it is to be grasped by anyone other than the writer.

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:57 am | Permalink

      Alan,

      I think the problem is that everyone wants to write on his or her favorite side of this equation, which inevitably leads to imbalance.

      There seems to be this streak of compensation in writing within the contemporary Body of Christ that is perpetually trying to highlight the supposedly “ignored” side of something, which leads, inevitably, to ignoring another aspect of that something. Our culture is so specialist focused that the generalist is ignored, and yet the broader view is almost always the better one.

      • alan
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

        Right on, Dan. Unquestionably much writing today is so nuanced that it loses perspective.

  5. Jerry
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Well, now I’m following you on Twitter. Anyone who lists AW Tozer on the top of his book list has my attention. I was directed here by an NT Wright site, and while I have not read this book (yet, it’s on my shelf), I have heard him speak about this (many of his lectures are available at ITunes U). Bases on what you have observed in this book, I would say that he is likely in agreement with JI Packer, who says “The Spirit shows his power in us, not by constantly interrupting our use of these means with visions, impressions, or prophecies, which serve up to us ready-made insights on a plate, so to speak (such communications come only rarely, and to some believers not at all), but rather by making these regular means effective to change us for the better and for the wiser as we go along. Holiness teaching that skips over disciplined persistence in the well-doing that forms holy habits is thus weak; habit forming is the Spirit’s ordinary way of leading us on to holiness.” (Keep in step with the Spirit, p90).
    Anyway, good discussion, look forward to reading more from you. Jerry in Lebanon, TN

    • Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      Thanks for writing, Jerry!

      Which N.T. Wright site?

      BTW, I disagree with your analysis of what Wright is saying (as espoused by the Packer quote). My reasoning is that Wright constantly refers to the Sully Sullenberger incident as the exact idea he is trying to reinforce, which is to eliminate any “thinking” and to act on reflex based on what you have been taught. As I see it, this “by reflex only” intent completely bypasses the Spirit’s input because no input is necessary, only practiced reaction. To me, this is highly Man-centric, behavioralist thinking and “denatures” what it means to live by the Spirit. That Wright calls such Spirit-led living “romantic” only further strengthens his “by reflex only” thinking.

      • Jerry
        Posted October 31, 2012 at 10:45 am | Permalink

        @ntwrightnews is an account that apparently scans for any mention of him, and tweets a link to it.
        Not to disagree, but just thinking out loud, is it not a good thing to be so transformed by the renewing of our mind that we exhibit the fruit of the spirit as a course of our nature? Perhaps this is different than living by the Spirit, so maybe we’re talking apples and oranges. Of course, not having read the book, maybe I should shut up!

  6. Hans
    Posted November 6, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Dan;
    Having not read or heard of Wright I cannot comment legitimately on your analysis but when I sought the leading of ‘the Spirit’ and listened to your tone, I felt that it was very …off

    I seek the leading of the ‘Spirit’ in all that I attempt, do or say, but we are also told to check the spirit and it must square with scripture absolutely. Too much of the ‘leading of the spirit’ I see around me is with out scriptural foundation and just an excuse for “doing whats right in their own eyes”

    To quote what I just read this morning as part of my devotions
    “Justice or righteousness in the Bible is never abstract: it involves a multitude of specific acts and attitudes that cover all of life.
    This is why the modern view, which abstracts law from sanctification and makes the concept vague, “spiritual,’ or more accurately, abstract, has deeper roots in paganism than in Scripture”

    That’s from Volume Two of the Institutes of Biblical Law (Law and society) chapter 135, Justice and Righteousness page 586

    • Posted November 7, 2012 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      Hans,

      In what specific ways do you feel my tone is “off”?

  7. Don Taylor
    Posted December 20, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Let me quote N T Wright in Simply Christian ” the sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind,in the tomb of Jesus Christ,all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world. It is time, IN THE POWER OF THE SPIRIT, to take up our proper role, our fully human role, as agents,heralds, and stewards of the new day that is dawning”. I have read “Surprised by Hope” “Simply Jesus” “Simply Christian” ” The last Word” “Contemporary Quest for Jesus” “Scripture and the Authority of God” and I find that N T Wright and what you say in your bog are the same true Christianity. He,like C. S. Lewis does not talk as much as some of us do about the Holy Spirit but it come through.I would suggest reading more than one N. T. Wright book.

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