Of all the things I was looking forward to about spending the day with Tom Wright last week, the thing I was looking forward to the most was interviewing him, and asking him about all sorts of biblical-theological stuff that I’ve never heard him talk about. I wanted to ask about whether he believed in a historical Adam, how he held together being complementarian in marriage and egalitarian in ministry, how his personal experience of the Holy Spirit worked, and so on. But the biggest question, for me, was how he responded to what I call the New Marcionism (a loaded phrase, of course, but then they all are).
Marcion, of course, was a second century bishop who taught that the Old Testament God, a jealous and retributive tribal deity, was incompatible with the God revealed in and through Jesus, who is an entirely benevolent God of love and compassion. Almost nobody today is saying that they believe this – at least, not in so many words. But a number of postconservative evangelicals in the US (I’m thinking of people like Peter Enns, Karl Giberson and various others), seeing a radical discontinuity between the God of parts of (say) Joshua and the God revealed in Jesus, are arguing that the picture of God in various Old Testament texts is not the real God at all. Perhaps the real God, understood christocentrically, did not in fact threaten Moses with death for failing to be circumcised, nor tell the Levites to kill people after the golden calf, nor order Achan to be stoned, nor command the destruction of Canaanite cities – since if he did, it would be irreconcilable with the example and teaching of Jesus – and therefore we should regard the narratives here as primitive theologising that seriously misunderstands the true nature of Israel’s God.
I was keen to find out what Tom thought about all that. His answer was my personal highlight of the day, and is to be treasured for its wisdom and insight (not to mention quotability):
“AW: I wondered if we could start with the continuity and discontinuity thing, which you were talking about before. Obviously there’s a sense in what you’re writing, and a sense in Paul, that something brand new has happened in Christ, and also a sense that the ongoing story of Israel has continued. How does that play out when it comes to who you think God is, and how he is perceived? I’m asking this in the face of (what I call) a New Marcionism in some circles in the US, where you have a bit more of an angry God who smites people in the Old Testament, but that’s not who Christ is, so we have to deconstruct the Old Testament God and say that’s not who we’re dealing with now. How have you handled that retributive side of the Old Testament God, in the light of what Jesus demonstrates at the cross?”
“NTW: There’s two different questions there, so let me deal with the “retributive versus merciful” one first. It’s a common answer, and I’m sure many of you pastors use this in your congregations, that actually the fiercest statements of warnings about judgment are on the lips of Jesus. And some of the most dramatically, spectacularly, extraordinary statements about overflowing mercy are in bits of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and the Psalms and so on. So there’s much more of a rich mixture, and you can only sustain the either/or of the Marcionite vision by blinding yourselves to quite a lot of what is there in the gospels. And of course some scholars will say, “The gospels were written by the early church, and the early church put back a lot of the angry stuff that Jesus didn’t have”, but this looks like a put-up job, to be honest.
“I think the reality of the world, and the reality of Scripture, go interestingly together. When people are talking about science and religion they often talk about the two books that God has written (the book of nature and the book of Scripture), but it’s true of the book of human life as well: human life is full of all kinds of things which are just gloriously, wonderfully celebratory, and other things which are just terrifyingly, awfully horrible – and we shouldn’t be surprised when we meet them in Scripture as well. And then you say, what does God think about, or do with, the stuff which is horrible? And the answer is, if he’s a good God, he must utterly reject it, and must hate it, and must ultimately destroy it … If God is a good God, he must react extremely strongly against that which destroys, corrupts or defaces human life. So the whole thing about the one versus the other is ill-conceived …
“The thing which it all comes back to, of course, is Romans 9-11. There, the whole question is, “Has God changed his mind?” And the answer is, “Emphatically not!” What has happened is what God always intended to happen. Holding onto this idea – that what has happened in Christ is what God always intended to happen – is very difficult; one of my graduate students summed it up brilliantly when he said, “God has acted shockingly, surprisingly, startlingly, as he always said he would.” You’ve got to have both halves together …
“I hold this within the framework I articulated this morning, which is to say: from the call of Abraham onwards, what God is committing himself to do is to act to bring about the restoration of the world, but to act through deeply flawed human beings, who constantly need to be reminded that they’re deeply flawed. That then produces all kinds of (to our mind) ambiguities. And I see all of it coming together in the cross. The cross is the moment when I see Israel’s God performing the salvific event, which is simultaneously the worst and most blasphemous act of judicial, theocidal murder than one can ever imagine. And somehow the cross itself says: these things are now reconciled.”
“AW: So when faced with the everyday, street-level challenge – that God seems to do these big bad things – you wouldn’t deny that God does those things? You’d say that that’s all part of a plan that God is moving forward?”
“NTW: There are many many things that God does, has done or will do which are not waiting for my approval or sanction before he does them. You know that line, “Many people want to serve God, but usually only in an advisory capacity.” Bonhoeffer said that putting the knowledge of good and evil before the knowledge of God is the primary sin in Genesis 3. They go for the knowledge of good and evil rather than what God says. Now that could just be an escape; it could just be throwing up our hands and saying we don’t know anything about God (when the whole point of the gospel is that we do know who God is, because of Jesus). However, if it’s the crucified Jesus, and if the cross means what it means in the light of the whole history of Israel, which is focused onto that, then … these narratives are the way in which all of those horrible, puzzling ambiguities, and all the awful things that happen – like Jesus saying, “what about those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell?” – there’s a sense that the cross gathers up all those puzzling, tragic horrible fragments of life, and says swoosh this is where it’s all going. The one thing you can’t do about all that is theorise about it. To theorise about it is to say, “We’re standing back as good enlightenment people, and we’re going to say whether it was appropriate or not.” The only thing when faced with a narrative like that is get down on your knees.”