NT Wright on Contextualisation

What a privilege to spend time with Tom Wright and get to talk about evangelism, mission and contextualisation. Everything he says here is off the cuff which is a measure of the breadth of his learning and his communication skills.

Tom shows us what we can learn from both Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s approach to faithful relevance. I deliberately asked Tom what he though of the idea that Tim Keller shared here – that contextualisation is just shuffling around the 10 different points of the gospel that you need to share with people.

I also had the chance to ask what we learn from the gospel writers about how to speak the gospel today. It’s a great little video and I would encourage you to watch it and pass it on.

What is the Gospel according to NT Wright

Tomorrow sees the next in our series of national consultations on helping the church gain Confidence in the Gospel. NT Wright (who was in the middle of editing his new book on Paul) was kind enough to make time to speak to us to give his views on the subject “What is the Gospel?” watch this short film and let me know what you think? How does Tom’s approach challenge your own? Is there an emphasis you think he missed out?

There are some helpful resources on the Evangelical Alliance’s confidence in the gospel site to help you further explore this subject.

NT Wright and the People of God

3 Unmissable Ideas from NT Wright’s New Testament and the People of God

I was very pleased to receive a copy of NT Wright’s “New Testament and the People of God” which is the opening and foundational work in Wright’s on going project “Christian Origins and the Question of God” which also includes “Jesus and the Victory of God” and “The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

This is such a vast tome covering so many important issues, by way of review let me give you 53reasons you should read this book, particularly if you are interested in evangelism (and who wouldn’t be?).

1. The World(view) is not enough

As a young evangelist I was brought up on the books of James Sire and Francis Schaeffer. These writers introduced me to the concept of worldview the way in which our intellectual prejudices and presuppositions shape the way we interpret the universe. Sire’s book the Universe next door provides a catalogue of worldviews: (Deism, Existentialism, Nihilism and Pantheism ) that help readers understand the benefits of a Christian (theistic) worldview. Francis Schaeffer’s work explains how exposing the presuppositions and assumptions someone holds and through interrogating these assumptions it is possible to “wobble a worldview” and thus helping someone to see the way that the Christian gospel fulfils the longings and fills in the inadequacies of their current way of thinking.


NT Wright’s magnificent book the New Testament and the People of God offers a greater degree of sophistication in exploring how worldviews function in concert with other belief forming and shaping activities. The interaction of story, questions, praxis and symbol in concert shape the heart of a culture. The “questions” that Wright describes are the closest thing to the worldview analysis of Sire or the presuppositions of Schaeffer and so they are shown to be an elements of a belief system. But by adding the other dimensions – Wright helpfully leaves open other areas which need to be addressed when thinking of the revangelisation of the UK. That engaging with the stories, the symbols and the praxis of every day people is as important as engaging their worldview. In fact our worldview is actually formed by participating in a story, the impact of symbols and our daily praxis. Because we are more than just rational beings. Everyone that wants to communicate the gospel in today’s culture could benefit from the depth and breadth of Wright’s work in this area.

Evangelists need to be aware that our audiences are not a blank slate ready to receive the gospel. They come preloaded with assumptions and ideas. Engagement with culture, questions and the practices of daily life and ritual.

2. Epistemology matters

How do we know what we know about anything? How do we know what we know about God? If you are interested in helping people explore the Christian faith working out your theory of knowledge is important. Many apologists assume a theory of knowledge without realising it. Some of them are philosophically naïve, others simply optimistic. Wright offers a really helpful approach with an articulation of “critical realism” – his intent is not to train apologists but to set up a framework for his biblical studies, a prologue to his reinvestigation of the the Christian story. Wright refuses to make the hard and fast distinction between subject and object and argues for a “relational expistemology” that emphasises the “storied nature” of all knowing. Rather than a bottom up approach to knowledge bases on a series of unshakeable assumptions or epistemological axioms – Wright grounds his theory of knowledge on the way the Bible operates – by fixing our knowledge within a wider story.

Evangelists – we need to rethink the way in which we know what we know. Beware of just picking up the assumptions of your favourite apologist, sadly many have imbibed an enlightenment way of understanding of truth without noticing. Wright offers another model well worth engaging with.

3. Scripture is the authoritative Story

Wright’s approach to the authority of scripture is intimately related to his theory of knowledge. Rather than imposing an Enlightenment approach to knowledge onto scripture and looking for proof texts that can justify a foundationalist approach to knowing. Wright instead offers an approach to the authority of scripture that makes sense of the form, structure and content of the Bible. Namely the way that the Bible tells the story of God, his people and his universe and that the way to treat a story as authoritative is to allow it to shape the life and beliefs of the church. “The church would then live under the ‘authority’ of the extant story, being required to offer an improvisatory performance of the final act as it leads up to and anticipates the intended conclusion.”

For the evangelist wright offers another reason to preach:

a) the whole story of scripture

we need to explain not just the death of Christ but also the whole story in which it makes sense. Its why we were given 66 books not just Romans 6:23.

b) the story as a story

there are good reasons for us to allow the narrative parts of scripture to be preached as a narrative rather than trying to convert them into systematic theology. Stories are not substandard or secondary they are part of the way in which we come to form our worldview.


I hope this has whetted your appetite for the rest of the book and why it is a must read for aspiring evangelists and apologists, not to mention anyone seeking to better understand the New Testament.

Grace, Truth and Rob Bell

Before Rob Bell’s new book “Love Wins” has even made it into print, the trial by media and blogosphere has already begun, and those of us who presume to be jury need to be aware that we too will be judged, not only on the content of our conversation, but also on the tone of it. I have already begun to see the sparks flying, and am concerned that if these are ignored and allowed to catch light, or deliberately fanned into flame, damage may well be done to our church; some people may get burned, others may get burned at the stake, digitally speaking at least. As someone who believes that we need to listen to and to love Christian brothers and sisters from the right and left of the evangelical spectrum, I would humbly offer the following questions as a way to encourage a graceful and honest conversation.

Questions to the RIGHT

1. How do we deal with those we disagree with?

If we believe a brother or sister has stepped away from orthodoxy, what is the correct way to deal with him? Is it to publicly humiliate them, wash our hands of them, or charge them with preaching a false gospel before the facts are made available? What does Paul and Peter’s disagreement teach us about how to handle controversy and confrontation with wisdom, grace and submission? How can we help people to express their concerns in a helpful way? Have we given people the benefit of the doubt? My fear is that if we on the right react in harsh and unloving ways those in the middle will be pushed away not because of our doctrine but because of our behaviour.

2. Is it fair to attribute guilt by association?

I have been on the receiving end of suspicion regarding my evangelical credentials several times, and it is not a pleasant experience. Usually the critics are not concerned with the gospel I am preaching, or the evidence of my doctrine in my writings, or the fruit of my ministry. Instead it has been ‘guilt by association’, because of people I have chosen to quote. Sadly, these critics consider a quotation an endorsement of someone’s entire theological system. But just because I quote NT Wright, does not mean I affirm his views on paedo-baptism. Quoting Wayne Grudem does not mean I believe Global Warming is a myth or I share his views on the millennium. Quoting Brian McLaren and Lesslie Newbigin does not mean I endorse all of their views. I have yet to meet an evangelical who is not a fan of CS Lewis – his books are cited and recommended almost universally, yet his views on salvation and hell are pretty similar to the accusations being made against Rob Bell. Is it fair to write off the whole of someone’s body of work because you disagree with one part? Hasn’t finding truth in people’s work and commending it got biblical warrant even if you have disagreements elsewhere? (the Apostle Paul can quote pagan prophets approvingly in Acts 17, and in his letter to Titus.) How can we help people to express their appreciation without being afraid of being branded a heretic by a McCarthian witchhunt?

3. How can we be discerning without being judgmental?

How did Jesus handle the criticism of guilt by association when the Pharisees shunned him for hanging out with Samaritans, tax collectors, women and sinners? Interestingly Jesus did not drop the friends that the Pharisees were criticising, instead he rebuked the Pharisees’ judgmentalism. What does it mean for us to remove our own planks, instead of other people’s specks? What does it mean for us to love our enemies as well as our friends? What does this mean when we come across people whose theology we find difficult? How can we love our neighbours even if we disagree with them? How can we remain discerning, without becoming judgmental?

4. How can we prevent the fire being fuelled?

Whenever there is controversy, whether it is over the manifestation of spiritual gifts, the place of women in ministry, or the question of penal substitution, I notice that suddenly the topics crop up in a lot of sermons, and that is not necessarily wrong. But suddenly it seems that the whole Bible revolves around that point of theology. No matter what passage people are preaching from suddenly the theological controversy of the day becomes the only thing that the Bible teaches. It feels like preachers want to demonstrate their orthodoxy on this subject, to let everyone know which side of the fence they are on. Are we pandering to those listeners who police our theology? Are we not allowing this one controversy to stop us from preaching the whole counsel of God and instead we just preach a narrow slice of it? I would warn us to not let the latest controversy blow us off course. I have heard a number of high profile preachers end up distorting the Bible by forcing a topic onto a text that simply is not there. Thus ironically those seeking to preserve orthodoxy sometimes end up doing it at the expense of upholding biblical authority and modelling good biblical exposition.

Questions to the LEFT

1. How do we deal with the negative responses?

If someone whom we admire is criticized, our automatic response is to jump to their defense – it’s part of what it means to be a family. Because emotions run high, this can move quickly from a tense conversation to a mudslinging match. The more personal and uncharitable the attacks, the more personal and uncharitable the counter-attacks, and the more polarized the two sides become. But could there be a grain of truth in the criticism? How can we find that grain through any mudslinging, judgmentalism, superiority complexes and ‘holier than thou’ attitudes? How can we avoid becoming self-righteousness about others’ self-righteousness. Isn’t being lead only by an emotional response and not engaging our critical faculties to explore the scriptural arguments a sin of omission? There is such a thing as the gospel, and there is such a thing as heresy, and each of us must have limits to the generosity of our orthodoxy. If someone has stepped away from the gospel, how do we humbly and graciously seek to understand and correct them?

2. How do we honour our heroes without worshiping them?

The danger of having heroes is that we tend to retreat into our camps. The Paul versus Apollos mindset can easily carry over into a Piper-versus-Wright, or Driscoll-versus-Claiborne division of God’s people. Could it be that all of them have their different strengths and weaknesses? If a Bell bandwagon emerges, how will we remain discerning? I am convinced that only the scriptures are infallible and no matter how talented or persecuted or articulate or critical, all of our heroes have their theological weaknesses. With growing biblical illiteracy, how can we avoid the temptation of letting our heroes do our thinking for us? How can we make sure we have a firm grasp of what the Bible says about a subject rather than just backing our heroes uncritically? How can we graciously disagree without being disloyal?

3. How can we prevent the fire being fuelled?

Gossip and rumours need us to be ruthlessly gracious and graciously ruthless. If we hear something being said about a Christian brother or sister, relating to their orthodoxy or their character, how can we put the fire out quickly? How can we protect our neighbours from false accusations and character assassination? Questions like “are you sure?”, “how do you know?”, “have you spoken to the person concerned about it? , “can I check that out and get back to you?” can go a long way to help us “make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit, the bond of peace”. How can we avoid unhelpful and unflattering caricatures from spreading about those with whom we disagree?

4. How can we seek and speak grace and truth?

There is a danger that for a while all Christians to the right on the evangelical spectrum will be tarred with the anti-Bell brush, while all those on the left get tarred with the Bell-worship brush (guilt by association again), leading to less cooperation. How can we get to a position where we recognize that there may end up being a whole range of views and nuanced positions? How can we be quick to listen and slow to judge? Recognising that none of us are theologically infallible is a good start, but equally none of us are morally infallible either. How can we demonstrate the fruit of the spirit in our conversation – kindness, gentleness, self-control, even when others fail the moral test?


Paul told Timothy to “watch his life and doctrine carefully.” Often “conservatives” focus on Christian truth (doctrine) and the “emergents” focus on Christian character (life) – the Bible says we need both. Therefore we need each other to move towards genuine Christian maturity. We need each other if we are going to work with God’s Spirit on God’s mission for our world. We need to be working shoulder to shoulder to commend the gospel to our nation. How can we speak grace and speak truth? How can we seek grace and seek truth?

It is my prayer that whatever the contents of Rob Bells latest book – that we evangelicals on the right and the left can have gracious and truthful conversation and seek God’s truth together.

Essential Texts for Theological Undergraduates

1. N.T. Wright: The New Testament and the People of God.

Christian Origins and the Question of God v. 1 (Christian Origins & Ques God 1) by N.T. Wright

“A must read introduction to an appropriate methodology for theological / biblical studies”

This is a landmark book providing a brilliant epistemological and methodological foundation for theological an biblical studies. This is the first volume in an incredibly provocative and challenging series. It may well mark NT Wright as the finest theologian of his generation. This book raises some very powerful questions on methodology and provides some intriguing possibilities for apologetic work at the same time.

2. Alister McGrath: Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister E. McGrath

“McGrath provides a masterful historical survey of Christian theology”

McGrath provides us with a whistle stop tour of historical theology. It is fast pace and easy to read providing an excellent map of the terrain. You will never know where McGrath stands on some of the current debates but you do get a masterful survey.

3. Lesslie Newbigin: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society

“Provides a very useful and readable christian epistemology”

This book changed my life. Newbigin’s work provides an incredible mix of theology, philosophy and apologetic reasoning. As an astute cultural critic having spent 40 years in cross cultural mission contexts Newbigin combines both the wisdom of practitioner with the reflection of a scholar. If you only read one book this year….

4. David J. Bosch: Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Orbis

“The best single volume introduction to christian mission”

This is Bosch’s magnum opus. It combines shrewd biblical analysis with historical insight and then a prophetic challenge to postmodern mission. Unmissably good.

5. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary Knowledge

“Vanhoozer provides an excellent engagement with postmodern literary criticism and the possiblity of reading the bible”

If there is only one book you read that engages with the challenge and the opportunities provided by Postmodern literary criticism and the way we read the Bible this should be it. It is surprisingly readable and yet is a no holds barred engagement with the philosophical issues at stake.

6. James K.A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (Church and Postmodern Culture)

“excellent engagement with the postmodern thought from a christian perspective”

Too many books see Postmodernity as the moral enemy of christianity. This book redresses the challenge. With short readable chapters looking for the positive elements of key Postmodern thinkers and their usefulness as dialogue partners with the church.

7. Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians

“a challenging little book about living devotionally and academically”

This book helps theological students to think about the impact of their subject for their own personal relationship with God. Worth the hour it would take to read this one cover to cover.