NT Wright, mission, and the big red balloon
It appears to be a core theme of Tom Wright’s Simply Christian that the mission of God - and therefore of the people of God - is to rescue the world and put it to rights. The Bible, he says, tells the story of a ‘good creator longing to put the world back into the good order for which it was designed’; it is the story of what the ‘one creator God has been doing to rescue his beautiful world and to put it to rights’ (40, 41); it is the story of how the ‘creator God is rescuing the creation from its rebellion, brokenness, corruption and death’ (159). Following the thorough-going collapse of human society depicted in Genesis 1-11, Wright argues, God calls Abraham and his descendants, ‘somehow, to be the means of God putting things to rights, the spearhead of God’s rescue operation’ (64); and what Abraham sees in his mind’s eye is this world restored to peace and justice:
But Israel failed to keep its side of the bargain with YHWH, so Wright asks, ‘what happens when the lifeboat which sets off to rescue the wrecked ship is itself trapped between the rocks and the waves, itself in need of rescue?’
My question is whether this metaphor of a ‘lifeboat’ properly captures the ‘missional’ purpose of the people of God as they have inherited, first by birth, then by faith, the promise to Abraham. Yes, the original creation, the macrocosm, is like a wrecked ship - or at least a ship whose wilful, belligerent crew has mutinied, thrown its captain overboard, and set off on some madcap and destructive venture of its own devising. And yes, the ship of Israel certainly runs into trouble, because it is subject to the same power of sin, and is in need of rescuing. But was the original missional intention that by means of the lifeboat of Israel the wrecked or wayward vessel of human society would be rescued and put back on course? It seems to me more accurate to say that God built the much smaller ship of Israel to be a ‘new creation’, a manageable microcosm, set apart from the world, which through obedience to the Law would hold fast to the purpose of the original creation.
There is nothing in the promise to Abraham that suggests that God intended to rescue or transform the world through him and his descendants. His family would potentially transmit the creational blessing to the nations, but does that entail the rescue of the nations? Or is it something more like a priestly function - the nations only experience the blessing of the creator indirectly, through the mediating role of the people of God? Isn’t this, after all, the implication of YHWH’s words to Moses, echoed in the New Testament by Peter, that Israel would be a ‘kingdom of priests and a holy nation’ (Ex. 19:6; cf. 1 Pet. 2:9)? We should not overlook the fact, moreover, that the family of Abraham may also mediate a curse to the nations.
What we have in the story of Abraham and his descendants is not a mission to rescue or transform the world or put it to rights but the creation of an alternative humanity in the midst of the nations of the earth, a people that will be for YHWH’s own possession when all the other nations have rejected him in favour of their own manufactured gods (cf. Ex. 19:5; Ps. 135:4-5). It becomes part of the story of that people that it is redeemed from the oppressive clutches of the world - that is the significance of the Exodus; and when the microcosm breaks down, it needs to be rescued or saved from destruction by nations that have become not the recipients of blessing but mortal enemies. That is the story of Jesus; and one of the more or less unforeseen consequences of this decisive rescue of the microcosm is that Gentiles are permitted on board the ship. It is in this sense that the seed of Abraham, as Paul maintains in Romans 4:13, inherits the whole earth - so that, as Wright likes to say, the whole world becomes God’s holy land.
The long-term outcome of all this, however, is not the eventual or progressive rescue of the world, as such - certainly not in the sense that Brian McLaren seems to envisage in Everything Must Change. There is no vision of the whole earth being brought under the kingship of God. Wright argues that the book of Daniel ‘emphasizes the undying hope that the whole world will somehow be brought to order under the kingship of the one creator God, YHWH, the God of Abraham’ (69). But I think this is mistaken. The message of Daniel is that YHWH will defeat, indeed destroy, the monstrous imperial powers that threaten Israel, will vindicate the righteous who remain true to the covenant even at the cost of their lives, and will establish an everlasting reign over his people in the place of their oppressors. But I don’t see that this amounts to the whole world being brought to order under the kingship of YHWH. The sovereignty of God is expressed not in the rescue of the nations so that they become havens of peace and justice but in his righteous action on behalf of his people.
This nuance is captured in a later statement: ‘The church exists… for what we sometimes call "mission": to announce to the world that Jesus is its Lord’ (emphasis added). But then Wright elaborates upon this:
In general terms I suppose one shouldn’t really quibble with this. If the world becomes a better place because the church announces that Jesus is its Lord, then who am I to complain? But as a matter of biblical interpretation and perhaps of missional orientation, this seems to me misleading. Neither in Judea nor in the Greek-Roman world did the announcement of that ‘good news’ transform people and societies’. Rather it lead to the formation of an alternative people and society that had a hard enough time preserving its own righteousness.
I went out today and bought my wife a big, red, heart-shaped, helium-filled balloon for Valentine’s Day. It says ‘Kiss Me!’ in big letters. (Hopefully she won’t read this before tomorrow, otherwise it won’t be much of a surprise!) The church has sometimes imagined that it is a big, red, heart-shaped balloon whose purpose is to get bigger and bigger until it fills all available space - and the whole world is put to rights. My argument would be that the purpose of the balloon is less ambitious than that - simply to float there in the middle of the room, well-inflated, shiny, true to itself, bearing a message of love, and visible to all as a blessing and as a benchmark of righteousness. Size is not really the issue: it is the quality and visibility of the balloon, this embodiment by grace of God’s creational purpose, that matters.
There is, of course, a lot more to take into consideration than can be covered in this post, but it seems to me that this way of thinking holds true pretty well for scripture as a whole. So for example, I would argue that what we find in Isaiah is not the ‘idea of God coming to the rescue, on the one hand, and of God completing creation and putting it to rights, on the other hand’ (40). It is the idea of God rescuing the microcosm of Israel and putting it to rights in a way that will have a profound impact on the nations, bringing judgment on Israel’s enemies, on the one hand, and eliciting amazement and tribute, on the other. But it is Israel, not the world, which is transformed, which is imagined as creation made new.
When Isaiah says that the messiah will judge the poor with righteousness, decide with equity for the meek of the land, strike the land with the rod of his mouth, and destroy the wicked (Is. 11:4), what he has in mind is not a universal reign which will ‘bring peace, justice and a completely new harmony to the whole creation’ (74) but the judgment and restoration of Israel. That act of justice, rescue and rule will make Israel a sign to the nations (11:10), or a light to the nations (42:6; 49:6; 60:3), in a way which I think is best captured in the idea of a ‘prophetic church’. In that sense the church embodies in itself, in its own life, a ‘vision of peace and hope’ for the world, but this does not entail the sort of worldwide transformation that Wright appears to have in mind.
The Bible on the whole is not especially sanguine about the fate of the macrocosm. There is always the possibility of people being redeemed from the corrupt, violent, unjust, immoral and idolatrous world and becoming part of the microcosm; but there is no prospect, as far as I can see, of the world as a whole being put to rights. In the end, the old creation must flee away before the throne of God’s final judgment on humanity, and a new heaven and new earth must be made before those deep biblical hopes for justice and peace are fulfilled. This cannot really be characterized as the rescue of the foundering ship of God’s creation. That ship has sunk without trace, and a completely new one has been made.