June 2010: BR: "After You Believe" by N.T. Wright

There has been a fundamental disconnect in the presentation of what Christianity is all about: obtaining salvation and the ultimate reward for the believer are often emphasized, while precious little has been reinforced regarding the Christian life that is to exist between those two events.

Part of this disconnect exists because of the fundamental unease that can be felt when it comes to talking about the life of the Christian. The Reformation premise of "faith only" salvation has to come to terms with the fact that the New Testament is replete with comment on how Christians must diligently strive toward holiness. The matter becomes more complicated when it comes to consequences of disobedience among Christians when so many in Protestantism believe in some variant of "once saved, always saved." This leads to a parting of the ways, with some returning to the New Testament way of speaking and making exhortations to obedience, willing to cast aside whatever qualms that they may feel regarding their theological claims, and others willing to remain theologically consistent and therefore declaring that God is the only or the most active Actor in the sanctification of the believer.

This disputation has existed ever since Augustine, let alone the Reformers, and it has taken on new urgency in our day. In the midst of all of this disputation, N.T. Wright has continued to further explicate his view of the Christian faith with After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.

The development of thought in After You Believe is heavily indebted to Wright's previous works, including the series on Christian Origins and the Question of God and especially his Surprised by Hope and Justification. Looking back to Jesus and His work in the first century, and looking forward to the redemption of creation and the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in the resurrection and the new heavens and earth, Wright attempts to re-establish a Biblical view of the Christian life.

Wright establishes the conversation between two poles of thought: Christianity as a set of rules vs. Christianity as the "natural" and "authentic" intuitive life. He takes what is commendable from each and wraps it in a more commendable and coherent whole, focused on "virtue" and "character."

In short, After You Believe is N.T. Wright's attempt to justify a specifically Christian form of virtue that is to be developed and lived by those who are redeemed by Jesus and who are participating in His "fresh work" in the Kingdom (Wright loves everything "fresh"). He uses the recent efforts by Captain Sullenberger in the landing of the plane in the Hudson River as an example of virtue: being able to do exactly what is necessary because of proper training and understanding. The model of Aristotelian virtue is used throughout, with necessary and significant modification in its Christian form (which Wright takes to be the "ultimate" end of virtue, the reality of that which the pagan Greeks saw dimly, the ability to be truly human).

This view is commendable: it makes the best sense of what Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and others are attempting to inculcate in Christians in the New Testament. Wright explains the existence of rules and yet demonstrates how Christianity is not all about rules-- the rules are there, they are important boundary markers, bu this is not the same endeavor as the reviled and condemned Pharisees and lawyers. The goal is not to just follow the rules for rule-following's sake but instead to have developed the type of character where one is following the rules without having to be conscious of it. Wright does similar things with the other pole-- the goal of believers is to live authentically Christian lives, but that requires the development of a second nature, because what "feels natural" to the believer is likely of the world and really sinful. This fits perfectly with the picture of Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:17-24, and Hebrews 5:14, among other passages.

Wright shows how this virtue is both individual and communal and the importance of the body of Christ-- a functional church. He posits a circle of virtue, including Scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices-- all necessary for developing the virtuous Christian life. Much is made of the eschatological perspective set forth more fully in Surprised by Hope but explained a little in After You Believe, and Wright shows how this view of virtue and character, rooted in the idea of the "royal priesthood" of Exodus 19 and Christianized in 1 Peter 2, integrates with his eschatology. He also demonstrates how the problem of sin is more than just an issue of transgression but also a failure of being truly human-- sin dehumanizes and degrades, while righteousness leads to true humanity. He attempts to present a more Biblical view of the Christian life with as few transgressions of orthodox Protestantism as possible.

The book does pose some difficulties. His attempt to render arguments regarding the form of baptism as irrelevant is disappointing and all too Anglican. Wright remains wedded to the faith only position, and many of the challenges from which he attempts to extricate himself would not exist if the New Testament understanding of obedient faith were properly held. His explanation of 1 Corinthians 13 certainly sounds very wonderful and high, but I am not quite sold on love being the "perfect (neuter) thing" when it would properly be the "perfect (feminine) thing." His attempts to justify the continued existence of faith and hope after the resurrection continue to seem to run afoul of Romans 8:24-25.

Wright does not intend to provide all the answers or discuss all matters in this book, and there are many questions that will hopefully be addressed at some time. There are two particular matters that stick out to me.

First of all is this insistence of understanding the Christian life in terms of virtue as defined by Aristotle et al. I understand that Wright is trying to establish a larger conversation with both Christian theologians and virtue ethicists, but I am not sure about the wisdom of attempting to define what the New Testament is trying to teach in terms of the pagan virtue tradition. This is not an attempt to reject the substance of what Wright is saying about Christian virtue and character, but more a question of the best way of presenting what it is that the New Testament is teaching. As Wright himself establishes, arete, the Greek word used in such conversations about "virtue," is rare in the New Testament. Wright must constantly be "correcting" and clarifying the true view of virtue as opposed to what Aristotle and others were saying about "virtue."

As one who holds fairly strongly to the view that the best way to talk about what God teaches in the Bible is to use the Biblical descriptions, I look with suspicion on the enterprise as established. I have no doubt that if Paul wanted to explicitly contribute or re-direct the pagan virtue tradition discussion, he could have easily done so. Perhaps that is part of what he is doing in many of the passages that Wright notes, but it seems a bit too subtle. I am concerned that we enter dangerous territory when we attempt to use pagan Greek perspectives and try to Christianize them-- not a few false doctrines have begun and have been perpetuated because such was done. Instead I would be more interested in seeing how one could present a coherent explanation of the expected character development of the Christian in purely Biblical terms-- perhaps based on discipleship, or even the "royal priesthood" imagery that Wright cites.

The second matter involves the process of maturity. I again believe that Wright is mostly on the correct track when it comes to Christianity as involving the development of virtue/character. But this seems to be based, at least partly, in maturity, as Hebrews 5:14 would indicate:

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

What shall we say, then, to those who are not yet mature, who are still working on training their powers of discernment? Wright speaks about the discomfort and the felt hypocrisy of trying to develop the proper "second nature," but I wonder if part of the reason for the "rules" in Christianity is to assist those who are younger in the faith in understanding what is and what is not to be done in order to help develop that character. This is consistent with how small children are trained-- we tell them what to do and not to do to make sure that their behavior is consistent with the values we are attempting to inculcate, and as they grow and develop, we explain the inner logic of those rules and hope that they become part of their character.

In short-- can we expect those who are spiritually small children to be able to properly develop the Christian character without early insistence on the "rules" as they are growing and developing in the faith? Paul manifestly recognizes that certain issues and matters will cause shipwreck of faith if they are introduced before the proper level of maturity is obtained (1 Corinthians 8)-- is this not true with the entire conversation about rules and character development? When the worldly character of people is carnal, an attempt to do whatever can be done without consequence, is there not a need to have some fixity in guidelines to provide proper direction until the proper spiritual perspective and character is developed?

These questions should not detract from the overall excellence of After You Believe. The book will provide many challenges to traditional Protestant and Evangelical theology; nevertheless, those who tend toward legalistic views will find little comfort. It is a book worth considering in (what should be) our attempt toward developing a better balance between legalism and antinomianism in the Christian life.

Ethan R. Longhenry
  • jlmanager
    Thanks for the review. Good points.
    by jlmanager at 06/28/10 7:21PM