This past Tuesday evening I had the opportunity to attend the annual Jackson Lecture at Southern Methodist University where well-known author and Bible scholar N.T. Wright was this year’s guest speaker.
Dr. Wright is the chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the School of Divinity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and most would agree his voice is shaping much of current Christian theological discussion. “The Jesus We Never Knew” was the title of his lecture on Tuesday and much of what he had to say was both encouraging and thought-provoking.
The lecture’s title suggests Jesus may be different than we have thought Him to be, and Dr. Wright took more than an hour to portray Jesus in a way that challenged traditional western assumptions about Jesus’ story and place in history. You may be able to find the lecture on www.smu.edu/perkins, or do a YouTube search for N.T. Wright and you’ll find all sorts of interesting videos. Here’s a short one of him.
One of the things Dr. Wright touched on was the assumed dichotomy between history and faith, between those who pursue God intellectually and those who pursue Him experientially. Some people want to prove the Biblical Jesus through a study of the first century; others “know” Jesus to be real because they have experienced him in worship or in prayer. Of course, both pursuits have their place. Both are important. Our study of God, whether in history or in theory, is only half of the equation. It needs the application of God to life. We need to consider not only what we know about God but also how we experience Him. It’s a false dichotomy.
Study, experience, history, faith, knowledge, compassion, research, application . . . all of these are important. We can’t merely study and not apply. Nor can we apply just anything. Study should produce application, and application should come from good study. In attempting to draw conclusions about a particular issue, history and tradition should be considered; however, consideration also should be given to the effect of particular conclusions on the experience of life from day to day. To the current debate currently both sides are important.
After Dr. Wright’s encouragement and admonition on Tuesday evening, on Wednesday I listened to a podcast on which a guy defending the traditional view of hell was interviewed. The guy debated with the podcast host and presented a Biblical case for belief in eternal conscious torment, and I thought much of what he had to say was important to the overall conversation on this topic. That eternal conscious torment has been, and is, the majority view, it should be considered and discussed, and I appreciated this guy’s perspective.
Near the end of the podcast, the host posed a question related to the tone of the debate surrounding hell and asked his guest what encouragement he would give to people related to the way they should approach such debate. I’ve listened to this podcast before and the host has asked a similar question of other guests as he tries to soften the tone of the overall conversation regarding hell, encouraging people to discuss graciously and hold their convictions with humility. Maybe this particular guest misunderstood the question or its intent, but his response was, “Make the conversation unrelentingly Biblical.”
I suppose that’s reasonable encouragement (we do want the debate surrounding hell to center on Scripture) but on the heels of N.T. Wright’s lecture on Tuesday evening I felt like it was missing half of the false dichotomy. The pursuit of God, whether related to the discussion of hell or to any other issue, is not merely one of Biblical study. Godliness, and even correctness of belief, does not come only from a greater understanding of the Biblical text through a study of the original languages, the culture in first century Palestine, or the beliefs of the early church. Godliness also comes through an attempt to apply our Biblical study in a godly manner, to discuss with a gracious and compassionate tone. We must give careful attention not only to the beliefs that we hold but also to the way we hold them.
In that regard, I hope my discussion surrounding hell works to bring harmony to this false dichotomy and is a helpful and constructive part of the overall conversation.
At least that’s what I was reminded of and encouraged toward and challenged by this week. I hope it’s a helpful encouragement for you as well.
Because whatever position we hold on hell, I think we all believe the gospel is good news.
Really good news, really.
Back to a study of Christian history next week . . . and also to its application.