N. T. Wright. Evil And the Justice of God. InterVarsity Press, 2006.
N.T. Wright, the British New Testament theologian and Anglican bishop, has become a bit of an industry. We may note this simply in how this rather slight book (less than 170 pages of text with generous white space throughout) found release in hardback and remains unavailable in paperback. Wright has continued to crank out books of this size and scope in great numbers while presumably also readying the next massive volume in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series (supposedly on the writings of Paul).
In spite of (or is it because of?) his extraordinary productivity, Wright almost always has worthwhile things to say–he certainly does in Evil and the Justice of God. We may wonder how much more useful and insightful his contribution addressing the important issues he takes up in this book might be had he spent more time on it. But we can be thankful for what we have.
The core of this book, and Wright’s distinctive contribution to thought on the problem of evil, is his chapter on Jesus’ crucifixion and how that provides a framework for Christian understanding of evil and of God’s response. I greatly appreciate Wright’s summary of the core theme of the Bible (“the entire Old Testament…hangs like an enormous door on a small hinge, namely the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12,” p. 46)–that God’s is working in a long-suffering way consistent with God’s just love to bring healing in the face of human evil. Jesus’ life that led to his crucifixion and God’s vindication of this life by raising Jesus from the dead tells us what we need to know about God’s creative work in the face of evil and what God expects from people of faith as their role in this work.
I like Wright’s theology a great deal. I like that as a biblical scholar he is informed and bold concerning the big theological themes and perfectly willing to address them. And address them he does, doing so in a way that keeps the biblical message at the center. He expresses a strong commitment to the Bible’s message of shalom. If he’s not quite a full-blown pacifist and social and political radical, he’s generally close enough (despite some irritating brief seemingly pro forma digs at various expressions of “liberalism” in the early part of the book when he is setting out our current cultural setting for addressing the themes of the book).
I do have one significant concern, though. In reading much of what Wright has published and in listening to him speak several times, I am left with the impression that while working very hard (and largely successfully) at placing prophetic biblical concerns at the center of his theology, he still does remain a bit of a Constantinian. That is, for Wright, the church retains a sort of ontological privilege in his schema of salvation history. I would think that someone as immersed in the recovery of the prophetic message of the Bible would recognize how far Christendom departed from the agenda of biblical prophets (from Moses to John of Patmos). The community gathered around Torah in the Old Testament and the messianic assembly in the New Testament both stand in judgment of the church.
Certainly, Christians have the calling to work within their communities to recover and embody the biblical message of shalom and to fulfill the calling of Abraham’s descendants to bless all the families of the earth. However, the church as an institution has long ago forfeited its standing as the steward of this message. Wright’s sanguine assumptions about the church as the center of God’s work in the world weaken his arguments about the tasks followers of the biblical God face in embodying God’s justice in our present time.