Review-ish of N. T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope"

This is by far one of my favorite theological/ Christian books ever! I cannot be misunderstood. There is no hyperbole in my statement. This book rocked my world.

I mean, I love C. S. Lewis. "Mere Christianity" changed my life. But if I can be a little blasphemous against Lewis, this book is better. It is better at framing a Christian Worldview and the entirety of the Christian life than the above mentioned. It also clears up the murky waters of Death, Dying and the after-life and what Wright wants to call something like "life after death after life." Basically this is a book about the Ultimate Christian hope (Resurrection into New Creation) and how that hope impacts our lives now! These are the types of questions Lewis sometimes missed on.

I have two critiques. (1) I wish there was more scripture actually quoted. I know the verses he alludes to. I know many more that he doesn't. But more is better when you are challenging 200 years of Dispensationalism and 2000 years of Gnosticism. And (2) His ending is a little scattered and weak. I kind of understand why it is that way, but he could have spent another 5 minutes and made it better. Maybe I am wrong...

Anyways, I am going to be posting some of my review, interaction, favorite quotes from the book in a series that will highlight a couple chapters at a time. I will not highlight every chapter, but I will most. I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 1
Wright describes events, disasters, cultural practices that bring death, and our beliefs about death, to the forefront of our thoughts. With events like 9/11, WWII, tsunamis, hurricanes and the death of beloved celebrities, we expose that our beliefs vary and are extremely far away from Orthodox Christianity. Wright also gives the thesis statement for his whole book, which he dedicates to answer 2 questions that he finds pertinently linked: "First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present" (p. 5). It is our answer to these orthodoxological questions that will shape other orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the greatest way.

Chapter 2 
Wright pointedly makes crystal clear that our theology on heaven, resurrection, the soul and the final things may be the most unclear thing about Christianity. That we have such divergent views and he attributes it to what he calls “Folk Theology.” He gives a very fair share of the blame to Platonism, (e.g. the earth is a shadow of the real heaven/forms of which is our destination). Also in this chapter he gives a more thorough overview of the rest of the book then the one sentence thesis statement in Chapter one. One of the assertions that keeps coming forth is the idea the heaven took center stage in our theology somewhere in the 1800’s and possibly before this we had a resurrection theology. As a Wesleyan, I certainly know that Wesley was optimistic about the future and our role in it (much like Wright speaks now), but also Wesley seemed to shy away from these types of things. I wonder why Heaven took the place of resurrection in this time. Plato had been dead some 2000 years. I wonder if science and manifest destiny brought it about. We were conquering the west; we were running out of land to be explored. And possibly the height of the Enlightenment, and subsequently what Durkheim calls the demystification of the known world, caused the Western World to start dreaming. Dreaming not about new lands or unexplained mysteries here, about another place. Certainly this would also explain a rise in Science fiction and the seeming angel worship of the Victorian Era.

Question for you: What is the ultimate Hope of Christianity? If your answer is "Heaven" you need to buy this book because you would be surprised to know that you are probably wrong as I was...


  1. My hope is not heaven... It's not going to hell!

  2. That's a good hope... I hope you run the race in such a way! :)

  3. Kinda curious to see more more posts on this. Been studying N.T. Wright a lot and listening to scholars talk about him, but still haven't gotten to the primary source yet. But, that being said, N.T. Wright and New Perspectives on Paul movement: justification by faith or justification by works? What is Wright's "ultimate hope of Christianity"?

  4. Jacob, bro, I miss you!

    I would hate to place the debate between Wright and Sproul (Reformed crowd et. al.) into such dichotomous terms such as Justification by faith or by works.

    To my understanding, Wright is trying to use Paul as a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism in understanding justification. The debate is much more complex than even Sproul wants to let on.

    As to your last question, Wright says that the Ultimate hope of the Christian faith is Resurrection as opposed to heaven. This resurrection is a part of the overall mission to redeem creation.

  5. Actually I haven't really been listening to Sproul, or even Piper much on this, because their arguments are essentially for the layman, so they keep it very much at surface level (Sproul's argument is simply that Wright sets up repeated strawmen for the orthodox view. Sproul is simply asking for a single quote of an "Old Perspective" proponent who would put it in terms that Wright puts it, but Sproul doesn't get too involved). D.A. Carson is another guy very opposed to N.T. Wright's new perspective. He's also a good friend of Wright's, and he seems to understand the issue pretty well.

    I've been reading interviews by Wright, and my biggest problem is, I'm still clueless as to how we are justified under Wright's system. He is wholehearted opposed to the imputation of Christ's righteousness. It seems to me that we become Spirit-filled believers, and then are justified by our good works, under Wright's theology. I'm going to get his three book series On Christ, but I'm a little bothered by that concept. I have a number of other issues of Wright's I still haven't gotten good info on:

    1) Believes in corporate salvation, not individual.
    2)Christ did not know he was the Messiah while on earth.
    3)The nuclear bomb or all of Wright's thought, judging by past comments and interviews, I don't think Wright knows how one is saved. (I have sources for this stuff, not just pulling it out of a hat). That's the heart of the gospel, and if he can't give a definitive answer on that, everything he says is worthless.

    You may not have this information for me. It's just stuff I've been trying to figure out. I know it's a lot deeper than Sproul will take it, i.e. exile theory and covenantel nomism of Wright's. I was just curious if you had any insights.

  6. I have written a long response and have tried to post it a thousand times... if it shows up a thousand times, I am going to be embarrassed and mad!

  7. I am going to try to post in parts!

    PART 1:

    Glad you are going deeper... great stuff!

    Wright very specifically says that we are saved by and only by Christ. I am definitely out of the loop as well as I am mostly reading the interplay between Sproul and Wright. Wright says that we're not saved by believing in Justification by faith alone. This idea is awesome and meant to be shocking. Sproul certainly was shocked. And Wright is right.

    Sproul then says that it is a strawman; which it may be. He says that he doesn't know a single person who ever said that we are saved by believing in Justification by faith alone. Sproul might also be technically right.

    But Sproul's own words in his own book on Justification says this: "Since the Reformation the doctrine of sola fide has been the defining doctrine of evangelical Christianity. It has functioned as a normative doctrine because it has been understood as essential to the gospel itself. Without sola fide one does not have the gospel; and without the gospel one does not have the Christian faith. When an ecclesiastical communion rejects sola fide, as Rome did at the Council of Trent, it ceases being a true church, no matter how orthodox it may be in other matters." - Justification by Faith Alone (2010) p.12

    how much trust and faith does he places in the doctrine? Churches and people who don't subscribe to the doctrine are now out... All of Catholicism is out? Non-creedal denominations are out?

    I am ignorant when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the argument, but certainly I recognize one thing, that scripture is not one-dimensional in the answer to this question. That faith in Christ is absolutely necessary, yes, but it is not magic. God does what God wants.

    As to your other issues with Wright, I think you are reducing the depth of what he is saying. As to the corporate salvation, I have read a few books of his and twice as many articles. Surely I have never come across a section that rules out individual salvation. He does, many times, remove the spotlight from the individual salvation as not as important as resurrection, faith communities, and redemption of creation as a whole (humans included) towards the end of new heaven and new earth which is all very biblical, but the individual act is only part of the whole and should never be the end goal. We aren't "winning souls" but being transformed into new creation. In "surprised by Hope," he gives evangelization tips towards individuals, but always as a invitation to follow Christ and join the body.

  8. PART 2:

    As to the Messiah understanding issue. I have only read one piece that really deals with this. What I heard him say was that Jesus probably didn't understand himself to be GOD as the second person of the trinity as we have assumed especially in terms that enlightenment has forced upon us. He said that Jesus certainly saw himself as the fulfillment of the Israel's scripture, as messiah, and as doing what only God could do, "Jesus believed he was Israel’s Messiah, the one in whom Israel’s history was to be summed up. Jesus believed he would win the messianic victory over the real enemy and would build the true messianic temple through taking Israel’s fate upon himself and going to the cross. Jesus believed that in doing so he was not just pointing to or talking about, but was actually embodying, the return of YHWH to Zion. These, though striking and startling, emerge from the world of Second Temple Judaism like the flower growing suddenly out of the plant."
    - Wright, "Jesus and the identity of God"
    The whole essay can be found here:
    (If this article doesn't blow you away in goodness, then we are on different pages. Notes: It is long and Wright very much ascribes to the historical-critical method which sometimes paints apologetics in a different light, arguing from history rather than text while using text).

    Again, as to the salvation issue... I haven't read a whole lot, but I do know that he thinks salvation is only possible through Jesus. The "how people are saved" is Jesus. Here is a youtube video of him talking about his book:

    Ultimately, I have no problem with defending orthodoxy. In fact, I think it is a vocation that the church needs to remember. I do have a problem with defending super-narrow definitions of orthodoxy. That when someone declares suspicion on medieval or reformation doctrine he or she is automatically lost from Christianity forever. Orthodoxy was around before Reformation. The reformation is a product of its culture as well. As long as someone is arguing from scripture and stays within bounds of the accepted creeds ending with the Rule of Faith intact, we should give them an ear. Not accept necessarily but not banish either.

    Blessings! Hopefully that article restores some faith in Wright! ;)

  9. PART 3:

    In my continued research after writing the above, I came across this summarizing article. I hope it is clarifying and not creating more mud to sift through:

    If the links don't show up, you may have to copy and paste; sorry.

  10. [From my brother, Jacob! - PART 1:]

    I definitely haven't given up on Wright. I still believe he is a born again Christian.

    I think the debate taking place is very good. I think Wright has some very good things to say, and some very bad things to say, but, in reality, we are fallen, so who doesn't fall under that criteria?

    I think Wright's hermeneutic is top notch. We need to stop reading Scripture with our 16th century or 20th century (where I'd fault Barth), or 21st century glasses on. We need to get back to the first century and read Scripture with a truly historical understanding.

    I think a lot of the flack that Wright is getting is based off of who he is associating with, which I agree, is a little problematic. He accepts many of E.P. Sanders' premises regarding 1st century Judaism. Sanders was a NT scholar at Duke, and is an atheist. Accepting an atheist's premise regarding Scripture in and of itself isn't wrong, but it is certainly suspect. Personally, Sanders'/Jimmy Dunn's, and by extension, Wright's rejection of the concept that 1st century Jews didn't believe in works righteousness is bull in my opinion. I think there are so many verses that have to be explained away in order to hold up that paradigm (many of these are found in the book of Ephesians, which is why Dunn rejects Ephesians as being authentic).

    Regarding the Sproul/Wright issue, I would say both sides have good points. Sproul is right that no theologian would assert this, Wright is right in saying that we are saved by faith in Christ, not faith in justification by faith alone. One point that I'd fault Sproul on in that quote you gave is that he is too weak in his communication. He has said it in much harsher terms at other times. The Council of Trent didn't simply reject Sola Fide, they determined the teaching of Sola Fide to be heretical. It wasn't simply rejected, it wasn't allowed to be taught. I tend to think that Wright is minimizing the divide between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

  11. [From Jacob - PART 2:]

    Here is what Wright has said that has made my hair stand up on the back of my neck. I think Wright tends to focus so much on his scholarship that he divorces himself from reality. Wright gave a lecture at Cambridge University entitled "Justification: Can We Finally Get It Right?" What a juicy title, that would draw any Christian to that lecture! (This story courtesy of D.A. Carson. ITunes U, search D.A. Carson, seminar series entitled "The New Perspective on Paul". I recommend, can be pretty technical at times). When the question and answer time arrived, Peter Bolt stood up and gave a little background before answering the question. He said,"It’s the middle of the night and the phone rings. An old lady in your parish calls and lets you know that she only has a few minutes to live and that she’s scared. You drive to her house. At her house the doctor tells you that she surely only has about 10 minutes to live. She asks you, 'What must I do to be saved?' What do you say?" Now this should be the simplest answer in all of Christendom. What was Wright's response?

    "That's a good question; I'll have to think about that."

    To quote Carson: "You are not playing around with something peripheral but with something that’s near the heart of the gospel!"

    So that frightens me when it comes to Wright and clearly he has some issues to resolve. Romans 10 makes the answer so simple and clear. That's what I was speaking of regarding corporate salvation. According to Carson, "Wright elevates ecclesiology above soteriology." Robert Cara, PhD, who has heard Wright speak on my occasions has said that if you ask right about individual salvation, he'll stop you in your tracks and essentially question your question. (ITunes U, search Robert J. Cara, lecture series entitled "Acts and Romans". Overall not a great lecture series, too broad, but gives a really good analysis of the New Perspectives Movement, so I'd recommend those lectures).

    I think a big problem with Wright, that he could easily fix and solve many issues, he is just too vague. He'll get done discussing a topic and the scholars are left not sure about what he believes. He dances around many issues rather than diving in. He needs to be straight forward.

    Now you know how I'm very big on the inerrancy of Scripture. Wright calls inerrancy "that stupid American doctrine." So you know he loses a few brownie points in my eyes for that haha.

    I think the only solution for anyone at this point, scholar or layman, is to read Wright himself and compare it to Scripture. If anything, Wright will challenge Christians and make them think about what they believe, something the American church desperately needs.

    Keep up the good work Jaymes, looking forward to seeing you in December.

  12. Ok... so it seems you have many problems with Wright. I get it. And I think you understand yourself well: That there are a lot of peripheral, smaller things that make you cringe. These combined with his ambiguity cast a shadow of doubt.

    Some things that I have a problem with in your response.

    (1) you seem to base your opinion about him on the doctrine you perceive he has. One of the biggest problems you have is that he is mysterious and ambiguous with his doctrine. THIS whole paradigm where Christians judge each other based on these doctrines seems to be exactly what he is trying to avoid and correct in Christendom. As you know, Christians are diverse and have many nuanced beliefs. "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” seems to characterize the intent. If we base our essentials on creeds and not fundamentalism... we can get along. You don't agree with all of Augustine, all of Luther and all of Calvin and these were some of the most genius men ever.

    So, to judge whether or not someone is "born again" based on reformation doctrines seems to be counter-productive and exactly what Wright is trying to move away from.

    (2) You said, "I think the only solution for anyone at this point, scholar or layman, is to read Wright himself and compare it to Scripture." In comparing Wright's answer to the question about the old woman, I think he expresses Jesus well. Jesus is asked 2 times to his face what we need to do to be saved. Both times (Rich young ruler and a Lawyer just before the good Samaritan parable) Jesus appeals directly to the Law and not faith at all. Now, I am not trying to move away from justification by faith, but any soteriology that tries to incorporate this into its interpretation without completely dismissing it, favoring one passage of others, is going to look different than what has been said.

    If we are honest (or I am just an idiot) I can say that Paul couldn't be clearer about what how to receive salvation. But Jesus, he is much more ambiguous and mysterious.

    (3) Also, I think there is a huge debate going on about what faith (pistis) actually means and what Paul actually meant by it. Is it faith? Is it faithfulness? Faithfulness by whom? Us? Jesus? Is faith merely belief? Does it incorporate trust? What does that look like? Does faith require works to be maintained? The answer to these questions will shape the debate. Pistis has taken center stage for many folks and is integral for this conversation.

    Good stuff all around! I love how much you study. I love your heart for the Lord. I wish it allowed for more grace and mystery, as you probably wish I was much more discerning and not wrong ;).

    Thanks brother... can't wait to hang out!

    A million blessings!


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Garageband Tricks: 3/4 Drum loops and low volume exporting!

My Commentary on 1 John 4:7-12

The Brilliance - Oh Gracious Light