Nathaniel's First Theological Conference

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This weekend I trekked down to Wheaton for a conference entitled “NT Wright: Jesus, Paul, and the People of God.” It was my first ever theological conference, and I strongly suspect not my last. And it was awesome. It truly blew my mind.

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I have to confess, some of it was probably the celebrity factor. It was awesome and inspiring just to be in the same room with such great theological minds. There was an eerie similarity between the name tags of the speakers and high rollers and the names on bookspines on my shelf.

But the talks really spoke to the sorts of theological questions I have been wrestling with. This isn't entirely surprising. Bishop Wright is one of my heroes, and was probably a key influence on many of the others at the conference as well. We're reading similar books, we're formed by a similar context, and so we're asking similar questions.

The first day's lectures focused on Bishop Wright's contribution to historical Jesus studies. In this field, his contribution has been nothing short of miraculous. For the past century or so, academic scholarship has basically operated under the assumption that Jesus cannot have done most of the things attributed to him by the Evangelists. Wright has been able to argue credibly and compellingly that the Jesus we see in the Gospels is a credible historical figure, and not merely an invention of the early church.

The second day's lectures focused on Bishop Wright's contribution to Pauline studies. He has been a key proponent and articulator of the so-called “New Perspective” on Paul. But the “new perspective” is actually a return to an older, more common sense perspective. Wright has merely reminded us that Paul should be read as a first century Jew answering first century Jewish questions. This should be the natural way to read him. Ironically, however, Reformation theology has distorted our reading of Paul. We scour Paul for answers to Reformation questions, like “How is man justified?” Paul is interested in this question only incidentally. He is more concerned with unpacking the implications of what God has done in Israel.

Bishop Wright’s reading of Paul has naturally ruffled some feathers, especially in Reformed circles. But I feel that by the end of this conference, there was some remuneration between Bishop Wright and his critics.

One key theme that emerged from the weekend was ecclesiology – the nature of the Church. I was both surprised and pleased by the number of words that addressed the topic. In this culture, we have a huge problem with individualism, and individualism has infected our understanding of the Church. Many American Christians have a strictly functional ecclesiology: we go to church because we like the music, the preaching, or the programs, or because we are imperfect Christians and we need the accountability. This is neither a realistic nor Biblical picture of the Church. As long as churches are populated with human beings, they are ultimately going to be frustrating and difficult environments. If our commitment to the Church is functional rather than theological, eventually we will stop going when (inevitably) our church demonstrates its lack of functionality. Yet what does the Bible say? Paul repeatedly stresses the unity of the body of Christ; and not chiefly as an abstract communion of believers, but as a concrete and gathered group. Hebrews warns us not to forsake the assembly. Most importantly, Jesus' instructions in the Upper Room discourse in John indicate a high metaphysical value for the church, and his symbolic reconstitution of Israel likewise situates God's saving action amongst a particular, discrete people.

Over the past generation, we have been horribly remiss in correcting this trend. This is partially social-cultural, but it also has to do with how we've framed justification and evangelism: it's about YOU and GOD. “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” as Spiritual Law #1 puts it. Right relationship between man and God is of course important, but if this is not made manifest in healing relationships with others and with the world, we have missed a serious part of the Gospel. We need to recapture the corporate and cosmic consequences of redemption as they are manifest in the Body of Christ.

I am always tempted to call this problem an “evangelical” problem. But there I was at Wheaton College, the “Evangelical Vatican,” and I found leading evangelicals saying basically the same thing that I have been saying. Nicholas Perrin (a professor at Wheaton) basically came out and said “Ecclesiology = Soteriology (how we are saved).” Jeremy Begbie gave a whole talk on how Bishop Wright is shaping ecclesiology in the emerging church, and what points we should pay closer attention to. And NT Wright himself pointed out that in Paul's letters the UNITY of the Church is a central theme in God's ongoing work in the world. It is a view of the Church nearly as catholic as my own.

Unfortunately, the Sacraments remained largely undiscussed. In my view, the Sacraments are at least important, if not vital, in encountering the prevailing gnosticism, deism, and individualism of our culture. The embodiment of Sacrament calls us back to our own embodiment, the embodiment of our Incarnate Lord, and the embodiment of the Body of Christ in the Church. But, on the plus side, there's a fruitful theological career hiding in that omission. Wherever God calls me, I'm sure it's a question I will continue to work on.

For anyone with the interest and patience, the MP3s are soon to be available online at and I would highly recommend listening to some of the talks.

In the end, this conference, as well as the New Wineskins Missions conference last weekend, has done a lot to clarify my sense of direction and vocation. God willing, I'll be writing more on this in the next few weeks; although I've hit the crunch time for the semester, so we'll see how much I manage to put down.

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