Does Tom Wright Believe in the Second Coming?

Tom Wright (a.k.a N. T. Wright) is a brilliant theologian and biblical scholar, who has shaken up many people’s assumptions about what the Bible actually teaches. He is especially well known for arguing that the Bible teaches a renewed earth, instead of our “going to heaven.” And he has attempted to redefine our interpretation of “justification” in Paul’s writings, by paying attention to first-century Judaism instead of reading later ideas back into Paul.

What makes Wright so interesting is that he affirms (and models) that it is possible to come up with new ideas and fresh interpretations of Scripture while standing firmly in the non-negotiable tradition of classic, orthodox Christianity.

This is not the place to comment on his view of justification (it’s not my expertise). And I have already indicated (in an earlier post) my basic agreement with his ideas of a renewed earth. Here I want just to clarify one point of his eschatology that is often misunderstood.

The need to clarify this point arose when I was writing my book on eschatology (A New Heaven and a New Earth), especially as I read those who were misinterpreting Wright.

Wright’s Preterism

Like most biblical scholars today (including myself), Wright affirms what is sometimes called a “preterist” position in relation to much biblical prophecy. Preterism is related to the grammatical term “preterite,” which refers to the past tense. So a preterite understanding of prophecy would say that the prophet was speaking about events in his own context (which is now past to us) and not referring explicitly to some distant future (the way prophecy is typically taken in dispensationalism).

For example, Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 was originally addressed to the court of faithless King Ahaz, and “the young woman” who would bear a son was either the prophet’s wife (mentioned in 8:3) or a member of the royal court (I lean towards the latter; note that “the young woman” suggests he is pointing at someone). In the original context, the royal son is probably Hezekiah, who is a sign of hope for besieged Judah.

Later, Matthew applies this prophecy typologically to Jesus (Matthew 1:23), in the context of another faithless Judahite ruler, King Herod, thus drawing a significant parallel between the crisis of the eighth century and his own day, where the birth of Jesus is the new and decisive sign of Immanuel (God-with-us).

Now, Wright is famous for being a preterist when it comes to interpreting the Olivet discourse, the dire predictions of the “end” of the world that Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives (in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21). So he interprets the signs in the heavens, including the sun and moon being darkened, the stars falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven being shaken (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24-25; Luke 21:25-26) as a picturesque way of referring to momentous historical events (the Roman-Jewish war and the fall of Jerusalem).

Wright often cites the Jewish historian Josephus, who used similar language to describe these events.

But Wright also has good Old Testament precedent. As chap. 6 (“The Coming of God in Judgment and Salvation”) of my new eschatology book tries to show, OT judgment theophanies use extreme language of cosmic shaking to refer to what are clearly historical/political events of the time.

In the case of the Olivet discourse, most biblical scholars also think that a preterist interpretation works for much of what Jesus says there. But Wright thinks it applies to everything Jesus says there; according to Wright, Jesus isn’t referring at all to what we usually mean by the Parousia or the Second Coming.

What About the Second Coming?

This doesn’t mean Wright thinks the Bible never refers to the climactic return of Jesus to judge the world and usher in the kingdom of God in all its fullness. Otherwise, how could he be famous for teaching a doctrine of cosmic redemption, that God’s plan is to bring about “a new heaven and a new earth”?

Well, one way would be if language about “a new heaven and a new earth” was just a picturesque way to speak about momentous historical events (as it arguably is in Isaiah 65:17-25; but not, I think, in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1).

And there is, indeed, one stream of preterist interpretation in contemporary evangelical theology known as full or consistent preterism that assumes that no biblical prophecies refer to the distant future; all has already been fulfilled. Thus we are already living in the new heaven and new earth (and the resurrection has already happened).

This form of preterism is an outgrowth of post-millennialism, the idea that God is at work through the church to gradually bring the world to full submission to his will—except that there is no climactic second coming here (the post in post-millennialism referred to Christ’s return after the world had reached it millennial state).

Based on his interpretation of the Olivet discourse, Wright has often been read as if he supports consistent preterism. Sometimes this reading comes from adherents of this view who want him as an ally. In other cases, he is critiqued for holding this view.

A recent critique comes from Edward Adams, who frames his important book, The Stars Will Fall from Heaven: “Cosmic Catastrophe” in the New Testament and Its World (Library of New Testament Studies 347; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2007), in terms of a disagreement with Wright on this point (pp. 12-13). Adams takes issue with Wright’s claim that language of cosmic destruction does not refer to “the end of the space-time universe” (The New Testament and the People of God [Christian Origins and the Question of God 1; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992], p. 300), but rather speaks of historical events (such as the fall of Jerusalem).

Setting the Interpretation of Wright to Rights

The problem is that Adams conflates two claims Wright makes, which are actually quite distinct.

On the one hand, when it comes to the Olivet discourse and Jesus’ parables about the returning master/king, Wright indeed thinks that the referents are historical events in the near future (the fall of Jerusalem). We can certainly quibble about that (I actually think that Jesus’ teaching here could have double referents, as I explain in my forthcoming eschatology book, chap. 9: “Cosmic Destruction at Christ’s Return?”).

On the other hand, Wright’s claim that language of cosmic destruction does not intend the ending of the space-time cosmos makes an entirely different point, namely that God intends to redeem and renew the cosmos instead of destroying it and taking us to “heaven.” (I’m fully on board here.)

Wright actually made a concerted attempt to clarify his eschatological position as far back as 1999.

In The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), Wright explained that he was not denying a future cosmic coming of Christ: “Let me say this as clearly as I can (since I have often been misunderstood on this point)” (p. 117).

Although Wright indeed thinks that Jesus’ teaching in the Olivet discourse addresses immediate future judgment, and not the literal end of the world, he acknowledges that Jesus also anticipated a final cosmic redemption (for example, his mention in Matthew 19:28 of the coming “regeneration” or renewal of the world). Thus Wright states: “The belief that the creator God will at the last recreate the whole cosmos and that Jesus will be at the center of that new world is firmly and deeply rooted in the New Testament” (The Challenge of Jesus, p. 117).

This explains why Adams is confused by Wright’s interpretation of passages like Hebrews 12:26-27 and 2 Peter 3:5-13. Adams thinks that Wright is inconsistent to see these texts as referring to genuinely “cosmic change,” given his take on Wright’s “general claim” about New Testament eschatology (pp. 15-16). Adam’s perplexity surfaces especially in reference to Hebrews 12, when he twice mentions the interpretation “we might have expected” Wright to have (pp. 192–93).

The long and short of it is that Wright’s view of the local referents of the Olivet discourse should not be generalized into his overall eschatological position. Whether or not he himself would call it the “Second Coming,” Tom Wright clearly does believe in a future cosmic renewal of all things.

I’d call that the Second Coming.

What’s Dualism Got to Do with It? The Tom Wright Connection, Part 4

This is part 4 of a four-part post on my connections to N. T. Wright, the prolific New Testament scholar. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here. For part 3, click here.

What’s Dualism Got to Do with It?

Although I’ve mentioned various two-way influences between Wright and Walsh-Middleton, the connection goes even deeper, and it begins back in 1983. This was when Wright was working on his first book, a commentary on Colossians and Philemon for the Tyndale series (published in 1988).

Wright was writing the Colossians material when Brian Walsh first got to know him at McGill. Based on their friendship, the two would meet regularly to discuss what Wright had written, and Brian would give feedback and critique.

As Brian tells it, he kept challenging the sacred/secular dualism with which Wright was reading Colossians. Wright kept separating salvation in Christ from life in the mundane realm (including the political realm). But according to Colossians 1:15-20, the same Christ through whom all things were created, and in whom all things hang together, is the one whom all things are reconciled. The creator and redeemer are one.

So Walsh and Wright did regular Bible study in Colossians together during the time when Walsh and I were completing our work on The Transforming Vision. And our critique of otherworldly dualism and our framing of salvation as God’s redemption of earthly life managed to impact Wright’s reading of Colossians.

Wright’s own account of how he came to shift from a dualistic worldview to a holistic vision is recounted in his autobiographical essay “My Pilgrimage in Theology,” Themelios, 18/2 (January 1993): 35. There Wright states:

In 1983 I started work on my Colossians commentary. By the time I finished it in 1985 I had undergone probably the most significant change of my theological life. Until then I had been basically, a dualist. The gospel belonged in one sphere, the world of creation and politics in another. Wrestling with Colossians 1:15-20 put paid to that. I am still working through the implications (and the resultant hostility in some quarters): my book New Tasks for a Renewed Church is a recent marker on this route.

Although this article doesn’t mention Brian’s role in the shift, Wright thanks Brian for his contribution at the start of the Tyndale commentary (p. 11).

Now, I’m not going to claim that Tom Wright got his emphasis on the redemption of creation from Walsh and Middleton in any simple or direct sense. But it looks like our early work on worldviews, dualism, and holistic salvation served as a catalyst for Wright at a formative phase of his theological development. At the very least, our work enabled Wright to see what was staring him in the face all along in the text of Colossians.

I started this four-part post with a comment about the similarity between Tom Wright and myself on the eschatological redemption of creation, a point that many have noted. I’ve tried to explain how that similarity may have come about. It is gratifying to think that the early work Brian Walsh and I did on holistic salvation may have made some small contribution to the development of Tom Wright’s powerful and illuminating eschatological vision.

In another post I explore ways in which I’m not quite on board with all of Tom Wright’s eschatology.

You can read about my 2017 visit with Tom Wright at St. Andrews in Scotland here.

A Bunch of “Shout Outs” from Wright: The Tom Wright Connection, Part 3

This is part 3 of a four-part post on my connections to N. T. Wright, the prolific New Testament scholar. For part 1, click here. For part 2, click here.

A Bunch of “Shout Outs” by Wright

Back in 1992, before Wright had achieved his present international stature, Brian Walsh and I were already excited by his work and quite taken with his newly-released The New Testament and the People of God, which he conceived as the first volume of a project entitled “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” We were therefore honored that Wright used our four worldview questions from The Transforming Vision as a tool for his analysis of first-century Judaism in that book (pp. 122-23). Brian is also mentioned in the preface, where Wright thanks him for his extensive feedback on the manuscript (p. xix).

We repaid the honor when we used Wright’s conception of the biblical story as a five-act drama and added a sixth act, in the last chapter of our book Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be (1995). In fact, our book is indebted to Wright’s ideas at numerous points. Wright then wrote an appreciative blurb for the cover of the British edition of the Truth is Stranger book (published by SPCK).

With the second volume in Wright’s project, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), he again thanked Brian (also p. xix). This time Wright added a fifth worldview question (p. 138, n. 41) and used the five questions to structure an entire chapter (chap. 10: “The Questions of the Kingdom,” pp. 443-74).

More recently, in the fourth and final volume (which is itself two volumes!), Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013), Wright once more acknowledged his debt to the Walsh-Middleton analysis of worldviews (pp. 27-28).

I know this sounds like boasting; but I’m only just getting warmed up.

It was 1992 (or possibly 1993), soon after The New Testament and the People of God had been published. Brian Walsh and I were attending the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). It was lunchtime and we were wondering around one of the big hotels that hosted the SBL meetings. We were walking along the balcony of one of the upper mezzanines while looking down at the courtyard and there we saw Tom Wright giving a lecture to a group of scholars seated at tables having lunch. He looked up, interrupted his lecture, and called out: “There are my friends Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton!” Then he went back to his lecture. I was stunned.

Some years later at another SBL meeting (2009, New Orleans), Wright was giving an evening lecture on his new Justification book to a group of about 700 (the hall was packed). I was sitting beside Keith Bodner, an Old Testament scholar from Crandall University in New Brunswick. I had given a paper that afternoon on the role of humanity in Psalms 8 and 104 (plus another paper the previous day in a session Bodner chaired). I was beginning to relax, now that my “duties” were over. To my surprise, near the start of the lecture Wright made mention of my Psalms paper that afternoon and said he would like to have heard it since he was sure it would have been as helpful as my analysis of the imago Dei in The Liberating Image. At that point, Bodner leaned over incredulously and said: “You got a shout out from Tom Wright!?”

But I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. I had come to know Tom Wright as a generous person, who invests his time and energy in the building up of others. This goes well beyond his prodigious writing and speaking. After all, he had accepted my invitation to have dinner with a dozen of my past and current students the previous year, at the 2008 SBL in Boston. He and Maggie graciously spent an evening with our group, eating Italian food and engaging in stimulating and heart-felt conversations about Scripture, theology, and the church.

In part 4 of this post I’ll address the possibility that Walsh and Middleton affected Wright’s views of the redemption of creation.