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N.T. Wright's lecture on Jesus and kingdom concludes Calvin January Series

Anglican theologian N.T. Wright delivers a lecture on Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God on the final day of the Calvin College January Series.
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N.T. Wright is an Anglican theologian and author of popular and scholarly books and Christian theology and practice including "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church,"  "Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters" and the projected six-volume work "Christian Origins and the Question of God." He serves as chair of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

N.T. Wright first encountered “the problem” as a teenager. He and his friends were tasked with laying out the Christian doctrines about Jesus for a Sunday school class. Why was Jesus born? Why did Jesus die? Why was he resurrected?

“I drew the short straw,” Wright said: “Why did Jesus live?”

Former Bishop of Durham, current chair of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews and author of over 50 books on Christian theology and practice, Wright delivered the final lecture in Calvin College’s 25th annual January Series on Tuesday, Jan. 24. Wright’s lecture addressed themes from his forthcoming book, "How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels." This was Wright’s fourth visit to Calvin.

As Wright sees it, the problem of misunderstanding Jesus’ life is not limited to one sect or denomination. Orthodox theologians focus on Jesus’ divinity to combat liberal theology, and liberal theologians focus on Jesus’ humanity to combat orthodox theology; meanwhile, neither grasp the larger narrative. The creeds themselves fail to address it.

More than providing a moral example or a means of salvation, Wright argued, Jesus’ earthly life was nothing less than the reestablishment of God’s kingship over the earth. Unlike the empire of Caesar or the kingdom of Herod, Wright said, God’s kingdom was not established through force.

“When God wants to take his power and reign, putting the world to rights as he’d always promised, he doesn’t send in the tanks. He sends in the meek, the broken-hearted, the crushed in spirit.”

The Christian’s central purpose, therefore, is not to become personally saved but instead to be laborers in the construction of that kingdom until God finally completes it. And the deepest purpose of the Christian church is not to pursue converts but to pursue justice.

These claims build on Wright’s work in "Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church" with which he sought to correct Christian notions about heaven.

“Heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world,” Wright quipped during his morning session of interviews and Q&As. Contrary to much Christian teaching since the Middle Ages, Wright reaffirms what he sees as the traditional Christian vision of eternity: the earth will not be destroyed but renewed when God’s kingdom fully arrives.

In describing the call of the Christian, Wright used the metaphor of a medieval stonemason shaping stones for Durham cathedral, where he served as bishop until 2010. Though the mason doesn’t know what the cathedral will look like, Wright said, he trusts the architect, believing that one day he will look up and find it in its place in the great west front.

In spite of the weightiness of his topics, Wright’s visit was spiked with humor, as when joked about his home county of Northumberland in the United Kingdom where rosé wine means white wine poured into red, or when he told his January Series audience a story about an American customs agent who asked him to recite John 3:16. “Thinking quickly on my feet, I said, “Houtōs gar ēgapēsen ho Theos ton kosmon.”

Wright also didn’t shy away from challenging his Calvin audience, as when he said that “swathes of evangelicals are more anxious to protect a theory of scripture than to hear what the scripture actually says.” And at a Q&A with students in which he discussed current beliefs about the afterlife, Wright shared his opinions about dispensationalism, a Christian ideology at odds with much of his own project, calling it “extremely worrying” that what began as the literature of the oppressed is now in the United States being wielded by the powerful. “That’s your problem, not mine,” he said.

Wright will remain in Grand Rapids to speak at the Calvin Symposium on Worship, which runs from Jan. 26 through Jan. 28. "How God Became King," his book of the same title as his presentation in the January Series, will be available March 13, 2012.

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