I LOVE N. T. Wright. There are few Biblical scholars today who bear the shared capacity to dredge up many of the deepest aspects of Scripture, while also being able to communicate them in a way that is both refreshingly clear and startlingly profound. N. T. Wright is one of those scholars.
I am currently reading through his book, Evil and the Justice of God. Once again – as is always the case with him – I walk away from the encounter reminded of just how little I know. His skill, I believe, falls into two categories. On the one hand, he is able to dig deep, unpacking the cultural and contextual nuances which breathe life back into an ancient text. On the other hand, he is able to take the surface things, those readings which stare us all blankly in the face, and wrap them in a perspective which suddenly changes their entire meaning.
Often he does that with a few powerful passages.
Today, for me, he did that with the entirety of Scripture.
Essentially, his suggestion was this: Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, is really about the problem of evil and what God is doing about it, couched in the narrative of God among His people. He speaks about this principally with the Old Testament, but the awareness pours over in the New as well.
Here is a passage from the second chapter in which he unpacks this a little further:
The Old Testament isn’t written in order simply to “tell us about God” in the abstract. It isn’t designed primarily to provide information, to satisfy the inquiring mind. It’s written to tell the story of what God has done, is doing and will do about evil. (This is true of most of the individual books as well as the canonically shaped Old Testament as we have it, both in the Hebrew order of books and in the English one.) This happens at several different levels, and I shall explore them presently; but we must grasp from the outset that the underlying narrative logic of the whole Old Testament assumes that this is what it’s about.
Let me map three levels in particular so we can see where we shall be going. First, the entire Old Testament as we have it hangs like an enormous door on a small hinge, namely the call of Abraham in Genesis 12. This, it appears, is intended by God the Creator to address the problem evident in Genesis 3 (human rebellion and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden), Genesis 6-7 (human wickedness and the flood) and Genesis 11 (human arrogance, the tower of Babel and the confusion of languages).
Within that story we discover a second-order problem: Israel, the children of Abraham, may be the carriers of the promise, but they turn out to be part of the problem themselves. This unwinds through a massive and epic narrative, from the patriarchs to the exodus, from Moses to David, through the twists and turns of the Israelite monarchy, ending finally with Israel in exile.
Within that story we discover a third level of the problem: it is not only the human race that has rebelled, not only Israel that has failed in its task, but as individuals humans in general find themselves to be sinful, idolatrous and hard-hearted.
The result of this is clear on page after page of the Old Testament. True, “the problem of evil” often appears in the Old Testament in the familiar form of wicked pagan nations oppressing God’s poor and defenseless people. But again and again the historical and prophetic writings remind Israel that the problem goes deeper than “us” and “them.” The problem of the individual, which in much Western thought has been made central to philosophical and theological understanding, is presented in the Bible as a subset of the larger problem of Israel, of humankind and of creation itself. If we learn to read the Old Testament in this way (which we often don’t when we work through it in small segments, whether in church or in private) we shall begin, I think, to glimpse the whole forest as well as the particular and sometimes puzzling trees.
What do you think? How do you see the interplay between evil and God in Scripture?
If you are interested in reading more from N. T. Wright’s book, you can go here to pick up ‘Evil and the Justice of God’ from Amazon.
Image Credit: Kennymatic