Perhaps you can begin by telling us a little about yourself.
I grew up in Northern Ireland in a staunchly Christian and missionary home. I was well taught in Berry Street Presbyterian Church in Belfast and I did my studies in Theology and a Ph.D. in Old Testament ethics at Cambridge. I then taught for a while in Grosvenor High School in Belfast and then I was a curate in a Church of England parish in Tonbridge, Kent, where I gained parish experience. Then with my wife Liz and family I went to India for five years where I was teaching at the Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, teaching at BD and MTh level. After that I joined the staff at All Nations Christian College as Academic Dean. After five years, I was appointed Principal and I did that for eight years. I left in 2001 to join the Langham Partnership International.
One of your main areas is mission so I would like to you hear about your view on this subject, and particularly whether you think it is under-emphasised among evangelicals.
Mission would probably be regarded as a key defining identity mark within evangelicalism and for me it's always something I've taken seriously. Perhaps it gets a little under emphasised today or perhaps just emphasised in different ways. Traditional missionary life and missionary societies are perhaps less valued than in previous generations but a lot of evangelicals today talk about 'going on mission trips' which is anything from a couple of weeks to a gap year. There are also emerging churches today which use the term 'missional church' which is about a particular way of presenting the gospel to the surrounding culture. So missional doesn't just mean sending off missionaries to far parts of the world.
William Carey is often said to be the father of modern missions. Given that he was born in 1761, what does that tell us about mission before he arrived on the scene?
In defining mission, I would start by asking what is the mission of God? Any mission we have as a people is derived from God's purposes and mission has been there from the beginning. Possibly we could say that Abraham was the first cross-cultural missionary- in the sense that God called him out of one country and sent him to another. The whole Bible witnesses to the mission of God himself. But if we see mission as something we do where people go out across boundaries or oceans to take the gospel to other countries then you have a slightly different history. In Britain we like to say that William Carey was the father of modern mission which is a mistake because there were already German and Danish missionaries in India before Carey. He revitalised mission in Britain and he was certainly a phenomenal figure but even before the modern era of Western mission, there had been missionaries taking the gospel to Ethiopia, to India by at least in the second century A.D., and Nestorian missionaries from Syria who were taking the gospel to China in the eighth century and there were Irish Celtic missionaries taking the gospel to England and the Mediterranean. There were even former slaves from the Caribbean taking the gospel back to West Africa in the 19th century, going to some places before white missionaries got there.
You mentioned the mission of God so perhaps we can talk about your recent book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible's Grand Narrative. Do you think the missional hermeneutic is the central way of understanding the Bible?
What I try to say in the book is that if we assume the Bible has come to us from God, and therefore witnesses to the living God, then clearly the God who meets us in the pages of the Bible is a God of mission. As the Bible unfolds, it's clear that God's purpose is to bring blessing to the nations and to bring renewal to the whole creation and liberate humanity from sin and suffering. That's God's purpose and it makes sense to read the Bible with that in mind.
When we read the Bible as a whole, is there a difference in the concept between the Old and New Testament regarding the people of God?
Well they're not exactly the same but it is continuous. I would argue that there is one covenant community of God embodied in Christ. Paul says that if we are in Christ then we are in Abraham and this will be the seed of the population of the new creation. So Abraham is a prototype, and his family Israel becomes the redeemed people in the Old Testament and this becomes a multinational community in Christ in the New Testament. So I see a continuity but it has different articulations as you move through the biblical narrative.
Is your view of the Bible's metanarrative of mission any different from the Heilsgeschichte narrative concerning salvation history?
I don't think it's very different. The concept that the Bible has a story of salvation always did make sense to me. They were exaggerations of that though and it didn't always allow space for other aspects the biblical canon such as creation and wisdom literature. One of the things I try to do in The Mission of God is to find ways of incorporating non-redemptive parts of the Biblical literature and to see how that functions within the narrative of how God plans to save the world. I'm hoping that my missional hermeneutic will provide space for those things that didn't fit so easily into a purely history of salvation approach but there are certainly many things in common.
Let's talk about your other book titled Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. I believe this is an update to an earlier book.
Yes, Living as the People of God was my first book in 1983. It was a rather intuitive attempt to say to Christians that they don't need to be afraid of the Old Testament. It was an attempt to release the Old Testament from tired debates about whether we should be in creation ethics or kingdom ethics.
Is the updated book coming at the subject from a more scholarly angle?
To some degree. Living as the People of God was intended as a popular book but it began to be used a lot as a textbook in some American seminaries. And so 25 years later, I needed to interact with those who have published in this field in the years since 1983, so that the book could become more useful as a textbook.
You state that the two subjects of mission and ethics are related. Can you explain how?
In Genesis 18:19, God says about Abraham that "I have chosen him that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to Abraham what he has promised him" which is the blessing of the nations. God's mission of blessing the nations is thus integrally related to the demands concerning righteousness and justice. So there is no biblical mission without biblical ethics. Also, regarding the ethics of Israel in the Old Testament, it's all linked to them being a holy and priestly nation for the sake of the nations so if they didn't live and walk in the ways of the Lord, they had no witness to the nations, no witness to the living God.
Your book is about ethics in the Old Testament, but is there much of a dichotomy between the Old and New Testament?
I wouldn't use the word 'dichotomy' but use a combination of discontinuity and continuity. There's continuity in that the New Testament builds upon so much of what the Old teaches about the character of God. Many of the values that underpin OT ethics are taught again by Jesus and the apostles. But there are areas of discontinuity because there are forms of behaviour in the OT which are critiqued or forbidden in the NT, or put under careful examination for example divorce or warfare.
Then the attitude that the Mosaic Law: I understand that you do not agree with the traditional separation of the Law of Moses into civil, ceremonial and moral.
Yes, I'm not very happy about that division. I know it's very ancient and I know that it has elements of truth. We know that the ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Christ so we don't have blood sacrifices anymore. We know that some of the civil laws were for people living in agricultural contexts in the ancient world. However, I wouldn't divide up the law into asking what is moral law that we must obey because that seems very reductionist. I prefer to start out with what Paul said in 2 Tim. 3:16 that all Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. Therefore, the question is not about what is a moral law and which is not but rather to ask in what ways does a given passage claim my ethical obedience? What are the principles in it? What are the paradigms it is suggesting? What are the values, priorities in this law? There are examples of this in the NT. Paul applies the law of not muzzling an ox to Christian workers and said we should pay workers their due. So he uses an Old Testament law and applies it to Christian character.
Let's move on to a different subject. I would like to ask you about the Yale-based Christian response to "A Common Word between Us and You". I note that you signed this document but it is something that some Christians have objected to.
It did divide Christians: some very enthusiastic, some suspicious. Among the very enthusiastic were strong evangelicals so it's important to recognise that it's not just the traditional divide between, say, evangelical and liberals or pluralists. What I felt was important was that it was an enabling dialogue. There was no pretence that this document said everything Christians wanted to say about their core beliefs. But it recognised that there could be a dialogue of friendship between Christians and Muslims. I know some of the people who created the document in the first place and they are impeccably evangelical in their convictions. Some I have spoken to are involved in evangelistic mission organisations that work in very restricted Islamic contexts. These are people who are not at all guilty of a betrayal of Christian essentials which they have sometimes been accused of. They are staunchly committed to the Lordship and uniqueness of Christ and salvation through Christ alone.
What I would say is that in any of these interfaith issues, it depends on what your starting point is and what your concept of the relationship is. If you start out with the view that we're in our own castles and in a massive conflict then the best thing is to build up the ramparts and keep people out. You develop a fairly antagonistic stance. Another starting point is to recognise that all human beings are made in the image of God who we are commanded to love and respect. If you view Muslims, or Hindus or others, from that starting point, you apply the biblical teaching about being neighbours and ask in what way can we respond that shows the neighbour love of Christ that values them. That seems to be a gospel response I think.
So I take the latter position along with many other leading evangelicals, not necessarily endorsing the process but I know a number of people who feel it has opened some doors and led to very interesting conversations. Nobody pretends it's the end of the world's problems but it seems to be an appropriate response.
Finally, let me ask you what books you working on next, and when we might see them.
I have a book coming out in January 2009 called The God I Don't Understand which is a personal book wrestling with issues such as suffering and evil, moral problems, ethics, the atonement, and the end times. I'm also working on a commentary on Jeremiah and Lamentations in the Bible Speaks Today (BST) series similar to my work on Ezekiel. It may be a couple of years before that comes out.
Thank you, Dr Wright, for your time.
Christopher J. H. Wright is the International Ministries Director of the Langham Partnership International, a ministry committed to the strengthening of the church in the Majority World through fostering leadership development, biblical preaching, literature and doctoral scholarships. His published books include Living as the People of God: The Relevance of OT Ethics; Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament; Deuteronomy in the New International Biblical Commentary (NIBC); Thinking Clearly about the Uniqueness of Jesus; The Message of Ezekiel (BST); Knowing God the Father Through the Old Testament. His website can be found here.
The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the faculty members of the Midlands Bible College and Divinity School.
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