By which I mean, I’ve read a lot of NT Wright and you’ll be glad to know I’ve read the Bible once or twice too. I’ve read every one of the passages we covered, and I’ve preached on a good number of them. I’ve underlined chunks in the good Bishop’s books that expound much the same material he spoke about at the conference. And yet. Sometimes things just hit you in a new way.
For me the first session was outstanding. I mean, the whole day was brilliant. The tiny section on Philemon was more moving than anything I can remember hearing in a long time, and Romans in 45 minutes made my head feel like it had been run over by a truck. Repeatedly. But session one was the standout for me. Wright took us on a whistle-stop tour of Galatians, turning up things I’d never spotted and showing how it hangs together as a whole: the cross right in the centre.
My eschatology’s pretty good. I think. By Wright’s standards at least. I’ve read his big green book on the resurrection. Twice. I’ve taught hours and hours of material on the cosmic effects of the cross and personal eschatology. I don’t anticipate sitting on a cloud and playing a harp. But I don’t think I’d ever taken in how Galatians 1:4 and 6:14-15 act as bookends to Galatians:
[Christ] gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age […] But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 1:4; 6:14-15)
As someone said to me in the break, “I’ve been a Christian for many years and I’m not sure I could say the world’s been crucified to me and I to the world.” Ditto. But the cross is the means of new creation, for the individual and for the cosmos.
My Trinitarian theology is pretty orthodox. I think. But I don’t reckon I’d realised how deeply woven into Galatians it is. Nor would I previously have summed up Galatians 4:1-11 as saying essentially “you now know God as the one who sends the Spirit and the Son… so you have a choice: Trinity or Idolatry!”
My appreciation for Pauline theology is decent. I think. Maybe if you pushed me I’d say I have a mild preference for the gospels. But mild is all. Tom told the story of his 101 year-old relative who had always said how much she preferred John to Paul because Paul was all about logic-chopping and John was about love. I know that’s a sweeping generalisation, and it’s one I would typically roll my eyes at, but as we looked at Galatians 2 I realised how easily I fall into that kind of thinking:
The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Here’s a man who is moved by love. I often think of Paul as the intellectual. I rarely think of him as the man moved by love. And yet of course he was. He who has been forgiven much loves much. Galatians is a letter in which love and logic intertwine and dance. And Wright’s exegesis – rapid as it was – drew out both themes brilliantly.
And having watched Wright pray, seen him worship, talked to him about his life and work, and heard of his love and care for people, I couldn’t help but wonder if his passion for Paul wasn’t partly due to a sense of affinity. A great mind with a great appreciation for the love and mercy of God.
Sure, I was left with a load of questions, in this session and in the others. I’m still not certain about pistis christou, nor his exegesis of 2 Corinthians 5:21, or Matthew 25, for example. But at the end of the first session we were meant to have group discussions on our tables. Our table just sat in silence. It wasn’t that there was nothing to say; there was too much to say.
It was one of those moments when I knew that I had known some things about the cross, but I didn’t really know that I didn’t know them as well as I’d like to have known them.
If you know what I mean.
Featured Image: Vatican Spiral Up by Sean Molin