After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (N.T. Wright): Review
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
While I generally ascribe to the reformed theological tradition, Wright comes from both an Anglican background as well as embracing the “new perspective” on Paul that seeks to relegate “works of the law” to ethnic exclusivity. Additionally, while he does passingly affirm the penal substitutionary view, he tends to emphasize the Christus Victor motif of the atonement.
Thus, in reviewing this book I must simultaneously affirm these soteriological and ecclesiological differences as well as seek to find areas of agreement, and I’m pleased to say that I found much to appreciate not only in Wright’s usual debonair literary style, but also his lucid articulation of the call to Christian character.
THE FOCUS OF THE BOOK
Wright defines character as “…the transforming, shaping, and marking of a life and its habits ,” which stands in marked contrast to the equal and opposite extremes of “rule-keeping” and simply “being true to yourself” (p. 7).
Character must be seen as situated in terms of the overarching Christian experience, which for Wright is governed by the knowledge of the union of heaven and earth. He therefore suggests three options for Christian living:
Option one: The Wait for Heaven Option: Heaven is the final goal, achieved through Christ’s atoning work. “Christian living…consists of anticipating the disembodied, ‘eternal’ state through…detached spirituality and the avoidance of ‘worldly’ contamination.”
Option two: The Work for the Kingdom Option: “The goal is to establish God’s kingdom on earth by our own hard work.” This goal is achieved through Jesus’ example. “Christian living…[is] working and campaigning for justice, peace and the alleviation of poverty and distress.”
Option three: The Live out by way of Anticipating the Kingdom: “The goal is the new heaven and the new earth…achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, grasped by faith, participated in through baptism, lived out in love….Christian life [is] anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-transforming, truly human practice of faith, hope, and love…” (p. 66-7)
As you might expect, Wright advocates the latter option. True, these options are oversimplified almost to the point of being caricatures, but to be fair Wright’s broad brushstrokes are not intended to form a complete portrait.
The kingdom – both the present manifestation and its coming fulfillment – is the stage on which character is developed, always in the context of the mission of God. He writes:
“We urgently need to recapture the New Testament’s vision of a genuinely ‘good’ human life as a life of character formed by God’s promised future, as a life with that future- shaped character lived within the ongoing story of God’s people, and, with that, a freshly worked notion of virtue.” (p. 57)
“The glory of virtue, in the Christian sense, is that the self is not in the center of that picture. God and God’s kingdom are in the center.” (70)
Therefore, virtue is the business of living as “priests and rulers” of God’s kingdom program.
THE CROSS AND GOD’S STORY
The cross remains a central feature, in contrast to the moral example theories of some theologians. In one extended session we read:
“Jesus’ forthcoming death – and his own deeply scriptural understanding, which led him not only to expect it but to interpret it in advance – is in fact tightly bound up with his announcement of God’s kingdom and His invitation to His followers to start learning its language right now. So, at least, all four gospels seem to be saying….For them, there is no clear demarcation between God’s kingdom-announcement and His approaching death. The two belong closely together…. (p. 110)”
“Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe… Jesus as ‘moral example’ is a domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot. We look at him approvingly and decide we’ll copy him (up to a point at least, and no doubt he’ll forgive us the rest because he’s a decent sort of chap). As if! If all we need is a good example, we can’t be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested.” (p. 126)
Elsewhere he emphasizes the grace that accompanies redemption. “We can never put God into our debt;” he writes, “we always remain in his.” (p. 60)
A great deal of the book focuses on the value of “virtue,” accompanied by a discussion on how this concept has been lost in our culture. He emphasizes both the three cardinal virtues as well as the “nine varieties of fruit” and the unity achieved through virtue.
This discussion felt a bit verbose at times, and was strongly colored by Wright’s kingdom perspective. Additionally, I was nowhere else more fully aware of our theological differences, most specifically my tendency (“though it is not I, but the reformed theologian in me”) to draw a distinction between justification and sanctification, a distinction not drawn in Wright’s perspective. This is to say nothing of the strong synergistic bent (the view that God and man work together to produce character), which while I cautiously affirm I would have liked to have heard a better articulation of pneumatology – how the Spirit influences this process, a subject that receives only passing mention in the context of the book.
However it is also this focus on virtue that leads to many excellent thoughts that thoughtful Christians would do well to listen to. “Love,” for instance, is a word that is “trying to do so many different jobs at the same time that someone really ought to sit down with it and teach it how to delegate (p. 183)…Love is not a ‘duty,’ even our highest duty. It is our destiny.” (p. 188)
Elsewhere, Wright speaks of freedom and morality, claiming that “moral constraints” are not restrictive, but “create the conditions for [true freedom] to flourish.” (p. 234)
And these issues are discussed with many excellent examples, ranging from the heroism of the pilot landing his plane on the Hudson to recent medical research in the field of neruoplasticity.
The key, of course, is understanding this virtue as “second nature.” In one especially memorable passage Wright describes the life of virtue to learning to play music:
“I remember a piano teacher pointing out to me that the reason I was having trouble with a piece I’d taught myself to play was that I’d paid no attention to the fingering the composer himself had suggested. When I first tried the “proper” fingering, after months of stumbling through the piece in my own way, it felt very strange. I could hardly concentrate on the feeling in the music because I was so bothered by the odd feeling in my fingers. But, again gradually, not only did I get used to the new fingering, but the piece began to sing in a way it hadn’t before. That’s what it’s like when someone seriously begins to ‘put on’ the things Paul is talking about.” (p. 146)
The final chapter deals with what he calls “the virtuous circle,” which consists of the following:
1. Scripture: reading and living the Story.
2. Stories: both in the Bible and outside.
4. Community: church community
5. Practices: worship, Eucharist, baptism, prayer, giving, and Scripture reading.
Wright’s focus on spiritual formation as participation in the life of the church (which in turn participates in the life of the kingdom) often leads to strong inclinations toward social justice. I strongly affirm social justice as a response to God’s grace as well as an active demonstration of neighborliness (Luke 10:36-37).
The problem, it seems, is that when justification has been redefined in the new perspective in nationalistic terms (rather than the righteousness of God achieved through Christ), then evangelism will invariably become subsumed in working for the kingdom.
Which brings us back to my earlier remarks of the differences I have with Wright, which I will not detail here.
The book is worth reading. Those who appreciated Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy will find a similarly substantive look at spiritual formation – albeit from a different theological perspective.
It is also a book to be read discerningly – those unfamiliar with Wright’s theological leanings may have difficulty navigating some of the book’s content. Additionally, some of the exegetical material may be a bit challenging for the lay person.
This is a good resource for the pastor, or even a small group study provided the leader is suitably skilled to exercise theological discernment.
I leave you only with some recommended resources on the book.
Scot McKnight blogs through the book:
Christopher J Wiles
writer | speaker | servant
Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.