In Which N.T. Wright Discovers the Moon Again

This is a review of “Jesus is Coming — Plant a Tree” by N.T. Wright, an article posted on the same day here at WakeUPchurch.org By Doug Wilson.  If Wright is glorious then Wilson’s filtering Wright is even more so.

“The next chapter from Wright is on eschatology and care for the creation, and is a mixed bag. The title of the chapter is “Jesus is Coming — Plant a Tree.” We will come back to that shortly.

I want to begin by acknowledging what is very good about this chapter, which is Wright’s exegetical understanding of the relationship of heaven and earth, the old creation and the new creation, and what the resurrection of Jesus and what His second coming actually mean for this world. It is very good work, and it is good work from the beginning of the chapter to the end of it. This is basically a chapter length treatment of his book on the same general topic, Surprised By Hope, and has the strengths and weaknesses of that book, mostly strengths.

While there would be quibbles here and there, I don’t want to dispute with his exegesis on this topic. I think it is good, I think it salutary, I think it is most necessary for our generation of evangelicals, particularly in America, to recover this understanding. Anything that Wright does to help this along is something I am all for. I am grateful for his influence here at this point.

But this leads to the second issue. While his exegetical theology is fine, his historical theology is atrocious. I have no problem with how Wright argues his biblical case in this chapter because, as it happens, I am a postmillennialist. The position that Wright is advancing has a name, and it is a name that Wright appears to be extremely reluctant to use. I have not read everything Wright has written, for the age of miracles is past, but I have read a lot of his stuff. I am open to correction here, but I don’t recall him ever using the term postmillennialism, still less identifying with it. This could be fine — albeit a little weird — except for the next thing.

Last week Sam Allberry tweeted this: “‘…and only I am left’ – The prophet Elijah and every book by N T Wright.” In a previous post, I said that Wright has an annoying habit of announcing discoveries that all of Western theology has missed, when in fact his discoveries are nothing of the kind. He is like a very competent amateur astronomer who keeps discovering the moon. We could put up with this, but then he keeps chiding us for having missed it. Now it is true that there are popular schools of theology that have missed it, but Wright is here making claims about the broad history of theology, and he gets it spectacularly wrong.

Here is an example from this chapter, but there are other little comments like it scattered here and there. And it is why somebody once coined the word insufferable.

“It is my belief that the broad sweep of Western theology since way before the Reformation, and continuing since the sixteenth century in both Roman Catholicism and the various branches of Protestantism, has been subbiblical in its approach to that potent combination of themes, eschatology, and ecology” (p. 83).

But in actual fact, the broad sweep of Protestant eschatology, from shortly after the Reformation down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, was postmill. The point here — for my non-postmill readers, love you all — is not whether or not postmillennialism is correct, but whether it was held by anybody significant who was contained within Wright’s dismissive “broad sweep of Western theology.” Anybody heard of Jonathan Edwards? B.B. Warfield? David Livingstone? William Carey? Iain Murray was right to label this as the Puritan hope. Anybody out there heard of the Puritans? Geez Louise, Tom.

Wright does have a lot to say that is valuable. He has something to contribute, and he does have unique insights to contribute. But his habit of planting his flag on the beach of thickly inhabited lands is really bad for his ethos. He looks like Columbus planting the flag in the modern Bahamas, right next to the shaved ice stand. True, Chesterton discovered orthodoxy as though he were the first one there, but he had the good grace immediately afterward to recognize that the joke was on him.

Here he is again. Speaking of Romans 8:18-27, Wright makes this astonishing claim: “And yet, as I say, preachers, commentators, and theologians in the Western tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, have almost routinely regarded this section as something of a distraction” (p. 87).

This hope is glorious, and I exult in it. But when I was becoming postmill, I learned a great deal about how to understand Romans 8 from a number of saints in the Western tradition. I give thanks for them all, and I want to declare my indebtedness to them. I don’t want to pretend, with Wright, that they never existed.

The third point to make concerns one possible reason why Wright puts distance between himself and standard-issue postmillennialism. The last word in the quote cited above was ecology. When it comes to policy prescriptions, the actual things that one would do to make the planet that Jesus is coming back to a better place, Wright tends toward soft leftism. That was not the case with the broad swath of postmillennialists in history. In other words, the impact of postmill Christians up to this point has not really been leftist in any recognizable way. But I would argue it has been a practical blessing precisely because of that.

In this chapter, Wright’s practical politics are not foregrounded, but they are hovering in the background, and to my mind, ominously (pp. 83,85-86,95,106).

I said that we would return to the issue of planting trees. In my day I have planted many trees, and have some thoughts on the subject. I am all for it. Jesus is coming, and we should plant a tree. But this is not a new idea. Martin Luther is quoted as saying, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”

But . . . how? What kind of tree? Who paid for it? Who owns the dirt where we will plant it?

I want the tree that is planted to have been purchased by the planter himself at Home Depot, and purchased there with his own money. I want no taxpayer to have been soaked for the expense. I want to praise personal responsibility and praise the suburbs while I am at it. Learn how to plant your own hedge, and learn how to take care of it. Every man under his own fig tree, every man mowing his own lawn.

I do want the earth to be transformed into a garden city, and I want it to be emerald green. This means keeping the statists far away from it. I have no problem with being green. My difficulty is that our modern priests of Baal always promise us green and, just like in the days of old, turn everything brown.

We can’t do that — turn everything brown, and we can’t because Jesus is coming again. The saints with Him in glory now say that the intermediate state is not their home. They’re just passing through. And when they get back here with Jesus, at the true marriage of heaven and earth, we should not want this planet to look like a badly-run VA hospital. Because Jesus is coming, this means we need to learn how to love liberty. And we need to have the Spirit teach us to hate statist coercion.

Jesus is coming. Hug a logger. And plant a tree.”

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