N.T. Wright: Approaching the New Testament Audaciously
With more books (84 and counting) than he has years (70 and counting), “prolific” is an understatement when it comes to describing N.T. Wright. “It’s as if someone else is in my skin pumping this stuff out,” he says. “I spend months reading, lecturing, and sketching out a book, and then once it’s mapped out, I write.” The retired Anglican bishop, scholar, and theologian still begins each morning with a large mug of Earl Grey tea and some Greek New Testament study, then dives into the work.
Expect a splash. This fall, Wright has launched two new works, both out now: The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (Zondervan Academic) and History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology (Baylor Univ.). His Zondervan editor, Katya Covrett, and former Baylor publisher Carey Newman each used the same adjective—audacious—to describe Wright’s unique approach to New Testament history and his willingness to bust through the silos of academic disciplines.
Wright foresees some controversy. He introduces The New Testament in Its World by writing, “The guild of New Testament studies has more cliques than a Hollywood Oscar party. A-list historians don’t want to be seen alongside B-list literary theorists; nobody wants to appear on the cover of People magazine standing next to a theologian.” Lavishly packed with sidebars, timelines, charts, maps, photos, and other features, the book is aimed at seminary students but meant to be accessible to general readers for its emphasis on stories, Covrett says. Wright writes, “Christian theology is all about knowing the story, its plot, the characters, the protagonists, the villains, the struggle, and the resolution. And then, most of all, knowing the church’s place and one’s own place within that story, the ongoing act of the divine drama.”
That focus is on explaining the story of the first Christians within “the God-soaked culture” of Jews, Greeks, and Romans, he writes. “The New Testament can be seen as the first scene of the final act of God’s great narrative. The early Christians saw themselves within a much longer story: the story of (1) creation and (2) fall of humanity, of (3) Israel and ultimately of (4) Jesus himself. Those are the first four acts; the New Testament writers find themselves at the start of the fifth act of God’s heaven-and-earth drama, and they sketch here and there how that drama is meant to finish, in the ultimate rejoining and renewal of heaven and earth, the new creation with resurrection itself at its centre.”
Zondervan’s Covrett says the book is “a one-stop shop for the reader, an overarching story of us as God’s people. Wright is able to reach a broader audience in a way few scholars are able to do. The book is absolutely audacious, not all theological warm and fuzzy thought. It’s about what Jesus said and did.” Zondervan is hosting receptions for Wright and his research collaborator, New Testament theologian Michael Bird, during AAR/SBL. A workbook, a set of 37 video lectures, and a course on the material in the book are available through Zondervan Academic Online.
History and Eschatology is based on Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures, a prestigious series of lectures delivered at a Scottish university over the course of a year by a scholar, theologian, or philosopher selected for the honor. “Wright’s audacious proposal is that time and space are married together in the historical events of Jesus’s cross and resurrection,” says Carey Newman, who edited the book for Baylor.
Wright recalls in the book how he explained his lectures to his mother: “Show how fresh thoughts about history might lead to fresh ideas about Jesus, and by that route eventually to the God of creation.” He tells PW, “History, when done properly, does produce new knowledge, not just speculation. Doing this book was exhilarating.”
And the fun goes on. Wright just finished the final revisions for his 2020 book for HarperOne, Seven Signposts. Designed for the popular reader, it delves into key themes in John’s Gospel, such as justice, spirituality, and power. Wright calls it “a thought experiment for me to look at the text differently.”
Next up, he’s researching a book on Galatians. Buy stock in Earl Grey tea.
Thomas Kidd: Reclaiming Evangelicalism
In two new books this fall, Baylor University professor of history Thomas Kidd describes himself as a conservative white evangelical academic historian never-Trumper who deplores the hijacking of the public’s idea of evangelicals by a partisan few in their quest for political power and cultural protection.
In America’s Religious History: Faith, Politics, and the Shaping of a Nation (Zondervan Academic, out now), Kidd writes of weaving together three threads across four centuries—“vital commitment, ethnic diversity, and harsh conflict.” He peoples the book with the experiences of women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and others often left out of history books, writing that his book is not “a retelling of the careers of educated white male Protestant clergy and politicians.” The book begins by examining indigenous people’s spiritually infused lives, then moves through waves of colonization and immigration, as well as upheavals of wars and the cultural challenges of secularism and a vaguely theistic civil religion. Looking forward, Kidd writes, “We should expect Americans of differing faiths and no faith in particular to continue clashing with one another over culture, belief, and the exercise of religion in all its forms.”
This clash, he argues in another, more overtly controversial, book, Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis (Yale Univ., out now), has damaged the public understanding of what being an evangelical means. “It is a tricky business [for evangelicals] to bring their faith into the public square,” Kidd says. “Christians try, when they can, to influence the broader society. But there is a distinction to make between moral influence on behalf of the weak and oppressed and having the government play favorites about religious groups.”
Despite the fact that there are evangelical activists fighting poverty, racism, sexism, and xenophobia, he writes, the general public has come to perceive white evangelicals as people who would “accept any GOP candidate, including the crass Donald Trump, if it meant access to power.” The purported 81% of voting white evangelicals who chose Trump is actually a “grab bag of people whose connections with actual evangelicalism are highly tenuous at best,” he says, emphasizing that evangelicalism is more complex and nuanced than it has been portrayed by scholars, journalists, and pollsters.
Rooting the answer to his title question in the “lived religion” of people who act on their commitment to Jesus and the Bible, Kidd writes that evangelicals are defined by “praying, attending worship services, witnessing to the lost, studying the Bible, going and sending people on missions, and ministering to the ‘least of these’ [the poor and powerless],” not by their political affiliations.
Amanda W. Benckhuysen: Raising Women’s Voices
Cast off the portrait of Eve—the “weaker vessel,” agent of the Fall, subordinate to made-from-dust Adam—that millennia of male biblical scholars and theologians have drawn from Genesis 1–3. That’s the message of Amanda W. Benckhuysen in The Gospel According to Eve: A History of Women’s Interpretation (IVP Academic, out now). Benckhuysen wants to rebalance the record with a chorus of voices rarely heard, voices of “remarkable, courageous, prophetic” women interpreters whose readings of scripture “highlight the dignity, worth, and full humanity of women.”
In the book, Benckhuysen, senior professor of the Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary and ordained in the Christian Reformed Church, delves into reception history—how Christians have viewed scripture and women’s roles in the home, the church, and society within the legacy of prior scholars and the culture of their times. “What I discovered was a research adventure,” she says, describing her pleasure in “covering and recovering women with intellectual prowess, strength of character, and a thirst for knowledge.”
The book concludes with an appendix of more than 60 expanded biographies of women—including scholars and laywomen across centuries—mentioned in the text. One of her favorites is Virginia Broughton, who was born into slavery and became a teacher and missionary. According to Benckhuysen, “Broughton made me laugh because she embraced the idea that the woman was the man’s helpmate,” but with a twist rarely seen in the 19th century: “Broughton’s view was that you have to work with what you have got. So, if woman is man’s helpmate, she should be in the pulpit helping him proclaim the Gospel.”
The chronology of the book is important, she writes, because “interpretation is never detached or disinterested, isolated from our own beliefs, contexts, and experiences. It is also not innocuous. Interpretations of Scripture have the power to bring about harm or effect healing, to tear down or to lift up.” The story of Eve has been used as a justification for women’s oppression and marginalization, Benckhuysen argues, when she could be seen with fresh eyes as “the catalyst for their liberation.”
Benckhuysen says she rejects any notion that her book is a kind of “feminist biblical criticism, as if the norm were white male scholarship and everyone else requires a modifier. Men never have to apologize, explain, or defend their lens or acknowledge how their conclusions tend to be self-interested.” Instead, a wider window of Scripture interpretation offers “good news for both men and women.”
Anna Gissing, associate editor for IVP Academic, says the book can be used as a text in courses on biblical interpretation, women’s studies, and in seminary classes, but is accessible to any reader. IVP will host a reception for Benckhuysen at the Institute for Biblical Research, an affiliate of the Society for Biblical Literature that meets during the AAR/SBL conference. “But this is not a work of technical exegesis,” Gissing says. “We have high hopes the book will cross over to general-interest readers. The questions about men and women are not going away.”
Aimee Byrd: Vision Correction
In 1991, conservative evangelical stalwarts John Piper and Wayne Grudem edited a ground-shaking book, published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which they helped found in 1987. That book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, prescribed the proper role of a Christian woman: to be subservient to men in all relationships, in marriage, the church, and wider society. And a Christian woman must tiptoe cautiously around men lest she demean their masculinity. Aimee Byrd, then a young wife, tried her best to be the model Christian bride, until she found in her Bible nothing like this stifling vision.
“On the one hand, the manhood movement is hypermasculine and strong, but on the other hand it makes men appear very fragile, so women have to be very careful about their tender psyches,” Byrd says. Even worse, she says, the CBMW book claimed authority with its title and asserted that the Trinity itself had established women’s subordinate role for eternity.
Byrd is not a scholar or a theologian. She’s a mother of three, a blogger, a podcast cohost for The Mortification of Spin, a speaker in demand on the Christian conference circuit, and the author of four books with P&R Publishing: Housewife Theologian, Theological Fitness, No Little Women, and Why Can’t We Be Friends. But she says she knew enough to spot this view of men and women as a pivotal error. She called it out in her blog, Housewife Theologian, which drew support from other evangelical pastors and scholars but no acknowledgment from the CBMW.
Byrd’s response to the pain she says the CBMW movement has caused is Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, which will be published by Zondervan in spring 2020. The key word highlighted on the jacket is from. Byrd wants the book to speak to the people who are fleeing the smothering, segregated, bring-the-casserole-and-mind-the-nursery limits put on women in too many evangelical churches.
“This isn’t a man-bashing book. And this isn’t a woman-empowerment book,” Byrd says in an interview. It is aimed at “church leaders, the ones entrusted with shepherding God’s people, the ones who can prescribe a better approach, the ones who can lead the way forward to a richer culture in God’s household.” She writes in the book that she structured it around stories of the “bravery, discernment, initiative, and resolve” of the Bible’s women, from Eve through Ruth, Elizabeth, and Mary; the book also addresses the current CBMW and the clash over views of the Trinity.
Byrd says her goal is to challenge “the now-engrained way of thinking about women and what kind of disciples women can be, given that everyone is talking about the same Jesus.” She writes that every believer has “the same honor and responsibility to communicate God’s word to others.” After all, Paul did commend his theological opus to Phoebe to take to Rome. “If Phoebe can deliver the Epistle to the Romans, a sister should be able to handle delivering an offering basket.”
“This book is going to be hard to ignore,” says Katya Covrett, Zondervan executive editor. Each chapter ends with discussion questions, and there will be a video series, a study guide, and a mini-course that expand the book’s reach. “Byrd’s goal is to facilitate change at the church level,” Covrett says. “Pastors are constantly asking her, ‘What can we do?’ ”