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Professor Tom Wright sets us all right

03 July 2015

Andrew Davison finds newness of life is key to a scholar's gospel


Simply Good News: Why the gospel is news and what makes it good
Tom Wright
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9


ACCORDING to Tom Wright, Christians have lost sight of the gospel. In Simply Good News, he examines today's distortions and attenuations of the Christian message in the light of the Bible. The main problem, he suggests, is a failure to approach the gospel as good news.

Liberals and Catholics get it in the neck for converting news into advice about how to live, or pray. Wright's real ire, however, is reserved for Evangelicals. While he has some sympathy for an invitation to transformation of life or to prayer - his final chapter approaches the good news through the Lord's Prayer - equating the gospel with penal substitution is beyond the pale. The New Testament teaches that "there is (a) more to Jesus's death than this ['he died for our sins'], and (b) more to the gospel than Jesus's death."

Yes, Wright thinks, St Paul's vision of the atonement is penal, in that it is judicial, and substitutionary, but Paul "does not say that God punished Jesus": evil, sin, and death are judged and destroyed on the cross, not him. To say that God punished Jesus so that he would not have to punish us, Wright insists, is not "the scandal of the cross" but a "shrunken, misshapen version of the gospel".

Another bugbear is the suggestion that Jesus helps us to go to heaven rather than brings heaven to earth. The Kingdom of God and the resurrection feature centrally in this book, and are seen as intimately related. This makes Wright's vision "political" in the truest sense: it takes our common life in the world very seriously. It is also ecclesiological. He expects the Church to demonstrate and labour for the transformation that the resurrection achieves and announces.

Other elements of doctrine also cross our path. His brief discussion of theodicy in relation to the resurrection is excellent, as is his description of how the "natural" relates to the "supernatural". Throughout, Wright draws on his commanding knowledge of biblical studies, and of the thought and political life of the ancient world. For that reason, his occasional lashing out against medieval theology and devotional practice - which clearly lie outside his primary expertise - will strike the scholar of that period as ill-founded, and rather overwrought.

Wright reminds us that the gospel is news, and that it is new. It does not simply tell us something that we did not know already, but is also supremely about newness. This book presents us with the freshness of life which was inaugurated by the resurrection, which is encountered so consistently in the lives of the saints, and which is represented so happily by the coincidence (at least in the northern hemisphere) of springtime with the Paschal season.


Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

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