A Deeper Look at N.T. Wright's "Small Faith, Great God"
Preface: Tracing an Author’s Thought Development
The longer I blog, the more I am aware that what I think (and write) today may not line up with what I thought a few years ago or, for that matter, what I will think a few years from now. Views change. Even if we hold fast to certain rock-solid convictions that stay the same, our views on a number of other issues may shift over time.
Not long ago, a reader asked me what I would change in Holy Subversion if I were to write it today. Thankfully, I could say that I am still in agreement with everything in the book. But after some thought, I mentioned a couple sections I might tweak, adding or deleting particular points of emphasis. As we grow in wisdom and maturity, our views and the way we express those views may change.
I am fascinated by books and biographies that chart a person’s development of thought over time. Good historians take thought development into consideration. A recent book by Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, traces Lincoln’s views on race, slavery, and emancipation, demonstrating the clash between Lincoln’s early beliefs and his later conclusions.
Literary experts consider the progression of thought in the works of famous authors. Recently, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s early Notes from Underground back to back with his final (and greatest) novel, The Brothers Karamazov. The connections between the two works are fascinating.
Theologians must consider thought development too. John Calvin’s 1536 Edition of Institutes differs substantially in a number of places from the standard 1559 Edition, not least in the brevity of the first compared to the length of the second.
It’s from a theological perspective that I come to N.T. Wright’s newest book, which is actually one of his oldest. InterVarsity Press has recently released Small Faith, Great God, a collection of homilies delivered by Wright early in his ministry. This book was first published in 1978, but at least one of the chapters was written as far back as 1972.
At the popular level, readers will appreciate this book for the beauty and depth of Wright’s devotional thoughts. Because he has maintained a presence both in the academy and the local church, Wright is able to be robustly theological while also accessible to laypeople.
But I approach Small Faith, Great God at another level. Since I am familiar with Wright’s theology today (having read almost everything he has written since 1992), I can’t help but read this early book with an eye to the later development of Wright’s thought. In the preface, Wright even encourages us to look at his work this way:
I was… surprised to discover that quite a few themes which I had thought were more recent additions to my thinking were already there in embryo… There are several other connections which the curious reader of my work might tease out. (9, 10)
That’s me – the “curious reader” ready to tease out some of the connections. This week, I will compare and contrast Wright’s early thought and his later works. Wright claims to be in substantial agreement with the themes found in this early book, but there are a couple areas where Wright’s more recent works call into question his earlier writing.
A Quick Overview
First, let me offer a quick overview of the book itself. Small Faith, Great God is about the contrast between our little faith and our magnificent God. Wright intends to magnify the wisdom and power of God most clearly manifested in Christ’s saving actions on our behalf. Once we capture a vision of this awesome God, we will rest in his goodness and grace. He writes:
This book is about faith: and the way to faith is always down the road of an enlarged view of God, a view constantly checked and revised in light of the Bible. Without this, the God we worship shrinks into an idol, formed by our own imagination. Faith in an idol is no faith worth having. (17)
Throughout the book, Wright exhorts us to worship the true God of the Bible and not settle for the misconceptions of God that many people in our day would like to be true. We are called to worship God as he is, not manufacture a god of our choosing:
The God of the Bible is not necessarily the God I want: my confused desires almost certainly don’t fit in with who he actually is, and just as well. What matters much more is the God who actually made me, the God with whom (whether I want to or not) I have to do business. And he is so much bigger and greater than anything that I could imagine that I must never imagine that I have got him tied down and pigeonholed. We need to be constantly looking harder at the God of the Bible. Otherwise we shall discover that gradually the picture we have of him gets domesticated, whittled down to something we can live with. And gods that we live with comfortably are idols. (28)
The God of the Bible refuses to be fitted into our blanks: we have to reshape our lives around him. (76)
These warnings against idolatry seem remarkably contemporary, as books that make similar points (for example, Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods) are popular in evangelical circles today. Wright’s early emphasis on idolatry reminds us that every generation needs to recapture the biblical vision of God over against the idols of the age.
The reason Wright encourages us to deeper our understanding of the character of God is so that our faith will be strengthened. He writes:
Faith in the Bible is always determined by its object… What matters is not so much the faith itself as what it is faith in. Faith, as we shall see, is like a window. It is not there because we happen to want one wall of the room to be made of glass. It is there for the sake of what we can see through it – and in order to let light into the room. (25)
The Justification Debate (in Embryo)
According to Wright, Christian faith is tied inextricably to the character of God and what he has done on our behalf. Faith is “looking at our situation and our own frailty in light of who God is and what he has done for us.” (31) He goes further:
Faith means totally relying on God and committing ourselves to God for time and for eternity, trusting his promises, obeying his commands, not trying to make ourselves good enough for him but trusting in the fact that he accepts us as we are because of the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. (37)
In a nutshell, here you have N.T. Wright’s view of faith. I think Wright would define faith in much the same way today. But even here, one can see the embryo of what will eventually grow into the big justification debate.
Notice how classically Protestant this statement is: “Faith means totally relying on God.” Next, take a look at Wright’s inclusion of “obeying his commands” right after “trusting his promises.” Taken in context, Wright places the emphasis (both before and after this phrase about obedience) on the fact that Christian faith is not trying to earn merit before God but resting solely on the work of Christ. But that inclusion of obedience – the idea that saving faith works itself out through love – is key to Wright’s theology, and it sets the stage for his later controversy over justification, particularly the idea that future justification is based upon or according to works.
Whether Wright is solidly Protestant in the way he formulates this definition is up for discussion. Personally, I think Luther, Calvin (and most importantly Paul) would be fine with the way early Wright made this point. He appears to be saying what all Protestants would say: saving faith works itself out in obedience (“the obedience of faith”). But even here in a book released in 1978, I’m fascinated to see a Wrightian emphasis upon works, an emphasis which eventually will evolve into a full-blown controversy over the nature of justification.
Tomorrow, I plan to look at Wright’s view of the atonement.