How N.T. Wright Saved My Faith: A Call for Theological Complexity

nt-wrightAfter a couple of years of diving into the depths of theology, it had become clear that the “Sunday school faith” I had absorbed from my local congregation would not be enough to answer my difficult questions. At the same time, the deeply liberal theology of my college professors projected a God that was too weak and too far from the Jesus of Scripture for me to accept. Was I going to have to choose between being faithful to the God that I loved and having intellectual integrity?

This was about the same time that a Campus Crusade for Christ minister at my college handed a bunch of us copies of Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. I’m not sure he knew what he was doing. The group of us that read the book together quickly began re-envisioning Christian faith in terms that our Cru minister couldn’t accept. We started outreach to our campus by joining the critique of Christian caricatures and proclaiming a new way of being human. At the heart of this new way of living was the radical move of becoming actual friends (and not just “witnessing to”) our skeptical classmates. We weren’t just friends with Nathan, we actually enjoyed his presence (most of the time). He was part of our “circle.”

But even while I was having something of a revival in my faith, I was growing increasingly uneasy with the difficult questions that my church was leaving unanswered. Pluralism. Evolution. Left Behind. The seeming lack of concern for those that suffer. This wasn’t going to work anymore. I appreciated the rigorous depth of the Tillichian theology I was reading in class. It didn’t seem Christian to me at all, but it was at least thoughtful.

I had been listening to Rob Bell for a couple years at that point. Rob’s sermons fascinated me. But I couldn’t figure out where he was getting some of the history he was teaching. And then one day I happened across a reading list that he had put together that was making it’s way around the web. Somewhere on there I recall it saying: “Anything by N.T. Wright.” That’s the guy I wanted. I want the one that you can suggest “anything by…”

I bought a copy of New Testament and the People of God. I know now that there were many easier places for me to start. But the first 200 pages of that book blew me away. I knew that I had no idea what he was actually saying. I also knew that the few parts that I understood were exactly where I needed to be. His was an intellectually astute orthodoxy. And that is what I needed.

Since I read that book I have earned (nearly) three degrees in theology. When I reread those parts of New Testament and the People of God, I now understand fully what he intends and my intuitions then were correct. I have yet to find a single problem with the theology of N.T.Wright except for his prejudice against contemporary worship music. He can be forgiven for that. And I have actually become an intellectually astute orthodox theologian myself. I’m no Wright, but like him, I imagine myself to be part of the solution.

What solution? To what problem?

Every day I have university students come to me asking difficult questions:

“My friend says that when I pray I only “feel” like God is with me because of the way my brain is wired.”

“How do I respond to my roommate that says she can’t believe in God because her mom committed suicide? She says God could have stopped her mom.”

“My friend left the faith because he finally admitted he is gay. He says he doesn’t want to be gay. It is too hard. But he says he just can’t deny that he likes boys.”

These are not the kind of questions that you answer with Sunday School theology. Theologians with great minds struggle with these questions every day. But I have come to one very strong conviction: The Gospel of Jesus Christ can withstand your toughest questions. As I explain the complex version of the answers to these questions to college students, I inevitably hear them breathe a sigh of relief. They want to believe. But we haven’t given them good reasons to trust that they can. The Sunday School answers are not enough for them either.

So here is the call that I issue to pastors and church leaders and those that aspire to be. Stop telling young people that they have to “just believe” and instead give them complex answers to their complex questions. As soon as you hear yourself responding “It’s really pretty simple…,” just back away from the bumper sticker theology. Admit that you don’t know. Tell them you will find out and then do it. Even better, do the research with them. Help them see you struggle with it. The Gospel may be simple enough for a child, but it is also complex enough for the most difficult questions.

What are the questions that have really challenged your faith? Have you found sufficient answers? Who helped you find your way?

Related Post: My Unremarkable Ministry Among College Students

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  1. says

    Great post. These sites helped me enormously with my questions and wrestling with the truth:

    Dr Chuck Missler of opened up and revitalised the Bible for me. He comes from a high tech / CEO background – I love listening to his teaching, like this article:

    Dr Ravi Zacharias – (he’s been likened to a modern C.S. Lewis). He speaks across to world to university students and people of all faiths about Jesus Christ. I love listening to his teaching. – for all matters about creation / evolution. All PhD scientists and former evolutionists who now believe that God means exactly what He says. They are passionate about the authority of Scripture. I particularly recommend their Creation magazine and they also have a great web site.

  2. says

    I was just introduced to your website via your article about racism. One of the questions that I have struggled with is how do I reconcile honoring your parents and the charge we have to care for them in their old age after suffering years of abuse from them. I didn’t look outside of Scripture or really talk to anyone about how to deal with my unforgiveness and how being a caretaker was not my greatest pleasure. I just didn’t want to do it. Primarily because it was just the same emotional, guilt inducing advice. response, I read a lot of the about the Prophets, especially Jonah and how no one really wanted to do what the Lord had commanded, but eventually out of obedience, they went forth in His glory and power. I can still say that this is not my greatest pleasure, but it is my desire to obey the Lord. That’s what I try to do. go forward as an adult and not that wounded child. As far as the unforgiveness, I remember saying to God that I wanted someone to pay for the things that happened to me. Very clearly (not audibly) He impressed upon my heart, that He’d already paid for everything.

    • andrea411 says

      After so many years of forgiving my parents and still finding I needed to forgive them, the Lord spoke to me. I had already done what He asked. He said, its time to love them. So now I love the parts I can and forgave the parts of them that were bad…. I’m sorry if its simplistic but it actually took me about 30 years to get there… it feels pathetically funny to acknowledge that and healing too. Thanks for sharing, it helped me too.

  3. andrea411 says

    Jeremiah, thanks again for a wonderful post. I just finished ‘Surprised by Hope’ and have ordered 5-6 more of NT Wright’s books. Paul and the Faithfulness of God arrived yesterday. I’ll tell you in a few months (maybe years) what it says. I’m so excited to start reading. Got it used on ebay for $25.
    As a charismatic non-denominational Christian, Wright has helped me develop a mature theological foundation that can withstand the influx of ‘other’ doctrine that floats by regularly.
    I too love Ravi and friends… but Wright seems to have such a logical order in his explanations and such a heart for the Lord… almost like he knows him personally…LOL.

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