How should we think theologically about the COVID-19 pandemic? Join Scott and Sean as they interview internationally acclaimed New Testament scholar, NT Wright, as he talks about his new book, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath.
More About Our Guest
NT Wright is Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Prior to that he was the Anglican Bishop of Durham (2003-10). Professor Wright is a prolific author; his books include The New Testament and the People of God (1992), Jesus and the Victory of God (1994), The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003), Scripture and the Authority of God (2005), Surprised by Hope (2007), Virtue Reborn (2010), How God Became King (2012), Paul and the Faithfulness of God (2013), The Day the Revolution Began (2016), Paul: A biography (2018) and (with Michael F. Bird) The New Testament in its World (2019).
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your cohost Sean McDowell Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here with a very special guest, Professor N. T. Wright is research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews. Senior research fellow at Wycliffe Hall of Oxford. He's not only a wonderful New Testament scholar, but he's a thorough going churchman too. Prior to this, he was the Bishop of Durham in England for the Anglican church. He's written a wonderful new book that we wanted to highlight in our conversation here entitled, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath. Professor Wright, we are so glad to have you on with us. Thank you so much for coming on with us, for writing this terrific book. It's not only wonderful reflection on the pandemic that we're facing at present, but it's a wonderful model of how to do theology well.
NT Wright: Well thank you. That's very kind. Thank you. I'm glad to be with you.
Scott Rae: So let me start with this. What are some things that we can learn from the early history of the church about how followers of Jesus responded to serious sickness in their communities?
NT Wright: Well, it's fascinating, isn't it? Because we are always in danger of thinking that if something bad happens, it's because God has got it in for us, or God is wanting us to repent or something like that. And there are moments in the New Testament when we see little bits of that, when Paul says that, some of you are weak and ill and some have died because you're messing around with the Lord's supper and you're not observing the right way that you should be performing, celebrating that. But mostly when bad things happen, the early church doesn't say, oh, dear it's because we've sinned. It says, what can we do to see if we can help? On my parade example is from Acts 11, when they hear there's going to be a famine right across the whole region, the church in Antioch, doesn't say, oh, this must mean that the Lord is coming back, nor do they say, oh, this is because we have all been terribly bad and we need to repent to something.
They say, who's going to be most at risk, what can we do to help and who should we send? And it's very practical. And I think one of the things I really like about Acts is that that practical approach. Which then continues right through the early church from the New Testament on the next several centuries, is that they see this as not an adjunct to the Gospel, but as part of the Gospel itself, because the Gospel is all about new creation. Paul says, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision matters, what matters is new creation. And for them, new creation is not just something you sit back and let it happen to you. It's something that by the Holy Spirit, because you're caught up in the movement of the love God you get on and do what you can. And so we find right across the early church, that sense of, actually this is a new day and we can help. And there is such a thing as medicine and education and looking after the poor, and we're not just going to hang our heads and say, oh dear, this is terrible.
And so there's a very practical spirit led response, which I find very refreshing. And of course there's more to say than that, but that's a good place to start.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Now it seems to me that their response was actually quite different than the cultural norm at that time. Tell us a little bit about how the church contrasted with what was the norm in the Greco Roman world at that time?
NT Wright: Yeah, the norm in the Greco Roman world was that if there was a famine or a flood or a fire or an earthquake or a plague, then people tended to say, it's because the gods are angry. And every city had its own gods and goddesses, as well as the main ones, Zeus and Poseidon and Mars and all the rest of them. And so it was assumed that there was some god who had it in for you. And so they would ask the priests who were often local magistrates as well, if they would do some clever bit of magic, maybe offer a sacrifice and inspect its insides. And then the priests would say, ah, it's because last year we didn't keep the festival of such and such properly. So we have to do that now and we have to offer some sacrifices to apologize to the gods. And that's just absolutely standard, so much so that the Christians actually get in trouble in the early days of Christianity. Because of course, one of the main things that marked out the early Christians was that they didn't worship the normal pagan gods.
Now, the Jews didn't either, but the Jews had done a deal with the Roman empire that that was all right, as long as they prayed for Roman, for Caesar, they didn't have to pray to Rome, but people were still suspicious. They thought that the Jews were letting the side down. It's like somebody who doesn't pay their taxes and the neighbors think they're getting away with it. And so when bad things happen, oh, it's their fault. Everyone's pointing the finger and maybe throwing stones as well. So that's the norm in the ancient world and the Christians really stand out against that. It's not that the Christians don't believe in repentance, they do, it's that everything now hinges on the message concerning Jesus. There is one God who is, you see this in Paul's address on the Areopagus in Athens, in Acts 17. There's one God, He Has made the world, He's calling the world to account and He's doing this, not by fire and earthquakes and famines or whatever, but simply through the message of Jesus. Of this He's given assurances to all by raising Him from the dead.
And what we see then, it's a very interesting hermeneutical exercise because in the Old Testament, of course, there are plenty of places like the Book of Amos, where it's clear the people of God have sinned and are being called to repent. Fair enough. Okay. And Jesus does, I think a little bit of that in John 5, He says to the crippled man who He's healed, don't sin again, less something worse happen to you. But actually His norm is to say, no, it wasn't this person who has sin nor his parents, this is John 9, but so that God's works might be revealed in him. So Jesus is not looking back and saying, oh, who are we going to point the finger at? Jesus is always looking on and saying, what is God now going to do? And then it's such an amazing story in John's Gospel. When you get then Jesus going to Bethany and weeping at the tomb of His friend, not because He doesn't know what to do, but because He does know what to do, but He grieves over the present state of the world.
There's that sense of the forward looking hope coupled with the present lament. And that's what we find again and again, in the New Testament.
Sean McDowell: Dr. Wright, there was a recent LA Times article about what people think God is saying to them during this time about how things need to change, et cetera. And the article said, the coronavirus has prompted almost two thirds of American believers of all faiths, to feel God is telling humanity to change how it lives. I'm curious what you make of that Biblically speaking.
NT Wright: Well, biblically speaking, God is always telling people to change how they live, but He normally does that through what we call the Gospel of Jesus and not normally through the extraordinary things that happen in the world. Of course, if there is a fault to be laid, we don't yet know the research isn't in, but if it can be demonstrated that somebody somewhere has been terribly negligible in doing things to allow this virus out, then we need to get to the bottom of that. And globally, we need to work together. And I know that people criticize the World Health Organization, but it's the only one we've got at the moment. But we need to strengthen our international bonds like that to say, what has gone wrong and how can we make sure that doesn't happen again? Like if there's an aeroplane crash and then if the same model crashes again, as has happened recently, we don't say, oh, this is because we've allowed gay marriage or oh, this is because we've been pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. We say, whoever was manufacturing, these planes has got some hard questions to answer.
So that's always there. But I think what I'm hearing from America, and I'm not hearing it in Britain because we don't tend to react like Americans do to this. But what I'm hearing from many friends in America, is people deducing all sorts of things. And it tends to be that the coronavirus is giving them a megaphone to say more loudly, what they wanted to say anyway, whether it's about global pollution or about gay marriage or whatever it is. And I just don't think that's how it works. If you look back through church history, there've been many epidemics, pandemics, plagues, et cetera. And no doubt in some cases, they are a warning about a health care, about hygiene, whatever that may be, that's fine, but here's the thing back to Jesus again, Jesus gave us this amazing prayer to pray day by day, which I and millions of other Christians, I expect you guys to, pray every day. And that says, thy Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.
It's not that we wait for some terrible event to say, oh dear, we have to pray that now God's Kingdom is going to come. We should be praying that every day. And likewise, we pray, forgive us our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We don't wait for some terrible thing to say, oh, we've now got to repent of the way we've been living. We ought to be repenting of the way we've been living every day and asking ourselves the hard questions every day. And if it takes a pandemic to make us pray the Lord's prayer and actually think about what we're saying, then shame on us. We ought to have been paying attention sooner. That this isn't to say that God can't suddenly, if He wants to jog our elbow or wrap our knuckles and say, hey, pay attention, I'm trying to tell you something. God can do whatever He wants, but I think it's far too easy just to jump in and say, oh, this is a special sign of something.
I think we need to be more nuanced than that. Basically more Biblical than that. That's the bottom line for me.
Scott Rae: Tom, you suggest early on in your book that the question we ought to be asking in the midst of this pandemic is not why, but what. Spell out a little bit more what you mean by that and how that connects with what the early church had done.
NT Wright: Yeah, well, it goes back to something I was saying before that in the early church, one of the fascinating things that not a lot of people know this because the early church history is not well known. In the second and third centuries when the Roman officials were trying to stamp out Christianity, one of the reasons that Christianity spread was because every time there was an epidemic or a plague or something that would striker city, the normal response was, as I said before, people would say, the gods must be angry, what we're going to do. But before you even get there, the rich and well-to-do including the doctors would get out of town fast and would flee to their country homes and get up into the hills where the air was clearer or whatever, because they didn't want to be infected by the disease. And the Christians right from early on would stay and would nurse people. This has all been written up by historians.
But as I say, it isn't that well known. And Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity has a whole chapter on this. And so often the Christians would be the ones who were nursing the victims who'd fallen sick. And people were astonished said, why are you doing that? We didn't like you, we thought you were disreputable. So why are you being kind to us? And they would say, well, we follow this man Jesus who gave His life to save us and you too by the way, and so that's what we have to do. And if it means that we catch the disease and die well, so we catch the disease and die. But we are going to show you that there is a God who actually loves you rather than the malevolent angry old gods that you believed in up to this point. And this made a huge impact. It's one of the things that caused Christianity to spread.
Because when the plague was over, people would say, what was that all about? Those people were caring for us. They were loving us and they were looking after us, even though we had been cruel to them. And so that coupled with the fact that the Christians anyway, just made a habit of caring for the poor, they made a habit of looking out for who was poor in the society and seeing what could be done to help them, not just to give them little handouts, but actually to help them in practical ways and so on. And so it's that sense of what is God calling us to do, which then calls forth the whole business of the Kingdom of God. That God is taking charge of the world and the way He does it is through Jesus followers, doing the Jesus stuff in practical terms in the world. Of course not to the exclusion of prayer, not to the exclusion of telling people that they need to repent and believe, that's all part of the deal.
But it makes its way in the world like Jesus Himself made His way in the world by celebrating the Kingdom through healing, through celebrations of new creation, through parties with repenting sinners, whatever it was. And it's very striking when you see how the early church went about it.
Scott Rae: One of the things I particularly appreciated that you emphasize in the book is the emphasis on what God is doing in the midst of events like this He does through human beings. It's not that God does something in isolation from how He worked through. But what He's doing is centered on how He works through the people of God and through human beings. But I think we often miss that point, we expect God to be doing something sort of separate and distinct from what He had to do. Why do you think we miss that point, which is so obvious in the life of the early church?
NT Wright: I think, I like the way you put that. That it's very interesting historically, there are two different things going on. On the one hand, there is the long legacy of the Protestant reformation, which I honor, which says we are justified by faith, not by works. But that is often now been construed to mean, therefore we should only be concentrating on, "spiritual issues", and leave any practical issues to social services, to the politicians, to the hospital system, whatever it may be. And that's a complete travesty of justification by faith. And if you look at Martin Luther himself and I quote him in the book, Luther himself was very concerned obviously he believed passionately in justification by faith not works. But then once you got that settled, then there are people hurting out there. And because we believe in a God of love and because He Has given us His Spirit, it's our task to go and help in whatever way we can and be wise about it, wise as serpents and innocent as doves in how we go about that.
But the second thing is, and I think this is particularly so in the modern Western Britain and America, ever since the 18th century, people have tended to think theologically first about God, as creator and provider with all the problems that that has got to do with it, and then putting Jesus in quite a separate sort of box. So that first you think about how is God running the world and how does God act in the world as though that is always God acting from outside the world, acting on the world from the outside. And then the whole question of Jesus comes as a separate category, but in the New Testament it's never like that, this is a problem ever since the day ism of the 18th century, the Epicureanism of the 18th century, which was very strong in Britain and particularly in the States. That people have tended to see the doctrine of Providence, simply as about God the Father and how he runs the world, rather than a Jesus shaped doctrine.
The answer to this is very simple, it goes back to Genesis 1. When God makes this wonderful world, He puts into it creatures made in His own image and being in God's image means to be God reflectors. It's like an image in a temple, which is there in order to show the world who the God is, and to receive the praises of the world on behalf of the God. That's what humans are in this world for, to be living demonstrations to the wider world of who the true God is. So that one might almost say that though, of course, God the creator does a million things, which we don't help with, it wasn't your, or my goodwill that made the sunrise this morning. Nevertheless, there's a great deal that God, the creator wants to do and is doing in the world through human beings. And the whole theme of wisdom in the Old Testament, this is what it's all about. God by wisdom made the earth and now he gives wisdom to His human creatures in order that they may be His wise sub rulers, as it were.
Ruling under His authority over His world, but ruling not in the bullying sense of ruling, but ruling in the wise loving sense. And once you start to see this, it's all the way through the whole Bible. In Revelation 5, we are redeemed by the blood of the lamb in order to be the royal priesthood, not in order to lie back and just gaze at God forever. Yes, of course we will enjoy the vision of God in the whole new creation, but already we are to be the royal priesthood. And I feel that a great many Christians have never even begun to think of what that actually means in practice.
Sean McDowell: When I look at your book on God and the pandemic. One of the things you do is you start in the Old Testament, you work to Jesus, go to the New Testament. You have this sweeping broad approach to scripture and place the circumstances we're in with this pandemic in the middle of it. Why do you approach it that way? And why is it important for Christians to think about this? Not just isolating verses, but seeing the sweeping narrative of scripture.
NT Wright: The isolated versus mean what they mean in context, if you take verses out of their context, you can make them stand on their heads and dance to your tunes and do all sorts of things. And the early church was very clear that the great story of Israel and God in the Old Testament, which was their basic Bible, has reached its climax in Jesus of Nazareth. Paul says all the promises of God find their yes in Him. And so that the Old Testament was never for the early Christians, a miscellaneous ragbag of proof texts for this or that. It was always the earlier bits of the story, which explain why the Jesus event means what it means. And then in the light of that, they move forward in the power of the Spirit, into this strange new world, which is the new creation, which is the beginning of the launching of the Kingdom of God, which is rooted in the Old Testament. But all of that has come rushing together, funneled together in this one, small sharp regulatory event of Jesus and His crucifixion and resurrection.
So I'm simply reading the Bible the way that I think the early church teaches me to read the Bible. And of course, there are many verses in the Old Testament, which you can take out of context and they will still speak to you. The Psalms and Proverbs are full of such lines, which jump across the ages and still speak to us. But the broad sweep of scripture means what it means as it presents itself as. That great story from creation to new creation, from covenant to new covenant, always with Jesus Himself in the middle, and then following up from what Jesus does, the Spirit enabling Jesus followers to be Jesus people for the world. That is how the whole thing works. And it occurred to me as I was writing the book that in a sense it's like a very small microcosmic lesson in what we loosely call hermeneutics, the science of understanding scripture.
Sean McDowell: That's really helpful. Let me ask you to apply that thinking to a passage that is so often cited when there's difficulty and tragedy. Romans 8:28, of course, God works all things together for the good. What's the context of that verse and how should we use it or not use it in tragedies like this?
NT Wright: Well, now you're talking. That verse is a very complex little bit of Greek. And very often it's been taken out of context and often it's been understood, as the King James version translates it, which is to say, we know that all things work together for good. Now, the Greek of that verse by itself is ambiguous. It could mean all things work together for good, or it could mean God works all things together for good. It could even mean, and some have argued this, that the Spirit works all things together for good. In the book as you'll have seen, I have argued following some very recent scholarship, including some friends of mine who've worked in detail on this more recently than I have. That for a start it really is God working all things together for good. But then the crucial thing is the next line, which is normally God works all things together for good, for those who love Him. But actually, the word for working together is a Greek word, which normally means, we're going into partnership on this.
Paul talks about his fellow workers as, synergo and that's the noun, but it's the same verb here synergo or to work together. And to work together takes, in Greek it's the dative case of the person that you work together with. And in the context in Romans 8, Romans 8:26 and 27 is just fascinating passage where Paul has been talking about the groaning of the whole creation. And then he's talking about the groaning of the church, when we Christians look at the world in pain, the temptation is to say, oh, this is because the world has been misbehaving and God is punishing them. And we Christians sit on the side and wring our hands and say how terrible, but that's not so at all, Paul says, we ourselves groan within ourselves as we await our redemption, our resurrection, the redemption of our bodies, that's the hope we were saved in. And then you might say, well, what is God doing while the world is in pain and while the church is in pain? The answer is God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit is groaning within the church, within the world.
So that the calling of the church is to be the people of lament at the point where the world is in pain. And that's a very profound statement of the Christian calling. And Paul at that point, alludes to Psalm 44, which he's got in his mind, because he's going to quote it towards the end of the chapter. And Psalm 44 is a classic Psalm of lament where the Psalmist is not lamenting because he, the Psalmist has sinned and he's saying, sorry, on the contrary he's saying, actually these bad things have happened to us and we have not been false. We have not gone back on the covenant. We have done what we were meant to do. So now what's going on? And so Paul says that the Spirit groans within us, within articulate groanings. And then he says, the one who searches the hearts, that's the allusion to Psalm 44 knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with God's will.
And which, I mean, this is just fascinating, that God, the Father knows what is the mind of the Spirit, but the mind of the Spirit at that point is in articulate. Because it's just, it's groanings, there are no words for the pain, which God, the Spirit is expressing at that point. And it's in that context that you get verse 28 and right up the front of the verse in Greek it's with those who love God, which must be an allusion to this sense that we are called to be the people who are part of this extraordinary conversation between the Father and the Spirit, the Spirit groaning, and the Father, knowing what the groaning is all about. And we are called to be people caught up in that, not to give glib answers and say, yes, we know what you ought to be repenting of or whatever it is, but to learn how to lament. It's very interesting in the last generation, there's been some really good books written on lament, including some really fine studies of lament by American theologians. And people have been sending them to me and I'm grateful for that.
And it seems to me, this is a lesson the church really needs to learn. So that it's then when we are being the people of lament, the people of prayer, at the place where the world is in pain, then Paul says, God is working with us, who thereby love God, so that then good things will emerge from this time of lament. So that's how Romans 8:28 works, we are called according to God's purpose, not in order to be separate from the world and to go off and relax and enjoy ourselves, but in order to be God's people for His new creation. And that's ultimately what glorification in Romans 8:30 is all about. This is of course a huge topic, which we could spend all day on, but that verse 8:28. I'm glad you brought that up because that is so crucial in this whole thing.
Scott Rae: Final question for you. And it's in two parts. First would be, what's the one thing that troubles you the most about how the church is responding to this pandemic? And then on the other side of the coin, what's the one thing that's stands out to you that gives you encouragement and hope amidst this pandemic?
NT Wright: Well, it's interesting. I attempted to drop a name here because I'm sure he wouldn't mind, but I did something for the Archbishop of Canterbury recently. He's got a whole program called, thy Kingdom come, which runs from Ascension day, which is tomorrow through to Pentecost, which is a week on Sunday. And it's online resources and it's special prayers and so on. And I've done some Bible expositions for that, which people can log onto and so on. And anyone listening, if you want to log on to thy Kingdom come and have a look, it's all there. But the Archbishop and I were talking about this little book, which I'd written because he's received some flack because of his following the government guidelines and saying the churches should stay locked for the moment because we cannot deep clean churches. So however much we distance ourselves from one another socially, there's still going to be the risk of infection, et cetera. And he's coming for a lot of anger and hostility.
And that has really grieved me because at a time when the church ought to be pulling together and turning its frustration into lament, instead, people have been turning their frustration into anger. And I know that some people on both sides of the Atlantic have seen this as a plot to take away our freedoms or whatever it is. And I think there's some right wing groups in America who feel that more strongly even than some do in Britain. So the sense that where there should have been lament, there has instead been anger, that is really sad. But to go back to him, I was talking to the Archbishop Justin Welby about this, and he shared with me, and I think it is now in the public domain, what he has been doing in this time of the coronavirus. The place where he lives, Lambeth Palace in Central London is right next door to one of the big hospitals St Thomas' hospital. And he has been volunteering as a nurse in the COVID-19 wards throughout this pandemic.
He's been going in for some time, most days, putting on the protective equipment, being with people who are dying or near death, praying with them, sharing the Gospel with them. And also being with the carers, being with the doctors and nurses who are there on the front line. That it seems to me, that is precisely what the early church did, and to have the Archbishop who people tend to think he's so great and good and high and mighty, he would stay in his ivory tower, not a bit of it. He's down there on the front line. And I really want to say, as I quote the poem from Malcolm Gates in the book, where is Jesus? Well, he's not confined by the fact that our church are locked up. He is out there on the frontline with the health workers. He is out there dying with the dying and grieving with the grieving. And I think that is just so encouraging to see the leader of the church to which I belong, actually taking that seriously and getting on and doing it. So very practical, but also very hopeful.
Scott Rae: That's a remarkable model, I'm so glad that you dropped that particular name.
NT Wright: Okay, thank you, good.
Scott Rae: But Tom, thank you so much for coming on with us. So appreciate your book.
NT Wright: Thank you.
Scott Rae: I want to recommend to our listeners God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath. It's great stuff, very practical, but also really rich theologically. And you'll get a good model on how to do theology well, so.
NT Wright: Bless you. Thank you very much.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest professor Tom Wright, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/think biblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.