In NT Wright’s book Surprised by Hope, he describes holiness this way:
Christian holiness consists not of trying as hard as we can to be good but of learning to live in the new world created by Easter, the new world we publicly entered in our baptism. There are many parts of the world we can’t do anything about except pray. But there is one part of the world, one part of physical reality, that we can do something about, and that is the creature each of us call “myself.”
This is not an argument against social or global holiness. Anyone who has read the book knows that a large part of Wright’s interest is in getting Christians to abandon what he considers a harmful emphasis on getting to heaven when we die in favor of more earthy and social redemption.
But I do find his description of holiness raising some points of contrast with a traditional Wesleyan understanding of the meaning of holiness.
It is no coincidence, I think, that Wright describes holiness as a process of learning. As he writes later in the book in a similar way:
For Paul, holiness is never a matter of simply finding out the way you seem to be made and trusting that that’s the way God intends you to remain. Neither is it a matter of blind obedience to arbitrary and out-of-date rules. It’s a matter of transformation, starting with the mind.
I think it is fair to say that Wright is trying to get us to think properly about God. My impression is that he believes that thinking properly is an essential and primary step toward proper Christian discipleship and holiness.
Having spent so much time reading and singing Wesleyan theology, I hear two contrasting notes — to use the musical metaphors that Wright likes so much. For Wesley, the entire affair is much less about getting our heads right and much more about our hearts. This is so much so, that Wesley goes on quite often about holiness of life being more important than proper doctrine or right ideas. Wesley never goes as far as some his interpreters want to go in dismissing doctrine, but he would not share Wright’s description above that transformation starts with the mind.
Wright writes of learning to be holy, and I hear in that word a kind of intellectual work. Wright is not all intellect by any means. He speaks of forming habits and using disciplines that shape us the way musicians or athletes are shaped by practice. I don’t want to make the contrast between Wright and Wesley more firm that it is.
But there is a difference.
Reading them side-by-side, I also hear in Wesley a stronger emphasis on grace as a transforming agent. Despite his warning that holiness is not about trying harder to be good, Wright writes a great deal about the things we must and should do if we want to learn to be the kind of people that God is calling us to be. He gives us lots of homework and puts lots of red marks on the papers we have been turning in for all these years.
Wesley writes much more — at least to my ears — of holiness as something that God does in us. There is no shortage of things for us to do. Indeed, one of the great virtues of Christianity, according to Wesley, is the way it fills up our every waking hour. Both Wright and Wesley write that Christianity is not just about what God does for us but what God does in us. For whatever reason, I convinced more by Wesley that this is the case than Wright. This just may be me, but reading Wright often feels much more like sitting in on a brilliant university lecture than it feels like proclamation and exhortation in light of Jesus Christ.
I’m not sure if this is a critique. Wright is not doing all his thinking and publishing to address my particular concerns. I am not meaning to describe any failing on his part, but merely my reaction to reading him, especially in light of the rather enthusiastic reception he gets elsewhere. It is part of my trying to work through why I find reading Wright often puts me in a “head” religion space that for all Wright’s lovely prose leaves me cold.
Others, I know, have different experiences with Wright. As a Wesleyan, I confess, he is the contemporary writer who most often reminds my of Wesley in his overall theology. Reading him is to encounter a thinker developing and explaining fascinating and penetrating insights that have been hard won in deep study. But for me, at least, I need holiness that is more about a warmed heart than a beautiful mind.