July 16, 2019

Recommendation and Review: Christopher J.H. Wright’s The God I Don’t Understand

While I haven’t mentioned him often on this blog, I’m very impressed with the work of theologian and Bible teacher Christopher J.H. Wright. Wright, like his obvious hero, John Stott, is undertaking serious Biblical theology in the cause of the church’s missional self-understanding. His recent book, The Mission of God, may be the best survey of the Bible as a text for being and doing church that is available for evangelicals.

Wright’s current book, The God I Don’t Understand, is, in his own words, a “meandering” exploration of three themes: the Biblical problem of evil/violence (particularly in reference to violence in the Bible itself), a theology of the cross and an overview of Biblical eschatology. But underneath this seemingly casual approach are first class examinations of some of the most troubling issues and questions that Christians face and ask.

Wright is a fine writer, easily accessible to non-professionals, with a special interest in the Old Testament. He’s written several books on the relation of the Old and New Testaments, as well as commentaries on Ezekiel and Deuteronomy. His work is richly Biblical, well organized and easily comprehended. He’s an outstanding teacher.

Wright’s approach is not the traditional apologetic approach of defending the faith or presenting an answer to unbelieving challengers to the faith. He’s quite aware of that dialog, but he’s also very open about the problems these issues cause for Christians. Wright is not selling answers. He deconstructs inadequate answers in each section, an exercise that may perplex some readers who will be annoyed that their favorite shortcut answers are found to be inadequate.

Wright is very willing to live with some unresolved issues in scripture regarding God’s sovereignty and the issues of evil and violence. He does not conclude that the best thing to do is force a reconciliation of issues that aren’t syncing up easily. He wants to hear out all the different parts of what is a Biblical conversation, give weight to all of it and resist turning faith into some form of rationalism.

Wright will stir up some dust with Calvinists of the A.W. Pink variety for his decision to not play “this text trumps that one,” but to listen to all of them and confess that God’s relation to evil and suffering is sometimes beyond our ability to understand. He will also irritate those who consider the extermination of the Canaanites to be a matter which ought not to give any Christian pause, but Wright is aware of how this subject is used by the new atheists. He’s also aware of how troubling the slaughter of women and children is to many Christians. With some rich Old Testament study and a balanced, humbler approach to entire subject of God-commanded violence than some will appreciate, Wright proves to be a solid teacher, more concerned with honoring God in the study of scripture than in playing God by our own arrogant answers.

In the third section, Wright also undertakes a substantial examination of the atonement, particular the critique of some in the emerging church in rejecting the penal substitutionary atonement. Wright shows that some of the emerging critique is helpful, but that many on both sides of the issue get drawn into “either/or” approaches to the issues of the atonement that are not Biblical. Wright creates a solid endorsement of penal substitutionary atonement without perpetuating the usual and predictable back and forth between emerging and reformed views.

I appreciated this book as the kind of topical Bible study we need more of in evangelicalism. Wright’s commitment to the Bible, the mission of the church and the seriousness of the Gospel is obvious, but he does not simply join one of the prevailing shouting matches. He creates a model of fair Bible study and shows how being a judicious, comprehensive scholar devoted to the Bible is far more useful than simply adding another echo chamber or avoidance strategy to the evangelical response to these questions.

The God I Don’t Understand has an excellent resource site, with a complete study guide and a full set of video “warm ups” with Dr. Wright for the entire book. This would be a meaty small group study that would be satisfying to new Christians with serious questions and Christians with a more mature appreciation of the Bible. Those doing pastoral care would especially find the first half of the book useful.

Order from Zondervan or elsewhere. Sample chapters are available.

Comments

  1. Thanks for this review. I would completely agree with your assessment of The Mission of God. So good and so foundational.

    I have not read The God I Don’t Understand Yet, but it’s on the stack!

    z

  2. One of the most profound pieces of advice I have ever recieved came from a priest. I had been struggling with several of the same problems that this book addresses. He looked me in the eye and said “You have to be willing to embrace the mystery of God”. It was a life changer for me. I no longer felt the need to defend or explain Him away when He did or allowed something I could not comprehend. I like it that this author seems to have given himself permission to do this as well when he eventually runs into one of those walls of incomprehension!

  3. Thanks so much for this review. I’ve seen his books on our shelf at our store before, but never gave much thought to what he had to say. Now I will. And BTW, “more concerned with honoring God in the study of scripture than in playing God by our own arrogant answers.” sums it up quite nicely! Very well put.

  4. Christopher Lake says

    Thanks for the review. This one looks like a must-read. The God I can completely understand is the God who can never *save* me, because He is no *better* than me!

    Here’s to understanding God where we can (not exhaustively but truly), and here’s to embracing the wonder and mystery of the true God whom we will never fully understand– not even in eternity! (Isn’t that amazing?!)

  5. I thank you very much for the review and good direct link. Despite some accepting of mystery, some other reading, I am just confounded sometimes when I read about that “other” God in parts of the Old Testament. I look forward to the book arriving.

  6. Thanks for the review, I agree, Chris Wright has done excellent work in this book.

    I got a chance to review The God i Don’t Undersand a couple months (linked below) and I really appresiated the way that Wright is willing to let some problems go rather unanswered, in the sense that while there might be better and worse ways to approach an issue, in the end there are certian things like the problem of evil that we simply are not going to answer to our satisfaction, and that’s ok.

    http://newwaystheology.blogspot.com/2009/01/tough-questions-of-faith.html

  7. Dag-nab it! Why you always gotta go messing up my resolution to read less theology and more crap?

  8. Clay Knick says

    A good review of a very, very good book.

  9. Appreciate the good review of a fine book. I have quoted him several times in various blogs. He doesn’t run from the hard issues and as you pointed out,he is very balanced and humble in his approach.