Tomorrow I will post my review of N.T. Wright’s chapter “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” from Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hay’s (eds.) Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright, but today I want to share something he says about the Chalcedonian Definition, wherein Jesus was stated to be fully human and fully divine over against the teaching of Nestorius, who was deemed a heretic and accused of splitting the divine from the human within Christ (though it seems many are not sure if this is actually what he taught or if it is merely how his opposition [e.g. Cyril of Alexandria] framed him).
“…the Chalcedonian Definition looks suspiciously like an attempt to say the right thing but in two dimensions (divinity and humanity as reimagined within a partly de-Judaized world of thought) rather than in three dimensions. What the Gospel offer is the personal story of Jesus himself, understood in terms of his simultaneously (1) embodying Israel’s God, coming to rule the world as he had always promised, and (2) summing up Israel itself, as its Messiah, offering to Israel’s God the obedience to which Israel’s whole canonical tradition had pointed but which nobody, up to this point, had been able to provide. The flattening out of Christian debates about Jesus into the language of divinity and humanity represents, I believe, a serious de-Judaizing of the Gospels, ignoring the fact that the Gospels know nothing of divinity in the abstract and plenty about the God of Israel coming to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven, that they know nothing of humanity in the abstract, but plenty about Israel as God’s true people, and Jesus as summing that people up in himself. The Council of Chalcedon might be seen as the de-Israelitization of the canonical picture of YHWH and Israelinto the abstract categories of ‘divinity’ and ‘humanity.’ I continue to affirm Chalcedon in the same way that I will agree that a sphere is also a circle or a cube also a square, while noting that this truth is not the whole truth.” (p. 135)
As I have talked with fellow evangelicals over the years it does seem that many find the Council of Chalcedon as being more political than doctrinal and few seem to think that anything substantial came from the decisions made there. Wright does not go that far, but he does seem to imply it only reached a half-truth and one could suggest that he doesn’t see the difference between the Christology of Cyril and that of Nestorius as being very relevant.
What are your thoughts? Do you think Wright undermines something very important that is found in the Chalcedonian Definition or do you fall to the side that sees the Council of Chalcedon as semi-irrelevant (or worse)?
Wright’s just being Wright. Nobody read the Bible correctly until he came along, or so it seems he’d like us all to believe. Every Council had political and theological aspects to it. We can’t fault the Symbol of Chalcedon for responding to the heresy of the day. We can’t fault it on the grounds that it doesn’t say something it was never intended to say. I also think that Wright (and those who follow him in this thinking, which is unfortunately way too many people these days) misunderstands the heart of Patristic theology/christology, which is the soteriological dimension. The Fathers (and their heretical counterparts) weren’t concerned with divinity and humanity “in the abstract” or for the sake of themselves; they were interested in answering the question about who/what Jesus had to be in order to redeem a fallen creation.
Nick: I wouldn’t go as far as saying that he acts as if he is the first one to correctly read Scripture. Like many modern exegetes he is concerned with trying to understand Scripture in its ancient context, which I think is a staple hermeneutical presupposition of the Reformation (ad fonts!). But those who are more “catholic” in their approach to Scripture do have the right to contest what at times seems like a disregard toward tradition (which is where Vanhoozer challenges him most at the Wheaton Theology Conference). Though to be fair, he does acknowledge the traditions with which he disagrees, which is better than some who merely disregard it.
That being said, you are right that Patristics (1) has a political context that ought not lead to automatic dismissal of their conclusions and (2) that they did have soteriological concerns.
But that leads to the content of this quote: Is Wright saying that they did not have these concerns or that these concerns were wrong, per se? I’m not sure I would read him that way. Rather, it seems that he is saying that they didn’t go far enough in their reading, not that they went the wrong direction. He feels that they settled for 2-D explanations of 3-D narratives.
What is most interesting is that it does seem to leave the door open to Nestorius’ view as a “ho-hum, details, details” error. I am not saying he says this, but that it could be understood that way. It would be interesting to hear more on what he thinks of Nestorius.
Brian: I was being a bit hyperbolic, but only slightly so, and I’m not the only one who thinks this way (see posts from Matthew Malcolm and Chris Tilling to the same effect). But back to the point… I’m struggling to see how his reading is more 3-D than Chalcedon’s. This is how I’m reading Wright here (my paraphrase):
“Chalcedon dealt with the issues at hand, but these weren’t the only issues that existed, nor are they the issues that I would have dealt with, so because they ignored issues not under direct dispute, and they didn’t say things like I would have said them, they’ve only offered a flat version of the truth. It’s still true, but not as true as it could be had they had a more Jewish-type reading of the Scriptures.”
My issue is with Wright suggesting that the orthodox Christians of the 5th century were somehow “flattening out” the debates, as if the debates were over Jesus embodying Israel’s God or his being the Messiah who offered obedience to God that no one up until that point had been able to. He’s addressing something that wasn’t under discussion. It’s like criticizing an apple for not being an orange. I can’t think of a Patristic theologian who would disagree with Wright’s two points even if they wouldn’t say them in the same way that Wright would. What I think he means to say is that the debates themselves flattened out the Gospel, but I wish he’d just come out and say that, but then one needs to only point out that every debate doesn’t need to be about the Gospel in toto—after all, it’s not like any of his books cover everything—that’s why he’s writing a series!
Is Wright arguing that the council de-Judaized Jesus or that they were de-Judaized Christians and so they were missing the proper framework with which to understand Jesus.
@Nick: That is a fair criticism. It does seem that he sees the de-Judaizing of Christology as negative because in seeking to address the problems of the time they set a trajectory that he feels has led to a misunderstanding of how the Jesus of history and of canon should be understood. Also, while Wright uses language that criticizes the theologians involved at Chalcedon, I sometimes wonder if he is actually upset with modern Christians who (in his view) focus on Christology through the lens of these disputes to the point of forsaking the message of the canonical evangelists. At least that appears to be his greatest concern as I read this chapter.
@John: As Wright words it I would say he sees the debates as de-Judaizing Jesus. He doesn’t seem to indicate that they did it spitefully as many Liberal Protestants (e.g. Ehrman) would portray it, but that it was the mistake of their day because they got so focused on things that he seems to deem as secondary explorations.
Brian: It’s possible that that’s his real beef. I suppose I’m going to have to break down and get this book.
Though I confess that if it is his central concern it is not worded appropriately. While the tone of the chapter indicates frustrations with modern readers who minimize Jesus to God-being-human-to-die-for-us-so-we-can-go-to-heaven-when-we-die he does place some blame on the early church for taking the Jewishness out of Jesus. But his main response is against the trajectory set by Bultmann and his form of Lutheranism (two kingdoms being turned into Jesus of faith v. Jesus of history), which he seems to see as being possible only because many generations of exegetes tore Jesus out of his historical context.
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