Well, Daniel and I are already half-way through our review of Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright (again, we would like to say a huge “thank you” to IVP for our review copies). We have already taken a look at the first four chapters where various scholars interact with Wright’s work in historical Jesus studies. Today we will examine the chapter where Wright has the floor and he gets to present his vision for where historical Jesus studies may go as relates to the life of the church.
N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?”
In this chapter Wright begins by looking back at where the quest for the historical Jesus has gone. He gives much attention to Rudolf Bultmann, emphasizing his project and the historical context within which it evolved. Wright’s major critique is that he understand Bultmann to have imported the Lutheran “two kingdoms” model onto Jesus. This results in a Jesus of history and one of faith. Once this move has been made scholars became more concerned with “the community” to which the gospels were written that the Jesus about whom they were written (p. 117).
The first person Wright finds who provides a good corrective is Ernst Kasemaan whose own work showed “if we don’t do historical-Jesus research, difficult through it may be, we are helpless against the ideology that manufactures a new Jesus to suit its own ends.” (p. 119-120) Wright uses Germany as an example, showing that when people no longer seek the Jesus of history we often find something like the Jesus of the Nazi ideology or whatever other culture it is wherein Jesus is being reinvented.
Wright says that as he was training for academics and the pastorate, “I found my self incapable of saying in the pulpit, ‘As Jesus said…’ without asking myself the question, But did he?” (p. 120) In his view many of his contemporaries either bought into the criticisms of their professors or they retreated to a Jesus with whom they were comfortable from the traditions from where they had come.
While he admits that he retreated into Pauline studies for about a decade (I can resonate) it was Schillebeeckx’s Jesus and Meyer’s The Aims of Jesus that drew him back toward the subject of the historical Jesus. One shift in methodology that Wright admits making is rather that asking whether Jesus said this or that (a crapshoot of a task) he decided to ask,
” Supposing Jesus said this or that, what would it have meant at that time? lead to the question, So what did Jesus mean at the time? What was he wanting to get across to his hearers? What was he trying to accomplish? What, in short, were his aims?” (p. 123)
Wright then spends some time explaining his historiographical method before presenting his “two main themes” (p. 133): the divinity/humanity of Jesus and the cross/kingdom in the life of Jesus.
Divinity and Humanity?
It is here that Wright presents his Christology. He notes,
“The Gospels are not primarily written to convince their readers that Jesus of Nazareth is the second person of the Trinity. They are not talking about that. Rather, they are written to convince their readers that he really was inaugurating the kingdom of God–the kingdom of Israel’s God–on earth as in heaven.” (p. 133)
According to Wright, “Jesus as kingdom-bringer has been screened out of the church’s dogmatic proclamtion. The church has managed to talk about Jesus while ignoring what the Gospels say about him.” (Ibid.) What must be acknowledged is that the Gospels claim “that this is Israel’s God in person coming to claim the sovereignty promised to the Messiah.” (p. 134) We must understand that this is God giving his son the nations (see Ps. 2).
Wright does not think that the tradition of the church has misunderstood Jesus like liberal scholars do, per se. Rather, he sees them as minimalizing him. He says this of the Chalcedonian Creed:
“…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.” (p. 135) (See a fuller discussion of this quotation here.)
For Wright we cannot merely do abstract theological readings of the gospels. We must do historical readings. We must ask what the evangelists sought to tell us and who this Jesus was of which they spoke.
Kingdom and Cross
At this juncture Wright addresses one of his pet-peeves: the separation of the kingdom from the cross. He doesn’t see this as something only Liberals do, but also Conservatives. Some want a “kingdom” Jesus who teaches us good morals, ethics, and about social justice. Some want a “cross” Jesus who teaches us how to get to heaven because he died for us. Wright will settle for neither dichotomy.
Instead Wright points out that the evangelists focus on a Christ whose Kingdom is proclaimed through his life, yet whose death is the ultimate proclamation as the whole world sees him declared “King of the Jews” while hanging from a tree. For Wright we cannot miss this twist. Jesus’ life matters because he is the Ps. 2 King. His death matters because it shows how God defeats the world powers through an inauguration that includes a suffering Messiah. As Wright says, “For the Evangelists, the kingdom is the project which is sealed, accomplished, by the cross, one the one hand, and the cross is the victory through which the kingdom is established, on the other.”
Kingdom and Resurrection
In the same breathe as the Kingdom and the Cross, Wright mentions resurrection. Resurrection says more about the historical Jesus than many credit. He critiques conservative apologist who seem to boil it down to God’s big miracle (though it is nothing less, p.148) when in fact if there wasn’t a particular belief about Jesus as Messiah prior to his resurrection the resurrection claim wouldn’t make any sense. He takes aim at those who like Borg and Crossan (though unnamed) want to imply that the early Christians didn’t know the difference between a physical resurrection and some sort of post-mortum “presence” of Christ. If Jesus was merely “felt”, like people say of their deceased loved ones, this would not make Jesus the Messiah, it would not lead to proclamation of the gospel, it would not lead to them speaking of ascension and enthronement.
Wright say, “So often preachers at Easter say, ‘Jesus is alive again; therefore he’s in heaven; therefore we’ll go to be with him one day.’ That’s not what the evangelists say. Rather, they say, ‘Jesus is alive again; therefore new creation has begin; therefore we have a job to do.’ And part of that job is precisely to tell the story, the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel’s God and the climax of the story of Israel, the means of the world’s redemption.” (p. 149)
Where does Wright see historical Jesus studies going?
(1) Big-picture: He says that for too long it has been difficult to get a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies if you are a big-picture person. Details people have it easier, but we need big-picture people. He says, “The study of the Gospels in the light of all we now know about first-century Judaism positively cries out for exploration of big, new subjects: Jesus and the temple, Jesus and priesthood, Jesus and economics.” (Now we know where Nicholas Perrin got the idea for his recent book!) (p. 150)
(1) The gospels and the church’s mission: Wright’s second point is that it is time for a “fresh reading of the Gospels in service of the church”. (p. 151) Taking his point from Jn.20.21, “As the father has sent me, so I send you” he finds it high time for the church to ask how the gospels impact mission. In order to understand the resurrected Jesus we must read the gospels which seek to tell us about Jesus before the resurrection. We must keep the Kingdom with the Cross and both with the Resurrection.
In this chapter he has some stinging things to say about Christianity that he finds as semi-Gnostic, which makes a good transition into his criticisms of Barthians. Let me share some excerpts (though remember excerpts are merely that, excerpts):
“…the church needs constantly to reconnect with the real Jesus, who the canonical Gospels give us but whom we have so badly misunderstood. The world will pull these things apart again, will lure us into the smaller worlds of either social work or saving souls for a disembodied eternity. Our various Western worldviews will force on us political agendas that are culled from elsewhere, which we can feel good about because they don’t have the cross attached to them. Gnosticism is so much easier than Christian mission: easier epistemologically, especially in today’s Western world, and easier socially and politically too. You don’t have to worry about justice in the world if you go that route. Beware of atonement theolgies that deliver a type of evangelical preaching which is actually detached from what Scripture actually says!…And those who, in order to renounce Gnosticism, become glorified social workers will find all too easily that they are caught up in a political agendas culled from elsewhere, which can be adopted with no need for the cross—the cross as the means of victory, and only means by which genuine kingdom victories are won.” (p. 152)
“We only know the meaning of the resurrection, and hence of present Christian faith, in the light of the kingdom and the cross. Without that, the very word resurrection loses its meaning and becomes merely a cipher for “the new spirituality.” The point about resurrection is that the risen Jesus, though now immortal and beyond the reach of suffering and death, is nevertheless the same Jesus who went about announcing God’s kingdom and dying to bring it about.” (p. 155)
“If the Messiah is not raised, said Paul, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. And, we might add, if the Messiah who died is not the Jesus whose history we know through Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, our faith is groundless and we are still in our fantasies.” (p. 157)
Let me say what I found positive and what I found negative:
(1) Wright’s correction of the Bultmannian project that creates a Jesus of faith not grounded in history.
(2) His emphasis on keeping the Kingdom, Cross, and the Resurrection together.
(3) His emphasis on ‘big-picture’ studies and the gospels as fuel for the mission of the church.
(4) His sound reminder that the church often shrinks Jesus, even when we say orthodox things about him. We must remember who he was historically and that must influence our doctrine. We cannot de-historicize Jesus.
(5) His criticisms of some Barthians who create a chasm between those who are inside and those who are outside so that the gospels are private rather than public documents. We cannot response to criticisms of the gospels merely by saying that they are Christians books for Christians. This type of retreat is futile.
(1) In his criticisms of orthodox Christology he could be misunderstood as undermining it. I don’t think that is what he was doing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was represented as doing this.
(2) The same with Barth. It doesn’t seem he has read much Barth, nor does he care to do so (I sympathize since I have tried very hard, only to find myself being drawn back to trying to reading the text trying to understand how early audiences would have read it), so I think he is reacting against forms of Barthianism. His criticism of Barth’s followers can easily be interpreted as criticisms of Barth, but I don’t think they are, though it is possible.
Schedule for this series:
06/29: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Brian LePort)
07/06: Edith M. Humphrey, “Glimpsing the Glory: Paul’s Gospel, Righteousness, and the Beautiful Feet of N.T. Wright” (Daniel James Levy)
07/13: Jeremy S. Begbie, “The Shape of Things to Come? Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies” (Brian LePort)
07/20: Markus Bockmuehl, “Did St. Paul Go to Heaven When He Died? (Daniel James Levy)
07/27: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, “Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology” (Brian LePort)
08/03: N.T. Wright, “Whence and Whither Pauline Studies in the Life of the Church?” (Daniel James Levy)