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(Originally published in New Dictionary of
Theology. David F. Wright, Sinclair B. Ferguson, J.I. Packer (eds), 348-351.
IVP. Reproduced by permission of the author.)
JESUS. Who is Jesus? How much
can be reliably discovered about him? What is the significance of his ministry
in 1st-century Palestine? Such are the questions posed by contemporary NT
Modern questions about Jesus
Questions about Jesus have been
central to, and symptomatic of, most major movements in the theology of the last
three centuries. The rationalism of the Enlightenment, for all its obvious
faults, did at least press these questions in an ultimately useful way, forcing
the church to take seriously its own confession that in Jesus God had not merely
addressed the world but had actually entered it. This movement produced the
so-called ‘Quest for the historical Jesus’, chronicled and criticized by
Schweitzer, who offered by contrast an apocalyptic Jesus, firmly anchored in
1st-century Judaism (as it was then perceived), often strikingly dissimilar to
the religious needs and expectations of the early 20th century.
kind of criticism had already been made by Kahler, who argued (1892) that the
search for the ‘historical Jesus’ was based on a mistake and was theologically
worthless. This position was developed in different ways by Barth and Bultmann,
the latter of whom stoutly denied even the possibility, let alone the
significance, of knowing anything about the ‘personality’ of Jesus, the category
with which Schweitzer had tried to make the 1st-century Jesus relevant to
subsequent ages. What the church needed was the ‘Christ of faith’, the living
Lord known in the present. The so-called ‘New Quest’ initiated by Käsemann as an
antidote to the potential docetism of Bultmann’s position modified the latter’s
scepticism to only a limited degree.
mid-1970s, however, a distinct new movement, a third ‘quest’, has begun, taking
the Jewish background and the actual historical task far more seriously than
most of its predecessors: it can be seen in the (very different) books of B. F.
Meyer, Geza Vermes, A. E. Harvey, M. Borg and E. P. Sanders. A feature of modern
study of Jesus has been a renewed awareness of the importance of the subject for
contemporary Jewish-Christian relationships, and many Jewish writers have
attempted to ‘reclaim’ Jesus as a good Jew misinterpreted by his subsequent
followers. As yet few major questions are settled in this new wave of study, but
the way in which the problems are being posed is potentially fruitful, despite
the Kahler-like scepticism which still greets any historical work on Jesus whose
theological usefulness to the church is not immediately apparent.
current scholarship, then, there is still wide divergence over the amount of
information available to us about Jesus. This state of affairs has the merit of
drawing attention to the fact that most reconstructions include or exclude
material not for ‘objective’ reasons, nor because of particular views of the
source-criticism of the gospels, but because of the historian’s over-all
hypothesis. It is becoming clear that the old liberal disjunction of facts and
values, of ‘event’ and ‘interpretation’, and ultimately of history and theology,
is unsatisfactory. All reporting of the past involves selection, and hence
interpretation: three people were crucified on Good Friday, and even to say
‘Jesus died’ selects Jesus’ death as the significant one. To say ‘Jesus died for
us’ is not to move from event to interpretation but to claim that the event has,
in itself, a particular significance. The fact that such language permeates the
gospels does not therefore invalidate them as historical sources: it merely
means that they must be read with uncommon sensitivity.
Jesus in his historical context
1. Any attempt to reconstruct the
history (in the fullest sense) of Jesus must begin with the Jewish context (see
also Paul). Modern study of 1st-century Judaism has revealed a much more varied
picture than used to be supposed by those who simply painted Judaism, and the
Pharisees in particular, in dark shades to offset the jewel of the gospel. Three
features of 1st-century Judaism stand out: a. belief in the one creator God who
had entered into covenant with Israel; b. hope that this God would step into
history to establish his covenant by vindicating Israel against her enemies (a
recurring metaphor for this vindication was the resurrection of God’s people);
and c. the determination to hasten this day by remaining loyal to the covenantal
obligations enshrined in the law (Torah). Debates within Judaism tended to focus
on the precise way in which the hope would be fulfilled or on the precise
details of covenantal obligation.
For many Jews, hope
crystallized in the expectation of a Messiah (i.e. an ‘anointed’ king from
David’s family) who would spear head God’s deliverance of his people. For
virtually all, the temple was the focus of the national life and hope: more than
merely the place of prayer or sacrifice, it was the symbol of God’s presence
with his people, the sign that he had not forgotten them. Temple and Messiah
went together in the Jewish mind: the original temple had been built by David’s
son (Solomon), and the coming Son of David would restore the temple to its full,
and promised, glory.
Jesus, then, was born into a
people whose national aspirations were all the stronger for being constantly
trampled upon by the callous Roman government and equally constantly whipped up
by would-be revolutionary leaders. It was a time when almost all Jews of any
description looked for God to inaugurate his kingdom, his sovereign rule, and so
to vindicate their cause in fulfilment of his ancient promise.
message consisted in the announcement that the time of fulfilment had now
dawned. The kingdom of God, long awaited, was now at hand. He saw himself, and
was seen by his contemporaries, as a prophet, bringing God’s word to his people.
But a good part of his ministry was devoted to explaining, in word, symbol and
deed, that, although the nation’s aspirations were now at last being met, the
fulfilment was not at all as had been expected. Many of the parables are
designed to answer the objection (prevalent in modern, as in ancient, Judaism):
if the kingdom of God is really here, why is the world still going on as it is?
Jesus’ answer is that the kingdom is present like leaven in dough; like a seed
growing secretly; like a wedding invitation which ends up with the wrong people
coming to the party. His ministry puts into effect the warning of John the
Baptist (Mt. 3:9): ‘Do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as
our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for
called Israel to repent of her nationalist ambition and follow him in a new
vision of God’s purpose for Israel. Resistance to Rome was to be replaced by
love and prayer for the enemy. Israel’s plight was radically redefined: sin, not
Rome, was the real enemy. Jesus’ exorcisms point to God’s healing of his sick
Israel, and they consequently belong with the controversy stories (e.g. Mk.
2:1-3:6) as part of his lifelong battle with the forces of evil which came to a
climax on the cross (cf. Mt. 4:1-11; 8:28-34; 12:22-32; 27:39-44). His healings
of the blind, lame, deaf and dumb, and his calling of the outcasts and poor to
enjoy fellowship with himself, all of which hinge on faith as the appropriate
response to Jesus, indicate his reconstitution of the people of God (Lk. 13:16;
19:9-10). For those with eyes to see, the ‘resurrection’, i.e. the remaking of
Israel, has already begun (Lk. 15:1-2, 24, 32; 16:19-31).
Jesus’ announcement of the (paradoxical) inauguration of God’s kingdom we find a
constant warning: If the nation refuses to turn from its collision course with
God’s purposes, the inevitable result will be terrible national devastation.
Jesus couches these warnings in the standard language of apocalyptic prophecy.
Just as Jeremiah had prophesied that the ‘Day of the Lord’ would consist not in
the salvation of Jerusalem from Babylon but in her destruction at Babylon’s
hands, so Jesus warns that the coming of the kingdom will mean, within a
generation, destruction for the nation, the city and the temple that have turned
their back on the true purposes for which they had been called and chosen (e.g.
Lk. 13:1-9, 22-30, 34-35). These warnings come to a head in the great discourse
(Mt. 24; Mk. 13; Lk. 21) in which the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the
temple is predicted.
4. In both
these elements of Jesus’ ministry we find a. a constant, albeit veiled,
self-reference, and b. the seeds of that conflict with the Jewish establishment
which led to Jesus’ death. Thus:
Jesus’ welcome of sinners and outcasts, and in his preaching of the good news of
the kingdom to the poor, there is the constant implication that to be welcomed
by Jesus was to be welcomed by the God of Israel into membership in his true
people. The calling of the twelve disciples makes the same point, signifying the
renewal of the twelve tribes, with Jesus not as primus inter pares but as
the one who calls this renewed Israel into being. He apparently draws the
nation’s destiny on to himself, fulfilling in himself the call of Israel to
imitate God in the holiness of mercy, not of separation from the world (Lk.
6:27-36), and summoning others to find their true vocation in following him. The
title ‘Son of Man’ which he apparently used as his favourite self-designation
could have been heard as meaning simply ‘I’ or ‘somebody like me’, but it also
carried the implication of the apocalyptic picture in Dn. 7, in which the
suffering Israel is seen as the human figure at present in subjugation to the
‘beasts’ (i.e. the foreign nations) and who is then vindicated by God. There is
good evidence that this figure, Israel’s representative, was already by the time
of Jesus regarded by some as messianic. Thus it is no surprise to find Jesus
regarded as Messiah during his lifetime: the title did not, by itself, imply
more than ‘Israel’s anointed representative, through whom God is redeeming his
people’, although Jesus was engaged in filling this title, too, with fresh
meaning. So, too, in Jesus’ warnings to the nation the constant repetition of
‘within a generation’ indicates that the imminent destruction of Jerusalem would
come inevitably on the generation that had rejected him: over and above
any ideas of specially inspired knowledge, Jesus knew himself to be God’s final
word to his people, rejection of which would mean swift judgment (cf. Lk.
acting out of his announcement of the kingdom met with strong opposition from
various groups, particularly from the Pharisees with whom, in other respects,
Jesus had much in common. His radical attacks on scrupulous observance of the
sabbath and the kosher laws (cleanliness, purity, dietary regulations)
were aimed not so much at ‘legalism’ as at the key symbols of Jewish
nationalism. They can thus be directly correlated with such actions as the
welcome to quisling tax-collectors. Jesus, like Elijah and Jeremiah, was
regarded as a traitor to the national cause. At the same time there is good
evidence to support the verdict of the gospel writers that the national
aristocracy (the Sadducees, who held power as puppets of the Romans) would be
alarmed at someone who, regarded as a prophet and herald of the kingdom of God,
might fan nationalist sentiment (however far that was from Jesus’ intention).
these elements in Jesus’ ministry come together in the events which, in the
synoptic gospels at least, cluster together in the last week of his ministry. He
enters Jerusalem in apparently deliberate fulfilment of messianic prophecy. He
acts out in symbolic form God’s judgment on the temple which has become the
focal point of spurious national ambition. He engages in controversy with
Pharisees and Sadducees, pointing to their impending final rejection of him as
the climax of Israel’s renunciation of God’s call (Lk. 20:9-19) and hinting that
the Messiah might be more than a mere nationalist leader (Lk. 20:41-44). He
makes his final predictions of God’s impending judgment on the nation (in
characteristically apocalyptic language, often misread as referring to the end
of the entire world). He celebrates the Passover with his disciples, investing
the occasion with new meaning by pointing forward to his own death, not backward
to the exodus, as the true redemption of God’s people. After betrayal by one of
the twelve, he is tried on a charge which, like everything else in his life and
work, defies separation into ‘religious’ and ‘political’ elements: his words
against the temple, his claims to Messiahship, were reemphasized in his final
answer to the high priest (Mk. 14:62), claiming that Israel’s destiny, and her
long-awaited vindication by God after suffering, was about to be fulfilled in
him and, apparently, him alone. He would carry out Israel’s task: and, having
pronounced Israel’s impending judgment in the form of the wrath of Rome which
would turn out to be the wrath of God, he would go ahead of her and take that
judgment on himself, drinking the cup of God’s wrath so that his people might
not drink it (Mk. 14:36; 10:45, etc.).
crucifixion, therefore, Jesus identified fully (if paradoxically) with the
aspirations of his people, dying as ‘the king of the Jews’, the representative
of the people of God, accomplishing for Israel (and hence the world) what
neither the world nor Israel could accomplish for themselves. To the question
‘Why did Jesus die?’ there are traditionally two sorts of answers: the
theological (‘He died for our sins’), and the historical (‘He died because he
fell foul of the authorities’). These two answers turn out to be two ways of
saying the same thing. In Israel’s final national crisis the evil of the world,
ranged against God’s people, and the evil within God’s people themselves, came
to a head and, as a matter of history, put Jesus to death. As the story of the
exodus is the story of how God redeemed Israel, so the story of the cross is the
story of how God redeemed the world through Israel in person, in Jesus, the
6. It is within this story, not superimposed upon it from outside, that we can
trace the beginnings of that doctrine of incarnation which had already become
common property in the early church by the time of Paul (see Phil. 2:5-11). The
task to which Jesus knew himself to be called, and to which he was obedient, was
a task which, in OT terms, could be done only by God himself (Is. 59:15-19;
63:7-9; Ezk. 34:7-16). Conscious of a vocation appropriate for Israel’s God
himself, the human Jesus conducted his life in confident faith and obedience,
making implicit and explicit claims which, if not true, would be blasphemous. He
spoke and acted with an underived authority. It is in this light that we can
understand the phrase ‘son of God’, in the OT a title for Israel and for the
Messiah, which becomes in the NT the vehicle of a further truth which includes
but transcends both. And the God who can be seen active in the ministry and
especially the death of Jesus is precisely Israel’s God, the God of covenant
love and faithfulness. The love which apparently contracted uncleanness in
contact with the sick and the sinners, but which turned out to be life-giving,
is fully unveiled on the cross as God himself takes on the role of the king of
the Jews, leading the people of God in triumph against their true enemy.
resurrection (see Resurrection of Christ) is thus God’s demonstration that the
claims made during the ministry, which reached their climax on the cross, were
true. ‘We had hoped’, said the disciples on the road to Emmaus, ‘that he was the
one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Lk. 24:21), with the implication ‘but we
were wrong: he was crucified’. The resurrection demonstrates that they had been
right all along, and that the cross, so far from being the failure of Jesus’
messianic mission, was its crowning achievement.
In the light of Jewish expectation a non-physical resurrection would be a
contradiction in terms. At the same time, the Jews expected the resurrection of
all the righteous dead at the end of time, not that of one man within continuing
human history, so that Jesus’ resurrection took its place within the over-all
remoulding of the current expectation of God’s kingdom. That which had been
glimpsed in his ministry (a renewed world order, and a renewed people of God
which all were summoned to join) had been brought to actualization. It was left
to Jesus’ followers, empowered by his Spirit, to implement his achievement by
means of world-wide mission, exploring its implications in worship and
E. Bammel and C. F. D. Moule (eds.), Jesus and the
Politics of His Day (Cambridge, 1984); M. Borg, Conflict, Holiness and
Politics in the Teachings of Jesus (New York and Toronto, 1984); J. W.
Bowker, Jesus and the Pharisees (Cambridge, 1973); G. B. Caird, Jesus
and the Jewish Nation (London, 1965); A. E. Harvey, Jesus and the
Constraints of History (London, 1982); B. F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus
(London, 1979); J. M. Robinson, A New Quest of the Historical Jesus
(London, 1959); E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (London, 1985); E.
Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (ET, London, 1979); A.
Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (ET, London, 1954); G.
Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London, 1973).
talks about how to present the gospel in a postmodern world.
by Tim Stafford
The longer that I've gone on as a New Testament scholar and
wrestled with what the early Christians were actually talking about, the more
it's been borne in on me that that distinction is one that we modern Westerners
bring to the text rather than finding in the text. Because the great emphasis in
the New Testament is that the gospel is not how to escape the world; the gospel
is that the crucified and risen Jesus is the Lord of the world. And that his
death and Resurrection transform the world, and that transformation can happen
to you. You, in turn, can be part of the transforming work. That draws together
what we traditionally called evangelism, bringing people to the point where they
come to know God in Christ for themselves, with working for God's kingdom on
earth as it is in heaven. That has always been at the heart of the Lord's
Prayer, and how we've managed for years to say the Lord's Prayer without
realizing that Jesus really meant it is very curious. Our Western culture since
the 18th century has made a virtue of separating out religion from real life, or
faith from politics.When I lecture about this, people will pop up and say,
"Surely Jesus said my kingdom is not of this world." And the answer is no, what
Jesus said in John 18 is, "My kingdom is not from this world." That's ek tou
kosmoutoutou. It's quite clear in the text that Jesus' kingdom doesn't start
with this world. It isn't a worldly kingdom, but it is for this world. It's from
somewhere else, but it's for this world.
The key to mission is always worship. You can only be
reflecting the love of God into the world if you are worshiping the true God who
creates the world out of overflowing self-giving love. The more you look at that
God and celebrate that love, the more you have to be reflecting that overflowing
self-giving love into the world.
The rewards of N. T.
Wright's historical recovery of Jesus are great—but he raises more questions
than he answers.
April 27, 1998
In the past several years, New Testament scholar Tom
Wright has stepped forward as the most scintillating champion of belief that the
canonical Gospels, at least the first three of them, give us a reliable record
of what Jesus of Nazareth actually said and did. A modern-day Saint George,
Wright slays the dragon of skepticism with a flair that leaves even an
antagonist like John Dominic Crossan marveling at his ability to captivate a
critical audience. Thus the glowing description of Wright in an advertisement
for his far-flung seminars: "Internationally acclaimed as today's most exciting
communicator and most inspiring interpreter of the New Testament" as well as
"most popular lecturer in the University of Oxford's Faculty of Theology." No
longer lecturing in Oxford, Wrights jets here, there, and everywhere from the
deanery at Lichfield Cathedral to make his case before scholarly elites and
popular audiences alike. He has become a one-man show and, not without reason,
the darling of many conservatives. So Jesus and the Victory of God, which
elaborates Wright's views, is bound to attract a lot of attention.
The book makes up volume 2 in a series titled Christian Origins
and the Question of God, ambitiously projected to run to five volumes. Volume 1,
The New Testament and the People of God, occupied itself mainly with
background and method. Later volumes will take up the Gospel of John through the
Book of Revelation—above all, the letters of Paul. In addition to the volume
under review, I will take some account of Wright's earlier published work.
With a sweeping and imaginative proposal, Jesus and the
Victory of God treats the figure of Jesus as portrayed in the synoptic
Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Arguably, nevertheless, and despite some
self-description to the contrary, the treatment does not represent biblical
theology in a strict sense. For Wright is not interested in the synoptic
portrayals of Jesus for their own sake so much as for what they can tell us
about the Jesus of history who stands behind them. As already implied, Wright
sees little difference between those portrayals and the historical Jesus, so
that for the most part biblical theology and history merge into each other. But
this merger prompts, in turn, another merger, that of the plural Jesuses of
Matthew, Mark, and Luke into one synoptic Jesus. Thus the distinctive lineaments
of the various portrayals are blurred almost to the vanishing point; Wright's
main interest remains historical rather than biblical, and historicity is
insulated against the doubts that differences between the Synoptics often raise
(to say nothing about greater differences between these Gospels and the Gospel
To some, the insulation will seem facile insofar as the
neglected differences fall into patterns, suggesting that other-than-historical
concerns led the evangelists to write unhistorically more often than Wright
concedes. Repeatedly, for instance, he explains differences between parallel
sayings of Jesus as due to Jesus' own variations, spoken on more than one
occasion, and neglects the significant fact that, throughout, the sayings in
Matthew tend toward rigorism, those in Luke toward humaneness, and so on.
Given his main interest, though, Wright starts appropriately
with the nineteenth-century quest of the historical Jesus and moves next to the
new quest inaugurated in 1953 by Ernst KŠsemann and revived more recently by the
Jesus Seminar. Wright's skewering of that seminar and its construction of a
nonapocalyptic, almost non-Jewish Jesus occupies considerable space and shows
Wright at his jousting best. Lastly, he associates himself with the third quest,
represented also by E. P. Sanders and others who, on the whole, value synoptic
historicity higher than does the Jesus Seminar and see the historical Jesus as
solidly Jewish in outlook. The rest of Wright's book is devoted to spelling out
the details of that outlook. What are they?
They are, Wright proposes, that, whereas the Jews regarded
themselves as still living in exile because of Roman domination, Jesus announced
that the divinely promised and long-awaited restoration was under way. (So he
appeared less a teacher of wisdom than a prophet.) According to him, moreover,
the restoration was taking place in and through his ministry. How so, given that
he was not throwing off the Roman yoke?
Well, Jesus had redefined the problem of Jewish exile and its
solution. The problem lay, not in Roman domination, but in the Jews' satanically
inspired zeal to free themselves from it by armed revolution instead of carrying
out their divinely appointed task of leading Gentiles to worship the one true
God. The solution lay in repentance from that nationalistic sin and in belief in
Jesus as the focal point of a renewed people of God that included Jewish
outcasts and Gentiles. As such a focal point, Jesus spoke and acted
messianically as well as prophetically, though neither for him nor for the Jews
did messiahship entail deity.
To renew God's people more inclusively, Jesus also redefined the
Torah along lines of mercy and forgiveness as opposed to Israelite ancestry,
food laws, and such like. The temple he redefined in terms of himself and his
followers. And so it became unnecessary to obtain forgiveness through offering a
sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, to observe Mosaic restrictions on diet, or
to observe other practices demarcating Jews from Gentiles.
No wonder that the leaders—Torah-centered Pharisees and
temple-centered chief priests alike—opposed Jesus. He was dismantling the main
symbols of Jewish national identity! It did not take omniscience for him to see
the opposition mounting; so he made his last journey to Jerusalem under the
conviction that there he would be put to death and thus suffer the great
tribulation that was expected to befall Israel just before God ushered in his
Then Jesus did something that galvanized his opponents,
especially the chief priests. He physically assaulted the sacrificial system of
worship that took place in the temple. The assault was no mere attempt at
reformation. No, it was an acted-out prophecy of judgment, of coming
destruction. And reports came that Jesus had predicted such destruction
In fact, he had. Earlier warnings of coming wrath had dealt, not
with the eternal judgment of individual sinners hereafter, but with God's using
the Romans to judge the Jewish nation here and now for their insurrectionism.
More recently and specifically, Jesus had cleared the ground for a redefined
temple by predicting that the old, corrupt one would be destroyed within a
generation. Furthermore, this destruction would make obvious that he and the
renewed people of God now constituted the true temple, that God had returned to
it, and that for his renewed people, the exile, the real one, had ended.
What to do with Jesus? Get rid of him, naturally, and use the
Romans to do so. His constant talk of God's kingdom and his own kinglike deeds
and words could be misrepresented as insurrectionary. The Romans crucified Jesus
as King of the Jews, then. Only it was not so easy to get rid of him. He rose
from the dead. That event, too, Wright treats as historical, not as fictional or
eschatologically excluded from critical investigation.
Finally, Jesus came again at the destruction of Jerusalem and
the temple in A.D. 70. Not in the way a traditional view of the Second Coming
has it, of course. All that language about the sun's darkening, the moon's
turning to blood, the stars' falling, and the Son of Man's coming in clouds
derives from the Old Testament, where it is used metaphorically, not to describe
an end to the space-time universe, but to invest human events with theological
Thus, talk of celestial disasters painted the destruction of
Jerusalem and the temple in colors of divine judgment, and seeing the Son of Man
coming in clouds meant a recognition that the destruction both demonstrated
Jesus' having already ascended to God's right hand, as distinct from descending
to earth in the future, and vindicated God's renewed people still living on
earth. So Jesus did not make a chronological mistake when he said that
everything would happen before the contemporary generation passed away.
Everything did happen, right on schedule. For the events of A.D. 70—the
destruction of Jerusalem and the temple—were all that Jesus was predicting, and
they took place within a generation of his prediction. Furthermore, those events
marked the victory of God over those who had engineered the death of his son
Jesus (hence the title of Wright's book).
There is much to learn from this reconstruction of the
historical Jesus, and we may laud Wright for some sterling contributions: his
calling attention to the neglected motif of exile and return; his maintaining
Jesus' Jewishness; his defending Jesus' messianic self-consciousness (though
self-consciousness of a uniquely divine sonship gets shortchanged); his
resisting the separation of faith from history; his enlarging the historical
base of our knowledge concerning Jesus; and his sharpening our tools of
historiography, especially his developing a criterion of double
similarity-cum-double dissimilarity: what is credible in first-century Judaism
and as a starting point for Christianity, but sufficiently unlike both to be a
mere reflection, is likely historical.
But there is also much to question. Most of it has to do with
the possibility that Wright presses his thesis too far, makes it
all-encompassing when, in fact, it validly covers only one aspect of Jesus'
ministry. In other words, can all the synoptic and related texts tolerate the
controlling story of reinterpreted exile and restoration that Wright places on
them? For example, can the prodigal son, who wanted distance and wasted his
substance in riotous living, represent Israel, who did not want to go into exile
and had no substance to waste there? Or can the sower's sowing of good seed
stand for God's causing true Israel to return from exile, even though Jesus
describes as good, not any seed, but soil?
Why are Jesus' sheep scattered when he is struck? Is not the
striking of the shepherd supposed to effect the opposite, their being gathered
from exile? How is it that the elect are not gathered till after the great
tribulation—that is, till after the Jewish War of A.D. 66-74, in Wright's
view—if Jesus was already gathering them from their exile 40 years earlier? How
is it that Paul put "our gathering together to him" not till a future "coming of
our Lord Jesus Christ"? How is it that James and Peter addressed the recipients
of their epistles as exiles in the Diaspora rather than as returnees from it?
According to Wright, Jesus thought that in his Passion he would
suffer the great tribulation vicariously and thereby enable his followers living
in Judea to escape the coming Roman slaughter, as they later did by fleeing
Jerusalem before its destruction. Is not this restriction of the benefits of his
suffering to Judean disciples too severe? Does not his expanding to "all" the
address of his command, "Watch," imply a larger group? The destruction benefited
disciples outside Judea by putting a stop to persecution emanating from there,
yet this benefit did not derive from Jesus' suffering but from that of
unbelieving Jews; and the benefit was erased by a shift to Roman persecution.
If Jesus he would suffer the great tribulation for his
disciples, why did he put it after the abomination of desolation and link it
with their later experience rather than with his own immediate experience? And
how is it that he called on them to take up their crosses and follow him? Of
what did their restoration from exile consist if they were not only going to
continue living under Roman domination but also endure persecution for Jesus'
sake? Does not answering that their restoration consisted in deliverance from
the sin of insurrectionism spiritualize the restoration in a way analogous to
the doctrine of "abstract atonement" on which Wright pours scorn? Does not most
of Jesus' pacifistic teaching have to do with nonretaliation against Jewish
persecutors rather than with nonrebellion against Roman overlords?
Does it not turn scriptural emphasis upside down to interpret
the plural "sins" that people repentantly confessed as primarily the singular
sin of nationalistic insurrectionism, only secondarily of individuals' sinning
in various ways that Jesus discusses at length in his moral teaching? And has
not Wright's fixation on redefined exile and restoration likewise led him to
ignore and even deny Pharisaic legalism as an object of Jesus' critique?
If Jesus' charge that the temple had become "a den of robbers"
meant that it had become "a den of revolutionaries," why did Jesus drive out the
buyers and sellers of sacrificial animals and birds? In what way did their
activity represent insurrectionism? And if Jesus meant to do away with the
temple and its sacrificial worship, why did he tell a cleansed leper to go show
himself to the priest and offer the things commanded by Moses? Why did Jesus say
to offer your gift at the altar after reconciliation with your brother? Why did
Jesus clear the outer court of the temple to enable Gentiles to pray there?
Why should we regard the mountain being cast into the sea as
Mount Zion, where the temple was located, when that mountain has not been
mentioned in the context, when the Mount of Olives has been mentioned recently,
when "this mountain" refers more naturally to the Mount of Olives, right where
Jesus and his disciples were located, than to Mount Zion in the distance, and
when he hardly meant that the destruction of the temple would happen because
some disciple of his was actually going to tell Mount Zion to be thrown into the
If in speaking of judgment to come Jesus did not refer to the
last judgment but to the destruction in A.D. 70, what are we to make of the
Ninevites' and queen of the south's being raised "in the judgment with the men
of this generation"? Did he think the Ninevites and queen would rise from the
dead at the destruction? And in what sense did the destruction fulfil the
judgment of "all the nations," a judgment issuing in "eternal life" for "the
sheep" and "eternal punishment" for "the goats," not in temporal survival and
death, as in A.D. 70? Did the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple really
exhaust Jesus' warnings of judgment?
Does the accusation that Jesus said he would destroy the temple
and in three days build another one form "the rock of history" on which,
"ironically enough," we may stand? Is not the irony rather that Wright takes as
rock solid a testimony whose wording differs seriously from passage to passage
and whose description as false he freely admits? Solid but slippery? How can the
house built on the rock be "a clear allusion to the temple," that is, "the true
temple" built by Jesus, when the wise man who builds that house is a person who
"hears and does" Jesus' words, not Jesus himself?
Can it be that no first-century Jew would take Daniel 7:13 as
the Son of Man's descent from heaven? What of John 3:13, "And no one has
ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man"?
Does not Wright's way of saving Jesus from making a mistake about the occurrence
of "all these things" within a generation come at the price of subverting the
natural meaning of Jesus' other eschatological pronouncements?
If Paul agreed with Jesus by referring the Day of the Lord to
the destruction of Jerusalem rather than to the end, as Wright avers, how is it
that Paul made that day an object of watchfulness and source of comfort for
Christians living far off in Greece, and described the day as one in which the
Lord himself will descend from heaven, the dead in Christ will rise, and living
Christians will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air? How
can Wright allow that Paul was describing Jesus' return to earth yet affirm that
Paul thought of the Day of the Lord as entailing intermediate destruction rather
than final return?
Wright also avers that later Christians invented the doctrine of
Jesus' return because they could not conceive that he was resurrected if not to
join those who will yet be resurrected to populate the coming new earth. But
where is the evidence for any puzzling over the problem of Jesus' absence from
the new earth—till someone hit on the solution of a return? For that matter, why
could not Jesus himself have followed the line of reasoning that Wright ascribes
to later Christians?
Maybe Wright can answer these and similar questions. It is a
compliment to him that his writing provokes them; but because the questions are
serious, they need not only answers, but convincing ones. Otherwise, readers who
are understandably eager to celebrate Wright's demolition of the Jesus Seminar
and its anemic Jesus might think twice before accepting the Jesus that Wright
has reconstructed as an alternative.
Robert H. Gundry is Kathleen Smith Professor of Religious
Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. He is the author of
commentaries on Matthew and Mark and other scholarly works. His most recent
book, written for a lay audience, is First the Antichrist: Why Christ Won't
Come Before the Antichrist Does (Baker Book House).
Editor's Bookshelf: Life After Life After Death
The Resurrection of
the Son of God is a ground-clearing exercise of historiographical obstacles
April 1, 2003
The Resurrection of the Son of God
(Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3)
N. T. Wright
Fortress, 817 pages, $49
Wright wrote his most recent book,
The Resurrection of the Son of God,
while canon theologian at Westminster Abbey. He is now the bishop-elect of
Durham, a providential irony, given that in the 1980s his predecessor David
Jenkins made headlines for referring to the resurrection as a conjuring trick
Unlike Jenkins, Wright takes the bodily resurrection of Jesus
literally, though he is not woodenly literal-minded. He could never be mistaken
for a "fundamentalist" (with all the connotations of unimaginative flatness
carried by that f-word).
Resurrection language is used metaphorically in the Bible, but
Wright is eager to point out that those biblical metaphors are grounded in
concrete historical referents. For example, Ezekiel's vision of the valley of
the dry bones is, in Wright's view, a metaphor for God's restoration of Israel
as a nation. But to recognize it as a metaphor for a concrete historical hope is
not to regard it as a symbol for some hazy religious experience. Likewise, the
rich interplay of resurrection language with the church's rite of baptism and
the believer's entrance into the life of the age to come is not a free-floating
metaphor for just any religious thrill. It has a concrete referent in a
particular kind of new life imbued with the power of a specific Spirit, bringing
with it new ethical demands for life in this world.
Wright argues that all of this metaphorical richness can only
make sense if we understand the Bible writers to mean what they say when they
write about the bodily resurrection of Jesus on Easter and of believers at the
last day. The resurrection is rich with overtones, he says, but one only hears
overtones when one strikes a fundamental.
What resurrection means
Wright devotes most of The Resurrection
of the Son of God to repeatedly striking the fundamental. His target is
the liberal scholar who reads wooly-headed modernist notions of Jesus'
resurrection back into Paul. (Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan show up
occasionally in the footnotes, but he doesn't flog them in his text.) Wright
wants to show that anything other than an honest-to-goodness resurrection body
just wouldn't have been thinkable to a first-century Pharisee like Paul. And if
Jesus had experienced some other kind of life after death, there was plentiful
vocabulary for that in the ancient world. Indeed, if the early Christians had
merely thought that Jesus had "died and gone to heaven" or that his message had
taken on renewed life in their midst, such beliefs would not explain either
their testimony or the shape and growth of the early church.
The book's (admittedly crooked) trajectory zigzags through Homer
(the "Old Testament" of "the ancient non-Jewish world") and Plato to the Hebrew
Bible to the intertestamental literature to the epistles of Paul to the
Apostolic Fathers to the Gospels. At each point along the way, Wright shows how
the spectrum of pagan beliefs about the afterlife simply did not include
resurrection. Indeed, within the Platonic tradition, there would have been
hostility to the idea. He also shows how within Judaism, belief in bodily
resurrection developed naturally as part of its fundamental affirmation of the
goodness of creation and the justice of Israel's covenant God. If the body is a
prison (as Plato and others taught) and death is a welcome release, resurrection
(a re-embodied life after life after death) would be a bad idea. Conversely, if
embodiment is "very good" (as Moses and others taught), any other kind of life
after death would be second-rate.
To put those liberal critics in place, Wright needs to establish
the fundamental Jewishness of resurrection teaching. Thus he gives readers a
Rick Steves tour of the biblical and Second Temple literature as it relates to
resurrection. Not all Jews believed in the resurrection. The Gospels report the
recalcitrance of the Sadducee party on this point. But resurrection was
definitely a point on the Jewish spectrum of belief, and by the time of Jesus it
had become a dominant one. Paul and other early Christian writers then
transformed the idea of resurrection in four ways: (1) they move it "from the
circumference of belief to the center"; (2) they treat it "no longer as a single
event" but split it "chronologically into two, the first part of which has
already happened"; (3) they teach that "resurrection involves transformation,
not mere resuscitation"; and (4) when they use resurrection language
metaphorically, "it no longer refers to the national restoration of Israel, but
to baptism and holiness."
Many readers will find The Resurrection
of the Son of God daunting in its length, its detail, and its scope.
Fortunately, they will not find it off-putting in its prose. Wright is always
clear (though he occasionally uses technical language that those who haven't
been to seminary will have to look up). But his prose is winsome and colorful as
well. For example, in commenting on how each Gospel's resurrection narrative
suits that particular evangelist's message and purpose, he says: "You could not
take Luke's ending and substitute it for John's or John's for Matthew's, without
creating an absurdity, like the picture books for children in which heads,
bodies, and legs are swapped around between characters with ludicrous results."
Wright's overarching purpose in this book is historical. He
calls it a "ground-clearing exercise" designed to remove the historiographical
obstacles to study of Jesus' resurrection. Wright is more concerned with the
failures of historians than he is with the long list of skeptics' objections to
the resurrection. For rebuttal of those arguments, Wright gladly refers readers
to the apologetic works of Gary Habermas. As for the failures of historians,
Wright successfully shows how many have ignored the evidence, confused
categories, and marshaled silly arguments. ("The fact that dead people do not
ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief," he writes
emphatically, "not an objection to it. The fact that Jesus' resurrection was,
and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.
It is part of the claim itself.")
Many scholars have misapplied the historian's tools by ruling
out a priori the possibility of a one-off event like Jesus' resurrection.
As a result, they have engaged in fanciful reconstructions that have far less
explanatory power than does traditional Christian teaching. This bad
historiography stems from an Enlightenment desire to keep God out of human
But can such a methodological atheism survive in a
perspectivalist postmodern era? As Wright points out, statements about Jesus'
resurrection are self-involving. You cannot affirm his resurrection without
saying something about yourself and your future. But it is precisely because of
the self-involving nature of the material that Wright's challenge is so
important. Will his fellow scholars overcome their methodological malaise and
treat the evidence for Jesus' resurrection the same as they would the evidence
for the fall of Jerusalem or the death of Augustus? If they don't, they have a
lot of explaining to do.
Sounding the Alarm:
N.T. Wright and Evangelical Theology
by Travis Tamerius
Copyright © 2002
This article originally appeared in Volume 11.2 (Spring 2002) of
The Reformation & Revival Journal. That issue also has part 2 of the
author's informative interview of N. T. Wright.
Evacuating a Burning Paradigm?
One of the perks of a public school education is the instruction received in
disaster preparation. Along with learning the alphabet, state capitols, and the
table of chemical elements, a student is drilled in survival. All hazards are
considered and all precautions taken. If the building is on fire or under threat
of an explosive, you walk single-file along a designated path to the nearest
exit. In the event of a tornado, you remain in the hallway, burrowed up against
a locker, with your head tucked between your knees and beneath your arms. Rarely
does a tornado touch down, rarely does the school catch fire; and yet, the
posture of preparation serves a good purpose.
The reader of N.T. Wright would be wise to remember his or her schoolboy
education. There is smoke in the hallowed halls of evangelicalism and it may
well be time to evacuate some burning theological paradigms. To some, the call
to line up at the door will suggest a false alarm: “The only thing you are
smelling is a British theologian smoking a pipe in the teacher’s lounge.” The
argument goes: how could there be any new paradigms for understanding historical
Christianity? At best, such an assertion smacks of chronocentricity, the naïve
suggestion that something unusually significant is happening in our own day and
age; at worst, it betrays an incredible amount of hubris. Thus, the smoke is
cleared with a wave of the hand, and the British guest is kindly reminded of the
“No Smoking” sign.
To others, however, where there is smoke, there is fire. Consider the assessment
of Alister McGrath, himself somewhat akin to an evangelical fire marshal.
McGrath contends that Wright, his fellow Anglican churchman and former Oxford
colleague, has “lobbed a hand grenade into the world of traditional evangelical
. In particular, when it comes to reading the Apostle Paul on
justification, the works of the law and the nature of Christ’s death, “if Wright
is correct, Martin Luther is wrong”
That is a rather seismic if-then.
In Protestant hagiography, Luther is the one who recovered the gospel for a
darkened Europe. He prosecuted Rome for her infidelities. He unshackled the
people from superstition, blind ritual and unchristian traditionalism. He gave
us back our Bibles. He let God be God and grace be grace. He set the benchmark
for recognizing true churches: justification by faith - the article by which the
church stands or falls. Frame the conditional statement in the way that McGrath
has done, and for some, it will be enough said. It will be thought that, if
Wright is arguing something different, quite simply he is wrong.
The purpose of this article is to locate the smoke. My aim is to inspect
existing evangelical paradigms under threat from Wright’s critique. After
examining Wright’s analysis of early Christianity, I will identify some of the
potential hazards and combustibles in evangelical theology.
Who is Tom Wright and what he is saying?
Tom Wright is Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in London. Prior to his
present position, he served as the Dean of Lichfield in Staffordshire, England
(1993-1999) and held teaching posts at Oxford University (1986-1992) and McGill
University in Montreal (1981-1986). A prolific author, Wright has long been
recognized as one of the foremost Jesus scholars on either side of the Atlantic.
Significant to that assessment is his ambitious project in New Testament
theology consisting of six volumes on
Christian Origins and the Question of God. At the present time, two
volumes have been published. In the first volume,
New Testament and the People of God,
Wright uses his scholarly spade to break the ground on methodology. He employs a
critical realist approach to
his historical investigation. This approach is “a way of describing the process
of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the
reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower
(hence ‘realism’), while also acknowledging that the only access we have to this
reality lies along the spiraling path of
appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known
. Against naive Enlightenment historiography, Wright disputes the idea
that our knowledge is of the sort that we know objects as bird’s-eye observers,
who simply “tell it like it is”. Against the contentions of radical
postmodernism, he disputes that we create meaning through an exercise of fictive
imagination. We can have knowledge, real knowledge that does not superimpose
meaning on texts or objects that are external to us.
Wright argues that essential to historical knowledge is learning to see through
the window of a worldview other than our own. These worldviews do four things.
First of all, they provide the stories
through which humans frame reality. Secondly, these stories address the
questions being asked by a people
- Who are we? Where are we? What is the problem? and, What is the solution?
Thirdly, they include symbols
and boundary-markers which
express the worldview in daily life. And finally, they include a
praxis, a plan of action, a
way-of-being in the world. After laying out his methodological approach, Wright
offers a survey of second-temple Judaism.
Wright suggests that Jewish self-understanding in the second-temple period looks
something like this: We are the people of the one, true God who have graciously
been chosen to be His people and, as His people, to be a light to the nations.
We are geographically in the
holy land, centered in Jerusalem, the city of Zion.
Theologically, however, we are
still in exile -- as the promises have yet to be fulfilled, forgiveness has yet
to occur, the wrong rulers are still in power, the age of messianic blessing has
been delayed, and YHWH has yet to act in a decisive way in our history. Our hope
is that YHWH will act soon and restore righteous rulers to us as we keep
covenant with Him
. Within this worldview, Israel’s symbols -- the temple, the Law,
circumcision, the land, the festivals, holy war, all of these - reinforce the
It is on this canvas that Wright paints his portrait of the historical Jesus and
his early followers. Volume Two is entitled
Jesus and the Victory of God.
Wright asserts that there are basically five questions needing to be answered if
we are to have an intelligent understanding of who Jesus was and is: How does
Jesus fit into early Judaism? What were His aims? Why did He die? How did the
early church come into being? Why are the gospels the way they are? A sixth
question hovers on the horizon of all this investigation. If this is Jesus, so
what? What difference does it make who Jesus was historically?
As Wright chases down answers to these questions, a portrait of Jesus emerges
which makes him both “comprehensible and crucifiable”
 against the background of the first-century. Employing the double
criterion of similarity and dissimilarity, Wright portrays a Jesus who was
similar enough to Judaism to be intelligible, yet dissimilar enough to be
considered a political firebrand dangerous to the nation and deserving of death.
Jesus was similar enough to the later concerns of apostolic Christianity to be
the source for their theological reflection and missionary activity. His
emphases were different enough from the early church, however, that it becomes
unreasonable to sustain the notion that the gospel accounts are historically
unreliable and should be read as hagiographic retrojections by the first
So, the reader might ask, who was Jesus and what was he all about? Wright would
say that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who announced to Israel that her story
was reaching its climactic, dramatic fulfillment. God was acting in history. The
kingdom was “near”, “at hand”, “in your midst”. So far, so good. First-century
Jews would listen to this with a fair bit of interest. It didn’t take much
kindling to stoke an already lit fire. They were expecting a new exodus, the
messianic age, the dawn of a new era. Jesus knew this story line and told the
story in familiar language. At this point Jesus was entirely comprehensible.
But Jesus alters the traditional telling of the story. He mixes up the
characters and changes the ending. He has all the wrong people living happily
ever after. Yes, YHWH is going to act, but it will be nothing like Israel might
expect. Instead of Israel’s being vindicated before her enemies, she is under
the threat of judgment for pursuing a path of violent resistance to Rome, for
failing to keep covenant with YHWH and for rejecting Jesus’ kingdom. Instead of
Jerusalem and a gloriously rebuilt temple being at the center of God’s plan to
gather the nations for judgment and/or conversion, the holy city will be laid
waste and her temple will be destroyed. Instead of YHWH’s bringing his kingdom
to those who are obedient to the Torah and ceremonially pure, He will lay out
the welcome mat for all sorts of shabby characters - prostitutes, tax collectors
and Samaritans. And, perhaps most emphatic of all in the retelling of the story,
the kingdom’s arrival - including the restoration of God’s people from exile,
the return of YHWH to Jerusalem, and the divine victory over evil - will occur
in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Both in word and in deed, Jesus is boldly
declaring that he is the focal point of Israel’s long and twisted story.
This retelling of the Jewish story includes a redefining of the true people of
YHWH. True Israel consists of those who repent of their own kingdom agenda to
follow Jesus, trusting his kingdom message and embracing his way of salvation.
He preaches and authorizes a forgiveness that sidesteps the centrality of the
sacrificial cultus. He acts in mighty deeds that symbolically express a kingdom
being inaugurated in his own life and ministry. He tells stories that subvert a
typical Jewish reading of the way things are and ought to be. He marginalizes
the all-important Jewish symbols of temple, land, family and Torah. It is no
surprise that such a person was considered crucifiable.
His death, however, was much more than a regrettable miscarriage of justice.
From the vantagepoint of Jesus’ own intention, he had a vocation to die
. Such an act was bound up with his self-understanding and mission.
Somewhat as in the movie Braveheart,
where William Wallace made a trip to Dunkirk in order to pick a fight, Jesus
traveled to Jerusalem to stage a showdown -- the climactic showdown.
What did Jesus expect would take place in Jerusalem? Wright suggests:
My proposal is that Jesus took his own story seriously – so seriously that,
having recommended to his followers a particular way of being
Israel-for-the-sake-of-the-world, he made that way thematic for his own sense of
vocation, his own belief about how the kingdom would come through his own work.
He would turn the other cheek; he would go the second mile; he would take up the
cross. He would be the light of the world, the salt of the earth. He would be
Israel for the sake of the world. He would be the means of the kingdom’s coming,
both in that he would embody in himself the renewed Israel and in that he would
defeat evil once for all. But the way in which he would defeat evil would be the
way consistent with the deeply subversive nature of his own kingdom-announcement
The way in which he would defeat evil was the way of the cross, the way of his
own apparent defeat at the hands of Roman and Jewish authorities. Jesus,
centralizing his own character in the story line of Jewish expectation,
experienced in his own body the condition of Israel’s exile. He took upon
himself the fate of the nation, deliberately enacting the punishment of Isaiah’s
suffering servant (Isaiah 53). Politically, he modeled the program of peace and
rejected the path of nationalistic resistance to Rome (cf. Luke 19:42).
If Jesus’ death signaled (among other things) the condition of Israel’s exile,
the resurrection announced the end of the exile and the dawn of the new age.
God, in raising Jesus from death, had in fact ushered in the glorious age when
life would be transformed. According to Wright, it is only the reality of a
re-embodied Jesus, which can account for the continuation of Christianity as a
messianic movement. If the story of Jesus had ended with the messianic
pretender’s burial in a grave, it would have suggested to his followers (using
Wright’s analogy) that they had bet on the wrong horse. They may have ventured
to continue the movement with another stand-in leader, perhaps a close relative
of Jesus. But this revolution neither fizzled out nor did it find a substitute
messiah. Rather, the early Christian movement witnessed the appearance of a
resurrected Jesus and then announced to the world - pagan and Jewish - that this
Jesus was indeed Messiah and Lord.
THE SOURCE OF THE SMOKE
We now turn our attention to a few places where Wright challenges the
conventional wisdom of evangelical theology. The four areas I wish to highlight
are: his historical methodology, his understanding of Jesus as an eschatological
prophet, his understanding of justification by faith and his approach to
biblical authority. If you were to walk down the hallway looking for fire in the
cathedral, these are some of the doors that would be hot to the touch.
Wright’s Historical Approach
Wright is serious about historical inquiry into the origins of Christianity. He
is both a committed Christian and a committed historian. Wearing both hats at
the same time, however, leaves him vulnerable to the criticisms of both his
academic colleagues and fellow believers. His counterparts in academia accuse
him of a believer’s bias, alleging that he colors the evidence in order to
defend traditional Christianity, or what Crossan labels “an elegant
. Wright disputes his critics’ claims to unbiased objectivity and argues
that there is no such thing as a “view from nowhere.” Every person thinks,
writes and reads from “somewhere”. Such a confession does not mean that we are
confined to a hermeneutical morass of radical subjectivity. But neither are we
to think that noncommittal, unbelieving secularism is the only legitimate place
from which seriously to read the New Testament. At this point, Wright offers a
very strong challenge to the methodological assumptions of the scholarly guild.
Evangelical readers will have their own uneasiness with Wright’s historical
study. Despite the fact that Christianity is a faith deeply rooted in history,
evangelicals have been more than a bit nervous about searching for the
historical Jesus. For starters, the church is still living in reaction to the
Enlightenment project, which concluded its historical investigation of the New
Testament by scrapping the miracles, destroying the integrity of the source
documents and distorting Jesus beyond either recognition or worship. In our own
day, the project is continued by the Jesus Seminar, a pseudo think-tank that
leaves us with a whole lot of seminar and not much Jesus. Partly in reaction to
this academic approach, and as a precaution against eroding a vital faith,
Christians have ended up with Jesus’ portraits radically divorced from history.
It should be noted that Wright is favorable to many of the Enlightenment’s
questions, while remaining sharply critical of the movement’s presuppositions
Another reason advanced for ignoring the historical investigation is that the
whole enterprise seems so unnecessary. What, if anything, can be said that we
don’t already know? Recently, my son and I were watching an ABC special with
Peter Jennings entitled, The Search for
Jesus. After its dramatic introduction, which highlighted the bevy
of scholars carrying out a new search for the historical Jesus, my son told me:
“I don’t know why they’re looking for Jesus. They’ll never find him.” Curious
about the worldview of a seven-year old, I asked him why they wouldn’t find
Jesus. He replied, “Because he’s in heaven.” For my son, the search party could
be called off because he knew the Apostle’s Creed: the latest word had Jesus at
the right hand of the Father. Other well-intentioned Christians call off the
whole historical project because they think anything that is significantly new
must be significantly wrong if only because it is new
. Wright calls us to a new search for the historical Jesus, arguing that
the older paradigms lack sufficient explanatory power and, also, that the
increase in Jewish background literature has made possible a more plausible
reading of Jesus and the early church.
third reason for the church’s disengagement from a first-century Jewish Jesus is
our tendency to think in abstractions and universals. It has been common for
dogmatic theology to work in broad categories, loosely connected to the actual
exegesis of specific historical texts. When this happens - when Christian
theology becomes unhitched from biblical studies - theology “lapses into a mere
ad hoc use of the Bible,
finding bits and pieces to fit into a scheme derived from elsewhere”
There is a suspicion that, if we read the Bible the way Wright does, we are left
with little of relevance to our own day and age. Consider the basis for such
evangelical anxiety. Wright carefully and critically works through the primary
source material (biblical and extra-biblical) with the aim of arriving at the
most plausible reading of the character of early Judaism and Christianity. He
continually poses the question, how was this heard in its original audience?
When Jesus spoke about repentance, the kingdom of heaven or forgiveness of sins,
what sense did those terms make to first-century listeners? When he cleansed the
temple, withered a fig tree, rode a donkey into Jerusalem, what significance did
those actions hold for second temple Jews? Questions such as these reveal
Wright’s aim to situate Jesus more thoroughly in his particular Jewish milieu.
Wright’s Jesus, then, starts out very context-specific. Jesus was not going
around dispensing a clever assortment of universal wisdom sayings. He was not
setting up a timeless system of ethics. He was speaking a specific message (the
kingdom of God) to a specific people (his Jewish contemporaries) and acting out
the presence of YHWH in Israel’s very particular story. A nervous evangelical
may fear that this historical Jesus becomes less accessible to our own day and
age. For evangelicals, the Bible is a preached Book. It is central to the
church’s ongoing proclamation of God’s Word to the world. The Bible is believed
to have eternal authority and continuing relevance. Wright’s approach would seem
to compromise that confessional stance. His insistence on a knowledge of Jesus
mediated through historical investigation would appear to threaten a pious
reading of the Bible that pursues an immediate 'meaning' of the texts.
In response, Wright would say a number of things. First of all, he would argue
that our knowledge of Jesus must be based on the Jesus of history. We honor God
in our thinking and praying and obeying, not by disregarding history and
inventing our own Jesus but, rather, by rigorously committing to discover the
Jesus who lived in first-century Judea. Secondly, and correlative to the first
point, Wright would warn against the distortions which result from reading our
own worldview into the world of the Bible. Simply stated, “well-meaning and
pious readers have often been guilty of thinking in categories that are entirely
alien to the world of first-century Judaism”
. Vitally interested in what the Bible
means, readers have often lacked
a proportional interest in what the Bible
meant. Thirdly, a more committed
study of New Testament history and theology is highly relevant to discipleship
in this new millennium. Far from shutting up our Bibles to history, the approach
by Wright prepares the way for the continuing appropriation of Jesus’ original
mission and message. Wright suggests:
within the history as we shall see, there will be plenty of material for
theology to go to work, though it may be surprised at what it finds. The
silhouette of the cross against a darkened sky is more, not less, evocative for
our study of the portrait of the man who hung there. And the total historical
picture, in all of its complex simplicity, will challenge the most experienced
Elsewhere, Wright notes:
it should be clear that the church’s use of the Gospels prior to, and indeed
since the rise of so-called critical historiography has given scant attention to
what the Gospels themselves are saying about the actual events of Jesus’ life
and his kingdom proclamation. It should also be clear that therefore the church
is, in effect, sitting on but perhaps paying no attention to a central part of
its own tradition that might, perhaps, revitalize or reform the church were it
so be significantly investigated
Clearly then, Wright’s historical engagement aims to take serious seekers back
to another world - a world where Herod reigned, Rome was in control, John was
beheaded, Jewish messianic movements dreamed and schemed and Jesus preached the
good news of the kingdom. Having lived faithfully then and there, in the dust
and drama of ancient Israel, we discover the resources for living out a faithful
discipleship here and now.
Jesus and Eschatology
Wright offers a second point of challenge to the more typical evangelical
approach in his understanding of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. Wright argues
that Jesus is most properly understood as an eschatological prophet warning of
coming destruction. According to Wright, Jesus stood in continuity with the
great prophets of old by offering a critique from within. He was calling Israel
to repentance and announcing YHWH's salvation to those who obeyed the prophetic
summons. To those who ignored the message of Jesus, however, continuing to
pursue their own kingdom agenda, Jesus threatened judgment.
It is with regard to the precise nature of this eschatological judgment that
Wright is at variance with both scholarly tradition and popular evangelical
understanding. Wright contends that we have traditionally misread the judgment
that Jesus threatened. When Christ warned in his parables and in the Olivet
discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21) about approaching doom, he was not
announcing the end of the world as we know it. He was anticipating the
desolation of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Jewish Temple, which occurred
in A.D. 70.
Some, following the lead of Albert Schweitzer, have read the judgment teaching
of Jesus as a prediction of the imminent end of all things, an end destined to
be cosmic and universal in scope. According to this reading of the apocalyptic
imagery of Matthew 24:29 (“Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun
will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from
heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken”), Jesus gave a mistaken
forecast of the near future. The end didn’t come. Celestial objects kept their
place. Jesus was hopeful, but deluded. Further, it is held that Jesus’ followers
perpetuated his mistake by living out an ‘interim ethic’ in anticipation of the
dissolution of the world.
Wright agrees with Schweitzer that Jesus offered a warning about imminent
destruction. But the destruction threatened was not regarding the entire cosmos.
Rather, Jesus was employing apocalyptic imagery from the Old Testament to warn
the Jews of a shake-up of their symbolic worldview – a shake-up involving the
destruction of the Temple, the severe punishment of the Jewish people and the
vindication of Jesus and his followers
This view argues strongly against popular evangelical prophecy, which pollutes
the world of Christian publishing and television programming. The typical
approach reads the apocalyptic language in the Olivet Discourse as literal (in
line with Schweitzer), but relegates it to the still-yet future. Wright argues
that both the scholarly tradition descending from Schweitzer and pietistic
interpretation are fundamentally mistaken. The cosmic imagery is not referring
to a literal dislocation of the sun, moon and stars. The apocalyptic language is
“an elaborate metaphor-system for investing historical events with theological
. The Jews knew “a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic
imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic
These socio-political events centered in and around Jerusalem from A.D. 66-70.
Thus, the great tribulation announced by Jesus in Matthew 24 is, for us, an
event in the past rather than the future. Likewise, the coming of the Son of
Man, spoken of in that particular passage, belongs with the calendar rather than
the crystal ball. Because of this pervasive historical reading of the Olivet
discourse, Wright is often criticized for an over-realized eschatology which
leaves no place for a future parousia.
In response, he repeatedly assures his critics that he does believe the New
Testament speaks of events which are still to come, citing Romans 8, I
Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22
. Wright’s position does not deny the creedal affirmation of Christ’s
coming again to “judge the living and the dead”. His position simply emphasizes
the fact that the pervasive thrust of New Testament eschatology refers to an
apocalyptic ‘end’ to be fulfilled in the first century.
At this point, some evangelicals might wish to argue for an additional future
referent to the Olivet pericope, perhaps invoking a
sensus plenior for the passage.
But Wright counters:
conservative protestants…who have pressed me personally to allow for
second-level meanings in Mark 13 and its parallels, meanings that make the
passage to refer not only to first-century events but to events yet to come,
seem clearly to be looking for a let-out, a way of focusing not on what the
passage refers to but on something else. How can this be loyalty to the text?
Wright’s eschatological reading has raised additional questions: how can the
crucifixion and resurrection be the defeat of evil and the return of YHWH to his
people when evil continues unabated to this day? How can the judgment of
Jerusalem in A.D. 70 be the end of the evil age and the emergence of the great
and coming day of the Lord when the obvious --that much remains unchanged -- is
too readily observable. Wright argues that we must begin thinking in terms of
the dialectic between achievement and implementation. In the death and
resurrection of Jesus, YHWH achieved the decisive victory over sin and death.
The church has been entrusted with the ongoing task of implementing this
Paul and Justification
Another area in which Wright challenges conventional evangelical wisdom is in
regard to the place and meaning of justification within Paul’s theological
. Wright alleges that we misread Paul’s confrontation with Judaism if we
read the second-temple Jew as a proto-Pelagian, or as a 16th century Roman
Catholic straw man, who needed to be told that a person was not saved by works
of self-improvement but rather by God’s free grace in Christ Jesus. Such a
reading is anachronistic and misses the context of Paul’s thinking.
In making this criticism, Wright is echoing aspects of the work of Ed Sanders, a
towering figure in Pauline scholarship these past 25 years. In 1977, Sanders
wrote Paul and Palestinian Judaism,
in which he argued that Judaism was not a legalistic religion of works-
righteousness. Looking copiously at the background literature, Sanders claimed
that no serious-minded Jew would have considered entry into the covenant people
attainable by law-keeping. The law was not an entrance requirement. Rather,
within the covenantal scheme of things (which Sanders labels, “covenantal
nomism”), God graciously chose a people to be his own possession and entrusted
them with his Torah, the standard for living responsively to His grace. The Jews
were already inside the covenant because of God’s initiative; they maintained
that covenantal status by observing the law.
In two studies of Pauline theology to date,
The Climax of the Covenant (1991)
and What Saint Paul Really Said
(1997), Wright accepts Sander’s basic point
. We have to reconsider the problem with Judaism as Paul saw it.
Blind-eyed sketches of ancient Judaism create a caricature of the Jews’ having
the wrong sort of religion, rescued by Jesus and Paul, who have come to announce
the right sort. Roughly put, it is thought by some that Jews believed in works,
and Jesus and Paul believed in grace. Such a picture does not accurately
describe Paul’s problem with Judaism.
The “works of the law” which could not justify (Romans 3:28) were not the works
of the merit-seeking moralist. Rather, these works were those peculiar to the
Jew as a Jew. The Jews could not be saved by insisting on their national, racial
privilege. The importance of this shift in emphasis is underscored by McGrath
when he writes:
It is important to appreciate at this point that it is not merely evangelical
interpretations of the phrase ‘works of the law’ that are called into question
by Wright. Having studied the development of the Western interpretation of Paul
on justification over a period of 1,800 years, I have to report that, until
recently, virtually every writer within that tradition of interpretation treated
the notion of works of the law in this manner, irrespective of whether the
interpreter is Protestant or Catholic, evangelical or not. It is for this reason
that the general line of interpretation, developed by Sanders, which is echoed
in (yet modified by) Wright, is of such significance
According to Wright, what frames Paul’s discussion of the “works of the law” and
justification are the important ideas of eschatology, covenant and the lawcourt.
Various first-century Jewish sects considered their intensification of Torah
observance a signal that they would be vindicated in the future day of judgment
. Their obedience to the law was not self-help, gutting it out in order
to be saved. Rather, particular groups of first-century Jews intended to be the
advance guard of God’s righteous kingdom and saw themselves as the true Israel
living in anticipation of that great and glorious day. Imagine Paul’s speaking
into this world with his gospel announcement. Jewish expectation in the second
temple period was fairly well laid out like an elaborate Etch-A-Sketch drawing.
Paul, following the lead of Jesus, comes in and shakes up the picture.
Paul argues that the Jewish works of the law were inadequate in their failure to
recognize the decisive importance of what God had done in and through Jesus.
What Israel anticipated at the end of time - vindication, deliverance, victory
over evil, final judgment - God had accomplished in the middle of time through
the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth
. It was this great eschatological event, revealed to Paul in the vision
of an exalted Jesus, which set Paul’s mind to rethink the plight of humanity and
God’s grand solution.
Paul discovered that God had acted climactically on behalf of his people in
Jesus. God had displayed his righteousness (dikaiosu,nh qeou understood as his
“covenant faithfulness”) by keeping the promise made to Abraham and his
descendants. He had dealt with sin once for all and would now vindicate his
people. But who, in fact, were the people to be vindicated? According to Paul’s
gospel, all those who believe in Jesus would now belong to God’s covenant
family. Irrespective of racial identity and Torah observance, access had been
opened to all nations because of Jesus’ death. The Jews could no longer cling to
the Torah as a union card for admittance into God’s restored Israel. All the
laws that fenced them in as a distinct people (food laws, circumcision, sabbath
observance) had to be radically reconsidered in the light of God’s renewed
In this context, justification marks out who belongs to this new renewed family.
is not a matter of how someone enters the community of the true people of God,
but of how you tell who belongs to that community. …It was about God’s
eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a
member of his people. In Sanders’ terms, it was no so much about ‘getting in’,
or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In
standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as
about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church
Those who are recognized as belonging to this new covenant community are those,
whose sins are forgiven, who are recognized as ‘righteous’ before God’s law
Critics of Wright’s understanding of justification (an understanding often
termed the “new perspective”) may conclude that he is dancing on a land mine and
threatening the settled ground of core orthodoxy. Wright, however, believes that
if you start from his angle and emphasize justification in the context of Jewish
thought (its covenantal, judicial and eschatological dimensions), you get the
rest thrown in. “If you start with the popular view of justification, you may
actually lose sight of the heart of the Pauline gospel; whereas if you start
with the Pauline gospel itself, you will get justification in all its glory
thrown in as well”
Wright argues that this reading offers a much more plausible and coherent
understanding of Paul, the law, Judaism and justification. It offers the most
faithful reading of the pertinent texts. In its biblical and historical context,
then, justification is not “how someone
becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they
have become a Christian”
It is worth mentioning here that Wright considers the new perspective on
justification to be extremely relevant to the contemporary church (What
Saint Paul Really Said,157-161). Properly understood in its biblical
and historical context, justification calls the church to a more communal
self-awareness, an energetic pursuit of unity, a commitment to holy living and a
courageous confrontation with the powers of the world.
Of pressing interest to many evangelicals is Wright’s claim that justification
is the doctrine that
impels the churches, in their current fragmented state, into the ecumenical
task. It cannot be right that the very doctrine which declares that all who
believe in Jesus belong at the same table (Galatians 2) should be used as a way
of saying that some, who define the doctrine of justification differently,
belong to a different table. (What Saint
Paul Really Said, p. 158)
In recent years there has been considerable dialogue between Protestants and
Roman Catholics regarding their divisions and their unity. Questions abound:
What should determine eucharistic fellowship? Who should we recognize as members
of the family? Is there anything to be gained by dialogue? Does a commitment to
the ecumenical task inevitably lead to compromise?
For those Catholics and Protestants disinterested in dialogue, all that remains
is a reenactment of the Reformation War. Protestants inherit a framework, which
asserts that the mark of a church’s legitimacy is her allegiance to
justification by faith properly defined. Losing this cardinal truth, she has
lost all. Such a paradigm reinforces the historic war policy: the opposing
armies must drop their theological arms, unconditionally surrender their
doctrinal position or we’ll continue to shell them with the same dogmatic
If Wright’s exegesis stands-- that is, if Wright is correct in assessing the
biblical and historical dimensions of Paul, the law, and justification by
faith-- then it follows that both camps (Protestant and Catholic) would have
something to learn from a more precisely focused doctrine of justification. And
what they learn could set a match to some longstanding paradigms in the western
Wright and Biblical Authority
Finally, Wright challenges evangelicals to a reconsideration of biblical
authority. From the outset, it should be noted that the issue is not if the
Bible is authoritative but the manner
in which it is authoritative
. Too often the Bible is read like a code book for all of life’s
questions, a sort of Chilton’s auto manual giving us an exhaustively detailed
blue print for the repair of life and church and society. It is this way of
reading the Bible that leads to an endless amount of clever proof-texting,
whereby we force Scripture to address what it never intended to address. Wright
seeks to offer a different mode
. He likens a Christian reading of the ancient text to what he terms
“faithful improvisation.” Imagine, he says, that we discover one of
Shakespeare’s lost plays. Further, imagine that the play is lacking a fifth and
final act. What would be necessary for that play to come to life would be a
trained group of Shakespearean actors to improvise the final act. These actors
would not simply be winging it. Rather, they would immerse themselves in the
first four acts and the other plays of the famed English writer. They would then
act out their parts, striving to be faithful to the developing plot and
The church’s reading of the Bible is likened to this imaginary group of actors.
We have a script (what Wright terms a “meta-narrative”) consisting of four
parts: Act One is creation; Act Two is the fall; Act Three is Israel; and Act
Four is Jesus and the church. The fifth and final act is the church’s ongoing
improvisation of the developing story. We, as Jesus’ actors, are called to
inhabit the world of the Bible and then act out that worldview for a new day.
The promise of such a model is the merging of the two different worlds of the
writer and the reader
. On the one hand, we are not radical revisionists when it comes to
reading the Bible. There is authorial intent. There is an existing narrative. So
we are called to a faithful reading that is continuous with the received script.
We are called to consider what the Bible means by considering what the Bible
meant. On the other hand, the changing world of the changing reader demands that
the church continually reenact the ancient story as Script-inspired and
Spirit-inspired actors. Loyalty to the original playwright and composer demands
faithful improvisation of the original script and score for a new audience and a
Wright’s ambitious theological project will continue to sound an alarm to the
occupants of existing evangelical paradigms. Questions will continue to be
raised about Wright’s picture of second-temple Judaism, his understanding of
Jesus’ own self-consciousness, his understanding of Paul and the law and his
reading of New Testament eschatology. At the end of the day, the primary
consideration for a thoughtful evangelical must be this: has Wright achieved a
more plausible and comprehensible picture of the origins of early Christianity?
Is the picture of Jesus and the early church clearer because of Wright’s
interpretation of the biblical text and the worldview, which informs the
My Berean hunches tell me yes. Wright has provided us with a history of early
Christianity that is magisterial in scope, remarkably solid in its hermeneutical
foundation and grand in its witness to the Jesus of history. He has well
situated his readers inside the narrative thought world of second temple
Judaism. It is there, in that ancient air, on that dusty soil, that Jesus is to
be understood and believed. It is that Jesus, so firmly grounded in the Jewish
world of a backwoods province in the ancient Roman Empire, who is the Jesus of
our own hopes and aspirations, our worship and allegiance.
Copyright © 2002
1. Carey Newman, ed., Jesus and the
Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the
Victory of God (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1999), 178.
2. Jesus and the Restoration of
3. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and
the People of God. Volume I of
Christian Origins and the Question of God
(Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1992), 35.
4. The New Testament and the People
of God, 123-24.
5. The New Testament and the People of God, 243.
6. N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory
of God. Volume II of
Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis, Minnesota:
Fortress, 1996) 90-91.
7. Jesus and the Victory of God,
8. Jesus and the Victory of God,
9. Jesus and the Victory of God,
10. Jesus and the Restoration of
Israel, 297, n. 84.
11. Stephen Evans, though not dismissing the need for historical
investigation, finds Wright’s historical portrait problematic because of its
elements of novelty: “it must be said, that to the degree that Wright’s reading
of the narrative is absolutely original, it seems less probable that it could be
true, insofar as the reading is seen as an attempt to describe the significance
of Jesus’ life in a way that is useful for Christian theology.”
Jesus and The Restoration of Israel,
12. The New Testament and the People
of God, 138.
13. Jesus and the Victory of God,
14. Jesus and the Victory of God,
15. Jesus and The Restoration of
16. Jesus and the Victory of God,
17. New Testament and the People of
18. Jesus and the Restoration of
19. Jesus and the Restoration of
20. Jesus and the Restoration of
Israel, 272. This church’s role in implementing the kingdom is
described in these popular works by Wright:
The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage in
the Holy Land and Beyond (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999);
The Lord and His Prayer (Grand
Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996);
Bringing the Church to the World (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany
21. It should be recognized that Wright has yet to write a full and
sustained exposition of justification. Future publications (not least, a
commentary on Romans scheduled to appear in 2002) will treat the issue in more
22. Wright goes beyond Sander in many ways, both in his methodology and in
his conclusions. It should be noted that not all of the theological socks match,
which are commonly lumped into the categorical drawer named the ‘new
perspective’. There are differences between the respective theologians proposing
this rethink of Paul’s interaction with Judaism.
23. Jesus and the Restoration of
24. N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul
Really Said (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1997) 119.
25. What Saint Paul Really Said,
26. What Saint Paul Really Said,
27. What Saint Paul Really Said,
28. What Saint Paul Really Said,
29. Wright states: “The modes of reading and interpretation that have been
followed are, in fact, functions of the models of inspiration and authority of
scripture that have been held, explicitly or (more often) implicitly within
various circles, and which have often made nonsense of any attempt to read the
Bible historically.” New Testament and
the People of God, 60
30. The model can be found in New
Testament and the People of God, 140-142 and in his lecture and
published essay, “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” in
Vox Evangelica, April 1991.
31. Such a model has been recently employed in various areas such as
pastoral ministry, worship, the doctrine of baptism, Christian apologetic and
Christian ethics. See J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh.
Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995) 182-184; Marva Dawn and Eugene
Peterson. The Unnecessary Pastor,
(Vancouver: Regent College Publishing), 29-30; Marva Dawn.
A Royal ‘Waste’ of Time: The Splendor of
Worshipping God and Being Church for the World (Grand Rapids, MI:
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999) 53-54; Rodney Clapp.
A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a
Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,
1996), 138-139; Donald Bridges and David Phypers,
The Water that Divides: A Survey of the
Doctrine of Baptism, (Ross-Shire, Britain: Mentor Press, 1998),
174-175; Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book,
(Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing), 84-85; See also France Young,
Virtuoso Theology: The Bible and
Interpretation, (Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1993); Richard
Hays, The Moral Vision of the New
Testament (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1996), pp. 304-306. Hays
describes the church as an embodied metaphor, called to ‘perform’ the
A SHORT NOTE ON N.
AND HIS REFORMED CRITICS
Copyright © 2002
This short paper is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive analysis and
defense of N. T. Wright, much less the so-called "New Perspective on Paul" as a
whole. Indeed, Wright's theological project has some failings and the New
Perspective as a movement must be considered a mixed bag of thinkers with widely
varying degrees of orthodoxy. Rather, my much more modest goal is to offer a
plea for Reformed theologians and pastors to give Wright a sustained and
sympathetic reading. Several Reformed theologians have recently gone on record
critiquing Wright (e.g., Richard Gaffin, Charles Hill, Bob Cara) ,
particularly on the issue of justification. My hope is to clear the ground, and
show why I think these critics have, in several key ways, misread and
mischaracterized Wright's theology. In fact, if we ignore Wright or fail to do
the careful study needed to understand his work, we will be missing out on
first stumbled across Wright in the mid-90s when I was doing research on NT
eschatology and the historical Jesus. But it was not long before I discovered
Wright had a profound grasp of Pauline theology as well. Because Reformed
theology has been dominated by Paul, it is not surprising that Wright's fresh
reading of the apostle has attracted a great deal of attention from Reformed
thinkers. Thus far, no one from within the Reformed world has stepped up to
provide an overarching defense of Wright, and certainly this paper is far too
brief to fill that void. But in the meantime, I feel the need to say something
to the Reformed community on Wright's behalf. I will not take the time to
summarize the now-standard criticisms of Wright, which are available elsewhere.
Besides, many, even if true, are of no great significance. Rather, I will focus
primarily on the overall shape of his doctrine of justification, showing it
basically harmonizes with, complements, and yes, even improves, more traditional
Reformed formulations. Wright's teaching on justification has six basic
First, Wright uses the standard Reformed lawcourt metaphor for justification .
Clearly Wright believes, with the Reformers and against Rome, that justification
has a forensic dimension and is not simply a matter of moral transformation. In
fact, he explicitly rejects the Roman Catholic view and insists justification is
the eschatological verdict of God brought into the present time. He finds the
basis of this verdict in the representative death and resurrection of Christ.
Christ took the curse of the law upon himself in order to bring the promised
covenant blessing to us. While Wright shies away from the term "imputation,"
virtually synonymous terms such as "reckon" are used .
Moreover, in his lecture comments 
on Romans 3:25 he made it very plain he believes the cross did indeed propitiate
God's wrath. He criticized the NIV (which has 'sacrifice of atonement' instead
of 'propitiation') and clearly distinguished propitiation from expiation. Wright
cannot be accused of soft-pedaling God's wrath or the cross's quenching of that
Second, Wright's doctrine of justification is inseparable from his corporate
Christology. This is where many of his Reformed detractors have failed to deal
with the real Wright. Instead of looking at justification in its proper place in
his system, they decontextualize it, abstracting it from his corporate
Essentially, however, there is nothing unreformed about the structure of
Wright's theology here. He simply uses union with Christ to do in his theology
what imputation does for traditional Reformed systematics. Of course, the net
result is the same: sinners are right with God because of what Christ did in
their stead. Wright makes union with Christ more foundational than
imputation/reckoning, but this move was already anticipated in Calvin and has
been reiterated even more strongly by Gaffin .
Because we are in Christ, all
that Christ has is now ours -- including his righteous standing before the
Father as the New Adam. The forensic, imputational aspect of salvation is
included as one dimension of our union with the risen and vindicated Christ. As
Gaffin says, justification has no discrete structure of its own; it is a
function of our oneness with Christ.
But, third, Wright's view of justification is further misunderstood because his
corporate Christology feeds into a narrative reading of Scripture that many
Reformed theologians, steeped in systematics but unfamiliar with typology,
struggle to comprehend. Here, a careful study of several of Wright's works is
Wright situates justification within the broader framework of the biblical
story, or metanarrative. In other words, he reads the Pauline doctrine of
justification in terms of redemptive history. Thus, Christ is understood to be
the New Adam and New Israel, living out the life of faithfulness which they
failed to offer to God. Justification and the forgiveness of sins, therefore,
are coordinated with the removal of the curse and the return from exile, which
are clearly redemptive historical events. While Wright's exile/exodus theology
should be nuanced a bit more (to take into account the fact that Israel did, in
some sense, return from exile in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah), there is no
question he is on the right track here. The prophets themselves repeatedly link
the return from exile with forgiveness (e.g., Isa. 40ff), and the NT clearly
interprets Christ's death and resurrection in exile/exodus categories (e.g.,
Luke 9:31). In other words, justification has at least as much to do with the
history of salvation as it does with some sort of individualistic
ordo salutis. Of course, given
Wright's corporate Christology, if you have the
historia salutis, the
ordo salutis is thrown in as
This brings us to the fourth feature of Wright's doctrine, its corporate nature.
Luther and Calvin were deeply concerned with matters of individual standing
before God. Think of Luther's driving question, "How can
I, a sinner, find favor with
God?" No doubt, this question must be asked and answered, and on that score the
Reformers were right. But such concerns are not always at the forefront of
Paul's mind and reading them into Paul can be disastrous for exegesis. It is now
becoming clear (and here is another place Reformed theologians must be very
patient in working towards a proper understanding of Wright) that our
interpretation of Paul has often been governed more by existential sixteenth
century questions, than by the questions that led Paul to pen the epistles in
the first place. For example, if Galatians gives us Paul's earliest discussion
of justification, it is striking that it comes up not in the context of Luther's
individual soteriological question, but rather a debate over proper table
fellowship (2:11ff)! For Paul, justification was not merely a soteriological
doctrine, but a sociological and ecclesiological one as well. Indeed, for Paul,
soteriology and ecclesiology were inseparable since the church is the body and
bride of Christ, the firstfruits of the new creation. Wright has recovered this
basic Pauline insight, and for that we should thank him. But note this does not
leave him unconcerned with questions of individual salvation and assurance;
indeed, Wright, rightly, reminds us that if you have the corporate, you get the
individual thrown in as well.
Fifth, Wright stresses the "already" as well as the "not yet" of justification.
Here both Rome and the Reformers must be found wanting. For the Reformers,
justification was conceived almost entirely in terms of the "already". What
wounded consciences needed to hear was that God had
already accepted them in Christ.
Rome, of course, held the verdict of justification in suspense until the last
day, making assurance impossible. For Wright (and not a few top notch Reformed
theologians) justification is present and future. Initial justification is
received by faith alone. But "future justification, acquittal at the last great
Assize, always takes place on the basis of the totality of the life lived" .
Indeed, this point seems obvious, even if it has been largely missed because of
our polemic against Rome. Scripture repeatedly points ahead to a final judgment
in which works will play a vital role in our acquittal (though not in
abstraction from faith, of course) " .
Finally, we must consider Wright's Hebraic understanding "righteousness." For
Wright, righteousness is not strictly legal but relational. It is not so much
distributive justice as promise/covenant keeping. The Reformers, for the most
part, ignored the OT background to Paul's use of "righteousness." But Ps 143:3,
to cite one of many examples, parallels God's righteousness with his covenant
faithfulness. The Psalmist can appeal to God's righteousness for salvation! On
many Lutheran/Reformed grids, appealing to God's righteousness is suicidal, not
salvific. But if righteousness is God's loyalty to the covenant, then the appeal
of the psalmist makes sense. (It also explains why the psalmist could appeal to
his own righteousness at
times -- he wasn't claiming merit or moral perfection, only covenant
faithfulness). In Rom. 1, Paul says the gospel reveals the righteousness of God
because the gospel announces that God has kept all his covenant promises --
appearances to the contrary -- through the death and resurrection of Christ. I
think this also explains why at times Wright seems to equate justification with
covenant membership. To be a covenant keeper -- to be loyal to the terms of the
covenant -- is to have righteousness, because, after all, righteousness is
covenant keeping by definition. This doesn't do away with the need for
reckoning/imputation or representation/substitution, but it does help bring us
to a better understanding of the biblical foundations of Wright's language. It
is ironic that sola Scriptura
Protestants can so easily dismiss as "dangerous" or "heretical" theologians who
do not employ their extra-biblical (!) formulations.
No doubt, much more needs to be said, but hopefully this essay will at least
temper some criticism of Wright and encourage many within the Reformed camp to
take another look at his valuable work. It is all too easy to dismiss Wright
without a hearing when a theologian of Gaffin's stature is critical of him. But
we must not shy away from semper
Reformanda, from continually reforming our theology and confessions
according to the Scriptures. The sixteenth century reformers made great headway
in understanding Paul. But we have several more centuries of preaching,
exegesis, and scholarship behind us and should not be afraid to move forward,
albeit with due caution. Plus, we should recognize the questions facing us are
quite different today and cannot but force us to look at Paul from different
angles. I am confident that in the long run, Wright's work on the NT will come
be treasured by the Reformed tradition as the "next step" in our growing
understanding of God's revelation in Christ. Accepting Wright need not mean
rejecting the Reformation.
1. Gaffin's critique of Wright appeared in the
Westminster Theological Journal.
Sadly, and inexplicably, he also surveyed Dunn in the same article. Dunn's
orthodoxy is far more questionable than Wright's so Gaffin has made some measure
of guilt by association unavoidable. Hill's critique is available online at
thirdmill.org. I received Cara's critique via private correspondence with some
people who sat in on a seminar he taught.
2.See, e.g., his article on justification in the
New Dictionary of Theology.
3. For example, in Climax of the
Covenant (39), he speaks of the Torah's function of "drawing sin"
onto Israel, and therefore onto Israel's representative, the Messiah, so it can
be dealt with at the cross. This seems isomorphic with the Reformed doctrine of
imputation, albeit in different language. If sin was "drawn onto the Mesiah," it
seems it was "imputed" to him as well. Or, to take another example, on 202, he
says the Messiah "represents his people so that what is true of him is reckoned
as true of them." But how is this reckoning different than imputation? I have
not seen Wright discuss his misgivings with the term "imputation."
4. Numerous taped lecture courses by Wright are available from Regent
5. See in particular his book Climax
to get a sense of his corporate Christology.
6. This makes Gaffin's often superficial criticisms of Wright even more
7. Especially helpful is his treatment of narrative in relation to worldview
in The New Testament and the People of
God. His Adam/Israel/Christ typology pervades most everything he has
8. P. 144 in Paul and the Mosaic Law,
edited by J. D. G. Dunn.
9. Cf. Mt. 25:31ff, Rom. 2, etc. The Westminster divines implicitly
acknowledge a future dimension to justification in WSC 38, since they spoke of
"acquittal" occurring at the final judgment. Among more contemporary Reformed
theologians, Gaffin and Norm Shepherd have spoken freely of the future aspect of
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