Saturday, April 16, 2005

N. T. Wright on Jesus?

One of my good buddies, who shall remain nameless, was somewhat exercised by my recent post on the spirit of the age, and specifically by my vague doubt regarding N. T. Wright's approach to Jesus. In deference to him, I decided to listen to a few more Wright lectures on my way back and forth to Annapolis. There are four lectures on Jesus that he gave in some symposium setting around the turn of the millenium (the exact setting is not documented at the site, but inferred from the content):

Jesus and the Kingdom
Jesus and the Cross
Jesus and God
Jesus and the World's True Light

After listening to these lectures, I must confess that I was not reassured, but remained deeply troubled by the manner in which Wright speaks of Jesus. He speaks always of Jesus "believing" certain things about himself and God and his mission, never of His "knowing". He speaks of Jesus' "vocation" as a set of beliefs about what God "would do" and what, therefore, He should do to fulfill God's purposes. He speaks of Jesus' "incarnation" in terms not of Jesus being in essense (yes, I know it is a Greek idea...) God, but rather in that he made actual, in his own body in its actions and in its death, the purposes of God for Israel. It sounds very much like Wright sees the incarnation as something that happened to the man Jesus, and means that Jesus "became" the perfect image of God through his obedience and his insight into what God's purposes were. One has the feeling that Jesus could have accomplished his "vocation" and his "incarnation" by being simply a man who followed his beliefs about God's purposes and God's kingdom to the bitter end, and was then resurrected in an act of God's affirmation that he "got it right". Most alarming to me was Wright's comment at the end that he "still says the Creeds" but now "means something different than before" his studies.

Now I realize that these are simply four lectures, and that Wright has written numerous books, but these make six or seven lectures that I have listened to, and I feel no less concern about his orthodoxy than after the first. Can someone reassure me that Wright has committed, unambiguously, to the doctrines that:

1) Jesus was preexistent God, an eternal member of the Trinity distinguishable from the Father and Spirit before his birth as a human baby.
2) That He was truly born of a virgin, with no human biological father.
3) That he was completely without sin, meaning that he never sinned, not simply that he followed his understanding of God's purpose for his life whole-heartedly.
4) That he was incarnate God, not merely in his last years of ministry, but from his conception?

I would be glad to be so reassured, since Wright seems to be so important to my dear friend and several bloggers here, and I have intended to explore some of his writings when I finally complete my studies at St. John's. If he is so heterodox as to disagree with the elements of Christology above, however, then I have little interest in what else he may have to say about the Jesus he believes in, or how he may apply that Jesus' teachings to the church today. Somebody reassure me, please!


  1. Yea, I actually came across this lecture that Derek recommended on his site while going through his NeoCal series...

    I only read about half of it (maybe some day I'll take time to go back and read the rest), but I wasn't impressed (or convinced) at all with his view of Scripture, and in fact, my immediate (and still present) reaction is a slight concern for the ramifacations of such a view of Scripture. The lecture is here:

    I'd love to know your thoughts.

  2. A couple years ago, an ex-president of Chi Alpha returned to Cleveland, raving about this 'N. T. Wright' fellow. I bought a copy of 'The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is' and began to read it last year. I came away a bit disturbd as well; Wright seems dangerously close to a 21st century, philosophical/psychological Arianism.

    The themes you mention, Dad, are also in his book... for instance, Jesus' Messianic identity:

    "Jesus' belief in his vocation to messiahship is, I suggest, one of the main clues that can help us understand his sense of vocation visa-vis the cross."

    Jesus as a politician (who better get His campaign right or risk failure):

    "He was not so much like a wandering preacher preaching sermons, or a wandering philosopher offering maxims, as like a politician gathering support for a new and highly risky movement. That is why he chose to explain his actions in the quotation from Isaiah: some must look and look and never see, otherwise the secret police will be alerted. Again, we should not imagine that politics here could be split off from theology. Jesus was doing what he was doing in the belief that in this way Israel's God was indeed becoming king."

    Regarding Jesus' relationship and understanding of God and the Trinity (N.T. Wright notes that he is frequently asked, 'Was Jesus God?' and 'Did Jesus know he was God?' after delivering his lectures...):

    "I have argued that Jesus' underlying aim was based on his faith-awareness of vocation. He believed himself called, by Israel's god, to evoke the traditions which promised YHWH's return to Zion, and the ... traditions which spoke of a human figure sharing the divine throne; to enact those traditions in his own journey to Jerusalem, his messianic act in the Temple, and his death at the hands of the pagans (in the hope of subsequent vindication); and thereby to embody YHWH's return."

    "The return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple-theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel christology. Forget the "titles" of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the attempts of some well-meaning Christians to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that some earnest liberal theologians have produced by way of reaction. Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple's destruction and celebrating the final exodus. I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation; a vocation, given him by the one he knew as "father," to enact in himself what, in Israel's scriptures, God has promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God."

    Wright relegates, it seems to me, nearly two millenia of the Church into the category of 'well-meaning Christians'. Strangely enough, his name came up at the Anglican-Catholic church I sometimes attend, regarding their split from the Church of England. I wonder what Wright thinks about the 'lamb that was slain from the creation of the world'. Perhaps the functional role of the sacrifial lamb/messiah had been in God's mind since the beginning, but it was not embodied or evoked until 2,000 years ago? I'm just not quite convinced...

  3. Ryan: I read the article you suggested in its entirety, and understand your concern. Again I think Wright tries to deflect the usual questions as "not meaningful" or the "wrong questions" and then answers a question that wasn't, precisely, asked. He raises good questions about what, exactly, we mean by "authority" when it comes to written material, and especially narrative. How DO we understand Acts, for example? Was everything the early church did correct? Or is Acts an account of the early church's mistakes as well? Wright leans to a view that is characteristically Catholic, ie, that God's authority is not vested entirely in the Bible per se, but also in the Church as His people as we interpret the document itself.

    With all of this I have no problem. What concerns me seems to lie between the lines of his writing, in the way he speaks of the Bible and Jesus, in the construction of his concepts. In the article on the virgin birth, for example, he does not simply accept even the narrative as being necessarily reliable, but subjects it to a historian's scrutiny as well as to a test whether the implications of an actual virgin birth would conflict with his ideas on Jesus' vocation as an adult, with the implication, though not stated outright, that he would discount the virgin birth if it did conflict with his ideas of Jesus' messiahship.

    His idea of the authority of scripture being like the first four acts of an unfinished five-act play is interesting but also problematic. Who decides whether the proposed fifth act is consistent with the first four? It seems to me that this is precisely the kind of "exegesis" that is offered by the homosexual-love-is-biblical group: the affirmation of committed love is consistent with the strong love-and-forgiveness-and-committment themes of the New Testament, and the clear but incidental references to homosexuality as sin are simply cultural issues for that time period, or historically misunderstood by us.

  4. hehe...he may to a characteristically Catholic view of the authority of the Church, but he CERTAINLY doesn't lean to a more characteristically Catholic view of the virgin birth...hehe.

    Actually, I confess, I haven't read his article on the birth yet. But from what is implied by your comments, I would assume that. =)

    But yea, I didn't necessarily disagree with him on ALL his points on the authority of Scripture, and I actually found one or two points insightful. But yea, I found the Shakespeare analogy rather interesting, and I was interested in hearing what somebody else thought of it....thanks for your comment.

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