SBL Precursor: Wright & Bird at IBR

SBL = Society of Biblical Literature. I’m at the annual meeting in Atlanta. (If blogging gets scarce, you may want to check out my Twitter feed or Facebook status.)

Each hear a number of other societies use the opportunity of having this group gathered to put on their own meetings. Institute for Biblical Research is one of those. And last night its meeting featured N. T. Wright and Michael Bird. Wright lectured on the cross and the kingdom, and Bird responded.

Wright’s talk was nothing you haven’t heard before if you’re a Wright fan, but it was nicely put together.

He discussed opposite errors.

There is the conservative error of a cross without a kingdom. Mike Bird, in responding, told of how he picked up an N. T. Wright book once upon a time and it hammered home to him that he knew why Jesus died, but had no idea why he lived! That was my experience as well.

On the liberal side, there is a kingdom without a cross: a theology of the reign of God in which Jesus the social revolutionary meets an unfortunate end that cut his program short just as it was getting off the ground.

Wright explored some texts in John in a gesture toward holding these together.

As usual, Wright took a couple of shots at the Creedal tradition of the church, which jumps straight from the virgin birth to the suffering under Pontius Pilate. I think his complaint is apt–we do not confess anything about the life of Jesus when we confess our faith together as a church. Others were less amused.

The call to keep cross and kingdom both in view is apt–and not just for holding together Mark 1-13 with the passion narrative in Mark 14-15. When teaching Mark last year, the larger question presented itself: how does Mark 1-8, the depiction of Jesus the wonder-working Son of Man, fit with Mark 9-16, the depiction of Jesus as the cruciform Son of Man?

To ask the question of how cross and kingdom fit together is to set ourselves on a journey of reimagining our atonement theology, our Kingdom of God theology, and our understanding of the Gospels themselves.

18 thoughts on “SBL Precursor: Wright & Bird at IBR”

  1. So, Jeffrey Gibson’s provoking ecclesiological question–pacifism for disciples of Jesus is the inevitable outcome of this merging with kingdom and cross. Your thoughts please….

      1. I see your point. But, between pacifism and triumphalism, I think there is a distinction to be made. That makes me think that over-realizing with pacifism is less of a concern.

        That some believers did and do have some over-realized triumphalist eschatological perspective is clear. But from the synoptics at least, I don’t see how one can adopt this perspective and say that Jesus teaches it. In other words, while over-realized triumphalist eschatology may happen, it is never a real option on the table, given that Jesus speaks against it pretty clearly. It is a result of misunderstanding Jesus or the message of the kingdom. We want to seer clear of this, which makes sense–so did Jesus and Paul, which is why we have them speaking against this.

        By contrast, there does not seem to be a fear of over-realizied eschatology via pacifism. Rather, one can see pacifism as a real expectation given not only Jesus’ example of life and the road upon which Jesus walks and then calls disciples to follow, but also the general tenor of his teaching. So, I think that some type of pacifism seems warranted because it is the manner of life that Jesus seems to call disciples to take up in witness to the kingdom on earth. So, I guess I would say there is more than a “tendency” in this direction.

        Can pacifism result in some sort of “over-realized” thinking? Yes, I suppose, if one thinks that in living this way that God’s kingdom actually fully exists among diisciples. But, I have a feeling that it would not take long for such a notion to be squashed by the injustice of the surrounding world. Thus, pacifism cannot be more than a present witness to the kingdom, whereas triumphalism seems to enable the believer to take a mindset that allows her to disengage with witness to the world, thinking that salvation and victory has already come.

        My quick thoughts….I may rethink. But, hey, it’s a blog discussion…..
        Nice to meet you in person in Atl. Turnbull said I was supposed to buy you a beer. My bad.

        1. Kyle, what I was saying is that consistent pacifism is, itself, an over-realized eschatology.

          The same Jesus who says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” also said, “Don’t think I’ve come to bring peace but a sword.” The reality of a world that is not yet subjected to the reign of God in Christ will, at times, mean that some sort of military and/or police action is required for greater justice to be realized on earth.

          I am not a fan of “just war theory,” inasmuch as in practice it is “justify all wars theory.” And I think a higher Christian calling is to peacemaking than justifying wars.

          But, until all things are in fact set to rights, the weak will sometimes require the strong to act on their behalf in ways that go beyond words.

          1. I think I agree with you. Two things, though. I do not think the “I came not to bring peace but a sword” comment has anything to do with the whole issue of pacifism/retaliation/war, etc. Second, that the world may need military action is fine. But, I think the question is do we leave that to the secualr policical systems to deal with, and are disciples called to participate in that? I lean toward leave the secualr systems to do this task, as acting apart from the kingdom of God/heaven witnessed to by disciples. THe world’s governments will work to meet out justice, and none work apart from God’s hand. BUt, they are not the kingdom, nor do they work for the kingdom being made known on earth. I think there is a tension here, certainly, but one present in the New Testament. I think Romans 13 gives a little glimpse into this. THe secular governments have a role, but participating in and witnessing to the kingdom on earth seems to be distinct.

            1. To go back to your initial statement. Where you are concerned with over-realized eschatology (which I still don’t think is a real issue with pacifism ;) ), I am concerned with blurring and or effectively erasing the line between being a disciple of Jesus and witnessing to the kingdom of heaven on the one hand, and on the other hand being a citizen of an earthly kingdom and serving its identity and purposes as if they were the same with the ekklesia.

              A simple, but I think telling question: When was the last time that ANY war was clearly understood as fighting for Jesus CHrist and furthering the witness of the inbreaking (not yet complete!) kingdom of God on earth? War may lead to more justice on earth, maybe (and a questionable maybe at that). Wars always have an element of serving some particular nation’s identity and status, and I think that’s where I fear that the church can too easily identify with that nation and its idea of justice and miss what discipleship entails.

              1. Kyle, in general I agree with you. I think that the church’s role is to give voice to a kingdom with an alternative economy rather than validating the ways that the kingdom of this world want to use their economies of wealth and power to subjugate others.

                But, there are instances such as the Civil War, without which freedom for Africans in America would not have come in any short time, and World War 2 in which there was an important place for helping defend the powerless against Hitler’s war machine.

                Those are two instances in which it seems that war was a necessary evil. The former at least in part because the church itself refused to be a voice for liberation.

  2. I think the life of Christ is important for a number of reasons, but, a question: why are the gospels silent about the vast majority of his life? Why is the principal focus the leading up to his death and then his resurrection (a second question, I know)?

    1. John, I’d say they are most concerned with his ministry (post-baptism) and crucifixion. Thus, they’re not concerned about childhood, for example. They want to tell stories that help us understand how he is bringing about the reign of God. The life does slow down considerably when it gets to the final week, but the majority of the Gospels is about the part of his life that is his ministry prior to death.

      Not sure if I’ve understood the force of your question, though?

  3. Daniel

    I guess I was commenting on why the Apostles Creed moves from birth to crucifixion. My point being that is where the gospels put the emphasis. However, I agree with your more judicious assessment, the emphasis lies in the in-break of the Kingdom in the life of Jesus slowing down considerably in the final week (in John, markedly so). Certainly the vast majority of his life is shrouded in silence. When we read the epistles the emphasis is heavy on death and resurrection.

    My main, rather cryptic point, was a kind of side-swipe at imputed active obedience so important to the opposers of Wright. That the gospels (and epistles) say so little about his life and so much about his death is one indicator to me that IAO may be off-beam

    1. I agree that the IAO is entirely off base. But I think it’s off base not in the sense that the Gospels don’t care so much about Jesus’ life, but in the sense that the Gospels don’t care to show us that Jesus’ life is one of law-keeping. They are written to show a very different kind of salvation being brought.

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