Wright on Jesus

Yesterday’s second N. T. Wright event at Fuller Northern California entailed a talk about Jesus and the Kingdom in front of a packed house of well over 700 attendees.

He reflected on the problem that was the driving force behind Scot McKnight’s recent King Jesus Gospel: what is the gospel of the Gospels? Why do we have these stories about Jesus’ life?

Wright set up the problem like this:

For many Christians, Jesus could be born of a virgin and die for our sins, and that would be enough.

What, then, do we discover in the Gospels?

He suggested that there are four “speakers” that need to be properly adjusted in volume so that we can get the full, stereoscopic effect of the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus:

  1. The Gospels show Jesus as the climax to the story of Israel–not merely isolated prooftexts, but the whole grand narrative. This speaker, Wright suggests, has been on mute for too much of the church’s history–and still today.
  2. The Gospels depicts Jesus as the embodiment of Israel’s God. This speaker, Wright argues, has been turned up far too loud–and perhaps played with no little distortion as well. The point should be less Jesus as second person of the Trinity and more Jesus as the God who renews covenant (Isa 54) and redeems the whole world (Isa 55) by carrying our sins and bearing our sorrows (Isa 53).
  3. Jesus is the start of the movement that became the church. Again, Wright sees this one as turned up too loud inasmuch as it causes us to look past Jesus’ actions on earth far too quickly. The forward-looking reading can make us, too, look forward and thereby forget that Jesus is inaugurating the kingdom in his life and death.
  4. The kingdom of God calls the kingdoms of this world to account. This speaker, too, Wright thinks has been too low–perhaps disconnected and stuck in a corner. Wright looks at Jesus and Pilate debating kingship and truth, at Paul proclaiming Jesus is Lord in Caesar’s own city, and sees the gospel calling the kingdoms of this world to account, to a better way of rule.

At the end, Wright strove to connect this four-fold reading of the Gospels to both life and death of Jesus. Perhaps my mind was wondering after a long day. I didn’t find this part to be as clearly laid out. Perhaps my problem was that I couldn’t quite see how there was an inherent connection, how cross drove the kingdom vision or enabled it to come about.

After a day with Wright, and seeing how he can pack out a house, even in the middle of the day in the middle of the week, I was poised to have N. T. Wright thoughts in mind when I read this morning’s blog post by Seth Godin.

The blog post talked about being “the best”–essentially, it says, being the best is a distraction that keeps us from taking our “better than most” and becoming well known for our unique contribution.

As I’m about to go to the Society of Biblical Literature conference, I think about N. T. Wright and think that there are probably any number of people who could rightly claim to be “better” New Testament scholars than Wright. They are more careful exegetes, know their history a bit better, or some such.

But what Wright has done is to take his “better than most” and parlay it into “most influential,” such that his overall project ends up being one of, if not the, most important biblical theology projects because people actually listen to what he is doing.

That’s where Wright has been able to become great: he has made the effort, and succeeded, in speaking to the masses. And the church’s and academy’s readings of the Bible are becoming, and will continue to be, better for it.

7 thoughts on “Wright on Jesus”

  1. I wish I had been there to hear the talk – the quotation you provided is a bit perplexing: “Jesus could be born of a virgin and die for our sins, and that would be enough”. Perhaps he is talking about the creeds? If so, then this is a starkly minimalist reading of the creeds. Or is this a point about Israel, the resurrection, or about Jesus’ life? If so, I’m not sure I know many scholars who would agree with the statement as a characterization of their theology.

    Maybe he provided more context in the talk itself? It certainly seems like an unfair, if not misleading, characterization of his opponents.

  2. “For many Christians, Jesus could be born of a virgin and die for our sins, and that would be enough”

    Or even just die for our sins! And, it’s not clear to me that it would even have to be made known that that had happened. Though it’s nice to know explicitly that God will make the world right. After all, we don’t know how it can be that Jesus by dying accomplished whatever we think he accomplished.

    “Jesus as the climax to the story of Israel”

    Not really, Israel was only a particular section of humanity God communicated with, and through them to the whole of humanity. They had nothing otherwise special going for them.

    “Jesus as the God who renews covenant (Isa 54)”

    The covenant wasn’t renewed. The covenant with Abraham stood, and stands, throughout history. The bits and pieces of favours and obligations vis a vis ethnic Israel were never renewed by Jesus.

    “and redeems the whole world (Isa 55) by carrying our sins and bearing our sorrows (Isa 53)”

    This didn’t need Israel.

    “Jesus is inaugurating the kingdom in his life and death … calling the kingdoms of this world to account, to a better way of rule”

    Wright seems to me to be widely understood as saying something like that Christians should strenuously try to make large scale interventions socio-politically in the world, maybe even establishing a theocracy unified in belief and practice and imposing it on everybody, and that they are promised a great measure of success. I can see the appeal to workaholics like himself, and various young blood evangelisers. It seems to me this will only lead to Christians making nuisances of themselves!

    “Perhaps my problem was that I couldn’t quite see how there was an inherent connection, how cross drove the kingdom vision or enabled it to come about”

    Yes, Wright doesn’t manage that in any of his writings (I’ve read a lot, not all! I think he should stop repeating himself endlessly and address some of the issues people disagreeing with him have.)

    “the church’s and academy’s readings of the Bible are becoming, and will continue to be, better for (Wright)”

    Yes, he has been a stimulus. But, since I think he is pushing very hard a mistaken line (and many are being led astray!), that’s not satisfactory.

  3. Just doing a quick read here, Daniel, but it seems to me that organizing around Wright’s correctives here, the cross and resurrection flow out of the first point, Jesus as the climax of Israel’s story. That’s where we find their core redemptive and remaking meaning expressed most clearly. It’s through the other three expressions that those core meanings are expanded and clarified.

    Great post as always!

  4. Daniel, thanks for a great summary with your reflections, and yes, it was a long day. Wright actually opened this evening talk with the point that the Resurrection colors everything, and the rest is “rock ‘n roll”. He said this is why we have the gospels, and this quickly led into the discussion as you described.

    So the Resurrection is the place that Wright was trying to return to at the end. I agree that Wright’s landing seemed like a pilot trying to make one in the middle of a storm on a short runway, but land it he did.

    Because of the set-up question, Wright was actually pointing out that most Christians entirely skip over the life of Jesus almost as if it could be snipped out of the Gospels. To understand the Gospels, we must hear them against the backdrop of the life, experience and understanding of the Jewish people. He also reminded us that what we call the OT are the Scriptures of the earliest readers of the Gospels. So in his corrective, Wright points out that Jesus both fulfills and exemplifies what God has called Israel to do. Israel struggles with this call, but it is Christ who obediently fulfills in his life and death that inaugurates the kingdom.

    In the landing Wright actually spoke about the cross by underscoring the point that kingdom people are inherently cross-bearing people. So “cross” in the title of his talk is ultimately shorthand for cross-bearing. He had earlier referred to Isaiah as the clearest place in the OT which illustrates what Jesus as Messiah is doing anew, as well as in the Psalms. The challenge Wright left us with was how willing we were to be suffering in our service to God in the world, for the kingdom (and the cross) demands it.

    That’s the short answer.

    More specifically, this comes from the last two points (3 and 4) that Wright raised that are actually fused. Here he drove home the “seamless” connection between Kingdom and Cross. To expand a bit:

    (3) The arrival of Jesus launched Christianity, the people of God, and thus a kingdom clash ensues. Here is where cross and cross-bearing are connected. The people of God are a new community living by forgiveness (the cross), who are thereby able to unleash forgiveness to others (cross-bearing). The calling of the Twelve (a parallel to the tribes of Israel) were a “re-constitution” of the people of God, continuous with the people of God in Israel. Israel was called to be light of the world, as is the church. Blessing is not what God does to, but through us. This means there is an agenda of how the kingdom appears – in the humble, in peacemakers – through whom God is becoming King.

    (4) So the connecting point about calling the kingdoms of the world to account is collisional. Kingdom language is political, so we can only read the Gospels in a de-politicized way if we de-Judaize them. Wright cited the book of Daniel as describing this clash, as well as Mark 10, where right after Jesus refers to his impending death, the disciples get it all wrong about power, and Jesus’ reply to James and John is the question 21st Century disciples need to ask themselves as well. This text is quite clear about drinking the same cup and participating in the same baptism that Jesus has undergone. The familiar text, the Son of Man came to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (v. 45), concludes the discussion of servanthood with all his disciples as a completely different way of rule – i.e., kingdom ruling. In the Gospels we find there is no kingdom without the cross, which means servanthood to the point of dying, but there is no dying without resurrection, and there is no resurrection that happens without God’s power being displayed.

    Finally, Wright concludes by focusing on John 18-19, what he calls the foundation of all Christian political theology – i.e., how the kingdom of God defeats the kingdoms of the world. This is “new Exodus theology” (cf. Ex. 15). But Wright in recent years has also come to see that Jesus’ promise of the Spirit to convict the world of sin happens through the people of God. He reminds us in the exchange between Pilate and Jesus, that God’s kingdom does not grow out of this world. As the Incarnate God vindicated by resurrection power, he is already running it. So the kingdom appears in power as Jesus emerges from the tomb.

    The analogy of 4 speakers (to get a full, balanced effect) should lead us to a better appreciation of the written musical score. You’re on point that Wright is great at helping us all appreciate the score and listen to it knowing the connecting elements better than most. Robert Greenberg has done this for classical music, reaching out and raising our level of understanding, and in this same regard Wright is highly effective. Still, you are correct that all points he raised are subject to the necessary community review of his esteemed peers in the Society for Biblical Literature. But the benefit to the church and ultimately to the world has indeed already begun to outweigh that.

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