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Friday, 23 December 2011

Is Wright Wrong? Questions about Tom Wright's Simply Jesus

NT or Tom Wright 
A new gentle giant
Tom Wright, also known as NT Wright in his more scholarly role, was until recently, a bishop in the Church of England.

It is wonderful to have believing bishops in the Anglican church, and it was good to have a bishop who believed Jesus bodily rose from the dead in a city (Durham) where a previous bishop denied the resurrection (and was inexcusably not disciplined for it).

Tom Wright is a prolific author. His influence is growing, and seems to be on the increase in evangelical circles - hence my interest in him here. His reputation stands on three 700-page foundational books, which gained him widespread acclaim in the academic world. But now he's writing lots of "popular" books, so soon he'll be found in a Kindle near you.

I put exclamation marks around popular, because there is popular and there is popular. There is A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking kind of popular and there is Jamie Oliver's 30-Minute Meals popular. No question, Tom Wright's books are of the Hawking variety of popular. This will mean, on the one hand that few ordinary people will get through his books, but on the other hand, many church leaders could be affected by them: Steve Chalke and Rob Bell, for example, have been greatly influenced by Wright. I have read many of Wright's books with growing sadness and alarm, and so I take this opportunity to view his wider mission through the lens of this book. 

The Book: Simply Jesus
So to the book Simply Jesus, or subtitled "Who he was, what he did, why it matters." The book is anything but simple and the Jesus he represents is anything but simple. I cannot imagine many of my Christian friends making it to the end (no, that's not a reflection on my friends), and I certainly wouldn't expect my unbelieving friends to make it to page 230. Understanding why Wright thinks Jesus is difficult lies at the very heart of this book, and at the heart of Wright’s errors. For this reason, I shall spend most of this blog exploring this issue.

I will argue that since Wright has done up the first button of his shirt wrong, all the other buttons are out of sync too.

Jesus is difficult – why is Jesus difficult?
Wright goes out of his way to prepare the reader for how difficult, in his view, Jesus is to understand: "Jesus was not simple in his own time, and he is not simple now" (p. x). Why is Jesus complex? Two main reasons: (a) because the Gospels are difficult: "The sources we have for his public career - the four Gospels... are dense, complex and multilayered." (p.9) and (b) because we cannot understand Jesus without a deep understanding of his historical setting. Somehow we have to get into his world:   "This is absolutely necessary, because first century Jews thought very differently from the way we do now... we have to make a real effort to see things from a first century Jewish point of view, if we are to understand what Jesus was all about." (p. xii). 

Now because you need to understand Jesus’ historical setting, you need to either be a first-century historian, or, rely on a good one......

In the few quotes above lie a universe of questions:

Question 1: What is your “interpretative framework”?
Big words, but simple meaning; please stay with me.  Wright wants evangelicals to move away from our interpretative moorings. We are convinced that the only proper way to interpret Jesus is to place him in the setting of the New Testament and the Old Testament. The Old Testament points forward to Jesus, and the apostles who wrote the New Testament (we are thinking of the 27 books) point backwards to Jesus and make sense of his life and death. We believe that the apostles are the legitimate interpreters of Jesus. In short we believe in sola scriptura – the Scriptures alone. We could represent this with a diagram:

Evangelical View

 Wright disagrees. He wants to add another interpretive framework -  first century history:

An alternative view
But tragically, that is not all. If I understand Wright correctly, he wants to diminish – at the very least – the role of the apostles as the legitimate interpreters of Jesus’ life and work. Proof: very rarely do the apostles get quoted in a book that purports to be all about Jesus! So what we end up with is:

NT Wright's View
In summary, then, Wright is arguing that Jesus and the Gospels be placed in a new interpretative framework, that of the first century. And naturally, it follows, you need a first-century historian as your guide. Who, I wonder, might that be?

Question 2: What is your world? The world of the academic or the humble saint?
This is the second, fatal flaw of Wright’s approach. Wright is primarily a scholar, not a pastor or preacher. A scholar, is concerned with knowledge, particularly cutting edge stuff and his teaching is aimed to stimulate the novel-seeking mind. She is always glancing over one shoulder to see what her peers think: the testing ground of ‘truth’ is the academy (you make a name by finding out new stuff). A preacher or pastor is interested in building up the saints, to edify them, to strengthen their faith through the joys and storms of life. The test of truth is not the academy, but the church. The preacher, while wanting to bring new treasures out – and what amazing treasures the Word contains – has absolutely no interest in novelty. 

Question 3: What is your Gospel (of the Gospels)?
If you exclude the apostles as your legitimate interpreters of Jesus, and consider only the Old Testament plus the first century as your only guides, you are going to end up with a Gospel that differs from the apostolic one. And that tragically is what we get in Simply Jesus. What is the central message of Jesus? Jesus announces and establishes the kingdom of God. That's it. Through his life (and somehow through his death) he establishes the kingdom of God and that's the Gospel of the Gospels.  Jesus did not come "to teach people how to get to heaven" but to "tell them that God was now taking charge right here on earth; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognise, in his own work, the signs that it was happening; and that when he completed his work, it would become a reality." (p.142)

What about the death of Jesus?

Well, Jesus died "not in order to rescue people from this world for a faraway heaven, but in order that God’s kingdom may be established on earth as in heaven." (p.180) While Wright does not deny some kind of substitutionary or penal (‘penal’ is the strange word we use to describe the legal ‘must punish sin to be Just’ characteristic of God's justice)  aspect to Jesus' death, it takes a back seat. Of course it would, if you neglect Romans and Hebrews.

The meaning of the cross becomes this: Jesus "took the full power of evil and accusation upon himself, to let it do its worst to him, so that it would thereby be exhausted, its main force spent" (184). In other words, evil has a battery full of limited power; it expended that battery on Jesus on the cross (how?) and now its energy is gone. Wright is not happy with penal substitution,  regarding it as notorious because it “leaves unanswered the question of how such a punishment could itself be just, let alone loving” (p.181). Come now, even a child can understand how the cross of Jesus can be loving and just! Loving because the lover has given up his life for the beloved and just because a holy and just God is satisfied; sin has been paid for.

Wright is frankly confused over penal substitution: “Jesus has announced God’s imminent judgement on his rebel people, a judgement that would consist of devastation at the hands of Rome. He then goes ahead of his people to take precisely that judgement, literally, physically and historically upon himself.” (p.181) This is absurd! If Jesus bore the judgement that should have come upon Israel, then God was unjust – or even wicked - to then pour it out on the Jews in AD 66-70, for now he has exacted the penalty twice. 

Question 4: Who will be your guide?
In the end, who will be your guide when it comes to understanding Jesus? Will it be the passing findings of the fickle academy, or the passing words of a human scholar? Or will it be the solid Scriptures illuminated by the Holy Spirit?

Question 5: How come it don't all fit together?
If the message of Jesus is "the kingdom has come" how come that message is not the one preached in the Acts and the rest of the New Testament? Theories are successful in so far as they fit the data. I find no evidence that this was the message of the apostles as they went into the world. Instead I find their message was frankly, the old fashioned one: "repent and believe".  

Questions 6:  Isn't this just one more attempt to produce a clever Gospel that has no offence?
Don't we have here, the age old attempt to avoid the scorn of preaching the scandal of the cross of Christ, by preaching a new and clever Gospel, that will appeal to the world (at least the academics, leaving everyone else high and dry and bored)? Clever boffins and an educated world looks for wisdom, but we must continue to preach Christ crucified.

Question 7: Is Jesus really all that difficult? 
On the one hand, Wright is helpful to point out the riches of Christ and not to settle as some have with a reduced Jesus. But on the other hand, I cannot find the apostles ever talking like Wright, preparing their congregations for the enormously difficult and daunting task before them, if they are ever to really understand Jesus. Of course, Wright will reply - they didn't have to because they lived in the first Century. But the Gospel travelled to non-Jews who would have to enter the Jewish world of the Old Testament to understand prophecies and sacrifices. And nowhere do we get the impression this was going to be an impossible task for them. Isn't the real problem that Wright is approaching Jesus from completely the wrong perspective - from the narrow (and frankly irrelevant for 99.999% of the people of the world including the West) perspective of a western academic. And from this rational perspective Jesus is mighty difficult because all the wrong questions are asked about him - of course they would be, for they are asked by scholars, many of whom, it must be sadly said, are unbelievers!

Question 8:  Do you have to be a first-century historian to understand Jesus?
Of all the errors in Wright, this stands as one of the greatest. If God gave Jesus to the academy, yes, perhaps. But he didn't, and frankly, God and Jesus have very little to do with the passing fancies of the academy (one million different and often false Jesus' have been fabricated by them, with another zillion to come). What you need to see Jesus is the Bible, the Holy Spirit and a believing community. I throw in the last one, because whenever we go off on a limb interpreting Jesus without the feedback of God's people, we are bound to err - particularly if we do it in a university setting.

Question 9: Was the world of Jesus so alien to our world that we need a degree in history to get it?
No - if you're talking about hope, love, faith, salvation, service, life, and all the one thousand other concerns of ordinary human life. On these universal and eternal issues we find ourselves immediately in the world of the Bible without scarcely a blink. Yes - if you are interested in secondary matters such as the details of the politics of the age, then perhaps you need a little help. The real problem with Wright is that he majors on minors and minors on majors. The issues that really matter do not separate us one iota from the world of Jesus' day; it's only on peripheral issues that our worlds differ.

Question 10: Isn't this kind of approach the triumph of the enlightenment project (the from-the-dawn-of-time attempt by mankind to find truth without Revelation)?
If the aim of the enlightenment was to arrive at truth using human methodology (like Spinoza's attempt in Ethics to produce a universal philosophy/theology/morality based on first principles), isn't NT Wright merely one more child of the enlightenment and his work the triumph of it in "Christendom". What can be more compelling to a child of the enlightenment than to start off as a historian (using methods, a, b, c such as primary sources only please, to assess probability of event d, etc.) and then from that foundation to build your whole theology, ignoring the apostles along the way.

Question 11: Isn't "you have to know first-century history" simply a modern form of gnosticism?
Gnosticism is the error that teaches that access to some knowledge gives you the real key to understanding Jesus. Without this knowledge you will never really understand Jesus. This is in effect what Wright teaches.  In other words Wright's problem is nothing to do with knowledge, it's a spiritual problem - gnosticism.

Question 12: There is a good reason you don't need to be a First-Century historian to understand Jesus.
The glory of the Gospel is that it floats outside of first-century Palestinian culture. The Gospel is for the world. This is why the apostles, and not the historians are the true interpreters of Jesus. To drag Jesus back into first-century Palestine and force him to be interpreted only in that setting is to misunderstand the Gospel, which floats above culture, so it can make its home in any culture of the world.

Although we may learn much from Tom Wright, "Simply Jesus" is not an adequate explanation of who Jesus was. It emphasises things that are unimportant and minimizes things that are all-important. It complicates things that are actually very simple and overlooks simple truths.

And most tragically of all, it is not a faithful representation of the Gospel of Jesus. 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Shepherding of Mary's Faith

The tender shepherd
Jesus, the Great Shepherd, is gentle with young believers, "he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart he gently leads those that have young" (somewhere in Isaiah). And nowhere is this tenderness more beautifully demonstrated than in Luke's record of God's dealings with the young Mary.

An explanation from Gabriel
First act of care - Gabriel did not despise the question any young woman would ask about history's first (and only real) parthenogenesis (you can google it): "how can this be so" but told her that her pregnancy would be from God, "the power of the Most High will overshadow you."

An older woman to chat with
Next, God gave to Mary an older woman to chat with and no doubt pray with - for three months! Elizabeth was also experiencing a miracle, but only the restoration of normal reproductiveness, not the big word miracle above. Nevertheless she could help Mary with the questions she would get from Joseph and her village folk. She probably couldn't go to her own mother, and in any case someone outside of the village was better able to see things straight.

Some shepherds with news to calm the shocking birth
So it's beginning to sink in that this baby is something special, "he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever", but then a rude turn of events - the baby has to be born in shocking circumstances, a manger; and what first-time mother would place their precious child in a feeding trough? This needs some explanation. What's gone wrong? This can't be right? What does God do? He sends along some shepherds who tell their story - messengers from heaven who tell them that the Messiah had been born - and would be found, guess where? in a feeding trough. This news from another world, is as much for Mary's faith as for the world's joy.

Some age-d saints to assure them that costly obedience was right!
Next, this poor couple (the Magi haven't yet come with their "we three kings" gifts) have got to make some costly gifts demanded by the law of Moses. Like the two sacrifices required for childbirth purification, like five shekels to pay for the redemption of a first-born son. I mean, they've just undertaken a costly 70-mile journey from Nazareth, they are 'saving for a first home' (modern parlance) and they've got a newborn baby. Surely, they could be excused from these costly requirements. But they were a pious righteous couple and just (providence, not chance) as they were making their costly gifts, God sends into their lives two godly saints to encourage them on their way: Simeon and Anna.

A gracious preparation for future sorrow
And finally, the tender Shepherd of the sheep prepares Mary for the future, when her heart will be torn as she sees the hatred poured out against her Son. Simeon doesn't tell her about bloody thorns and back, or about nails or terror crucifixion, but he tells her that her Son will cause the falling of many, will be a sign spoken against and that a sword would pierce her own heart.

Assurance, comfort and preparation.

What wonderful Shepherdly care.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The simple faith of Mary

Same angel, different response
God gave to Gabriel the task of taking real good news to an old priest (Zechariah) and real good news to a young ordinary woman (Mary). I don't know what angels think of us, but what a shocking difference in responses this one received!

In both cases the news he was sent to deliver was good: "I want to bless you and bring blessing to the world through you." Not judgement, not trouble, just blessing! For Zechariah it was the news that he and Elizabeth would bear a special son in old age and have the ancient stigma of childlessness removed. For Mary, it was the stupendous news that she would bear the Son of God into the world.

Visit One - the unbelief of Zechariah
If anyone should have been prepared for good news, it was Zechariah. For a starters, it was news he had probably prayed for. Then he was a priest on duty - shouldn't his spiritual antenna have been in tune?  Furthermore, he was chosen by lot on this occasion to burn incense - a once in a life time privilege for a priest. The message was even delivered at the height of that ceremony for effect, and for added impact was delivered by an angel! The news was not even 'out of the blue' historically, for Abraham and Sarah had borne a child in their old age.

Everything was arranged to make faith easy for Zechariah, but he did not believe "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years", and was chastised with nine months of dumbness.

Visit Two - the faith of Mary
Six months later, Gabriel was sent to visit someone at the opposite end of the "religious"/ "favoured" spectrum - an ordinary girl from an ordinary village, engaged to the village carpenter. If anyone had reasons not to believe it was her. In addition to her ordinariness ("Why should God be bothered with me?") she had to climb the hill of biological impossibility and novelty. Everyone knows babies aren't born without fathers. Nothing like this miracle is found in the Old Testament. And what about Joseph and what about the response of this news on Mary from the village?

And yet, though the bar is set so very high, Mary believes the good news; "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." 

The Encouragement and the Warning
Zechariah serves as a great great warning to every believer - and especially to older believers who have been on the road for years  - of the danger of a hard cold heart of unbelief. Wow what a serious warning! God may be speaking - and even be speaking blessing - but it's possible to be deaf to his voice.

Mary, on the other hand, serves as an encouragement for those who though small in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world, nevertheless have, not great faith, but faith in a great God.