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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. 

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