Christological Oversights & the Kingdom of God: Reading N.T. Wright’s ‘The Challenge of Jesus’

I’ve recently read, and enjoyed, N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus.  Primarily, the book explores the relationship of “the kingdom of God” and the symbols of Judaism (the Temple, the food laws, etc.) to the preaching of the historical Jesus.  But Wright also reflects a good deal on ChristologyIn this review, I’ll be paying special attention to his arguments, some good, some not, about who (and what) the Jesus of the NT is.

challengeIntroducing the book, Wright argues that Christians today must be prepared to challenge many things which time and tradition have handed down to us as fact about the person and work of Jesus.  Even Protestant traditions, according to Wright, which still pride themselves on principles such as “sola scriptura,” have been, and truly still are, at serious risk of manufacturing a Jesus who owes little to the historical man represented in the NT.  In Wright’s own words, certain traditions “which have supposed themselves to be ‘biblical’ but are sometimes demonstrably not, have made us blind.”[1]  Reevaluating these traditions, says Wright, will include the difficult question of whether or not certain traditions, even beloved and valuable ones, are not as readily available in the NT as we might like to think.  Fear of this exact possibility is what has caused many to shy away from historical Jesus studies.  But Wright insists that the ever-present danger of not engaging in historical Jesus work is the threat of idolatry.  I wholeheartedly agree: the Jesus of history must become the Jesus of faith.  Encouraging anything less is to prop up a Jesus of our own imagination, or, more dangerously, of our beloved and time-honored tradition.  Indeed, we cannot allow any ideology, no matter how powerful those ideals have operated in our lives and in the world, to suffocate the scriptural sources from which Christian ideology should flow.

The Gospel of the Kingdom and the Jewish Symbols

The ever-present danger of idealism, of eclipsing Jesus and the Scriptures, has certainly manifested in Christendom’s widespread redefinition of Jesus’ work as “dying on the cross so we can go to heaven when we die.”  In my estimation, the historical man Jesus of Nazareth proves much more challenging (and interesting) than the stained-glass Jesus of tradition.  This vibrant apocalyptic prophet, whom Wright also finds leaping off the pages of the Gospels, had a radically different mission in mind than simply opening the doorway to “heaven”: his aim was to preach the establishment of “the kingdom of God” on earth, and the waning of the great symbols of the present age, and in his life to demonstrate that coming kingdom to the world.  While many Christians today might reduce Christ’s mission to his death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus was inspired by a wider vision, in which those important things were but parts of a whole.  Indeed, Jesus said, “I must preach the gospel about the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for that is why I was sent” (Luke 4:43).  In this stirring preaching one was to locate nothing less than God’s grand design for humanity and the world, which promised a planet restored and reclaimed from the forces of evil, and a renewed humanity.  Jesus himself claimed to be the one through whom this plan would come into being; Jesus’ vocation was to be the one through whom God would bring an end to the present age, and the symbols and institutions which constitute it (even the Jewish ones), and to establish God’s rule over the whole world.

templeAccording to Wright, before this kingdom could manifest, however, the board needed clearing.  The great symbols of Judaism, ordained by God, had since fallen into corruption.  Wright identifies these symbols as the Sabbath, the food laws, the nation and land, and the Temple.[2]  On each of these points, Jesus clashed with the religious leadership of Israel: he challenged the meaning and intentions of the Sabbath, the intentions of the food laws, the geographic and ethnic boundaries of God’s kingdom, and perhaps most importantly the place of the Temple (the means by which man is to enter communion with God).  But Wright is quick to point out that Jesus was not opposed to the Jewish symbols because they were not ordained by God, rather, “he believed that the time had come for God’s kingdom to dawn and that with it a new agenda had emerged diametrically opposed to the agenda that had taken over the symbols of national identity and was hiding all manner of injustices behind them.”[3]

Of course, other Jews had disapproved of the way in which the Temple was being managed by the Sadducees.  Some, like the Qumran community, awaited the eschatological destruction of the Temple, and looked forward to its replacement with a new system, presumably one managed by themselves.  Others, like the Pharisees, may have already begun to teach that through the study of Torah and prayer God himself may be present among his people (this would become the flagship teaching of the Pharisees’ rabbinic successors in the period following Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE).  Jesus, on the other hand, believed that the Temple was going to be destroyed and actually replaced with himself.  He would become the means by which the world communed with God.  Wright argues that this is precisely “why [the Pharisees] scrutinized and criticized Jesus, who was also offering an alternative to the Temple.”[4]  As Wright observes, Jesus’ agenda “stood in parallel to that of the Pharisees.  Alternative’s like that are threatening.”[5]

Jesus the Theologian

In chapter four, “The Crucified Messiah,” Wright stresses the importance of not imposing later, anachronistic Trinitarian categories on the historical Jesus.  He writes, “When Peter is reported to have said, ‘You are the Christ,’ and when Caiaphas asked, ‘Are you the Christ?’ neither of them was thinking of Trinitarian theology.  So, too, the phrases ‘son of God’ and ‘son of man’ carried messianic connotations, in some circles at least, in the Judaism of this period, but they did not in themselves refer to a divine being.”[6]  Elsewhere Wright continues, “the phrase ‘son of God’ in this period functioned as a messianic title, it did not carry in and of itself the overtones of ‘divinity’ that later Christian theology would hear in it… [The Incarnation] cannot be read out of the phrase itself within its Jewish context.”[7]  Wright ultimately paints for us a picture of a human Messiah, one expected by the Jews to rebuild or cleanse the Temple, and further as a man who, by his shocking death, would become “the means whereby that for which the Temple stood would become a reality.”[8]

Wright goes on to admonish the “timidity” masquerading as “prudence” which has kept scholars from “allowing Jesus to be (what we would call) a thinking, reflective theologian.[9]  I expressed much the same sentiments in the introduction to my book The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma (2016):

“For centuries, the majority of Christian traditions have viewed Jesus of Nazareth less as a theologian and more as the object of theology himself.  Countless millions of earnest believers have entertained religious notions about Jesus, but what about the religious notions of Jesus?  Has consideration for the particular theology of Jesus, the first-century Jewish rabbi, all but gone by the wayside?”[10]

What Jesus thinks about God has indeed gone neglected in popular discussion.  As Wright agrees, it is “high time” we reclaim that elemental theology.  However, Wright’s own interpretation of New Testament Christology, despite his clarion call, is the weak point in his otherwise cogent and useful analysis.

The Human Jesus

In chapters five and six, Wright correctly sees Jesus in terms of humanity; he justly recognizes the value and necessity of Jesus’ humanity in his participation in the Messianic vocation.  He further recognizes the “human” nature of our own participation in the kingdom of God, and pits the Christian hope of the resurrection of the body against any “Gnostic” speculation about spiritual escape from the material world.[11]  Wright sees clearly that it is Jesus’ humanity that enables him to fulfill Adam’s calling of worldwide dominion.[12]  Conspicuously absent throughout the book, however, is a thorough demonstration of any biblical requirement for a “divine nature” or “deity” in the Messiah.  In chapter five, Wright nevertheless insists throughout that the “divinity” must be there, somewhere, though he fails to show us why it must be.  In Wright’s own analysis, Jesus seems abundantly qualified to rule as a human being, as the Second Adam; “deity” is not necessary for fulfilling his vocation of kingdom-preacher and kingdom-ruler.

rembrandt4jpg-0567cbae0ade6308Wright looks to keep anachronistic metaphysics at arm’s length when discussing the historical Jesus, and rightly so.  However, while doing his best to avoid philosophical categories, Wright ultimately still appears to be paying lip-service to the assertions of later conciliar Christology.[13]  He appears to struggle with reconciling the later Christian arguments that identify Jesus as God himself, and the Gospel data which separates and subordinates Jesus and God (Wright himself separates Jesus from God several times in the book).[14]  For example, the Gospels portray Jesus as not knowing what God knows (Matt. 24:36).  Does this Jesus even know that he is personally, as the creeds say, “true God”?  In light of the evidence, Wright is forced to oscillate on “knowing”—Jesus may not, Wright argues, have known that he was God, at least not in the same way one knows that one is male or female, or that one is hungry; it must have been a different sort of knowing, like knowing one is loved.[15]  For him, Jesus’ awareness is primarily of his vocation as Messiah (again, there is no need for him to know he is “God” himself).  But a survey of the evidences which apparently draw Wright to reading later Christology onto the Gospels quickly demonstrates that the difficulties he is encountering are not the problems of the New Testament.

First, in this and in other books Wright regularly employs the term “divine” to describe Jesus, even portraying him as “in some sense divine.”[16]  But “divine” is a theological fog-word; we can say that the Scriptures are “divine”, the holy prophets were “divine,” the Church is “divine,” etc.  Does Wright mean that Jesus himself has dual-natures, or that he is ontologically Yahweh, or that he is “divine in the same sense that the Father is divine”?  Wright correctly shies away from anachronistic categories, but ultimately sends us grasping into a fog.  His vague description “in some sense divine” is even foggier, unhelpful, and really useless in Christological discussion.  Indeed, all Christians, whether Trinitarian, unitarian, or otherwise, could assent to the idea that Jesus is “divine” or “in some sense divine.”

Devotion to Jesus

Wright draws attention to several points of argument utilized by other contemporary scholars looking to affirm the “deity” of Christ without employing anachronistic categories.  In a way, Wright’s chapter on God and Jesus represents a survey of several popular Christological arguments from the past few decades, which he does not himself thoroughly explore, but which loom large behind his Christology.  For example, Wright points out that Jesus was “worshiped.”[17]  But this argument ignores the fact that worship was paid to other figures, human and angelic, throughout the OT and NT and in the proximate Second Temple literature.  Even in “cultic” religious settings, the King of Israel, for example, was worshiped alongside of Yahweh (1 Chron. 29:20), and this was not understood to infringe upon monotheism.  This was permissible among the ancient Israelites, and the Jews in Jesus’ day, because it was presupposed that no matter how highly a being is exalted, there is still only one true God.  Because Jewish monotheism was taken for granted, the reverence and exaltation of figures other than Yahweh was not thought to impugn monotheism in the first-century Jewish world, and the worship of the human Messiah did not necessitate a reformulation of that monotheism among the first Jewish Christians.

Of course, Larry Hurtado and others have pointed out that the nature of Jesus-worship in the earliest Christian communities was “unprecedented,” and was seen as a fundamental part of the Christian worship of Yahweh.[18]  But this argument misses the whole Messianic story behind the worship of Jesus in the NT, namely, that God made Jesus both lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36), and that God himself made the worship of the Messiah a requisite part of confession and obedience (see Heb. 1:6).  Indeed, while many men and angels have been worshiped, only the veneration of Jesus has been made a mandatory part of confession; one cannot now properly worship the God of Israel without acknowledging and honoring Jesus alongside of him.  But any Christian who doesn’t believe in the “deity” of Christ would affirm this.  Simply because a being is worshiped, even highly exalted, and because their worship is commanded by God, does not necessitate that this being is himself Yahweh.  Hurtado has pointed out that the devotion to Jesus did not involve the production of a distinct cult, but it remained within the worship of the God of Israel (see Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 151).  But, as C.H. Talbert has correctly recognized, this is analogous “to both certain Jews’ devotion to angels within the one cultus of the God of Israel and to the later devotion shown to Christian saints within the one cultus of the triune God” (Talbert, The Development of Christology, 2011, pp. 41-42, n. 86).

Ultimately, Wright expresses wonder at how the earliest Christians worshipped Jesus and remained monotheists.  In chapter five, Wright argues that by worshipping Jesus within Jewish monotheism, they may have out of necessity invented Trinitarian theology.[19]  This conclusion is overdrawn, however.  The way the first Christians remained monotheists was not by inventing “Trinitarian” theology, but by keeping several simple truths in view: 1) There is only one true God, the Father; 2) Other human and angelic figures could be highly exalted and worshiped alongside of the one true God because it was axiomatic that they were not God and would always be subordinate to him; 3) The king of Israel had historically been entitled to worship alongside God, and the Messiah is the king of Israel; 4) the universal worship of the Messiah was anticipated in apocalyptic Second Temple literature; 5) the one true God had commanded the worship of the man Jesus.

Divine Identity?  Split Shema?

On pp. 106-107, Wright perpetuates the argument so frequently heard in “Early High Christology” circles that Jesus was “included in the identity of Yahweh”–an argument made popular by Richard Bauckham.[20]   Dr. Dale Tuggy has responded beautifully to such claims, emphasizing the principle of the indiscernibility of identicals (in essence, ‘for any x and y, they are numerically identical only if they don’t differ’).  I highly encourage the reading of Tuggy on how this principle obliterates a good deal of “divine identity” claims like the ones which Wright and Bauckham are making (see Tuggy’s article “On Bauckham’s Bargain” here, or here).

Ultimately, when we closely scrutinize the widely lauded propositions which identify Jesus with Yahweh, we may be underwhelmed:  Of course Jesus, being the supreme human agent and representation of God, was identified with Yahweh.  The more pertinent question is, was Jesus personally identified as Yahweh himself by the first Christians?

1200px-Knesset_Menorah_Shema_InscriptionLooking to confirm such a proposal, Wright, along with other scholars, have argued that in 1 Cor. 8:6 Paul actually “splits” the Shema and thrusts Jesus into the middle of it: “For there is but one God, the Father… and one Lord, Jesus…”[21]  But assuming a “split” Shema is radically unnecessary.  Was such a thing even thinkable for a good Pharisaic Jew like Paul?  Rather than splitting the Shema, it is easy to recognize that Paul affirms the Shema, and simply brings Jesus alongside of it.  As Dr. James McGrath concludes, “by appending something additional to the Shema one need not ‘split’ it nor be understood to be incorporating the additional person or thing mentioned into the divine identity.”[22]  Indeed, it has escaped the notice of many scholars, including Wright, that when Paul begins speaking about Jesus in 1 Cor. 8:6, he has already stopped speaking about the “one God,” whom he has explicitly identified as “the Father.”

God was in Christ…

Wright suggests that the Jesus of the Gospels was the “embodiment” or “manifestation” of “the God of Exodus” (Wright, p. 109).  But does this require that he is personally God himself?  Jesus is certainly the place where God “dwells” in the NT, even replacing the Temple, and Wright points this out as he looks to support the personal “divinity” of Christ.[23]  But Wright may also undermine his own argument by subsequently pointing out that God could in fact really “dwell” in Temples, and also in Christians.[24]  Indeed, Jesus, as agent of God, need not be understood to actually be the God of Israel in order to manifest him perfectly, in order to be his “exact representation” (Heb. 1:3).  In the OT, the agents of God were in fact so closely identified with him, that they could even become confused in the text (see Exodus 7:17 cf. 7:19, 25).  God ordained Moses as his personal agent, even calling him “God” (Exodus 7:1), and assigned to him Aaron as his own prophet, and put his own words into Moses’ mouth (Exodus 4:12).  Moses was certainly the manifestation of God to Pharaoh.  By sending Moses to Egypt, God could even say: “For I have come down to rescue them” (Exodus 3:8).   And when Moses went and performed miracles among the people, they concluded that “Yahweh had come to them” (Exodus 4:31).

moses-1Wright’s related argument, that in Jesus’ salvific acts we can observe that “Jesus did only what Israel’s God could do,”[25] is also better served by taking into account the principle of agency.  The unique God of Israel was indeed “with” Jesus (John 3:2; 16:32), and working “in” and “through” Jesus (2 Cor. 5:19; Acts 2:22).  But the salvific action of Yahweh, because it is ultimately worked out through the man Jesus, doesn’t require that Jesus be Yahweh himself.  Again, this quashes the NT’s Messianic story in which Jesus was made not only lord, but in which he also became the source of salvation after his exaltation (Heb. 5:9).[26]  Indeed, only the God of Israel could have saved Israel from Egypt at the time of the Exodus.  Was Moses not the savior of Israel, the agent of God’s salvation?  There can be no doubt that it was the God of Israel working through him to bring the liberation about; Moses’ activity in Egypt was nothing less than Yahweh himself at work.  In this light, the biblical data draws us to recognize that the Gospels portray Jesus as a human being, the prophet like Moses, the ultimate agent of God in whom God was dwelling, and a man through whom God was becoming king.

Elsewhere in The Challenge of Jesus, we catch a glimpse of a clearer Christological picture: Wright distinguishes Jesus from God,[27] identifies him as “a human being,”[28] and several times as a prophet of God.[29]  But Wright’s subsequent evidence for why we should also see Jesus as something more than human relies overmuch on both arbitrary theological restrictions and the neglect of important biblical data.  In the end these arguments serve more to fit conciliar Christological confession into the framework of the first century, than they do to help us understand what that native framework actually looks like, and what it contains.  The humanity of Jesus, as Wright demonstrates (to the detriment of his own Christological speculation), was both sufficient and required for the execution of Jesus’ worldwide preaching and rule.

The Gospel and Postmodernism

NTWright 250wIn the final two chapters, “Walking to Emmaus in a Postmodern World,” and “The Light of the World,” Wright brings his grand vision of Jesus and the kingdom to a stirring close.  Wright portrays the kingdom message of Christ as not only relevant for our freshly postmodern world, but the only remedy for the existential and epistemological crisis in which we have been recently marooned.  Wright sees that a “hermeneutic of suspicion” has in fact drawn Western civilization towards nihilism.  We are deconstructing ourselves into oblivion.  But human efforts to “see through things” should expect to find something on the other side.  For the Christian, the other side looks like love and hope.  Wright thus sees the task of the Christian today as one of “constructing the post-postmodern world.”[30]  We are to manifest what the postmodern world is not offering: the love of God, knowledge of that love, and above all, the Christian hope of the kingdom.  Jesus’ challenge, still shining like a beacon in a sea of deconstructionist chaos, has ultimately moved Wright to offer his own challenge to his readers: to believe “that there is a such thing as love, a knowing, a hermeneutic of trust rather than suspicion, which is what we most surely need as we enter the twenty-first century.”[31]

Wright ultimately recognizes the centrality of the kingdom of God in the preaching of Jesus.  For Wright, Jesus’ mandate was to challenge the great symbols of Judaism (the Temple, the Torah, the Jewish ethnicity, and the land), to condemn the corruption they had suffered, and to preach the arrival of the ultimate victory of God’s people against a world which had all-too-often prevailed against them.  Wright demonstrates also the need for Christians to presently embody the attributes of the kingdom.  Living the life of the coming kingdom in our current age has not only eschatological function but evangelistic function: we become lights of God’s hope and love in an increasingly dark and truth-starved atmosphere.  Jesus indeed is still challenging the world, by both radical prayer and preaching, to believe that it can be, and one day will be, much better.

 

N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus is available on Amazon.com.

 

[1] N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove, IVP: 2015), p. 17.

[2] Ibid., pp. 58-67.

[3] Ibid., p. 67.

[4] Ibid., p. 64.

[5] Ibid., p. 71.

[6] Ibid., p. 74.

[7] Ibid., p. 108.

[8] Ibid., p. 90.

[9] Ibid., p. 75.

[10] Kegan A. Chandler, The God of Jesus in Light of Christian Dogma (McDonough: Restoration Fellowship, 2016), p. 2.

[11] See Wright, pp. 24-25, p. 143ff.

[12] “[Jesus] is already risen; he is already, as a human being, exalted into the presence of God; he is already ruling the world, not simply in some divine capacity but precisely as a human being, fulfilling the destiny marked out for the human race from the sixth day of creation” (Wright, p. 143).  See 1 Cor. 15:27; Ps. 8:6; Dan. 7.

[13] Wright appears engaged in some more-or-less private struggle with the traditional interpretation of conciliar Christology.  See his vague comments on p. 124, “After twenty years of serious historical-Jesus study I still say the Christian creeds ex animo, but I now mean something very different by them, not least by the word God itself.”

[14] See Wright, p. 32.

[15] See Wright, pp. 121-122.  Knowing one is loved sounds much more like “faith” than “knowledge.”  Is it fair to say that Wright’s Jesus did not know he was God, but he had faith, and trusted that he was “in some sense divine” (as Wright characterizes him elsewhere)?  How well does this sentiment really align with conciliar Christianity and its Christological demands?

[16] Ibid., p. 3, 106.  See also N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), p. 696; See also N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (New York: HarperCollins, 1989 rpr. 2012, p. 55.

[17] Ibid., p. 106.

[18] See Larry Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), 2003.

[19] Wright, p. 107.

[20] See Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (The Didsbury Lectures for 1996; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

[21] See Andrew Y. Lau, Manifest in Flesh: The Epiphany Christology of the Pastoral Epistles (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996), pp. 73-74; Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 31, 37; James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998), pp. 267-268; Richard N. Longenecker, The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on His Life, Thought, and Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), pp. 127-128.

[22] James McGrath, The Only True God (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), p. 42.

[23] Wright, p. 110.

[24] See Wright, p. 110, 114, 193.

[25] Ibid., p. 149.

[26] Jesus “was made” a life giving spirit (1 Cor. 15:45).

[27] Wright looks forward to a new vision “not just of Jesus, but of God” (Wright, p. 32).

[28] Ibid., p. 110.

[29] “[Jesus] intended to be perceived, and indeed was perceived, as a prophet announcing the kingdom of God” (Ibid., p. 39).

[30] Ibid., p. 170.

[31] Ibid., pp. 196-197.

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