Wednesday, October 4, 2017

UPDATE: Opus Dei's Pope

Within the past week the Italian website InfoVaticana published an interview with Mariano Fazio, the Vicar General of Opus Dei--which is to say, the #2 guy at Opus Dei.  Fazio took the occasion to harshly criticize the members of Opus Dei who have signed the recent Filial Correction.  That would include Dr. Gerard J. M. van den Aardweg, although only Ettore Gotti Tedeschi, former president of the Institute of Works for Religion (IOR, the Vatican Bank), was mentioned by name.  With regard to the Filial Correction, Fazio set forth this blanket position, that would condemn any number of saints of the past: 

"Any faithful, bishop, cardinal, lay person has the right to tell the pope what he sees fit for the good of the Church, but it seems to me that he has no right to do so publicly and to scandalize the whole Church with these manifestations of disunity."

Fazio specifically included Gotti Tedeschi--as well as all the other signatories:

"I think he was wrong, too, like the others who signed."

Fazio even put forth the tired argument that Bergoglio hasn't actually changed any doctrine--as if Bergoglio's Cultural Marxist tactics somehow immunize him from criticism for the predictable results.  "Feed my lambs," and if the lambs are fed poison, well, they're still being fed, right?  No one, according to Fazio, would have a right to criticize the shepherd publicly.

This is, I think, a significant development.  Opus Dei has taken an "under the radar" approach to Bergoglio from the very beginning--even allowing an Opus Dei member, Greg Burke, to serve as Bergoglio's spokesman.  The Three Monkey approach.  But of course, this is unacceptable for Modernist revolutionaries in the long run.  For Modernist revolutionaries push always comes to shove and the question posed in the old union song becomes theirs: Which side are you on.

It's clear that Bergoglio has been looking to discredit by any means possible the signatories of the Filial Correction.  His tools may attempt to make light of the Filial Correction--Greg Burke attempted to mock it based on the number of signatories--

​“You can’t really imagine we would do this [block the Filial Correction website] for a letter with 60 names,” he joked to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale.)

but Modernist revolutionaries take all criticism very seriously indeed.  Which is why Fazio was trotted out to savage fellow members of Opus Dei: scandalizing the whole Church!  What's next?  Will Gotti Tedeschi have a millstone tied round his neck and be tossed into the depths of the sea?

But of course this goes far beyond attacking Gotti Tedeschi.  By agreeing to take this step, Opus Dei has given a clear indication of what side they're on: they're on Bergoglio's side.  They have revealed themselves as the GOPe of the Church.

Of course, Opus Dei--like so many, many "conservatives" in the Church--set themselves up for this over the decades after Vatican II.  Never speaking up while Wojtyla and Ratzinger pursued their Modernist agenda, setting the stage for Bergoglio. But the stupidity of this is still fairly breathtaking.  The fact is, Bergoglio--as bad as he's been--has yet to fully rip the mask off.  Count on this: given time, his assault on the Apostolic Faith will get worse--MUCH worse.  And at this moment in time, with the Filial Correction out there and the Dubia Brothers still to correct, with the future of the Church looking ever more parlous, Opus Dei jumped on the Bergoglio band wagon?  This was a signal not merely to two Opus Dei members--it was a signal to all "conservatives" and to the whole Church.  As Fazio would say, a scandal to the whole Church: If Opus Dei is down with Bergoglio, it's all over--right?

What does Fazio and the rest of the Opus Dei brain trust think this will do to the Opus Dei brand?  Yes, standing up to Bergoglio might have been very unpleasant, but look at the consequences, which we are starting to see already.  We all remember how it was, how Opus Dei built itself up into a power brokering organization.  For years they slyly whispered in people's ears: we're your only hope; everyone else has sold out--or are nasty schismatics.  We alone have kept the Faith!  So far I've only seen one comment on this, on a Spanish language website, but it's telling  The overall tone of the article is quite "moderate," but halfway through the author simply states as fact: 

Por eso el Opus Dei era un bastión de la ortodoxia, una guía firme … y hoy no lo es. Necesitan volver a San Josemaría. [That is why Opus Dei was a stronghold of orthodoxy, a firm guide ... and today it is not. They need to return to St. Josemaría.]

Look, this isn't something they'll ever be able to walk back. They've trashed their brand for well and good.  They've played right into Bergoglio's hand.  As Bergoglio's right hand, um, guy, and the actual author of most of Amoris Laetitia, has publicly stated:

"There's no turning back. If and when Francis is no longer pope, his legacy will remain strong. For example, the pope is convinced that the things he has already written or said cannot be condemned as an error. Therefore in the future anybody can repeat those things without being sanctioned".

That's what Opus Dei has got on board with.  Even supposing a miracle in the short run that could somehow turn around or even just halt the runaway train that Bergoglio is, would anyone go back to trusting an organization that has been an enabler for so many years?  And after this?  Doubtful.  Very doubtful.

UPDATE: Just to be absolutely clear ... What Fazio was accusing Filial Correction signatories of was the serious sin of scandal--and not just any scandal.  He was accusing them of scandal against one of the Four Marks of the Church, its Oneness. That's a very serious accusation.  In the circumstances it should be considered as 1. a warning to all Opus Dei members to keep their mouths shut and offer no criticisms of Bergoglio, and 2. a warning to those of any stripe who would criticize Bergoglio that they should expect no support from Opus Dei.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What's Bergoglio's Gameplan for SSPX?

Lots of people are puzzled by the extraordinarily generous treatment that Bergoglio has afforded to SSPX.  After all, wouldn't SSPX be the epitome of the "rigid" and "Pharisaical" "doctors of the Law" that he so regularly excoriates?  And yet no terms of "regularization" appear too generous--it seems that anything SSPX asks for they'll receive.  However, if you keep before your mind the idea that Bergoglio has a specific goal always in view, matters become a bit more clear.

What is Bergoglio's goal?  To fully implement Vatican II--as he understands it.  And he has made no bones about the fact that his version of a true Vatican II Church would be in line with the views of the most radical of the New Theologians, such as Walter Kasper.  How could empowering an organization such as SSPX, which steadfastly rejects precisely those elements of Vatican II that are so central to Bergoglio's plans--ecumenism, religious "freedom"--possibly help Bergoglio fully implement his goals?

To come to an understanding of Bergoglio's strategy, the key provision of the proposed SSPX personal prelature is the one that allows SSPX to incorporate religious congregations.

My view is that Bergoglio wants to set up SSPX as a sort of cordon sanitaire for tradition minded Catholics--or a parallel Church, if you prefer.  At this point he is faced with constant conflict and resistance to his agenda within the Church.  Simply excommunicating his opposition isn't an option, so the next best option would be to marginalize them. What appears to be an option--to allow tradition minded Catholics to join with SSPX--may in practice turn out to be a requirement.  In other words, Bergoglio and his allies--to include local bishops--will in effect tell those who are tradition minded: it's our way or get on the highway to SSPX.  If you try to remain in the Vatican II Church and oppose my version of Vatican II reforms--women deacons, ecumenical liturgies, divorce in practice, etc.--you'll be subjected to draconian disciplinary measures.  SSPX beckons.

Yes, that will enlarge SSPX.  But Bergoglio, in my view, is betting that most Catholics presented with this choice will succumb to his pressure, remain in the Vatican II Church on his terms by keeping their mouths shut, and that those who do make the switch will be joining a marginalized group that will remain marginalized.  The proposed personal prelature will have bishops, of course.  Some bishops.  But don't expect to see any SSPX cardinals.  Bergoglio will continue packing the College of Cardinals with like minded prelates who will guarantee a like minded successor.

What could go wrong with Bergoglio's gameplan?  Two possibilities come to mind.

First, this Bergoglianized Church--in effect, a new Church of Man--could simply implode.  It could suffer an implosion similar to what the Church suffered in the decades after Vatican II only, given the cultural changes that have occurred since those years, the implosion could be even more drastic.  For instance, the current trend toward popularism that we see in both the US and in Europe could lead to rapid alienation with a Church that is ever more overtly aligned with globalist elite opinion.

Second, Fellay has openly stated that his goal in accepting regularization would be, in essence, to convert the Church--to call it back to Tradition.  At the same time however, he has quite candidly admitted that this can only happen gradually.  If, in fact, a Prelature of SSPX were to exhibit a creative flexibility in even relatively minor ways, it might well offer a welcoming environment to growing numbers of serious and (in a manner of speaking) dues paying Catholics.  Vernacular liturgies, for example, might be an accommodation that such a prelature might be willing to make, and there could be other similar initiatives that would not betray the legacy of Lefebvre while offering a halfway house to a full embrace of Tradition.

Interesting times.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's Narrative of Renewal

Chapter Six of N. T. Wright's How God Became King, "The Launching of God's Renewed People," begins his discussion of the Church.  As is to be expected from the title, this chapter builds on the earlier chapters that presented Wright's "Old Testament" narrative, his "Story of Israel."  As the chapter title makes clear, in Wright's "narrative" the Church is viewed as the "renewed" people of God: Israel renewed.  Israel, in Wright's narrative, was already "God's people" long centuries before the gospels were ever written.  But Israel had gone/been sent into exile in Babylonia and, despite Israel's return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple, Israel had never truly escaped from a state of exile from God--as proved by the fact that Israel was still under foreign/Gentile domination. Thus, by this account there was no need for a "people of God"--there already was a people of God and it had been in existence for many centuries. Rather, the need was for a "renewal" of the already existing "people of God."  And so it was Jesus' mission, according to Wright, to launch the Church as God's Renewed People with "Israel's God" as king (38).

Problems with Wright's narrative begin just from his choice of words. If God's "Renewed People" is to be "Israel Renewed," then the Church should look something like the "Old Israel."  Which is to say, a "renewal," by its very nature, must resemble what came before in its essentials--that is, if "renewal" is to have any real meaning beyond an appeal to unreflective sloganeering.  The problem is that Wright continually shifts between the two words, "renewal" and "new," as if they meant the same thing.  Certainly, something new can maintain some sort of continuity with the past, but for something to be new rather than a "renewal" there must be real change from the past. Wright cannot have it both ways: either the Church is a renewal of Israel--in which case it must be in its essence the same as "Old Israel"--or it is something essentially new.  And in that case there must be a real change, a real difference between Israel and the Church.

To support his narrative of renewal Wright must resort to some questionable assertions, assertions which he doesn't feel called upon to justify or, alternatively, to unpack in adequate detail.  For example, Wright flatly asserts: "The early Christians believed that Jesus was Israel's Messiah ..."  Yet, it is everywhere apparent that Jesus--the Christ/Messiah--was not in fact a Messiah in any sense that was readily recognizable by most of his contemporaries: he was not a national king come to restore Israel to earthly power as an ethnic entity.  Of course it is the claim of all the evangelists that Jesus was, is, in fact God's Anointed One (Messiah).  Nevertheless, it was the task of Jesus--and later his disciples--to convince those contemporaries that Jesus was, is, the Messiah despite the patent fact that the Israelite scriptures had led the Jews to expect a very different Messiah: a Messiah who conformed to the ordinary understanding of the word within Israelite culture.  Jesus' fellow Jews weren't just being totally obtuse--there were reasons why they as well as Jesus' own disciples needed to be convinced, and those reasons can be found in the Israelite scriptures themselves: their assurances that Israel as an ethnic entity was uniquely chosen, that it would become a powerful earthly kingdom, dominating the hated Gentiles.

This was no small undertaking, and ultimately rested on the resurrection for its validation.  Peter Enns states the case bluntly

The story of Jesus is connected to the story of Israel …. But the Jesus story also brings with it something utterly new and unexpected that Israel’s story is not set up to handle.
Jesus’s story is deeply connected to Israel’s story yet has a surprise ending. ... They believed Israel’s story was God’s Word, but what Jesus said and did could not be explained by that story.
The Bible was non-negotiable as God’s word, but it was not God’s final word. Jesus was.
Israel’s story, taken on its own terms, is not equipped to bear the weight of God’s surprise move of a crucified and resurrected messiah. It must be reshaped around Jesus. (Jesus transforms Israel’s story (from The Bible Tells Me So, 194-95) by Peter Enns)

As we have pointed out elsewhere, a moment's reflection should suffice to convince that Enns is stating what most critical scholars, such as Joseph Fitzmyer and John Collins, have concluded: the Israelite concept of Messiah simply doesn't conform to the Christian concept and Jesus is not simply fulfilling ancient writings--Jesus is not merely renewing a story selectively gleaned from some ancient books, he really is making "all things new" (Rev 21:5).  As Enns puts it, the Israelite scriptures--even taken as broad brush narrative--are "not set up to handle" the utterly new story that is the Jesus story. The Jesus story cannot simply be explained by the story of Israel--"Israel’s story, taken on its own terms, is not equipped to bear the weight" of the Jesus story.

Enns' point, however, goes beyond the common conclusions of critical scholarship.  Enns contends that Jesus' disciples were aware of the discontinuity between the story of Israel and the Jesus story, and their awareness of how unique and new the Jesus story was is manifested in the way they used the Israelite scriptures.  Yes, they accepted the Israelite scriptures as "God's word," but in the end it all comes down to Jesus himself.  As I have maintained at some length elsewhere, even more so than for the disciples, this is also true of Jesus himself.  The "new story" that Jesus brought was not a later conclusion of the Church: it was the story that Jesus himself told, his self conscious identity, and this consciousness manifests itself in both his own words as well as in how he treats the Israelite scriptures.

Wright's attempt to have it both ways simply doesn't cut it:

Think again of the poems at the start of Luke's gospel.  God has fulfilled the promises to Abraham; now things can proceed in a new way. (112)

Which promises are those that were fulfilled?  That Israel would be a powerful nation (Gn 12), more numerous than the stars (Gn 15)? When did these things happen?  Now things can proceed in a new way?  What happened to the renewal project? 

Of course, something new--something radically new and not simply a renewal--is going on in the Jesus story.  Jesus is revealing his Father God's true identity, and that identity is not simply the same as that of Israel's God.  God is no longer One in monadic isolation, but is Triune in a dynamic community.  Wright is simply wrong to facilely identify Israel's God with the Christian Triune God.  Further, the revelation of God's identity comes with a revelation of the identity of God's people: God's People is not a tribe or a confederacy of tribes, an ethnic identity, but is the universal family of those who believe in Jesus and what he reveals about God.   These fundamental discontinuities between the story that Israel told about God--and itself--and the story that Jesus is now telling means that, in all honesty, we must reevaluate what we mean by revelation.  The disciples of Jesus certainly continued to regard Israel's story as revelatory--as Enns notes--but it appears flatly impossible that revelation should mean the same thing as applied to Israel's story as it means as applied to Jesus' story.

And yet Wright, for all his talk of "renewal," regularly turns right around and expresses himself in terms of newness and of fundamental change from the past, from Israel's story.  For example:

 … the whole point for each of [the gospels], and for any sources they had, was that something had happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through which the world had changed, Israel had changed, humankind had changed, their vision and knowledge of God had changed, and they themselves had changed. (105-106)

What is it, then?  Has something  "changed" or has something been "renewed?"  “Renewed” strongly implies a return to or renewal of a previous state that remains essentially the same.  In Israelite terms a renewal should have been very noticeable, and yet what Jesus' disciples seem to have noticed was precisely the lack of renewal: Lord, is this the time when you'll restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)  Surely the disciples' query is a clear indication of what a renewal would have looked like in the common Jewish understanding of that period?  But the fact is that this vision of a "renewed" Israel, with a restored Davidic kingdom, doesn't fit at all well with the Christian picture of the Church, or of individual believers.  The Christian vision is, as Wright says, of something fundamentally changed: something new.  Wright himself is fond of quoting Paul: If anyone is in Christ—new creation! (2 Cor 5:17)  Not renewed creation--new creation. Even in Romans, where Paul places considerable stress on continuity, we clearly see that the continuity from Israel to the Church is not merely renewal.

What it comes down to is that Wright resists addressing the distinction between 1) the narrative/story of Israel developed among its elite religious leaders of Israel as a chosen ethnic group and 2) the actual history of Israel: the distinction between Israel as an historical reality and a library of books collected, edited and interpreted by an elite for its own purposes.  Wright's use of the terms “narrative” and "story" suggests that he is well aware of the distinction, even as he resolutely ignores it.  Israel's ideology of chosenness is, in point of fact, not truly unique among world cultures; there are many parallels throughout human history among many peoples.  A renewal--such as a reestablishment of a Davidic or Davidic style kingship--that bolstered this chosenness construct would hardly constitute the "change" that Wright speaks of, and which in fact did take place. Does Wright see no significance for the nature of Christian faith in these distinctions?  

What we have been at pains to show throughout this series of blogs is that the very experience of Christian faith is something new and is a decisive step beyond the archaic ontology of traditional cultures. This faith is based on an implicit philosophy of being as act as well as--crucially--on the historical experience of God's self revelation in Jesus as confirmed in the resurrection.  The insight gained into the identity of God as Trinity represents the final decisive step beyond ideologized cultures--including that of Israel.

Foundational Documents

Wright's second major contention is that the four gospels are best viewed as foundational documents of the Church:

[A good way to view] the four gospels [is] as deliberately composed foundational documents …   (111)
The early Christians believed that Jesus was Israel's Messiah,  … The fulfillment of Israel's story in the story of the Messiah is the foundational charter of the church.
That is why I speak of the gospels as telling the story of the launching of God's renewed people.  It is wrong to imagine that the gospels (or Jesus, for that matter) were concerned with “founding the church,” which is the way some people have said it.  There already was a “people of God.”  We saw, … that the gospels were telling the story of Jesus as the climax of that people's story.  Jesus came, they indicate, to rescue and renew that people, not to destroy it and replace it with something else.  Israel is to be fulfilled, not replaced. … The earlier story was certainly not, as far as the gospel writers were concerned, cut off without remainder and replaced with something quite different.  It is precisely because the gospels tell the story of how Israel's long history reached its surprising climax that they become “foundational documents.”  Think again of the poems at the start of Luke's gospel.  God has fulfilled the promises to Abraham; now things can proceed in a new way. (112)

There is another very obvious reason, one that Wright appears not to have considered, why it is wrong to imagine that the gospels were concerned with “founding the church.” Simply put, the Church had existed for at least several decades before the first gospel--let alone all four--had been written.  Is that Church to be regarded, as Wright appears to maintain, as no more than a "renewal" of the already existing "people of God": the Jewish people?  By the time the gospels were written the Church had already--judging by Paul's letters--moved beyond any notion that it was simply a renewal of Israel.  And the gospels make it unmistakably clear that a major part of the good news of Jesus was that all people, without distinction as to ethnicity, are God's people.  This is not an invention of Paul; the roots for the mission to the Gentiles are clear in all of the gospels and must be traced to Jesus himself.  The beginning of Jesus' ministry in Nazareth as recounted by Luke, the encounters with Gentiles, the many parables that speak of the kingdom's openness to all, Jesus' own relativizng of ethnicity and more--all this goes well beyond anything that could be characterized as mere renewal.

Jesus, according to Paul as well as the gospels, at the least totally redefined what it means to belong to God's people.  The already existing “people of God,” Israel or the Jewish people, was self defined—as is the case with all traditional cultures—not God defined.  For Wright to simply accept the narrative of the Israelite scriptures as literal accounts of foundational transactions between various allegedly historical personages and God--this is fundamentalism of the rankest sort, masked by Wright's facility with critical historical terminology.  However, once we accept the evidence of modern social science studies that ancient Israel must be studied within the parameters of standard social science disciplines, the path is opened to determine exactly what set Israel's development off from that of other similar cultures.  As our study of the work of Mark S. Smith (cf. the series of posts, 6-11/2009) has shown, what proved distinctive in Israelite thought was not its self understanding as "chosen."  Rather, It was the deepening of Israel's understanding of God's identity, developing from a standard West Semitic account of a pantheon of gods to a concept of an essentially monotheistic creator God.  It was this trajectory of development, not completed until shortly before the time of Jesus, that made Israel unique and ultimately defined its identity.  This development also set the stage for the good news of Jesus.

We have referred several times to the "good news of Jesus," but in what did this good news consist?  Fundamental to the good news was the revelation of Jesus himself and of his identity, because this revelation involved the revelation of God himself.  This is perhaps clearest in John's gospel, where Jesus repeatedly states that the purpose of his coming is to make the Father known--to reveal the identity of God, but it can also be seen throughout the other gospels and in the other early Christian writings: in Jesus, God is being revealed as the dynamic overflowing being of Trinity.

From this standpoint we are able to tie the revelation of God into the truly original story of Israel--rightly understood as the story of a deepening understanding of God's identity.  Jesus came as the climax of God's purpose in human history—God's self revelation of himself--not as the climax of Israel's self defined history as an ethnic group. Israel's ethnic and cultural identity are of no special importance, except in the sense that God chose Israel as the human and cultural vehicle for his self revelation.  To the contrary, Israel—as self defined--was about to enter one of the darkest periods of its history, as Jesus warned.  Therefore, to become part of this story of Jesus as God's self revelation, Israel would have to renounce its ethnic self definition and accept a fundamental equality with the Gentile latecomers (as Paul makes clear in Romans).  To repeat: Israel had a narrative about its place in history, and that narrative had much in common with the mindset typical of most traditional cultures.  God used Israel as the vehicle for his entry into history in Jesus, not to fulfill Israel's own human self understanding but to bring men into a new relationship with God through faith in Jesus--it was this revelation of God's identity that made such a new relationship and new human self understanding possible.  Pace Wright, the “promises” to Abraham remain unfulfilled.  God's use of the shared conception and shared imagery of the traditional "archaic ontology" of man, as instanced in Israel, the deepening development of the understanding of the identity of God—this is what revelation is about and it culminates in Jesus.

N.B. The term "archaic ontology" used to refer to traditional forms of what is usually referred to as "philosophy" is drawn from the work of Mircea Eliade.  Mark S. Smith, at the link above, expresses the same idea well:

... their texts contain an ancient form of metaphysics. ... a fundamental ontology used in the ancient world is embodied in language about power. ... Transposed into traditional metaphysical language, the power of lesser beings in the world participates in Power itself, identified with God.
The forms of ancient metaphysics found in Psalms 74 and 104 as well as Genesis 1 are not original with ancient Israel. They can be found also in a number of ancient Near Eastern cultures. ... These ontologies in Israel and the ancient New East raise a particularly important question for theology, namely, the understanding of biblical revelation. (162)

Signposts of the Future Church

Wright moves next to a consideration of the "time-bound elements" in the gospels:

The time-bound elements include the restriction on territory (not going to Gentiles …) …
 … It isn't just that Jesus has lifted a temporary ban on going to the Gentiles.  The point is that now, with Jesus's death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations, as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72, and 89.  His followers are therefore to go and put that rule into effect. (114-115)

Wright must know that the passages he cites from Israelite scriptures are not messianic in any sense that can be connected to Jesus--they are about a restoration of a very earthly kingdom, a renewal rather than a new creation, the return of exiles.  Moreover, these passages have nothing to say about Abraham or Moses, about whom Wright has so much to say--they are about the restoration of a Davidic or Davidic style monarchy.  As for going or not going to the Gentiles, Wright skips over the important passages—such as Luke's account of Jesus' visit to Nazareth, the numerous references to Jesus' visits to Gentile areas, references to past examples of preference shown to Gentiles, parables of the future king's behavior toward and even exclusion of The People—which put a different light on the notion of a Jewish king establishing “rule” over the nations.  Paul's understanding of the obliteration of such distinctions is also relevant here.

Further, the larger point is that God's rule is not that of "the king of the Jews"--rather, in Jesus Messiah (in Christ, as Paul so often says) there is no distinction of Jew and Gentile: God has revealed that all men are "his" people.  If Jesus has become king, it is not that he has become "the king of the Jews" but that he has become king of all men, who are all equally his subjects/brothers.

… the gospels are consciously telling the story of how God's one-time action in Jesus the Messiah ushered in a new world order within which a new way of life was not only possible, but mandatory for Jesus's followers. (118)

What can you say?  Not a "renewed" way of life?  Wright slips easily, facilely, between new and renewed.

The End Is the Beginning

To conclude the chapter Wright provides a pretty stock reading of the Road to Emmaus narrative, complete with commentless reference to a Messiah who “had” to suffer.  No Israelite references to such a messiah are provided.  The Suffering Servant can be balanced against any number of other portrayals of messianic figures--triumphantly royal figures--which served as the basis for "Israel's hope," as expressed in the various hymns in the early chapters of Luke.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's "Story of Israel" (3)

Chapter Five of How God Became King, "The Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel's God," is N. T. Wright's approach to Christology. His basic idea is that the gospels, in different ways, express Jesus' divinity through "the Story of Israel's God. Thus, Mark is about God "becoming king."  Matthew and Luke are about God "returning to save his people from exile"--and according to Wright "exile" includes "not least" (one of Wright's very favorite expressions) "the plight of being overrun and ruled by pagan nations." For John, "All the functions of the Temple ... have devolved onto Jesus." As we will see, Wright has some valuable observations to offer, but in the end he doesn't begin to do justice to the radical newness of Jesus, and of the complexity of the gospels themselves.

Wright begins by essentially reprising Chapter Four.  Adopting a straw man approach, he presents a caricature of what "Christians" believe and then decries it, setting himself up as the voice of reason:

For far too long now Christians have told the story of Jesus as if it hooked up not with the story of Israel, but simply with the story of human sin as in Genesis 3, skipping over the story of Israel altogether. From that point of view, the story of Israel looks like a failed first attempt on God's part to sort out his world. “Here,” he says, “you can be my people. I'll rescue you from slavery and give you my law!” But then the people find they can't keep the law and the story goes from bad to worse.  Eventually, God gives up the attempt to make people (specifically, Israel) “better” by having them keep his law and decides on a different strategy, a “Plan B.” This involves sending his son to die and declaring that now the only thing people need to do is to believe in him and his saving death; they won't have to keep that silly law after all. This is a gross caricature of the actual biblical story, but it is certainly not a gross caricature of what many Christians have been taught, either explicitly or by implication. (84-85)

I have no idea who these Christians are who "skip[] over the story of Israel altogether." Truth be told, Wright's version of this caricatured "story of Israel" actually sounds rather like some of Jesus' parables, such as the parable of the vineyard or of the wedding feast. For that matter it also calls to mind Paul's narrative of human history in Romans--including the inability of Israel to keep the Law. But there are three points that get us closer to the main issue.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's "Story of Israel" (2)

Wright next turns to each of the gospels in turn and attempts to show how they embody the "story of Israel."

Matthew: The story Reaches Its Goal

Wright uses the beginning of Matthew, the genealogy, to sketch out his version of the Jewish worldview at the time of Jesus, and how that view embodied a narrative or story of Israel. Thus, he notes that Matthew's genealogy is divided into three parts of fourteen generations each, beginning with Abraham. The first part runs from Abraham to King David, the second from David to the Babylonian Exile, and the third from the Babylonian Exile to the present: Jesus, the Messiah. This is Matthew's way of signaling at the outset that with Jesus we have reached another turning point in the story of Israel. Building off this idea, Wright constructs the following outline of the "story of Israel.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright's "Story of Israel" (1)

Chapter Four of N. T. Wright's How God Became King, "The Story of Israel," begins by begging a question and continues with tendentious interpretation. The question begging follows logically enough from Wright's Protestant premise that revelation is a book, rather than the person Jesus.  Thus he writes:
… the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel.  All four evangelists, I suggest, deliberately frame their material in such a way as to make this clear, though many generations of Christian readers have … in effect, … ignore[d] it. (65)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (5)

The Hope of Israel

Wright closes out Chapter Two by briefly discussing what he calls the "Orthodox Response" to scriptural skeptics such as Reimarus, and he finds the "Orthodox;Response" lacking:

What I miss, right across the Western tradition, ... is the devastating and challenging message I find in the four gospels: God really has become king—in and through Jesus!  A new state of affairs has been brought into existence.  A door has been opened that nobody can shut. Jesus is now the world's rightful Lord, and all other lords are to fall at his feet. This is an eschatological message, not in the trivial sense that it heralds the “end of the world” (whatever that might mean), but in the sense that it is about something that was supposed to happen when Israel's hopes were fulfilled; and Israel's hopes were not for the demise of the space-time universe, but for the earth to be full of God's glory. It is, however, an inaugurated eschatological message, claiming that this “something” has indeed happened in and through Jesus and does not yet look like what people might have imagined. That is the story the gospels are telling. (37-38)

This paragraph highlights what will become a recurring problem for Wright's argument: it contains presuppositions that he declines to even discuss. One of the most important of these presuppositions is Wright's claim that Jesus fulfilled "Israel's hopes."

Monday, January 7, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (4)

What the Lord's Kingdom Prayer Tells Us

Chapter Two of How God Became King gets very much to the heart of what Wright wants to tell us, especially beginning with the somewhat redundantly titled second section, “The Hidden Underlying Challenge: Theocracy.” It is here that Wright, for the second time and in a programmatic manner, invokes what I would call Jesus' “kingdom prayer”: the Lord's Prayer or Our Father. And he does it in the following remarkable statement, which he will repeat at regular intervals throughout the book:

the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven. (34, italics in original, my bold)

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (3)

Before proceeding to an examination of Wright's presentation of the gospels, this may be a good point at which to take stock of where we are. By examining the relationship of early Christian writings (excluding the gospels for now) and creedal formulations, we have seen that Wright has misrepresented, or certainly misunderstood, the nature and purpose of creedal confesssions—and this in spite of his own previous work regarding Paul's reformulation of the Shema for Christian purposes. We have also seen that Wright has misrepresented the way in which the creeds developed from those early Christian affirmations of faith that can be traced back to the earliest days of the Church (Wright prefers the low case “church,” but I have my own preferences). The historical fact is that early Christian thought—including what is reflected in formulations that obviously point toward the creeds—reflects the later development of the creeds in two important respects: 1) these early formulations and reflections are focused on the identity of Jesus and his relationship with the Father, and 2) they pay little if any attention to the actual events of Jesus' life between his birth and crucifixion. Specifically, they say nothing about Jesus' teaching and nothing about “kingdom inauguration,” which Wright sees as the “central point” of the gospels.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (2)

The Early Christian Development Of Creedal Formulae 

The early Christian confessions or affirmations of faith tended to focus on the “binitarianism” of God as Father—itself a distinctively Christian emphasis—and Jesus as Lord.  This is not to suggest that the earliest Christians were somehow ignorant of the Spirit, but rather that they very naturally tended to focus on Jesus' relationship to the Father.  Nor is this focus on Jesus and the Father at all surprising, given the centrality of the resurrection to Christian faith.  But it's interesting to note that, while the gospels faithfully preserve Jesus' Messianic title (Christ) in relating his ministry—a fact that is key to Wright's contention that the centrality of kingship has been inexplicably lost, displaced by the creeds—this Messianic, kingly, aspect was very quickly deemphasized in favor of a focus on the identification of the risen Jesus as Lord.  As Wright says, this characterization of Jesus as Lord places Jesus within “an explicit statement [i.e. the Shema] … of the doctrine that Israel's God is the one and only God, the creator of the world.” (129)  In other words, we are already at this early date in the history of the Church totally immersed in Christology.  (We will later need to examine the reasons for the difference in emphasis—pre-and post-resurrection—in greater detail, since Wright fails to address this issue except to assert that it amounts to a “displacement” of the core of Christian faith.)

Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (1)

In his most recent book,How God Became King, N. T. Wright makes a remarkably sweeping claim. As he states it in the preface, “most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the gospels are really all about.” (ix) His central contention is that, to understand what the gospels are “really all about,” it is necessary to come to grips with what he calls “The Missing Middle”: the years of Jesus' life “between stable and cross”--Jesus' public ministry that is nowhere mentioned in the various Christian creeds. It is in the gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry, Wright maintains, that we will find the real answer to the question: “Why did Jesus live?” (4) Because this book offers a glimpse of Wright's most fundamental vision of Christianity, it will be worth our while to examine his argument in detail.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Scotus and the Reformation

My son Stephen brought to my attention a brief review at First Things: The Late Middle Ages Rightly Blamed.  This is a review of Brad Gregory's new book, The Unintended Reformation.  The subtitle accurately reflects the overall theme, "How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society," but in telling this tragic story Gregory lays a major portion of the blame on what Etienne Gilson long ago described as the Breakdown of Medieval Philosophy--thus the title of the First Things review, which directs our attention to the philosophical shortcomings of Scotus and Occam in particular.  The review is written by a Protestant, Matthew Milliner, a professor of Art History at Wheaton College.  In his review he observes:
there have been other Protestant responses to Gregory’s book, namely that of the evangelical historian Mark Noll. Noll disagrees with Gregory’s distribution of blame for secularism on the Reformation. However, Noll agrees with Gregory’s point of historical departure:  The suggestion that the univocal metaphysics of John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s nominalism were profoundly harmful, and did much to put the young Luther in the unenviable state that precipitated (thanks in part to Luther’s disruption of episcopal income streams) the tragedy of the Reformation.