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.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Duns Scotus and the Forcible Baptism of Jewish Children

On a recent post regarding John Duns Scotus, Michael Sullivan--objecting vociferously to my criticisms of Scotus and preference for the thought of Thomas Aquinas--commented:
... perhaps you can understand that if I am over-zealous it is in defense of saints, doctors, and blesseds of the Church, and of their philosophy and theology, produced in faithful service to the Church, and of arguments and propositions none of which have ever been censured by the Magisterium or found to be incompatible with the orthodox faith, brought forward from the light of reason and in philosophical good faith; a defense against a constantly-repeated calumny grounded in misunderstanding and falsehood.
Interestingly, I found a passage from Aquinas that reads a bit like a commentary on that.  It's from II-II, 10,12Whether the children of Jews and other unbelievers ought to be baptized against their parents' will?

On the contrary, Injustice should be done to no man. Now it would be an injustice to Jews if their children were to be baptized against their will, since they would lose the rights of parental authority over their children as soon as these were Christians. Therefore these should not be baptized against their parents' will.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cardinal Ratzinger On Europe's Crisis of Culture

A niece of mine recently brought this Ratzinger lecture to my attention.

On July 26, 2005, the day before John Paul II died after a prolonged death watch, Joseph Ratzinger—soon to be Benedict XVI—gave an address at Subiaco on Europe's cultural crisis. This address was in the nature of a campaign speech for the papacy, setting out Ratzinger's views on the position of the Church in the modern world. He was presenting himself as a man of vision with a clear idea of the problems facing the Church—the implication being that he was therefore the right man to lead the Church after the long pontificate of John Paul II. This address is thus a handy summary of Ratzinger/Benedict's views.

Ratzinger begins his address by providing something of a laundry list of important problems facing modern man—symptoms of the cultural crisis. These are, in his view, problems that have developed over the last century and are representative byproducts of a cultural change in the West. Among those problems are the threat of terrorism, including the possibility that terrorists may soon obtain biological and/or nuclear weapons; the reaction to terrorism on the part of “lawful states,” which have adopted internal security measures that rival those previously associated only with dictatorships; the development of bio-technology which casts doubt on the dignity of man as God's image; and the growing inequality in the “distribution of the goods of the earth.” Ratzinger concludes by characterizing this crisis as a crisis of moral strength:
All this shows that the growth of our possibilities has not been matched by a comparable development of our moral energy. Moral strength has not grown together with the development of science; rather, it has diminished, because the technical mentality relegates morality to the subjective realm, while we have need, precisely, of a public morality, a morality that is able to respond to the threats that weigh down on the existence of us all. The real and gravest danger in these times lies, precisely, in this imbalance between technical possibilities and moral energy.
Having stated his view of the problem in general terms, Ratzinger presents his analysis of the crisis under seven headings.

Monday, April 23, 2012


Two items came to my attention shortly after writing John Duns Scotus and the Crisis of the West, Part 2, and they fall right in line with several of the themes I've been stressing lately. The first is an article by David Gibson that appeared on April 23, 2012. The Real Clear Religion link was titled rather more provocatively than the original: Benedict XVI, Papal Enforcer versus Is Pope Ratzinger Suffering From the Seven-Year Itch?

The article begins by addressing the recent announcement that “Benedict had signed off on a crackdown on the organization representing most of the 57,000 nuns in the United States, saying that the group was not speaking out strongly enough against gay marriage, abortion and women’s ordination.” Of more interest to us, however, is that the article went on to mention recent sanctions against an American and a Spanish theologian. In each case the actions were taken by the respective Bishops conferences: