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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.