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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.