Tuesday, June 2, 2009

According to the Scriptures - N. T. Wright

N. T. Wright has a somewhat popularized book, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture, which is directly relevant to some of the posts here--especially the post devoted to C. H. Dodd's classic work: According to the Scriptures. (Frustratingly, Wright's book has no index and does not cite Dodd's work, but I find it impossible to believe that Wright has not read and thought deeply on Dodd's ideas.) I am in general agreement with Wright's approach, but would wish to amend it in some respects. Here are the key passages, spread across two chapters, with my comments:

3. Scripture and Jesus (pp. 42-46)
... I have argued...that Jesus believed himself called to undertake the task ... through which God's long range purposes would at last be brought to fruition. ... What this means in practice is that in and through Jesus evil is confronted and judged, and forgiveness and renewal are brought to birth. The covenant is renewed; new creation is inaugurated. The work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament is done by Jesus in his public career, his death and resurrection, and his sending of the Spirit.
Comment: I believe this is generally the correct approach. However, there are complexities that need to be addressed. First, Wright refers to "[T]he work which God had done through scripture in the Old Testament," yet at the time of Jesus the Old Testament did not yet exist: there were significant differences among versions of the writings that we now call the Old Testament, and there was not yet general agreement as to which books could be regarded as scripture. In addition, Wright describes God as working through a book--a view which is at some variance with the picture we get from scripture itself, which describes God as working through a people in history. This is not nitpicking. Rather, it gets to the heart of a central question: how did Jesus himself regard the Israelite scriptures?

As we will see, Wright himself recognizes implicitly what Jesus' own contemporaries recognized: that Jesus taught "on his own authority," rather than on the authority of scriptures. If this is true--which it is--then we need to consider as well whether Jesus' references to scripture entail a belief in the literal historicity of, to take just one example, covenants between God and a person named Abraham, by which God transferred title to a specific tract of Middle Eastern real estate in exchange for the foreskins of Abraham and his descendants. Wright, unfortunately, expresses himself in a distressingly Protestant manner.
Jesus thus does, climactically and decisively, what scripture had in a sense been trying to do: bring God's fresh Kingdom--order to God's people and thence to the world. He is, in that sense as well as others, the Word made flesh. Who he was and is, and what he accomplished, are to be understood in the light of what scripture had said. He was in himself, the "true Israel," formed by scripture, bringing the Kingdom to birth. When he spoke of the scripture needing to be fulfilled (e.g., Mark 14:49), he was not simply envisaging himself doing a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings; he was thinking of the entire storyline at last coming to fruition, and of an entire world of hints and shadows now coming to plain statement and full light. This, I take it, is the deep meaning of sayings like Matthew 5:17-18, where Jesus insists that he has come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.
Comment: Again, I'm in general agreement with Wright's approach, in spite of his distressingly Protestant manner of expressing himself. "Scripture," properly speaking, was not "trying to do" anything--presumably Wright means that God was trying to do something. But this raises an important problem: we know that the formation of the Israelite scriptures was a complicated and protracted process (cf. Who Wrote the Bible, by Richard E. Friedman) that didn't reach completion until some time after the Babylonian Exile. Given that the scriptures themselves portray God as "trying to do" things with Israel well before any scriptures were ever written, what could Wright possibly mean? On the other hand, Wright is certainly correct in asserting that Jesus presented himself in terms that would be understandable to an audience that was familiar with the Israelite scriptures, but that Jesus did not envisage himself fulfilling "a few scattered and random acts which corresponded to various distant and detached prophetic sayings." Jesus clearly saw himself as fulfilling a storyline--regardless of whether or not all the details of that story were historical. Some of the details were unquestionably historical, but others were precisely stories--stories that expressed a people's self understanding of its relationship to God. Jesus clearly corrected that self understanding. He did not merely adopt it. This is certainly what Jesus meant when he spoke of "fulfilling" Torah.
Beneath this again, as the earliest church came quickly to acknowledge, Jesus was the living embodiment of Israel's God, the God whose Spirit had inspired the scriptures in the first place. And if he understood his own vocation and identity in terms of scripture, the early church quickly learned to make the equation the other way as well: they read the Old Testament, both its story (including covenant, promise, warning, and so on) and its commands in terms of what they had discovered in Jesus. This is set out programmatically in Luke 24, as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus are treated to a lengthy exposition from "Moses, the prophets and all the scriptures," and as the risen Jesus opens the minds of the disciples to understand what the scriptures had been about all along (Luke 24:27, 44-45). But the same point, implicit or explicit, is everywhere apparent in the gospel stories.
Comment: Wright makes an important point here. Contrary to the usual fundamentalist understanding, the early Church did not turn to the Israelite scriptures to find out who Jesus was. The Church already knew who Jesus was because they had lived with Jesus, spoken with him, listened to him, eaten with him, seen him brutally executed and experienced him risen. This experience of Jesus led the Church to reinterpret what they, as Israelites, had presumed the Israelite scriptures to be all about. Their question was not, What do the Israelite scriptures tell us about who Jesus is? but rather, In light of who we know Jesus to have been and to be, in what sense do the Israelite scriptures lead to Jesus? Regarding Luke 24, it is noteworthy that neither the Evangelist nor his sources took the trouble to preserve Jesus' words, his Bible Study session on the road to Emmaus in which he told them what "all the scriptures" said about him. This is surely strong support for Wright's view, that it was the storyline that was fulfilled rather than the details of the story. We must also note that the disciples who met Jesus on the road were clearly still under the influence of the Jewish apocalyptic expectation of a restored Davidic kingdom. They appear to have remained under that influence until at least the Ascension, if we accept Acts' account of matters--an issue Wright doesn't address.
The backbone of many traditional arguments for the authority of scripture had been those specific sayings of Jesus which stress that he himself regarded scripture as authoritative and criticized his opponents for not doing so. [Wright then cites: Matthew 22:29 - Jesus combines both a highly rationalistic interpretation of scripture with a rhetorical response that takes scripture out of context - Matthew 15:6-9 quoting Isaiah - followed by abrogation of Torah - Psalm 82, John 10:35 - Jesus uses Psalm 82 to provide a rhetorically based response that takes scripture out of context] Granted that these are all somewhat ad hoc--in other words, that Jesus is not reported to have made the authority of scripture a major theme of his teaching--they are nonetheless important, revealing an underlying attitude which, after the manner of presuppositions, is brought into the light of day only when it has been implicitly questioned.
Comment: Wright then cites examples of Jesus appearing to rely on the authority of the Israelite scriptures, yet in the next breath contradicting the clear words and commands of the Israelite scriptures [note: based on his own authority]. Wright concludes:
If scripture pointed to the exaltation of Israel and the consequent ingathering of the nations, why did Jesus say that when people came from east and west to sit down with Abraham in God's Kingdom, "the heirs of the kingdom" would be thrown out (Matthew 8:11-12)?

With the usual argument, which sees "scripture" simply in black and white, almost on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, it is hard to see what on earth is going on. Once we set Jesus in the context of the larger scriptural story, however, and come to grips with his sense of what exactly the new covenant would mean, and how it would both fulfill and transform the old one (a task which lies way beyond the scope of the present book), we discover a much richer, and more narratival, sense of "fulfillment," which generates that subtle and powerful view of scripture we find in the early church.
Comment: Once again I'm in general agreement with the thrust of Wright's position. There can be no doubt that, in the way that Jesus makes use of the Israelite scriptures, Jesus is asserting his own authority as equal to divine authority and superior to whatever authority his listeners attributed to those Israelite scriptures. Jesus' assertion that the Torah command regarding divorce was a concession to the "hardened hearts" of the Israelites is not a statement of Jesus' views on the authorship of the Israelite scriptures, but it is a statement regarding his views of its authority and its reflection of divine truth, as well as a statement of his views on his own authority as compared to that of those same Israelite scriptures. The same is equally true of John the Baptist's statements that God can raise up children to Abraham from stones. This is not a reflection on the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives in the Israelite scriptures, but it is a relativization of the Israelite scriptures' claims regarding the basis for membership in God's people: contrary to the clear statements of the Israelite scriptures, such membership is based not on genetics nor on medical procedures but on faith in Jesus.

4. The "Word of God" in the Apostolic Church (pp. 48-49)
When Paul says, quoting an earlier and widely used summary of the Christian message, "The Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures ... and was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), he does not mean that he and his friends can find one or two proof-texts to back up their claim, but rather that these events have come as the climax to the long and winding narrative of Israel's scriptures. "The authority of the Old Testament" in the early church, at its heart, meant that what God had done in Jesus Christ was to be seen in terms of a character within a particular story, a portrait in a particular landscape, where everything in the story, or the landscape, where everything in the story, or the landscape, points us to a key facet of who this central character is and what he has accomplished.
Comment: Wright is unquestionably correct. There is simply no "prediction" in the Israelite scriptures that a figure such as Jesus would appear in Israel, nor that such a figure would rise from the dead--neither the Jonah story nor the passage in Hosea 6 "after a day or two he will bring us back to life," nor Psalm 16:9-10 "my body, too, will rest securely/for you will not abandon my soul to Sheol" - all wrenched out of context - can be reasonably interpreted in such a manner. Nor was this Paul's purpose: Paul had already experienced the risen Messiah and had no need to find confirmation of this experience in the Israelite scriptures. Rather, as Wright states, Paul is placing Jesus within the context of how God had prepared a people to be the people into which his Son would be born, to bring salvation, resurrection, to those who believe in him.
... Thus, before there was any "New Testament," there was already a clear understanding in early Christianity that [what was called] "the word of God," ... lay at the heart of the church's mission and life. It is not difficult to summarize this "word." It was the story of Jesus (particularly his death and resurrection), told as the climax of the story of God and Israel and thus offering itself as both the true story of the world and the foundation and energizing force for the church's mission. Exactly this story, seen in exactly this (admittedly rather complex) way, is precisely what we find the in the four canonical "gospels," and for that matter in at least some of the sources which may be deemed to stand behind them. This last point is controversial in the present climate of scholarship but is, I believe, defensible.
Comment: God acted through Israel to reveal himself and to reveal the path to true human life: Jesus. God's chosen people--the people he selected for the purpose of his self revelation in Jesus--was a people like others: one that had its own foundational stories and its own interpretation of its past. Jesus did not arrive in history like a Superman from the planet Krypton in a capsule. To be born as true man Jesus was necessarily born into a real people, but a people that had been guided by the Spirit to the development of a belief in a truly monotheistic God, a belief that would be receptive to and conducive to the ultimate step in revelation: Jesus himself. Based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus it would be foolish to think that God intended "revelation" to be a manual of systematic theology. Revelation, ultimately, is a story - a life story, a life lived and died, but resurrected in the person of Jesus. The task that Jesus has given to his Church, to his people, is not to find the hidden code of the Israelite scriptures but to continue to live his life in his world, and in this sense to be revelatory in our turn.

1 comment:

  1. I think my admiration for Wright and disagreements with him are similar to yours. That is,

    in this world where every feature of our lives is a lesson from God

    what we find in the Bible is surely no accident.
    ----- ----- ----

    I used to read Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books to my little boy. He liked hearing these simple little stories over and over; and I was okay with this because I kept realizing: "This stuff is DEEP!" (It was some time later before I learned that he'd taken much of his material from the Talmud...)
    ----- ----- ----- -----

    Anyway, I doubt that Jesus or his contemporaries subscribed to any notions quite like the Protestant 'Authority of Scripture.' Certain ancient books might bring revelations and the intuitions of wise ancestors as to God's intentions for His people and His world, yes -- but the belief that God had literally written a book to give the Poop, the whole Poop, and nothing but the Poop to anybody who interpreted it in the way that Rabbi 'A' ["No! Rabbi 'B'!"] laid out... That's fallout from later Christian power-struggles for/against Papal 'Authority.'

    The Law was a divine gift, of course! But demanded human interpretation, which continues to this day! It was, after all, a lawbook with stories. Surely the Jews knew how to nitpick & argue! & fudge. But the Word of God might trudge in through the city gates at any time, regardless of anything in the texts about "No more prophets! We did that; it's over!"

    Yes, they searched ancient texts for any hints they could find as to when God intended to restore Israel. And as to how God wanted them to behave, worship, etc. Which they would strive to observe diligently, both literally and with attention to intent!

    They would be giving the text, in other words, the kind of 'Authority' I think Wright sees in it. But not making it an absolute Power in its own right.
    ------ ------ ------ ------

    The difficulty... God seems more 'open-ended' than Wright envisions. "The Kingdom of God" can't simply mean "The Christian Church." Only a part of the Church is truly the Kingdom at work; only a part of the Kingdom is embodied in what anyone recognizes as 'church'!

    Jesus is an avatar, yes! He is not, however, proclaiming "his" authority to be "equal to" God's... [How to say this?!!!] Knowing God from inside -- he finds no discrepancy?