Tuesday, January 1, 2013

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.

The Problem

What has led Wright to this conviction? Wright's overall body of scholarly work is characterized by two strong suites that are rarely found together—or so it seems to me—in the world of New Testament scholarship, and perhaps especially in Protestant scholarship: he has an unusually sound background in philosophy, as well as a fairly solid grasp of the central issues in the history of Western Christianity. It appears that his study in these fields has led him to question whether his Protestantism is true to the meaning of Jesus' life, or is based on a tendentious (at best) interpretation of Paul. His answer—if not categorically stated—certainly tends strongly toward a negative judgment in that regard. (I hasten to add that Wright considers that the Catholic Church also suffers from a similar blindness with regard to what the gospels are “really all about.”) Unfortunately, Wright fails to examine some of the most basic presuppositions of his Protestantism, which we will need to examine later.

Here is how Wright summarizes the typical Protestant understanding of Christianity:

When William Tyndale, one of England's earliest Protestants, a disciple of Martin Luther, wrote about “the gospel,” he didn't mean “the gospels”--Matthew, Mark. Luke, and John. He meant “the gospel” in the sense of the message: the good news that, because of Jesus's death alone, your sins can be forgiven, and all we have to do is believe it, rather than trying to impress God with doing “good works.” “The gospel” in this sense is what the early Reformers believed they had found in Paul's letters … (6)

Simply put, the good news, by this account, is that we can be saved through faith alone—sola fide. But Wright the New Testament scholar came to realize that there is a rather glaring problem with this understanding of “the gospel”:

Thus in many classic Christian circles, … there has been the assumption, going back at least as far as the Reformation, that “the gospel” is what you find in Paul's letters, particularly in Romans and Galatians. … Atonement and justification were assumed to be at the heart of “the gospel.” But “the gospels”--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—appear to have almost nothing to say about those subjects. (6)

In other words, if atonement and justification are really what the good news is all about, how can it be that the gospels, which are incomparably our most reliable sources for traditions about Jesus himself, “have almost nothing to say about those subjects?” A very good question.

The historical understanding of the Reformation in its philosophical and theological context has come a long way. It is now widely recognized that the Protestant view of “the gospel”--that, as Wright puts it, “the gospel” is to be found in Paul's letters and is largely concerned with atonement and justification—is not so much a sixteenth century innovation as a development of the Augustinian tradition, bolstered by the nominalist and voluntarist thought of medieval Catholic thinkers such as Scotus and Ockham. Thus, the explanation for how this misguided understanding of Christian faith has endured for so long in the West, taking on a life of its own, is ultimately best accounted for by the overwhelming prestige and influence of Augustine of Hippo. Today it is difficult, perhaps, to appreciate the magnitude of Augustine's influence, but David Knowles puts the matter nicely for our purposes:

"[i]f Augustine was a second Bible to the dark and middle ages, he was all but the gospel of the three great heresies, Lutheranism, Calvinism and Jansenism ... [Jansenism was a Catholic heresy that was accused of being a form of Calvinism]."

Wright seems to hint at an understanding of these issues, although he is (as so often) somewhat cagey about fully identifying his own views. In discussing the too common tendency of theologians to read a supposedly Pauline theology back into the gospels, rather than taking the four gospels on their own terms, he goes so far as to say that “I … questioned whether Paul was really being allowed to speak.” That certainly sounds like he believes that the typically Augustinian understanding of Paul that he describes is in fact a misunderstanding of Paul, but he never actually identifies the importance of the Augustinian tradition in propagating and perpetuating this misunderstanding of Paul—and, therefore, of the gospels. Still, he concludes this section by stating that this misguided approach “is true of a great deal of the Western Christian tradition …: Catholic and Protestant, liberal and evangelical, charismatic and contemplative” (9). Clearly Wright recognizes that there is a common thread that can be traced through much if not most of Western theology, and he cannot be unaware of the centrality of Augustinian thought for Catholic and Protestant thought alike. Unfortunately, Wright fails to follow up on this promising beginning. His one further reference to this common thread in Western history is made only to lament that he will not be following it up:

[Treating the gospels as somehow optional preludes to the “red meat of Pauline theology”] has been the case for much of the past millennium in the West, during the Middle Ages and then during and after the Reformation. That historical story … must wait for another occasion, and probably another writer. (21)

So we'll have to wait for another occasion to learn what Wright's views are regarding the Augustinian tradition in the West, its interpretation of Paul and the influence on later Western thought of the Platonic philosophy that Augustine transmitted with his theology.

Canon and Creed

So, what went wrong? What led the Church astray from the pure gospel truth? The problem, according to Wright, amounts to this. Two competing versions of the Christian faith have arisen, albeit unintentionally: one is embodied in the great creeds and the other in the gospels, and they are “not in fact presenting the same picture.” Theologians have taken their cue from the creeds and, having thus ignored the “kingdom-inauguration” picture of Jesus presented in the gospels--what the gospels are “really all about”--have constructed an alternative version of Christian faith based on an erroneous interpretation of Paul. The nub of the creedal misunderstanding of Christian faith runs something like this:

The great creeds, when they refer to Jesus, pass directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death. The four gospels don't. Or, to put it the other way around, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all seem to think it's hugely important that they tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between the time of his birth and the time of his death. In particular, they tell us about what we might call his kingdom-inaugurating work: the deeds and words that declared that God's kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven. They tell us a great deal about that, but the great creeds don't. (11)

What is it that the creeds talk about instead, if not what the gospels are “really all about?” According to Wright, the creeds represent a compilation that took place over the course of at least five centuries and which gathered together and affirmed “things that were absolutely essential to the faith … but that had been controversial” (13). So, by Wright's account, at some point over the course of centuries (not to say millennia) theologians somehow forgot that the gospels were “really all about” “kingdom inauguration.” Their speculations, while addressing “things that were absolutely essential for the faith,” “somehow” (a word that Wright overuses) missed the nub of the gospels: the one thing that was even more essential than the “things that were absolutely essential to the faith.”

Now, far be it from me to cavil at the possibility that two millennia of Christian thought might, at least in some important respects, have been misguided—although I would certainly wish to carefully distinguish between official doctrine and theological and philosophical speculation. However, I will maintain in what follows that Wright is, in essence, contending that Christianity has followed a misguided path—one that is at variance with the pure gospel truth--ever since the ascension of Jesus. That is, until the advent of N. T. Wright. The enormity of this claim is one that I must take issue with.

What Were The Creeds And Where Did They Come From?

Here is Wright's account of the process by which the creeds were developed:

Before we examine the great creeds in more detail, let's remind ourselves of the reason why they came to be formulated in the first place. The early church faced many problems and battles. … Sometimes it was internal division … There were ongoing debates with Jewish groups and individuals … In particular, there were the great battles with Gnosticism in the second and third centuries ... and with Arianism in the fourth and fifth centuries … All these … controversies … were enormously important in shaping the way the early Christians understood and articulated what was significant to them.
As Christian teachers gradually came to realize that some things were absolutely essential to the faith … the things that were essential … were listed and agreed upon for the avoidance of doubt. These lists turned into a rule of faith … and the rule of faith was codified into the creeds. (11-12)

Most people are inclined to look with favor on explanations that rely on what could be called gradualism—an approach that posits a gradual development. No doubt we have been conditioned to accord almost any evolutionary explanation a sort of prima facie plausability. There's one problem with Wright's narrative (leaving aside the rather obvious question of why the theologians preferred Paul to the gospels): it is a serious distortion of how the creeds came into being in the first place. In fact, the origin of the creeds is to be found in a far more positive impulse, rather than the purely defensive impulse that Wright postulates.

We all probably think we know what a creed is--a statement of basic beliefs--and yet, that can hardly be an adequate explanation for the shape and content of our creeds. After all, none of the creeds promulgated by the Church during the first several centuries so much as mention something as central to Christian life and belief as the Eucharist, despite the prominence of the Eucharist in early Christian writings. Does Wright expect us to believe that there has been any lack of controversy over the nature of the Eucharist? Nor is there any mention of Original Sin, a doctrine that took on great—not to say central--importance from the 4th century on. From just these two examples it's clear that a failure to be mentioned in the creeds cannot be considered a per se indication that any given doctrine or complex of beliefs has been ignored or not taken seriously by the Church.

Perhaps the most productive approach to this topic—the nature and purpose of the creeds--would be to ask: was there a model of a creedal statement that the early Christians would have already been familiar with and which they might have used as a pattern? The answer is, yes: the Shema Yisrael (Shema). “Shema Yisrael” are the first two words of Deuteronomy 6:4, the first of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue. “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.” Devout Jews regard the Shema as embodying the very essence of their religion, so that it can truly be said to be a creedal formulation. But more to the point, it represents a twofold affirmation of identity: it is the most basic statement of God's identity—over against all other gods—but also affirms the people Israel as a people who belong to, are in a particular relationship with, God. Of course, there is much, much more to be said about Judaism or Israelite religion, but this is its encapsulation.

Since virtually all early Christians were either Jewish or had been close to Judaism before coming to Christian faith, it should come as no surprise that the early Christians would feel drawn to express their new faith in a similar way—and, in fact, the evidence that they did so is abundant. Not only do these early Christian creedal formulations share the twofold “identity” aspect that we find in the Shema, but these creedal affirmations quickly began to develop a Trinitarian structure which is familiar to us from the later creeds: “I believe in the Father … and in the Son … and in the Holy Spirit.” In fact, Trinitarian formulae are found in the earliest Christian writings. But let's take this one step at a time.

It so happens that Wright is well aware of the evidence we are discussing. In his Climax of the Covenant (1991), in discussing 1 Corinthians 8 (“Monotheism, Christology and Ethics”) Wright argues that “v. 6 functions as a Christian redefinition of the Jewish confession of faith, the Shema.” (121) Note that Wright here recognizes that the Shema is a “confession of faith” and that the Pauline formulation in 1 Corinthians 8 is a Christian redefinition of that “confession of faith,” i.e., it is both patterned on the Shema and is itself a “confession of faith.”

In the Septuagint [the Greek OT] this [Deuteronomy 6:4, the Shema] reads:
"Hear, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
What Paul seems to have done is as follows. He has expanded the formula, in a way quite unprecedented in any other texts known to us, so as to include a gloss on theos [God] and another on kyrios [Lord]:  
"But for us
there is one God the Father
from whom are all things and we to him
and one Lord Jesus Christ
through whom are all things and we through him."
Paul, in other words, has glossed “God” with “the Father” and “Lord” with “Jesus Christ,” adding in each case an explanatory phrase … There can be no mistake: just as in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1, Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement, drawn from the Old Testament's quarry of emphatically monotheistic texts, of the doctrine that Israel's God is the one and only God, the creator of the world. (129)

Interestingly, we will later identify precisely these additional Pauline passages (Philippians 2 and Colossians 1) as essentially creedal in nature and form—which Wright himself appears to recognize. However, the point for now is that, from the very earliest days of the Church, Christians were regularly expressing their faith in “confessions of faith,” “creedal affirmations,” essentially patterned after the Shema and serving the same purpose as the Shema served in Judaism. Which is to say, they were never intended to be compilations of “some things that were absolutely essential to the faith”--they were intended as worshipful expressions of the relationship of Christians to God. They were positive, not defensive, expressions of Christian faith. Nor should we imagine that Paul was the first to formulate such an affirmation. Rather, as he often did, he expanded on preexisting material that had been handed down to him--in this case, the first resurrectional affirmation of faith, the Christian Shema: Jesus (Christ) is Lord!

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