The Hope of Israel
Wright closes out Chapter Two by briefly discussing what he calls the "Orthodox Response" to scriptural skeptics such as Reimarus,
Hermann Samuel Reimarus (22 December 1694, Hamburg – 1 March 1768, Hamburg), was a German philosopher and writer of the Enlightenment who is remembered for his Deism, the doctrine that human reason can arrive at a knowledge of God and ethics from a study of nature and our own internal reality, thus eliminating the need for religions based on revelation. He denied the supernatural origin of Christianity, and was the first influential critic to investigate the historical Jesus. According to Reimarus, Jesus was a mortal Jewish prophet, and the apostles founded Christianity as a religion separate from Jesus’ own ministry.
and Wright finds the "Orthodox Response" to the likes of Reimarus 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."
To assess that claim we must first ask: just what, in fact, were Israel's hopes? Wright claims that Israel's hope was that the earth would be "full of God's glory." That sounds nice, but my reading of the Israelite prophets, and especially of Deutero-Isaiah (which Wright relies upon heavily) is that the hope of Israel was that Yahweh would restore Israel as an independent kingdom, an empire that would lord it over the Gentile nations and despoil the Gentile nations of their wealth. The wealth of the nations would flow to Jerusalem in never ending caravans as tribute to their Israelite overlords. Gentile kings and queens, princes and princesses, would wait on the Israelites, hand and foot. As for "the earth [being] full of God's glory," that would be true in the sense that Israel's dominance over the nations would demonstrate that Israel's god, Yahweh, was more powerful than the gods of other nations. That would be Yahweh's glory--visible only in and through the earthly power of a restored and enhanced Israelite kingdom.
Were these hopes fulfilled? Seemingly not, yet if we are to judge Israel's hopes based on the prophetic writings, we would have to say that such unrealistic hopes were entirely reasonable--Israel's hopes accurately reflected the message that Yahweh sent through his prophets. But the fact of the gospels, the gospel truth, is that Jesus repeatedly rejected these nationalistic hopes for "God's glory"--in spite of everything that the prophets had said. Not only that, but the good news that Jesus proclaimed included reconciliation of Israel with the Gentiles and entry of the Gentiles into the kingdom on equal terms with Israelites! Jesus' apparent rejection of Israel's hope must certainly tell us something about how Jesus regarded the Israelite scriptures--and if we take Jesus' claims to divine authority seriously, then we should also seriously reconsider the role that Israel's scriptures play in the overall scheme of God's revelation.
But what if we should argue (as Wright and many others do) that Israel's hopes really have been fulfilled in Jesus--just in a different way than Israel expected? The problem with that ploy is that Israel's hopes appear to accurately reflect the message of Yahweh's prophets. If Israel's hopes were fulfilled in a way different than Israel expected, can we honestly say that they were fulfilled at all? If Yahweh expected Israel's hopes to be any different than they were, then Yahweh should have inspired the prophets to offer a different message! After all, it was supposedly Yahweh through his prophets who gave Israel these hopes in the first place. In the last analysis, barring convincing evidence that Israel had totally misunderstood the prophets, we must grant that 1) Israel's hopes were precisely what Israel, in fact, hoped for, 2) that those hopes remained unfulfilled and, most importantly, 3) that Jesus--who claimed divine authority--rejected those hopes.
And that consideration leads us to a further question that Wright declines to address: in what sense can we say that Israel's God, Yahweh, is the God of Christian faith? We have already explored, in considerable detail, the development of the Israelite conception of deity (see the list of posts at the bottom of this page for links). The identification of the god of Christian faith with Israel's Yahweh is frequently but all too facilely made. This is not to say that there is no connection between the two (again, see the linked posts), but it is to say that a naive identification does not do justice to the historical evidence, and thus ultimately doesn't do justice to God's plan of revelation, either. But to come to that assessment, we would need a coherent theory of revelation. Wright has no such theory, and so he can blithely write:
My case through this book, then, is that all four canonical gospels suppose themselves to be telling the story that Paul, in some of his most central and characteristic passages, tells as well: that the story of Jesus is the story of how Israel's God became king. This is how, in the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the God of Israel has become king of the whole world. This is the forgotten story of the gospels. We have not even noticed that this was what they were trying to tell us. As a result, we have all misread them. (38)
Now, this reveals another complex of presuppositions on Wright's part. We see that Wright's theory of revelation, such as it is, amounts to the claim that revelation is something that is found in books--"centrally" in the four gospel books. But the Christian understanding is that Jesus himself, a human person, is the revelation of God. The books are important as evidence, of course, but they came later and were sanctioned by the Church, and they certainly cannot be said to be Christ's body as the Church itself is. But Wright's view is that revelation is something that we read, and that's why he can say: "we have all misread them [the gospels]," as if the constant testimony of the Church has been a two millennial mistake. To be sure, Wright does to a degree invoke the early Church by claiming that Paul agrees with his (Wright's) understanding of the gospels. But we have already seen that there is serious reason to be skeptical about Wright's claims, which ignore Paul's definition of the kingdom. To the contrary, while Paul and Jesus do indeed agree with one another, neither agree with Wright about the nature of the kingdom.
The Inadequate Answers
In his third chapter, "The Inadequate Answers," Wright addresses the six mistaken ideas that "the churches" have given for what the gospels (i.e., Christianity) are really all about:
What was the point, I have asked, of the healings and feastings, the Sermon on the Mount and the controversies with the Pharisees, the stilling of the storm, Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi, and so on …
The church's tradition has, it seems, offered at least six different types of answer. They are all, in my view, inadequate. None of them corresponds very closely to what the four gospels actually talk about. (42)
In each of the six answers Wright has legitimate points, but each of his objections are to varying degrees ... inadequate.
Going to Heaven
In this section Wright raises two related issues: the nature of the kingdom and, in support of his views in that regard, the use of the Greek phrase usually translated "eternal life"--for which Wright proposes a new translation.
The first inadequate answer is that Jesus came to teach people how to go to heaven.;
But this is not—demonstrably not—what the four gospels are about. (42)
Think of the Lord's Prayer … At the center of the prayer itself we find Jesus teaching his followers to pray that God's kingdom might come and his will be done “on earth as in heaven.” The “kingdom of heaven” is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven's kingdom, he means that heaven—in other words, the God of heaven—is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well. (43)
Wright is undoubtedly correct to decry the emphasis on "going to heaven" that we routinely hear in sermons and popular works of piety. Human nature is such that it can normally only be fulfilled here on earth, and therefore we must assume that God wishes us to concentrate our energies on leading a complete human life in the here and now. As we have seen, that is the point of the Sermon on the Mount (from which context Wright abstracts the Lord's Prayer), in which Jesus teaches us the principles of how to be fully human in our daily lives. But this need to focus wholeheartedly on our earthly lives does not negate promises of a continuation of human life after death in an enhanced way. This is precisely what Jesus is calling us to, and what we pray for when we use the Lord's Prayer: that we may share, even now, through life on earth in Christ--a life informed by his spirit--in the life to come. (We saw that, too, in Paul's "definition" of the kingdom in Romans 14.) Doing so will make this earthly life more fully human than we ever thought possible, but it won't be the end. And so Jesus declares:
I've come that you might have life and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
That is God's will, and just as God's will is done fully in heaven, so we pray we may fulfill it on earth. That is the kingdom life--not some fantasy of God taking the initiative out of human hands and Himself establishing a "new era of justice, peace, and freedom" on earth (45). God's grace cooperates with the human nature that he created--it doesn't destroy that nature by overriding it. That, of course, is part of the mystery of evil--an unavoidable part of life in a non-divine and therefore imperfect world.
However, in support of his views--which have already been rebutted on other grounds--Wright seeks to buttress them by claiming that the Greek of the New Testament has been routinely mistranslated in a way that obscures the meaning that he wishes to establish. Once again, I have no desire to suggest that linguistic research has not made significant advances in our understanding of the Greek of the New Testament--it certainly has--nor do I preclude the possibility of further such advances. Nevertheless, Wright's claims are largely unfounded. First, a summary of his contentions:
The second expression that has been routinely misunderstood in this connection is “eternal life.” … A disembodied, timeless eternity! That is Plato, not the Bible—and it's a measure of how far Western Christianity has drifted from its moorings that it seldom even realizes the fact. (44)
When in Luke the rich young ruler asks Jesus, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (18:18), he isn't asking how to go to heaven when he dies. He is asking about the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people.
Among the various results of this misreading has been the earnest attempt to make all the material in Jesus's public career refer somehow to a supposed invitation to “go to heaven” rather than to the present challenge of the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. (45)
First of all, just to be clear, we will repeat: the notion that God is going to "usher in ... the new era of justice, peace, and freedom" is a misinterpretation of the Israelite prophets. To misapply this misinterpretation to Jesus in the face of Jesus' rejection of "Israel's hopes" only compounds the misunderstanding.
Second, we also need to understand what Wright is talking about with regard to the Greek. The underlying Greek word is the noun aion, which means "an age," and reflects the ancient view that history was composed of ages--whether linear or cyclic. The adjectival form of the word is aionios, and is normally considered to express unbounded time, thus aionios zoe, "eternal life." Wright asserts that the proper translation should be something like "God's new age" (i.e., the new age of "justice, peace, and freedom," as promised through the prophets). Obviously, Wright's argument begs the question of the accuracy of his understanding of both the prophets as well as of Jesus' understanding of the kingdom. Nevertheless, Wright would translate the rich young ruler's question along these lines: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit the life of God's new age?"
There are two problems with this type of translation. One is that, while it might seem superficially plausible in this given passage--which is no doubt why Wright used it as an example--it causes serious problems in many other passages, thus calling into question the whole legitimacy of this translation. The second problem is that there are numerous passages in the early Christian writings that make clear, even without using those specific Greek words, that the early Christians did indeed envision "going to heaven," and that this was a not unimportant part of their faith.
A good place to start our analysis is with Jesus' response to his disciples which closes the story of the rich young man. Wright (unhelpfully) doesn't bother providing Jesus' further response, which is the same in both Luke and in the parallel passage in Mark:
28 Peter spoke up and said, "You see we've left everything and followed you." 29 Jesus said to him, "Amen, I say to you, there's no one who has left his house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news 30 who will not receive now, in this time, a hundredfold in houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and fields along with persecution, and in the coming age [aioni], life eternal [zoen aionion]. (Mk 10)
We can see at once that Wright's way of translating the Greek words renders the ending to the passage strangely redundant, at best. Jesus has used the Greek word twice in one short phrase. For "and in the coming age [they will receive] life eternal" Wright would have to substitute something like: "and in the coming age [they will receive] the life of God's new age." But presumably the life of the coming age is the life of God's new age, and if the disciples make it to the coming age, that's the life they'll have. Thus, in Wright's understanding of the passage, the words "eternal life" [zoe aionios] add no meaning. Mark could have simply said, as we find elsewhere, that they will "inherit the kingdom," or that they will "inherit eternal life." But "the coming age" and "the life of God's new age" are simply redundant when used together and taken in Wright's sense.
Actually, the phrase "eternal life" isn't common in the Synoptic gospels, being confined, in fact, to this one story--of the rich young man. In other contexts (which are also infrequent) the same concept is rendered without any form of the Greek word in question. Instead, the idea is expressed by some variant of "enter into life," meaning, "the life", i.e., the life of the kingdom. All of these expressions are, admittedly, somewhat ambiguous and rely for their meaning on considerations as to the nature of the kingdom itself--which we have already considered. However, it is worth noting one additional Synoptic passage in which aionios is used:
So if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away from you! It's better for you to enter that life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. (Mt 18:8)
According to Wright, "eternal fire" (pyr aionion) should be translated by some variant of "the fire of God's new age," or "the fire of God's kingdom." But that contradicts the clear meaning of Jesus' words, which is that the just will enter "life" (i.e., that life, the life of the kingdom or of God's new age), whereas the sinners will be excluded--there is no fire in the kingdom, since there is no need of it: those who deserve pyr aionion never enter the kingdom in the first place. Wright's translation is clearly inaccurate.
In contrast with the Synoptic gospels, John uses variants of this language quite frequently. At times the reader may feel when turning from the Synoptic gospels to John that he has entered a different world, but that experience is deceptive. John's mode of expression may differ, but the thought behind it is very similar. The overlapping usage of variants on the theme of "eternal life" or "life" are a prime example of that underlying similarity. As in the Synoptic gospels, some examples in this category are undoubtedly ambiguous taken on their own, but in John they are far too numerous for us to look at each instance. For our purposes it will suffice to take some representative examples while keeping in mind the question: in the overall context, when Jesus speaks in these examples of "life" or "eternal life," does it really sound as if he's speaking about "the new world that God is going to usher in, the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people?" In the overall context, Wright's translation simply cannot work consistently.
Thus, while taken in isolation it may appear that some of these passages can be understood in the sense that Wright wishes to give them--that "eternal life" is a coming age that will follow upon judgment--overall we see that the life that Jesus is offering is knowledge: the life is the light that enlightens the darkness in which we live--something that even the Israelite scriptures cannot do (Jn 5:39)! While a judgment of both the living and the dead lies in the future--resulting in either life or death--even now those who believe in Jesus' words can share in eternal life, the life of the kingdom. But there is another typical Johannine contrast: that between life in this world and eternal life. And that life, eternal life, is knowledge of the Father and of Jesus (Jn 17:2-3).
John begins his gospel by stating that the life that Jesus came to offer men is a light that shines in the darkness in which men dwell:
What came to be 4 through him was life, And the life was the light of men,
5 And the light shines in the darkness, And the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1)
Jesus informs Nicodemus that to believers he (Jesus) has come to speak of "heavenly things," as opposed to "earthly things":
9 Nicodemus answered and said to him, "How can these things be?" 10 Jesus answered and said to him, "You're a Teacher of Israel and don't know these things? 11 Amen, amen, I say to you,
We speak about what we know and we bear witness to what we've seen, yet you don't accept our witness.
12 If I told you about earthly things and you didn't believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?
13 Yet no one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man.
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up
15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
16 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, so that everyone who believed in him would not die but would have eternal life.;
17 For God didn't send His Son into the world to judge the world, but so the world would be saved through him. John 3:9-17)
and to the Samaritan woman Jesus offers water that will well up within a person "to eternal life." Whether this will involve a new age of justice and peace we don't learn:
13 Jesus answered and said to her, "Everyone who drinks this water will thirst again. 14 But whoever drinks the water I'll give him will never thirst; instead, the water I'll give him will become a spring of water welling up in him to eternal life." 15 The woman said to him, "Lord, give me this water so I'll neither be thirsty nor have to come over here to draw water." (John 4)
And so it continues:
35 Don't you say, 'There are still four months, and then comes the harvest?' Behold, I tell you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, because they're white for the harvest. Already 36 the reaper receives his pay and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that the sower and reaper rejoice together. 37 For in this the saying is true, 'One is the sower and another the reaper.' 38 I sent you to reap what you didn't labor for. Others have labored and you've come into their labor." (John 4)
24 Amen, amen, I say to you, Whoever listens to my word and believes in the One Who sent me Has eternal life and doesn't come to judgment, but, instead, crosses over from death to life.
25 Amen, amen, I say to you,;
The hour is coming, and is now, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who listen to it will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in Himself, so too has He given the Son life to have in himself 27 and has given him authority to pass judgment, because he's Son of Man.
28 Don't be amazed at this,
Because the hour is coming in which all those in the tombs will hear his voice, 29 and they'll come out, those who did good to the resurrection of life, but those who wrought evil to the resurrection of judgment." (John 5)
39 You search the scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they bear witness to me, 40 and you don't want to come to me to have life." (John 5)
You seek me not because you saw signs but because you ate of the loaves and were satisfied. 27 Labor not for food that perishes, but for food that remains for life eternal, which the Son of Man will give you, for God the Father has set his seal on him." (John 6)
40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I'll raise him up on the last day." (John 6)
47 Amen, amen, I say to you,;
Whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate manna in the desert yet they died. 50 This is the bread that came down from heaven, so that you can eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he'll live forever [eis ton aiona], but the bread that I'll give for the life of the world is my flesh." (John 6)
67 So Jesus said to the Twelve, "Do you, too, wish to turn back?" 68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, who would we go to? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we've believed and come to know that you're the Holy One of God." (John 6)
"I told you and you don't believe.
The works I do in the name of my Father these bear witness to me, 26 but you don't believe because you're not from among my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me, 28 and I give them eternal life and they'll never die, and no one will snatch them from my hand. 29 My Father, Who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can snatch them from the hand of the Father. 30 The Father and I are one." (John 10)
25 Whoever loves his life, loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will save it for eternal life. 26 If anyone would serve me, let him follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be. If anyone would serve me, the Father will honor him." (John 12)
Whoever rejects me and doesn't accept my words has something to judge him; the word I spoke--that will judge him on the last day, 49 because I haven't spoken on my own; it's the Father Himself Who sent me who has commanded me what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that His command is eternal life. So the things I say--as the Father has spoken to me, so do I speak." (John 12)
"Father, the hour has come! Glorify Your Son so Your Son may glorify You, 2 just as You gave him authority over all flesh so You may give eternal life to all those You've given to him. 3 Now this is eternal life, to know You the One, True, God and the one You sent, Jesus Christ. 4 I glorified You on earth by completing the work You gave me to do, 5 and now You glorify me in Your presence, Father, with the glory I had with You before the world was. (John 17)
Fortunately, we don't have to rely only on the gospels. Paul, in particular, offers us valuable insights into what very early Christians thought eternal life would be like, even without using that phrase. Paul, of course, was a very early convert and quickly became so prominent in the Church that he could even confront and rebuke Peter--as Paul reminded the Galatians. Therefore, there is no reason to suppose that Paul's witness to early Christian beliefs is any less reliable than that of the gospels. Paul does, of course, use the phrase "eternal life," but his usage is more along the lines of what we find in the Synoptic gospels, and not so pervasive as in John. Thus, we read in Romans 2:
5 By your hardness and your impenitent heart you're storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God's righteous judgment is to be revealed. 6 He'll reward each according to their works--7 those who through perseverance in good works seek glory, honor, and immortality will receive everlasting life, 8 whereas those who act out of selfish ambition and disobedience to the truth and who obey evil will receive wrath and anger.
In several other letters, however, Paul tells his readers in great detail what this final judgment, which would include the resurrection of the dead, would be like. This is highly relevant, of course, since the gospels frequently link "eternal life" with resurrection and judgment. In 1 Corinthians we learn that our physical bodies will be "transformed" into "spiritual bodies," no longer subject to corruption. To be sure a "spiritual body" isn't precisely a "disembodied" existence of the sort that Wright derides (44), but what Paul describes certainly appears to be much more similar to traditional Christian belief than Wright's views are:
35 Perhaps some one will say, "How can the dead be raised? What kind of bodies will they have?" 36 You fool! What you sow doesn't come to life unless it dies! 37 What you sow isn't your body as it will be--it's a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or something of that sort. 38 God gives it the body He's chosen for it, and each type of seed has its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same; human flesh is of one sort, the flesh of domestic animals is of another; the flesh of birds is of one sort, while fish have another type. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of heavenly bodies is one thing and the glory of earthly bodies is something else. 41 The sun has one type of brightness, the moon another, and the stars yet another, for stars differ according to their brightness.
42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead.
What is perishable when it's sown is imperishable when it's raised. 43 What's sown in dishonor is raised in glory, what's sown in weakness is raised in power. 44 A physical body is sown, a spiritual body is raised.
Now if there's a physical body, there's also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written,
"Adam, the first man, became a living being;" the last Adam became a life giving spirit. 46 But the spiritual isn't first--first comes the physical, then comes the spiritual. 47 The first man was made of dust--the second man came from heaven. 48 Those who are of the dust are like the man of dust, And those who are of heaven are like the man from heaven, 49 And just as we've borne the image of the man of dust so too we'll bear the image of the man from heaven.
50 This is what I mean, brothers--it's impossible for flesh and blood to inherit the kingdom of God, nor can what's perishable inherit what's imperishable.
51 Behold, I'll tell you a mystery-- not all of us will die, but all of us will be transformed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet call, when the trumpet sounds, the dead will be raised imperishable and we'll be transformed. 53 For this corruptible body must be clothed in incorruptibility, and this mortal body must be clothed in immortality. 54 And when this corruptible body is clothed in incorruptibility and this mortal body is clothed in immortality. The following passage of scripture will come to pass,
55 Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?
56 Sin is death's sting, and the Law is sin's power, 57 But thanks be to God, Who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:35-57)
Similarly, in 2 Corinthians we learn that we will acquire an "eternal" (aionion) dwelling "in heaven." Anyone relying for Wright for their knowledge of early Christian beliefs would certainly be unprepared for this:
5. For we know that if the tent which is our earthly dwelling should be destroyed we have an eternal building in heaven to live in which was not made by human hands. 2 Here we groan, because we long to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 and if we are clothed with it we won't be found to be naked. 4 For while we live in this tent we groan under our burden; we don't want to remove our clothing--we want to have clothing put over it so that what's mortal will be swallowed up by life. 5 God is the One Who has prepared us for this, and He has given us the Spirit as a down payment.
6 So we're always full of courage, even though we know that while we're at home in the body we're away from the Lord, 7 for we walk through faith, not by sight. 8 We're full of courage and we'd prefer to leave our bodies and be at home with the Lord. 9 Therefore our ambition is to please the Lord, whether we're at home or away. 10 For all of us will have to appear before the judgment seat of Christ where each will receive either good or evil, depending on what they did while in the body. (2 Cor 5:1-10)
In Philippians Paul debates whether it is better to remain "in the flesh" or to die and be with Christ--presumably having "gone to heaven." He concludes that departing and being with Christ is "far better"--a retrograde attitude from Wright's point of view:
20 It is my eager expectation and hope that I won't be ashamed, but that now as always Christ will be boldly honored in my person whether I live or die. 21 For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I continue to live in the flesh that means I'll have fruitful labor, yet I don't know which to prefer. 23 I'm torn between the two alternatives--I wish to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, 24 but for your sake it's more necessary to remain in the flesh. (Phil. 1:20-24)
And in 1 Thessalonians Paul reveals to his readers that we will be caught up into the clouds where we will always be with the Lord. This doesn't sound at all like the earthly gnostic paradise of peace and justice that Wright believes in:
15 Indeed, we can tell you, based on the Lord's teaching, that we who are alive, who remain until the Lord's coming, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 The Lord himself will come down from heaven and issue a command, with an archangel's voice and a blast from God's trumpet. Those who died in Christ will rise first, 17 then we who are living, who remained, will be caught up into the clouds with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we'll always be with the Lord. 18 Encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess 4:15-18)
Jesus's Ethical Teaching
The second answer that Wright finds wanting holds that Jesus was an "ethical teacher," like other great teachers in history. He came to teach us how to live. I agree but would like to be more explicit: the notion, often unarticulated but nevertheless too common, that the "scriptures," and especially the New Testament writings, are a sort of manual of moral theology is seriously misguided and hampers any effort to truly come to grips with Jesus and his mission from the Father. In fact, the Christian approach to morality is laid out by Paul in the first two chapters of Romans, and it is not an approach that relies on searching the scriptures for moral commands. Instead, it embraces what has come to be known as a natural law approach, as the people of archaic cultures (including the Israelites) had long understood it.
On the other hand, as we have already discussed, by discussing the spirit of the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was providing insight into the truly human aspect of the natural law. And from this standpoint it is important to focus not simply on "what Jesus was doing (47)" but on who Jesus was saying that he was. It was his status as the son of the Father that made Jesus the True Man and gave his teaching authority.
Jesus the Moral Exemplar
Wright makes the good point that Jesus is far more than just an example for us--although he is that, too:
His task is unique. It cannot be reduced to that of the great man showing his followers how it's done. (49-50)
For our purposes we can pass over the next two "answers," since in our opinion they have not seriously distorted the understanding of Jesus to the degree that the others have.
Jesus the Perfect Sacrifice
Stories We Can Identify With
That leaves us with the sixth "inadequate answer":
Proving Jesus's Divinity
This is an important issue, obviously, so in the interests of gaining an accurate understanding of Wright's views I will quote Wright as completely as I believe is necessary:
The Sixth standard line has been to say that the gospels were written to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus. (53)
When did people start to talk about Jesus's “humanity” and “divinity” in this way? Not, I think, in the first century. … It is only later, when the church moves out into the wider world of Greek philosophy, that the question gets raised like that in the abstract. ... But if you compare Chalcedon with the four gospels, you'll find that they are very different sorts of documents and that the gospels … do not appear to have been written to prove that point [the point of Jesus' nature as defined at Chalcedon] (53-54)
Sometimes people will say, making a more personal or pastoral point, that the gospels, in telling the story of Jesus, show us who God really is. That's a bit more like it. That, in fact is precisely what John says at the end of his prologue … But even that doesn't get us far enough, because John at once goes on, as do all four gospels, to tell us what this embodied God is now up to. It isn't enough to know that Jesus is in some sense “divine.” The question is, which God are we talking about, what is he now doing, and why? What does it mean? (54)
… my point here is not that the gospels don't think of Jesus as divine, but that this isn't the primary thing, the point they are most eager to get across. They presuppose it. … The point, to repeat, is not whether Jesus is God, but what God is doing in and through Jesus. What is this embodied God up to?
John … has written this book to show that it is in Jesus, and his death and resurrection, that Israel's God has done what he promised he would do in and through Israel's anointed king and has in this way revealed fully and finally who he himself actually is. (55)
Now, there's no question but that the gospels are complex documents, as Wright states. From that standpoint it's easy enough to understand how Wright would conclude that the gospels are more about what Jesus is doing rather than who he is. Nevertheless, I believe he has oversimplified the gospels, and in a crucial aspect.
Certainly Jesus is not portrayed as going about providing demonstrations of his divinity at every turn in the road, in every village or house that he visits. But, while Jesus doesn't speak in the language of Greek philosophy, there can be no question that he is talking about his special relationship to the Father. Moreover, the disciples, the evangelists, and other early Christians (including Paul) all understood that Jesus was talking about his own identity and that Jesus' identity was involved in the answer to the question of God's identity. In this very important sense, the gospels and other early Christian writings are overwhelmingly concerned not just with what Jesus did but with who "this man Jesus" was, who did and said these things.
For example. Wright is correct in saying that Jesus' miracles are not per se demonstrations of his divinity. But there is an important distinction to be made in this regard. Jesus is frequently portrayed as praying to the Father before performing a miracle. On the other hand, at other times Jesus simply acts on his own initiative and authority. A prime example of that is the calming of the sea--Jesus is portrayed as simply ordering the wind and the sea to be calm, and the reaction of the disciples is quite different than their reaction to other mighty acts. Who is he, that even the wind and the sea obey him! They clearly see the result of his action as flowing from his own person. This goes beyond merely being "close" to God.
John makes all of this highly explicit in his prologue, in which Jesus is asserted to be the divine Word,
1. In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God.
3 All things were made through him, and without him nothing was made.
It is also in John's gospel that Thomas makes his remarkable confession of faith: My Lord and my God! No doubt it took some time for this faith to become completely explicit, but already in some of the early Christian hymns that Paul quotes that belief--expressed before the gospels were written--is as explicit as in the prologue to John.
6 Who, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to hold on to. 7 Instead, he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, he was born like a man and was found human in his appearance. (Phil. 2)
15 He is the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of all creation, 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, both the seen and the unseen, whether thrones, dominions, rulers, or powers, all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things and in him all things hold together. (Col. 1)
The fact that the gospels were written after this belief had already become explicit, and yet provide such matter of fact accounts of Jesus (in the main) is one of the remarkably modern aspects of these remarkable documents.
Note: For posts regarding the development of the Israelite conception of divinity, see generally the series of posts from June of 2009 to February of 2011, in the archives.
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