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.

This was no small undertaking, and ultimately rested on the resurrection for its validation. Peter Enns states the case bluntly

The story of Jesus is connected to the story of Israel …. But the Jesus story also brings with it something utterly new and unexpected that Israel’s story is not set up to handle.
Jesus’s story is deeply connected to Israel’s story yet has a surprise ending. ... They believed Israel’s story was God’s Word, but what Jesus said and did could not be explained by that story.
The Bible was non-negotiable as God’s word, but it was not God’s final word. Jesus was.
Israel’s story, taken on its own terms, is not equipped to bear the weight of God’s surprise move of a crucified and resurrected messiah. It must be reshaped around Jesus. (Jesus transforms Israel’s story (from The Bible Tells Me So, 194-95, by Peter Enns)

As we have pointed out elsewhere, a moment's reflection should suffice to convince that Enns is stating what most critical scholars, such as Joseph Fitzmyer and John Collins, have concluded: the Israelite concept of Messiah simply doesn't conform to the Christian concept and Jesus is not simply fulfilling ancient writings--Jesus is not merely renewing a story selectively gleaned from some ancient books, he really is making "all things new" (Rev 21:5). As Enns puts it, the Israelite scriptures--even taken as broad brush narrative--are "not set up to handle" the utterly new story that is the Jesus story. The Jesus story cannot simply be explained by the story of Israel--"Israel’s story, taken on its own terms, is not equipped to bear the weight" of the Jesus story.

Enns' point, however, goes beyond the common conclusions of critical scholarship. Enns contends that Jesus' disciples were aware of the discontinuity between the story of Israel and the Jesus story, and their awareness of how unique and new the Jesus story was is manifested in the way they used the Israelite scriptures. Yes, they accepted the Israelite scriptures as "God's word," but in the end it all comes down to Jesus himself. As I have maintained at some length elsewhere, even more so than for the disciples, this is also true of Jesus himself. The "new story" that Jesus brought was not a later conclusion of the Church: it was the story that Jesus himself told, his self conscious identity, and this consciousness manifests itself in both his own words as well as in how he treats the Israelite scriptures.

Wright's attempt to have it both ways simply doesn't cut it:

Think again of the poems at the start of Luke's gospel. God has fulfilled the promises to Abraham; now things can proceed in a new way. (112)

Which promises are those that were fulfilled? That Israel would be a powerful nation (Gn 12), more numerous than the stars (Gn 15)? When did these things happen? Now things can proceed in a new way? What happened to the renewal project? 

Of course, something new--something radically new and not simply a renewal--is going on in the Jesus story. Jesus is revealing his Father God's true identity, and that identity is not simply the same as that of Israel's God. God is no longer One in monadic isolation, but is Triune in a dynamic community. Wright is simply wrong to facilely identify Israel's God with the Christian Triune God. Further, the revelation of God's identity comes with a revelation of the identity of God's people: God's People is not a tribe or a confederacy of tribes, an ethnic identity, but is the universal family of those who believe in Jesus and what he reveals about God. These fundamental discontinuities between the story that Israel told about God--and itself--and the story that Jesus is now telling means that, in all honesty, we must reevaluate what we mean by revelation. The disciples of Jesus certainly continued to regard Israel's story as revelatory--as Enns notes--but it appears flatly impossible that revelation should mean the same thing as applied to Israel's story as it means as applied to Jesus' story.

And yet Wright, for all his talk of "renewal," regularly turns right around and expresses himself in terms of newness and of fundamental change from the past, from Israel's story. For example:

 … the whole point for each of [the gospels], and for any sources they had, was that something had happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through which the world had changed, Israel had changed, humankind had changed, their vision and knowledge of God had changed, and they themselves had changed. (105-106)

What is it, then? Has something  "changed" or has something been "renewed?" “Renewed” strongly implies a return to or renewal of a previous state that remains essentially the same. In Israelite terms a renewal should have been very noticeable, and yet what Jesus' disciples seem to have noticed was precisely the lack of renewal: Lord, is this the time when you'll restore the kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6) Surely the disciples' query is a clear indication of what a renewal would have looked like in the common Jewish understanding of that period? But the fact is that this vision of a "renewed" Israel, with a restored Davidic kingdom, doesn't fit at all well with the Christian picture of the Church, or of individual believers. The Christian vision is, as Wright says, of something fundamentally changed: something new. Wright himself is fond of quoting Paul: If anyone is in Christ—new creation! (2 Cor 5:17) Not renewed creation--new creation. Even in Romans, where Paul places considerable stress on continuity, we clearly see that the continuity from Israel to the Church is not merely renewal.

What it comes down to is that Wright resists addressing the distinction between 1) the narrative/story of Israel developed among its elite religious leaders of Israel as a chosen ethnic group and 2) the actual history of Israel: the distinction between Israel as an historical reality and a library of books collected, edited and interpreted by an elite for its own purposes. Wright's use of the terms “narrative” and "story" suggests that he is well aware of the distinction, even as he resolutely ignores it. Israel's ideology of chosenness is, in point of fact, not truly unique among world cultures; there are many parallels throughout human history among many peoples. A renewal--such as a reestablishment of a Davidic or Davidic style kingship--that bolstered this chosenness construct would hardly constitute the "change" that Wright speaks of--a change that did in fact did take place. Does Wright see no significance for the nature of Christian faith in these distinctions?  

What we have been at pains to show throughout this series of blogs is that the very experience of Christian faith is something new and is a decisive step beyond the archaic ontology of traditional cultures. This faith is based on an implicit philosophy of being as act as well as--crucially--on the historical experience of God's self revelation in Jesus as confirmed in the resurrection. The insight gained into the identity of God as Trinity represents the final decisive step beyond ideologized cultures--including that of Israel.

Foundational Documents

Wright's second major contention is that the four gospels are best viewed as foundational documents of the Church:

[A good way to view] the four gospels [is] as deliberately composed foundational documents …   (111)
The early Christians believed that Jesus was Israel's Messiah,  … The fulfillment of Israel's story in the story of the Messiah is the foundational charter of the church.
That is why I speak of the gospels as telling the story of the launching of God's renewed people. It is wrong to imagine that the gospels (or Jesus, for that matter) were concerned with “founding the church,” which is the way some people have said it. There already was a “people of God.” We saw, … that the gospels were telling the story of Jesus as the climax of that people's story. Jesus came, they indicate, to rescue and renew that people, not to destroy it and replace it with something else. Israel is to be fulfilled, not replaced. … The earlier story was certainly not, as far as the gospel writers were concerned, cut off without remainder and replaced with something quite different. It is precisely because the gospels tell the story of how Israel's long history reached its surprising climax that they become “foundational documents.” Think again of the poems at the start of Luke's gospel. God has fulfilled the promises to Abraham; now things can proceed in a new way. (112)

There is another very obvious reason, one that Wright appears not to have considered, why it is wrong to imagine that the gospels were concerned with “founding the church.” Simply put, the Church had existed for at least several decades before the first gospel--let alone all four--had been written. Is that Church to be regarded, as Wright appears to maintain, as no more than a "renewal" of the already existing "people of God": the Jewish people? By the time the gospels were written the Church had already--judging by Paul's letters--moved beyond any notion that it was simply a renewal of Israel. And the gospels make it unmistakably clear that a major part of the good news of Jesus was that all people, without distinction as to ethnicity, are God's people. This is not an invention of Paul; the roots for the mission to the Gentiles are clear in all of the gospels and must be traced to Jesus himself. The beginning of Jesus' ministry in Nazareth as recounted by Luke, the encounters with Gentiles, the many parables that speak of the kingdom's openness to all, Jesus' own relativizng of ethnicity and more--all this goes well beyond anything that could be characterized as mere renewal.

Jesus, according to Paul as well as the gospels, at the least totally redefined what it means to belong to God's people. The already existing “people of God,” Israel or the Jewish people, was self defined—as is the case with all traditional cultures—not God defined. For Wright to simply accept the narrative of the Israelite scriptures as literal accounts of foundational transactions between various allegedly historical personages and God--this is fundamentalism of the rankest sort, masked by Wright's facility with critical historical terminology. However, once we accept the evidence of modern social science studies that ancient Israel must be studied within the parameters of standard social science disciplines, the path is opened to determine exactly what set Israel's development off from that of other similar cultures. As our study of the work of Mark S. Smith (cf. the series of posts, 6-11/2009) has shown, what proved distinctive in Israelite thought was not its self understanding as "chosen." Rather, It was the deepening of Israel's understanding of God's identity, developing from a standard West Semitic account of a pantheon of gods to a concept of an essentially monotheistic creator God. It was this trajectory of development, not completed until shortly before the time of Jesus, that made Israel unique and ultimately defined its identity. This development also set the stage for the good news of Jesus.

We have referred several times to the "good news of Jesus," but in what did this good news consist? Fundamental to the good news was the revelation of Jesus himself and of his identity, because this revelation involved the revelation of God himself. This is perhaps clearest in John's gospel, where Jesus repeatedly states that the purpose of his coming is to make the Father known--to reveal the identity of God, but it can also be seen throughout the other gospels and in the other early Christian writings: in Jesus, God is being revealed as the dynamic overflowing being of Trinity.

From this standpoint we are able to tie the revelation of God into the truly original story of Israel--rightly understood as the story of a deepening understanding of God's identity. Jesus came as the climax of God's purpose in human history—God's self revelation of himself--not as the climax of Israel's self defined history as an ethnic group. Israel's ethnic and cultural identity are of no special importance, except in the sense that God chose Israel as the human and cultural vehicle for his self revelation. To the contrary, Israel—as self defined--was about to enter one of the darkest periods of its history, as Jesus warned. Therefore, to become part of this story of Jesus as God's self revelation, Israel would have to renounce its ethnic self definition and accept a fundamental equality with the Gentile latecomers (as Paul makes clear in Romans). To repeat: Israel had a narrative about its place in history, and that narrative had much in common with the mindset typical of most traditional cultures. God used Israel as the vehicle for his entry into history in Jesus, not to fulfill Israel's own human self understanding but to bring men into a new relationship with God through faith in Jesus--it was this revelation of God's identity that made such a new relationship and new human self understanding possible. Pace Wright, the “promises” to Abraham remain unfulfilled. God's use of the shared conception and shared imagery of the traditional "archaic ontology" of man, as instanced in Israel, the deepening development of the understanding of the identity of God—this is what revelation is about and it culminates in Jesus.

N.B. The term "archaic ontology" used to refer to traditional forms of what is usually referred to as "philosophy" is drawn from the work of Mircea Eliade. Mark S. Smith, at the link above, expresses the same idea well:

... their texts contain an ancient form of metaphysics. ... a fundamental ontology used in the ancient world is embodied in language about power. ... Transposed into traditional metaphysical language, the power of lesser beings in the world participates in Power itself, identified with God.
The forms of ancient metaphysics found in Psalms 74 and 104 as well as Genesis 1 are not original with ancient Israel. They can be found also in a number of ancient Near Eastern cultures. ... These ontologies in Israel and the ancient New East raise a particularly important question for theology, namely, the understanding of biblical revelation. (162)

Signposts of the Future Church

Wright moves next to a consideration of the "time-bound elements" in the gospels:

The time-bound elements include the restriction on territory (not going to Gentiles …) …
 … It isn't just that Jesus has lifted a temporary ban on going to the Gentiles. The point is that now, with Jesus's death and resurrection, the rule of the king of the Jews has been established over the nations, as in Isaiah 11 and Psalms 2, 72, and 89. His followers are therefore to go and put that rule into effect. (114-115)

Wright must know that the passages he cites from Israelite scriptures are not messianic in any sense that can be connected to Jesus--they are about a restoration of a very earthly kingdom, a renewal rather than a new creation, the return of exiles. Moreover, these passages have nothing to say about Abraham or Moses, about whom Wright has so much to say--they are about the restoration of a Davidic or Davidic style monarchy. As for going or not going to the Gentiles, Wright skips over the important passages—such as Luke's account of Jesus' visit to Nazareth, the numerous references to Jesus' visits to Gentile areas, references to past examples of preference shown to Gentiles, parables of the future king's behavior toward and even exclusion of The People—which put a different light on the notion of a Jewish king establishing “rule” over the nations. Paul's understanding of the obliteration of such distinctions is also relevant here.

Further, the larger point is that God's rule is not that of "the king of the Jews"--rather, in Jesus Messiah (in Christ, as Paul so often says) there is no distinction of Jew and Gentile: God has revealed that all men are "his" people. If Jesus has become king, it is not that he has become "the king of the Jews" but that he has become king of all men, who are all equally his subjects/brothers.

… the gospels are consciously telling the story of how God's one-time action in Jesus the Messiah ushered in a new world order within which a new way of life was not only possible, but mandatory for Jesus's followers. (118)

What can you say? Not a "renewed" way of life? Wright slips easily, facilely, between new and renewed.

The End Is the Beginning

To conclude the chapter Wright provides a pretty stock reading of the Road to Emmaus narrative, complete with commentless reference to a Messiah who “had” to suffer. No Israelite references to such a messiah are provided. The Suffering Servant can be balanced against any number of other portrayals of messianic figures--triumphantly royal figures--which served as the basis for "Israel's hope," as expressed in the various hymns in the early chapters of Luke.

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