Jesus, Paul and the People of God (in Review) Part 1

Derek Ouellette —  March 10, 2011

Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue With N.T. Wright
Edited by Richard Hays & Picholas Perrin

4.5 Stars (out of 5)

Every year Wheaton College holds a theological conference usually consisting of several scholars on a particular – usually theologically “edgy” – topic. The papers presented at the conference are then typically published in a book the following year. Last year was the most attended conference to date and the reason for that is quite obvious and testifies to the extent of the influence of N.T. Wright.

The conference covered the span of two days and consisted of two topics respectively and thus the book was divided into two parts. For that reason this review will also be broken up into two parts. Today we will look at part 1 which is a critical assessment of N.T. Wright’s work on Jesus; tomorrow we’ll look at part 2, a critical assessment of Wright’s work on Paul.

Critiquing Wright’s Jesus:

Essay 1: Marianne Meye Thompson asks Tom why his opus magnum work on Jesus – Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) – almost completely substantially ignores the Gospel of John.

Essay 2: Richard Hay’s asks a similar question as Thompson, but also focuses more specifically on another critique, namely, is Wright’s method of discovering the “real” Jesus – critical realism – really the way to go? Are Wright and Barth really that far apart in how the approach the historical Jesus?

Essay 3: Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh uniquely ask Wright if perhaps the historical Jesus has more to say about global economics then Wright allowed for in his previous work on Jesus.

Essay 4: Nicholas Perrin asks Wright if his emphasis of Jesus’ call of Israel to national repentance at the cost of under-emphasizing Jesus’ call for repentance from each and every person presents a proper balance of Jesus’ message?

Wright’s Response:

Wright calls Marianne’s paper “a quizzical piece” and disagrees with her assessment in many places. His portrayal of Jesus – relying mostly on the synoptic Gospels – is not that far from how John portrays Jesus. His reason for not using John’s Gospel as a primary source is because he had a particular liberal scholarship as his primary audience in mind.

“Had I brought John into the equation without comprehensive justification, my principal conversation partners would have ignored the book.” – p.63

To Richard Hays Wright defends his method of critical realism: “You have to read them [the Gospels] critically, but you have to be a realist as well. So: critical realism” [p.119] Wright does not want to find a Jesus “behind the Gospel”; his method takes the Gospel accounts seriously while rescuing Jesus from the ultra-conservatives who have invented a non-historical Jesus completely detached from his context and from the liberals whose approach to finding the “real Jesus” leads them to search for a Jesus “behind the Gospels” which results in a cut-and-paste approach to the scriptures.

To Keesmaat and Walsh Wright concedes the point about Jesus’ economics and how they might apply today. Jesus’ concern for the poor – as their primary example – is certainly a part of the Kingdom message which does not receive a prominent place in Wrights JVG in relation to our contemporary socio-economic world.

And finally, to Nicholas Perrin, Wright admits:

“I fully accept Nick’s point… I have been so used to seeing Jesus’ commands and warnings being reduced to the rather trivial moral challenges faced by young people in comfortable Western homes that I was determined, if I could, to draw out the much larger picture.” – p.113

Perrin’s critique was that Wright’s interpretation of “repentance” in the Gospel’s was of a national “meta-sin” involving the grand motifs of Exile and Restoration and mostly ignored the call for personal repentance. Wright agrees that “there was clearly plenty of ordinary, boring old sin going on too, and Jesus named and shamed it.”

Wright on Jesus:

Part one concludes with a fantastic essay by Wright on Jesus. If you are debating whether or not to get this book, this essay – as well as the last one on Paul in part two – make the book worth it’s dime!

The chapter is titled Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church? In this essay Wright moves from his typical “presentation mode” (where he presents his views and arguments) and beyond his recent defensive mode (having to defend his views against the neo-Reformed) and moves on the offensive.

“Rather than simply defending the project of the historical study of Jesus, I want to move on the attack.” – p.133

He “attacks” the de-historicizing of Jesus which has been pervasive throughout the history of the Church Tradition, focusing his attack on the emphasis in our Creeds on Jesus’ “Divinity and Humanity” at the expense of suppressing the central message of the Gospels (see here); and on the Churches separation of “Kingdom and Resurrection” and also on the Churches separation of “Kingdom and Cross”:

“With the apparent encouragement of the creeds, [many Christians] would be quite satisfied if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin and died on a cross and done nothing very much at all in between. That, they would assume, would be what canonical or traditional Christianity was all about. But the canon itself suggests otherwise.” – p.142

The problem is clear:

“Many kingdom theologies seem to have no place for the cross, and many atonement theologies, including “sound” evangelical ones, have no place for God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.” – p.144

This is a big part of the problem. Wright’s “big picture” approach to Jesus brings balance to the Gospel message by attempting to tie all of the threads together to reveal the full tapestry of the Gospel story – not just this or that bit. He criticizes books like one written “two or three years ago” which attempted to explain what the Bible says about the atonement which had a lot of the Old Testament and a lot of Paul, “but almost nothing about the Gospels.” (I could be wrong, but I wonder if the book he is referring to is Packer’s and Dever’s In My Place Condemned He Stood which seemed to me to do just that.)

What makes this chapter particularly good is its autobiographical telling. In it Wright shares how he came to read the Gospels as he does and what points along the way most impacted him.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
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  • Andrew Cowan

    I think that the book he had in mind was probably Pierced for Our Transgressions, not In My Place Condemned He Stood, as he has made similar complaints about Pierced for Our Transgressions before.

    • Derek

      Andrew, I happily stand corrected! :)