Tuesday, November 02, 2010
That said, there are some problems that folks have raised with Wright's historical reconstruction of Jesus. I'd like to discuss two of those here and then offer my own thoughts about them. They are (a) the existence of heaven, and (b) the doctrine of justification. So pretty heavy-duty topics. Let me also say at the outset that I offer these critiques with great respect. NT Wright is not only a brilliant scholar, he is also a caring pastor with a real heart for people and for ethics, so I know that the issues I'm raising here are ones he cares about too.
Imagine There's no Heaven. NT Wright has made a point of saying that the NT does not teach that Christians go to heaven when we die. One example of this is an interview he gave in Time magazine called "Christians Wrong About Heaven, Says Bishop." Instead Wright focuses on the larger message that we will all one day rise when Jesus comes back. That of course raises the question: where are my loved ones now? Markus Bockmuehl gave a talk at this years Wheaton Theology Conference (check out the link for video and audio of all the talks) where he demonstrated persuasively from biblical evidence that Wright was wrong about this (or at least that he is only telling half the story). Believers when they die will indeed go to be with Jesus and the community of the saints and be in heaven with God. In the following panel discussion session, Wright does not really disagree with Bockmuehl (although he feels a bit misunderstood), and instead stresses that the reason he focuses so much this non-heaven line is because he wants to get away from the escapist notion of heaven that is so common. Fair enough, but that's like saying God does not exist because people's faith is too escapist (which is of course exactly what the New Atheists do).
So what we have is a matter of emphasis: The NT says that we go to heaven (or if you prefer, we go to "be with Jesus"), and it says that we will all rise in the great resurrection. The focus of the NT is on the later. What then happens is that Wright will be quoted by Time or some other news source which will then simplify this to "Christians Wrong About Heaven" and next thing you know folks are going claiming there is no such thing as heaven (and I've heard seminarians claim exactly that). Wright does not mind this so much because he believes that it is important that we draw our attention away from heaven which he associates with escapism. Here he is making a legitimate ethical point (our concept of heaven should not be escapist), but he is doing so with the wrong means (saying as a historian and scholar that the Bible does not teach that we go to heaven).
This illustrates something that happens all too often with historical Jesus studies: Scholars will use their authority status as historical experts to make ethical points. The very same thing happens when other historical Jesus scholars claim that Jesus did not actually say something which... big surprise... they don't like. Now it is certainly valid for these scholars to make such ethical points, but we need to be very careful here. It is very important to be forthright about the ethical claims that are being made, and not mask these behind the mantle of objective historical research. That would be a misuse of both ethics and historical study, and do a disservice to both disciplines.
What Wright is saying is an ethical point: we should care for this earth. We should be involved in healing our world here. I totally agree with him on that (and highly recommend his closing talk). But that is really an ethical and theological issue, and needs to be discussed openly as such. Frankly, I do not find Jewish apocalyptic helpful at all in working towards this. I find on the contrary that it muddies the waters quite a bit. Maybe that's just me, but I think the focus needs to be on how we can implement the kingdom teaching and actions of Jesus right now in our lives, and not on grasping some foreign concept of eschatology from another worldview. That gets our focus off of what it should be on, which is embodying Christ-like action in our world.
Does Luther get Justification Wrong? Another issue is related to Wright's take on the New Perspective on Paul, which basically says that Paul in Romans is not focused on answering Luther's question of "how can I find a gracious God?" and instead is arguing against issues of food laws and ritual observances. Now I've personally been a proponent of the New Perspective (in particular the version espoused by James Dunn). I find it brings a lot of things to light that had been missed before, like how the gospel deals with issues of religious violence, and exclusiveness. I think it is fair to say that the New Perspective gets Paul right historically in a way that Luther does not.
That said, I think that Luther did manage to see how Paul's message of grace in his own time spoke directly to the issues that Luther was dealing with in his. A first step in biblical interpretation is to understand the original context and meaning, but then we need to go beyond that ask how the text might speak to our own pressing questions. Otherwise it just becomes a letter dealing with issues that were important in the past, which are no longer relevant to us today (food laws, circumcision, etc).
So I think it would be a mistake is to say that the New Perspective is the one right way to read Paul. Wright however does seem to place precisely that kind of priority on his historical reading, and that is what I would want (lovingly I hope) to challenge. The New Perspective definitely has many profound insights that we need to hear, but then so did Luther and the protestant reformation. Why can't we hear and learn from both of them? The other Martin Luther (King Jr.) also read the New Testament and found it speaking to issues of racial justice and equality, applying it in ways that the original authors also had not directly envisioned at the time. Do we need to dismiss that too because it is equally unhistorical? On the contrary, I'd say that what Luther and MLK were doing is exactly what we are supposed to do too. We too need to learn how to read the Bible and see how it message speaks into our lives and world today. That is after all the theological task: not just to correctly read the past, but to construct a vision for how to apply the gospel to our time. That means we will need to deal with things which were not even on their radar back then: world hunger relief, globalization, medical ethics, and on and on. Historical grounding is a great place to start, but it is not where we should stop.