Getting Historical Jesus Study Wright and Wrong

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

I recently blogged about why the historical study of Jesus is a waste of time. There I argued against the prevalent mode of historical Jesus studies, which has been to pick which sayings of Jesus are "authentic" and toss out the rest. Apparently, I am not the only one who has problems with this. For example a few months ago Scot McKnight wrote a scathing article in Christianity Today where he made many of the same points I did in my previous blog post here. In his response to McKnight, NT Wright argued that there is a "massive gulf" between the way he (and a few others) do historical Jesus studies, and the kind of historical Jesus studies that McKnight and I are criticizing. What Wright does in contrast is all about understanding the historical context and worldview of the time so that we can then read the canonical text without projecting our own assumptions and worldviews into it. This is something that I could whole-heartedly embrace. So I guess I should re-title that blog post "why the historical study of Jesus was a waste of time until NT Wright came along."

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.

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At 6:39 AM, Blogger Zack Allen said...

I don't know if you're aware of this or not, but much of Boyd's early career was devoted to historical Jesus studies as well. "Cynic Sage or Son of God" and "The Jesus Legend" are his academic level work on the subject. Their popular level counterparts are "Jesus Under Siege" and "Lord or Legend." He also has several essays on the subject on his website under Essays>>Apologetics.

Regarding Wright, have you read his "Surprised by Hope"? In it, he makes it abundantly clear that he is not *opposed* to the concept of Heaven all together. He actually affirms that when we do we go to "be with Christ which is far better." If you want to call this Heaven, he says, then that is fine by him. His emphasis, however, is that this *Heaven* is neither our ultimate hope nor our final destination. He advocates what he refers to as "life after life after death."

Also, if I remember correctly, I'm fairly confident he says something to the effect of, "Now my primary work here is as a historian, but I want you to understand the practical implications of what I'm saying about the first century Jewish mindset surrounding the resurrection." One of the main arguments he pushes is that if a disembodied "Heaven" is our ultimate hope/final destination, then death has not been truly defeated, but merely redefined. Resurrection means resurrection, our physical bodies will physically live again in the renewed Heaven-Earth and God will forever dwell among us as he had always intended, which, IMHO, is one of the most beautiful pictures in all of Scripture.

As for the NPP, I haven't had a great deal of exposure to it outside of what little I've read of Wright and the little bit of time Liberty devoted to debunking it in my courses there. Generally speaking, I really like what I read and I think such a paradigm shift is greatly needed, but, like you, I don't think this necessarily negates Luther's work on justification. I imagine both emphases (as well as many others) make up the manifold wisdom of God on the subject.

stay salty,

At 12:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hey Zack, great comments! No, I did not know that about Boyd. I'll have to check that out. I have not read Surprised by Hope. I've read his massive historical trilogy (NTPG, JVG, ROSG). You're right tho that he is not *opposed* to the idea of heaven (like I said he basically agrees with Bockmuehl). What I cannot really get hold of is the "final destination" of the new heavens and new earth. The very early Christians hoped that this would mean that Jesus would come back here and fix our world. They pretty quickly realized (say after 20-50 years) that this was not gonna happen any time soon. Now after 2000 odd years, it seems like a pretty impractical belief if we are basing our hopes for the healing of our world on that. Waiting for that is just not gonna help anyone who is hurting and in need now. So for me it becomes pie in the sky (or I suppose pie on the earth in the tomorrow that never seems to come). I don't see how that really leads to a viable hope, and think the church pretty much went to "plan B" on that very early on (as in: during the writing of the NT). So I just don't buy that version of the eschatological Jesus. It seems to me that what we have to work with is the cross and resurrection. That is what God did when he was here. So rather than waiting for some unfulfilled future event, I want to understand how the cross and resurrection matters right now for our hurting world.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger Rich Griese said...

The problem is that NT Wright is not a historian, he is a Bishop. Issues of history, should probably be left to folks that have history degrees.


At 3:58 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Wright is one of the most acclaimed NT scholars in the world. So he definitely qualifies as a historian. I don't think there is anyone who would question that.


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