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Wheaton Theology Conference - N.T. Wright

The last talk for today was on the importance of historical Jesus studies, especially for the life of the church. Wright spoke at breakneck speed which made taking notes difficult and following him a little tricky at times so I am absolutely certain that my report here will be woefully inadequate. Please listen to this talk (and all of the others too) when the audio becomes available.

Wright began by talking about how we got to where we were in the 1960s with a Christ of faith that had little rooting in the Jesus of history. He pinned it squarely on a Lutheran two kingdoms approach that had a split level view of reality with earth and heaven in separate compartments. This two kingdom approach kept Jesus out of the messiness of politics. The model for this approach was Bultmann.

This created a major pastoral concern. If scholarship says that the gospels are unreliable what does the pastor do? Does he ignore scholarship or does he tell his parishioners that the gospels are unreliable? Either solution is disastrous.

Wright then went on to defend that we must have historicity. If Jesus didn't do what the gospels said then how can you know your subjective experience is real? History also prevents false idols that we call Jesus - projections of our selves and our values onto the Christ of faith.

Wright believes that this false imposition has happened again and again, especially by the church. He affirms the Chalcedonian Creed, but believes that we need to say more than that if we are to have the real Jesus. The purpose of the gospels wasn't only to tell us that Jesus is God and died for us personally. The gospels are primarily about Jesus inauguration of the kingdom of God. Western theology has been completely unable to keep together a kingdom ethic with the cross (we see errors swinging both ways).

The questions we need to ask now are these (unfortunately they're paraphrases of powerful originals). How did Jesus keep both purposes, the inauguration of the kingdom and his sacrificial death together in his own mind? What sort of kingdom is it that climaxes in the cross? What sort of atonement establishes the kingdom of God?

Let's not forget the resurrection. The resurrection wasn't primarily meant to be a proof of Jesus divinity. It was first meant to be proof of Messiahship, and that his death was the messianic death that defeated the powers. Second, Jesus resurrection means that the new creation has been launched and now we have a job to do (isn't that how the gospels end and Acts begins?). Part of that is telling the story of Jesus as Israel's God.

So what? Among other points he made, here are three.Practically, we need to try to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel. To do that we need to understand who Jesus was in history, the Jesus of the canonical gospels. Also, our atonement theology can't be derived from Paul alone. We need to incorporate the gospels into our atonement theology. Lastly, we need to see that the pre-easter Jesus is the same as the risen Jesus. We know that the risen one was the crucified kingdom bringer. If we don't the resurrection will shrink to a detached spirituality.


  1. I wonder if Wright unwittingly falls into too strong of a Jesus-Paul dichotomoy at points. Taking your last paragraph, he seems to assume that the gospels (Jesus?) and Paul have different (though I'd guess he'd still say compatable) views of the atonement.

    But I'd argue that if we pay attention to practical point #2 (Paul's atonement theology), we may have a clearer view of how to do practical point #1 (be for the world what Jesus was for Israel- though this begs for further clarification). I think we need to read Paul as someone who did exactly what we are trying to do, preaching and applying the Christ-event to a pluralistic, non-Jewish society.

  2. I think your insight is very keen. I wonder if it isn't part of the training that we receive which divides Paul and the gospels into different subdisciplines, as necessary as that may be at some level.

    At the same time, I think that Wright would agree with everything that you just said. If we rightly understand Paul we won't fall into the traps that he's concerned about. I think that this is where we need greater cannon sense. We can't understand Paul rightly apart from the gospels.

  3. I agree that Wright would agree with me. I just don't think he does it well in practice. At least not yet, since I try to keep in mind that he has visions of future works that may flesh these points out further (something I think his detractors often forget).

  4. Thinking about this some more, I'm not being entirely fair to Wright. After all, the motivation behind "What Saint Paul Really Said" was to show the utter Jewishness of Paul, which is connected, in Wright's mind, to the Jewishness of Jesus.

    I think where the problem is, though, is how Paul doesn't match up with Wright's portrayal of Jesus. That is, Wright sees Paul's view of the atonement (as an example) as different from the gospels. In reality, I'd say Paul's atonement theology is different from Wright's historical reconstruction of Jesus' atonement theology. Does this make sense?

    One area where I think this shows up is in his major push to see the exile as a (the?) shaping theme of Jesus' ministry. The problem is that it hardly shows up in Paul. Mind you, I happen to agree that the continuing exile of Israel is a theme in the gospels; I'd even call it prominent. But since Wright reads everything in the gospels through that grid, I'm not sure how he maintains the Jesus-Paul continuity he says exists.

    Anyway, not sure I'm making sense here. That's what I get for thinking outloud.

  5. Hmm...I'd have to think about this more, but I wonder if Romans 9-11 doesn't help (though not completely) tie together Paul's and Jesus atonement theology according to Wright.

    I also wonder if the exile theme doesn't drop from Paul because it would be bizarre to a Gentile audience. One thing that's clear from Acts is that Paul's preaching to Gentiles is different from that to Jews. Still, though, I do think that it needs to be granted that exile is virtually absent from Paul (if not completely).

  6. So Wright kind of answered our question here. He believes that Paul's citation of Deuteronomy 30 in Romans 10 is an allusion to the return from exile, as Deuteronomy 30 is a return from exile text.

  7. Right, I've heard him say that before. Personally, I think the best way to understand the exile theme is that part of the result of the return from exile is that Gentiles come and join the people of God. So, I suppose one could say that Paul is simply playing the "post-exilic" preacher to the Gentiles.

    Going back to the atonement issue, I think that's where Wright is missing the boat. Because he can't conceive of Jesus speaking about anything beyond his contemporary, exilic Jewish community, he can't conceive of an atonement that sounds anything like Paul. If I can put it this way (and Wright probably wouldn't like my summary, but he won't be reading this)- Jesus sees his atonement as only for Israel, whereas Paul sees it for the whole world. But, if Jesus' basic message was that the exile was now ending, wouldn't he know what the outcome would be- that the Gentiles would come in and share in the kingdom (which must include the atonement)?

    That's part of what bugs me about Wright in this area. It's almost as if, in his reconstruction, Jesus can't see the logical outcome of his own mission. But maybe I'm reading this all wrong (and I'll admit, I haven't read this stuff in a few years).

  8. Hmmm...I agree I don't think that Wright would like that paragraph very much, but I don't think I can comment much on it, as I know him much better on Paul than on Jesus.


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