N.T.Wright, Second-Temple Judaism, and Early Christology

‘Chalcedon, I think, always smelled like a bit of a confidence trick, celebrating in Tertrullian-like fashion the absurdity of what it believed, and gave hostages to fortune which post-Enlightenment fortune has been using well. But the NT writers, by re-using the Jewish god-language in relation to Jesus and the Spirit managed to say everything that needs to be said, and to make it look more, from one point of view at least, so natural, so obvious, so coherent with the nature of God and with the full humanity of Jesus that fortune receives no hostages at all. Ironically, the Jewish setting and meaning were either misunderstood or forgotten so soon within the early Church that the fathers struggled valiantly to express the truth, but with one hand, the biblical one, tied behind their back.’

‘Long before secular philosophy and terminology was invoked to describe the inner being of the one God (and the relation of this God to Jesus and the Spirit), a vigorous and very Jewish tradition took the language and imagery of Spirit, Word, Law, Presence (and/or Glory) and Wisdom and developed them in relation to Jesus of Nazareth and the Spirit.’

‘Long before anyone talked about “nature” and ‘substance”, “person”, and ‘Trinity”, the early Christians had quietly but definitely discovered that they cpi;d say what they felt obligated to say about Jesus (and the Spirit) by telling the Jewish story of God, Israel and the world, in the Jewish language of Spirit, Word, Torah, Presence/Glory, Wisdom, and now Messiah/Son. It is as though they discovered Jesus within the Jewish monotheistic categories they already had.’(N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Identity of God’, originally published in Ex Auditu 1998, 14, 42-56)

(There is a lot going on in this article, but I’m going to focus on one particular theme here – that of the church moving away from its Jewish foundations.)

Wright’s criticism of Chalcedon is interesting – I’m a sucker for anyone who challenges, in a substantial way, a long-standing and powerful tradition. The primary critique here (and Wright has emphasized this elsewhere), that the post-apostolic Church (say, from 300 to 600, or so) drifted from the biblical framework of the apostles and Jesus is a heck of a claim – can it stand up to sustained criticism? (For the record, I haven’t read his big books. I own and have read Justification, Paul, Scripture and the Authority of God, Evil and the Justice of God, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, as well as most of the articles/essays on his unofficial webpage. More for the record, I would count myself fully in agreement with the bulk of what he says; IE justification, Paul, you know, the controversial stuff.)

Wright’s more well-known criticism is of a flat way of thinking about the relationship between God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus – Jesus, so the claim goes, didn’t simply strut around declaring Himself to be the second person of the trinity in a take it or leave it way. Such categories (at least in the flat and often reductionist forms, which is more often than not what Wright spends his time attacking) weren’t really part of the NT frame of thought – the Jewish categories listed in the second quote were. Wright’s point, if I’m reading him right, is that the Church, without really noticing it, started to think of Jesus and God in more reductionist terms since the 17th/18th century (and in more subtle ways, since the early fathers) – i.e., deism and the like, and that such a move would have been prevented had the Church stayed anchored in the Jewish modes of thought in the early church. The Church needs to break out of the enlightenment/post enlightenment way of thinking and return to the early modes of thought of the NT.

I think one of the underlying questions is whether or not non-biblical ideas (say, some secular philosophical ideas) have any place in theology. I think Wright’s claim has some substantial force – if one looks at the post-apostolic church, there is a lack of the Jewish story of Israel as the grounding of the language of theology. Not a total lack – but I don’t think one can really claim that the early fathers had the narrative of Israel at the forefront of their thought, and in a sense, that’s okay. Their problems were of a totally different type – philosophical attacks on Christianity had to be answered, and answered in form that meant something to the attackers. Simply referring to the narrative of Israel doesn’t do a whole lot if your opponent is a Stoic, or Cynic, or Platonist. But, if I may be so bold as to speculate, the problem seems to have come when the concepts used in a given scenario to answer a given objection actually started to become the actual reality. I may not be right in that claim, but as I see things that seems to be about the case.

These are broad statements – and I’m definitely not saying anything along the lines of ‘Christianity was fine until that cursed (platonic, stoic, deistic, etc) came along and ruined it! I have no problem with a Christian metaphysic, and I think it’s impossible to not have a metaphysic. I think lots of the ideas of (say) the early apologists were great – for example, early logos-theology (Justin Martyr and co). I suppose my own position would be sympathetic towards Wright’s criticism – but not without my own criticism of Wright. I have a nagging feeling that I’m missing a key concept here, though.

Criticisms welcome.

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