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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A Polemical Moment

Over at internetmonk, a post on some recent sexual scandals in the evangelical world was published. I won’t reproduce the whole post – but the part I wish to comment on I will. This will be a rhetorical, inflammatory and polemical post.

Folks, Christians are no more or less broken and capable of sinning than anyone else in this world. Simul justus et peccator — we are simultaneously righteous and sinful until the day we are glorified.

It is time to stop pretending. It is time to stop saying we have the answers and can rise above the moral degradation of our times.

All we can do is look to Jesus. We have no room to boast. We have no room to claim any kind of transformation that makes us “different” from our neighbors. We are not different. We are human. We fail.

It’s not about transcending sin. It’s about admitting our own sinfulness, naming our own sin, being harsh with ourselves and being kind and loving and forbearing toward others. It’s about being forgiven, again and again and again. (http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/the-church-cant-hide-its-sexual-brokenness)

This, to put it bluntly, is a load of theological bullshit, plain and simple. The simul justus et peccator principle invoked here is a mere excuse for the bad behavior of Christians – and while it is true that Christians are just as capable of sinning as anyone else, it absolutely does not follow that we have no answers and cannot rise above the moral degradation of our times. The entirety of Scripture testifies to the fact that such an assertion is completely unfounded. We do not have room to boast – but we DO have claim to a transformation that makes us different from our neighbors. Like it or not, there IS a code of conduct that Christian moral behavior is to follow, and it is a higher moral standard than the world outside the church.

While Christianity is not about making naughty people more moral, improved moral behavior is in fact a part of Christianity and one that is strongly commanded throughout the whole of Scripture, from the Mosaic law to the Apostolic writings. Christian character, both in the typical moral sense as well as in a more theological sense is to be visibly different than those outside the body of Christ such that the world outside the Church can do nothing but admit that a fundamental change in the innermost depths of their being, in their very fiber and fabric of their nature, in their very essence, has happened to those inside the church that could not have happened save for a radical encounter with Christ in which the aforementioned change is effected.

Christians are called to rise above the moral degradation of our times; our behavior is to be such that it is noticeable by those who are not a part of the church for both its moral uprightedness and its kindness, love and forbearance – not because Jesus died to make us more moral but because we are fundamentally, ontologically different. Christians are in Christ – our being has undergone a total and radical change its innermost depths such that our former, weaker nature is no more, period. The quoted piece above is nothing but cheap grace and theological bullshit.

Barth on God’s Mercy

‘The merciful God has taken action on our behalf both in freedom and in power. In freedom: for our sin and guilt were not His and He did not have to become so. Because this is so, faith believes in God’s grace and election in virtue of which we receive that which we have not deserved. But also in power: for He has really taken to Himself and removed from us our sin and guilt. Therefore faith is joy and gratitude, an assurance which can no longer look back, only forwards. In freedom and power, awakening a humble but assured and unshakable faith, He took our place because He was God’s eternal Son, because it was manifest Him that God’s eternal being is mercy, because there is nothing more real and true behind and beyond this substitution, because this substitution is the very essence of God’s own being, of His divinity, for which we must glorify Him in joy and gratitude if we are not to sin wantonly against Him, if we are to let God be God.'(Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics, II.1, p. 375)

Here, at least, what we call “god” is needed pt. II

‘The fatal mistake of the Church was trying to ‘prove to a world come of age that it cannot live without the tutelage of “God” ‘ . The inability to maintain this in the face of the world’s autonomy leads to the ‘ultimate questions’, where God now takes refuge. Here at least he is needed.

At this comes Bonoheffers most quoted question, a rhetorical one: ‘But what if one day they [i.e. these ultimate questions] no longer exist as such, if they too can be answered without “God”?  (‘Christ the Center’, p. 12-13)

Where does this leave Christianity? The more I think about it, the less I can avoid the thought that this is the cold, hard truth – that the ‘ultimate questions’ are the last bastion that God has in the world.

This thought prompts this question: if this is in fact the case, what is Christianity supposed to be?  Another question: how did Christianity arrive at the state it did?

Briefly, a glance at the New Testament seems to show that the very early church wasn’t terribly interested in providing the answers to ultimate questions – it proclaims a very simple, but very powerful idea: that Jesus Christ is the son of God, the Messiah as foretold by the Prophets, who was crucified, buried and resurrected, and in doing so broke the powers of sin and death over creation and opened up the divine nature for us to partake of.

In a nutshell, that’s about it. There certainly are questions that are answered – but so far as I can tell the early church did not see it’s message as an answer to ultimate questions that the natural world was incapable of answering.

Where does this leave us, and me? I don’t know. I think, however, that Christianity as a whole needs to be re-thought if its going to survive in this world come of age.

Loving Like Jesus

‎’Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these my brothers you’ve done it to me. And this is what I’ve come to think. That if I want to identify fully with Jesus Christ, who I claim to be my savior and Lord, the best way that I can do that is to identify with the poor. This I know will go against the teachings of all the popular evangelical preachers. But they’re just wrong. They’re not bad, they’re just wrong. Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect little wife and your perfect little children in a beautiful little house where you have no gays or minority groups anywhere near you. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus loved and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.’
-Rich Mullins