N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (2)

As I continue my reflections on this historic conference, I want to state at the outset of this post that all of the participants are my professional colleagues, people with whom I have worked and/or interacted, and many of them are my friends, including Bishop Tom. So any criticisms I offer are those of a friendly critic.

I do not intend to give full summaries of the various papers. But Marcus Maher, a Trinity Evangelical Divinity School student who was at the conference, has done a look of summarizing over at his blog, Seeking the truth…

Day one of the conference, Friday, was dedicated to the Bishop’s treatment of Jesus and its theological implications, especially in his justly famous 1996 book Jesus and the Victory of God. The morning session was as follows:

“Knowing Jesus: Story, History, and the Question of Truth,” by Richard Hays (Duke)

“The Gospel of John Meets Jesus and the Victory of God,” by Marianne Meye Thompson (Fuller)

Richard Hays is probably the most respected American New Testament scholar and a long-time friend of Tom Wright. As always, Richard’s paper was incredibly well done, and one of the two or three from the conference that everyone interested in NTW or NT Theology needs to view, hear, or read. It was both a summary and a critique of Tom’s methodology in the study of Jesus and a public rejoinder to Tom’s devastating SBL review of the book Seeking the Identity of Jesus, edited by Richard and Princeton’s Beverly Gaventa. At that session, I remember Richard’s initial reaction to Tom’s review: “It makes me wonder if you read the book.” The tension over that book and the issues it raises have no doubt strained their friendship, and this paper and its hoped-for but unfortunately postponed dialogue (since Richard had to leave) can be seen in part as an attempt to heal the rift.

So what is the issue between Wright and Hays? It is the age-old tension between the so-called Jesus of history and the so-called Christ of faith, which has to get worked out in each new generation of theologians and scholars. More specifically, it is the relationship between, and the significance assigned to, the first-century Jew known through historical reconstruction and the no-less-Jewish but living Jesus whose identity is revealed in the canonical gospels and in the Christian tradition. In my view, Tom and Richard are actually closer together than they can sometimes appear to be, and their differences may be largely a matter of emphasis—though I’m not 100% sure either of them would agree with me on this.

After reviewing seven dimensions of NTW’s distinctive methodology for studying the historical Jesus and pointing out its principal strengths, especially vis-à-vis certain other approaches, Hays raised some concerns and questions, and then asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Among the most important points in Hays’s paper (meaning the ones I agree with most strongly):

• The story of Israel and Jesus that NTW posits as the biblical meta-narrative is never actually told anywhere in the NT; it is not the story proclaimed by any of the evangelists, nor is it the story of Jesus found in later Christian confession. I would say that this does not necessarily make it wrong, but it does make it suspect—or at least in need of nuancing. Hays rightly contends that sometimes the historical evidence or the exegesis gets overly systematized and forced into his (NTW’s) narrative construct.

• The quest for an alleged single story of Jesus behind the four gospels is theologically problematic, since such a quest deliberately muffles the distinctive voices of the evangelists and tries to create a kind of historian’s Diatessaron (melding of the four stories into one, as Tatian did with the four gospels; that phrase is my own, not Richard’s).

• The absence of the Gospel of John from NTW’s historical reconstruction is hermeneutically significant. Tom later replied that he did not include John for apologetic reasons—he would not have been taken seriously as a scholar of the historical Jesus. Interestingly, in light of recent scholarly developments, that situation is quite different now, and John’s gospel is receiving renewed attention for its possible contributions to understanding the historical Jesus. Maybe NTW would consider John if he were writing Jesus and the Victory of God today.

• The starting point for, and the basic fact of, a Christian statement about the identity of Jesus is the resurrection of Jesus. It is the key to any ultimately truthful and meaningful historical account of him. How would NTW as the author of The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) reconceive the project taken on in Jesus and the Victory of God (1996)?

• There is no need to bracket out the Christian tradition in our quest to understand and identify Jesus. Richard implied what another panelist, Edith Humphrey, said the next day: that the effects of Jesus tell us something important about him as an historical figure.

Marianne’s paper developed a point made by Richard—the problem of the neglect of John in Jesus and the Victory of God. She made two especially important observations:

• The destruction of the Temple, which occurs early in John, would likely signal, not the end of exile, but a new exile, or at least divine judgment. What does one (especially NTW) do with that?

• Ironically, the Jesus of NTW’s Jesus and the Victory of God (taking on the role of YHWH, etc.) might look a lot more like the Jesus of John than of the synoptics. Actually, I think the work of Kavin Rowe on Luke and the forthcoming work of Richard Hays on the use of Scripture in the gospels indicate that all the evangelists saw Jesus as identified in a significant way with YHWH. But the standard critical interpretation of the differentiation between the synoptics and John on this matter makes Marianne’s point at least interesting and probably valid.

Clearly these two papers gave and give both Bishop Tom and the rest of us much to consider.

Three thoughts on all of this:

1. Later on in the panel (I think), Bishop Tom noted that one of his concerns about reading Jesus through the creeds and tradition is that they have tended to engage in the “de-Israelitization” (his neologism on the spot) of Jesus, God, and the gospel. I have heard him register this complaint before, and I share his concern to a point, as I share his similar concern that the creeds skip from Jesus’ birth to his passion.

One way to deal with this is to realize that the creeds and the Christian tradition more generally do not override or replace the gospels—or at least they shouldn’t. They provide a hermeneutical lens, not a straight-jacket. That is, when we read the gospel narratives of Jesus the Jew, the creeds tell us, we are not reading the story of merely a Jewish teacher, healer, etc. He is, of course, that first-century Jew, but he is that first-century Jew simultaneously, and inseparably, as the once-incarnate and now crucified, resurrected, ascended, and coming Son of God.

2. Someone on the panel spoke about a two-dimensional (purely historical) versus a three-dimensional (historical plus theological/canonical/creedal) interpretation of Jesus. I have to think more about this image, but if it is valuable, it reinforces my previous point. As Christians, we cannot think only two-dimensionally, historically (Jesus the first-century Jew), but neither can we skip the two dimensions, however flat they may be, and pretend that Jesus can be known only in the third dimension of canon/creed/theology. Or, better put—if the two-dimensional (historical) Jesus is inseparably part of the three-dimensional Jesus, then it is better to say that understanding Jesus historically, at least in regard to some basic aspects, is not merely an historical task but an essential part of the theological task, of understanding Jesus theologically. This is because, at the very least, (1) incarnation and resurrection and parousia all have something to do with history, and (2) failing to identify Jesus as a Jew, and a particular kind of Jew (the One who brought salvation to and through Israel), is a fundamental theological error in all sorts of ways.

3. It may be that Bishop Tom’s reading of Jesus, even in Jesus and the Victory of God, is more theological than he might want to admit. That’s OK. He’s a Christian! But that does not make his reading any less historical, or any less valid, in my view, because his implicit theological vision is fundamentally both historically and theologically true.

To summarize briefly: it’s a both-and, not an either-or; historical and theological readings of Jesus need to go hand in hand.

At almost 1,500 words, I will stop here and say something briefly about the Friday afternoon session in the next post.

19 Responses to “N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (2)”

  1. Thanks, Michael, that was a particularly helpful post.

  2. Mike, this point articulates something I have felt strongly for some time now:

    “The quest for an alleged single story of Jesus behind the four gospels is theologically problematic, since such a quest deliberately muffles the distinctive voices of the evangelists and tries to create a kind of historian’s Diatessaron (melding of the four stories into one, as Tatian did with the four gospels; that phrase is my own, not Richard’s).”

    I have noticed this approach in a number of historical reconstructions, not just those of NTW. The failure to take into account the autonomous voice of each evangelist leads to a disregard for each gospel’s distinctive elements. And, what the teacher does in moderation, the students do to excess. Practically, this means that many non-specialists who read these works come away with the chief goal of harmonizing the gospels, rather than letting each evangelist speak on his own terms.

    Thanks for these first two posts.

  3. MJG says:

    Thanks, Chris T.

    Chris S—

    I think you are right, though—in Tom’s defense—he is very committed to allowing each evangelist to speak on his own in (what Tom considers to be) the proper context, NT theology as opposed to historical-Jesus work.

  4. Steve Duby says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    Thanks for posting these reflections. In particular, I’m appreciative of your suggestion about affirming both Jesus’ location within God’s plan for Israel and the legitimacy of the patristic creedal material. Pondering Wright’s comment on de-Israelitization in the creeds, I found myself thinking that it’s a bit unfair to criticize the participants at the ecumenical councils for not focusing on the Jewish context of Jesus’ mission. I think it’s fair to want the fathers to recognize this at some point in their work, but the issue of emphasis is often tied to the needs of the day and the creeds met the theological challenges of their day in a compelling manner.

    Steve

  5. Sam says:

    Hi Dr. Gorman,

    I wished i had met you at the conference but i have no idea what you look like. I did buy your book on the cruciform.

    I think the best papers presented to further our understanding of Jesus was Hay’s and Humphrey’s. They both brought up a lot of valid points and between them there is a lot to think about. I think the 3D image of Christ needs to be Canonical, Historical and Traditional, with Canonical being the primary. Our image of Christ has to look like the canonical Jesus but it cannot contradict the historical or traditional. I think we as evangelicals have finally started to take the historical Jesus seriously and people are beginning to realize that we have a faulty image of the canonical Jesus. I wish we took the traditional Jesus more seriously. I know you do, with your doctrine of Theosis.

  6. Doug Harink says:

    Hello Michael,

    Thank you very much for the two reports so far. I would dearly love to have attended the conference: unfortunately, the Wheaton conferences are always scheduled during the last week of classes of our winter term (and I would have to travel on Thurs to get there on time)–not a good time to abandon the students.

    Perhaps I should wait for your next post before I raise any questions. As you noted in your first post, the conference was kind of a “love-fest” for NTW–I could pretty much tell that by the list of presenters. It seems that anyone who might have offered a critique that challenges the very core of NTW’s project was studiously avoided. (I’m not thinking of myself, by the way–I simply do not have the equipment and skills for it–but what about someone like Beverly Gaventa or Martinus de Boer?) Such a challenge would focally address the way in which for NTW apocalyptic is contextualized by (covenant- or salvation-) history, rather than the other way around. So my question is, did any of the presenters offer a fundamental critique of NTW’s theology of history? For to my mind that is in fact the fundamental problem in his whole project, one which has profound implications, not least for determining the shape of a theopolitical vision defined by the gospel.

    Anyway, thanks again for the posts. I look forward to your next one.

  7. As I’ve been working through this, I find myself coming in somewhere in the middle. I think it more important that we bracket out some of the Christian tradition in order to listen to the Synoptic Gospels.

    The context of the later church changed so dramatically from its Jewish roots to its Gentile/Greek adherents that we have to be willing to say that part of the “explanation” of the later tradition is not simply the Gospels’ effects, but the Gospels’ effects on Greco-Roman Gentile (versus Jewish) culture and philosophy.

    The absence of Israel is tied to the absence of Mark 1-14 in the creeds and confessions of the church.

    I agree that there is a place for a more full-orbed canonical reading of Jesus, but that theological development should not come too quickly into the Synoptics, lest it blind us to the important story of a first-century Jewish man.

    More thoughts along these lines here: http://www.jrdkirk.com/?p=588.

  8. MJG says:

    Steve—

    You make a good point about context, but sometimes over-sensitivity to context can in fact obscure the truth, with an extreme (and somewhat unfair) case being the interpretations of Jesus in 19th- and early-20th-century Germany

    Sam—

    Some interesting points, especially your ordering of the canonical, historical, and traditional. BTW, however, Edith’s paper was on Paul, not Jesus, as you know, though the two are not unconnected.

    Doug—

    Thanks for stopping by. No one challenged the core/substance, though Richard challenged his methodology very seriously. I’m anxious to hear what you take to be the necessary relationship between his (to your mind misguided) theology of history and his (again, to your mind, misguided) theopolitical vision. I ask in part because where I differ with NTW on the latter, I don’t find the differences necessarily negating the former.

    Daniel—
    “In the middle” meaning between RBH and NTW? between me and one or the other?

  9. [...] J.R.D. Kirk’s assessment here, here and here; Nijay K. Gupta’ reflections here; Michael J. Gormon’s here.] Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Jesus (Logos) and Moses in JohnSome Resources on [...]

  10. Sam says:

    haha … true Humphrey’s paper was on Paul’s day :) But it felt like she was going for Wright’s interpretation of both Jesus and Paul and comparing Wright’s interpretation to the church fathers. Once she moved into the apocalyptic part of her lecture, Paul was out of the picture. Apart from Hay’s i felt she contributed the most to a better understanding of Jesus. Her challenge to us was whether we understand Jesus better by the impact Jesus had on those who killed him or on those followed him after his ascension.

  11. MJG says:

    Sam—

    That’s all true. She came closest to the paper I would have given had I given one.

  12. Marc says:

    Wright’s “obsession” with historical basis and narrative continuity is not only for apologetic reasons – he sees practical problems with an ahistorical Christianity which teaches timeless truths.

    Tom is fighting the battle with Bultmannians like Borg and Crossan who say that the resurrection was an “experience in the hearts of the believers” or that the “Christ of Faith” is what matters. The problem with this is that it is a castle in the sky.

    On the other hand, if Jesus really has been raised then New Creation has really begun, God has confirmed Jesus and his teaching and we can then follow it knowing for sure (1 Cor 3; 1 Cor 15:58) that what we do is not in vain.

  13. MJG says:

    Marc—

    I agree, but the apologetic dimension was specifically what NTW himself said when asked.

    He did also, separately, make your points and quote the end of 1 Cor 15.

  14. Casey Taylor says:

    Dr. Gorman,

    Your final point about Bishop Wright offering a “Christian-shaded view” of Jesus (my paraphrase) sounds familiar to something NTW said somewhere. I can’t recall if it was in NTPG or “The Meaning of Jesus” but I recall him arguing that, contrary to modern notions of objectivity, perhaps those WITHIN a tradition (like orthodox Christianity) can offer insights that supposedly objective (secular?) interpreters miss.

    Second – I was eager to hear critique of NTW about the silence of John’s Gospel. Provocative entries at the conference but I want some meatier engagement…can you recommend any good books on the Gospel of John? (And remember – I’m a pastor, so I only have time for 1 or 2 500+pg books a year…and Campbell’s “Deliverance” is currently in digestion!).

    Thanks

  15. MJG,

    Thanks for this great recap. Your own lines are very helpful here. I’ll try to remember to cite you when I use “historian’s Diatessaron” and creed-as-lens rather than straightjacket.

    In a paper adapted from my dissertation, I’m tackling Israel’s story at SBL this year and plan to push back a bit on RBH in regards to the first point you cite. “sometimes the historical evidence or the exegesis gets overly systematized and forced into his (NTW’s) narrative construct.” I reckon so, but it’s worth a go, isn’t it?! This is particularly true inasmuch as w/ NTW we sometimes wind up with useful or corrected ways of looking at a passage, person, or book.

  16. MJG says:

    Jason,

    Use what you can; sounds like a good paper.

    Interestingly, I was just re-reading Charles Talbert’s 1994 commentary on Revelation (The Apocalypse: A Reading of the Revelation of John) and noticed this line near the end of the book:

    There is a theological plot that controls the diversity of these two testaments. The plot runs thus: Creation, Fall, Covenant, Christ, Church, Consummation. Every part of the canon must be read within this overall plot or design. (p. 113)

    Could be a reflection on NTW in NTPG—or perhaps just an independent confirmation that NTW is on to something—though neither is hardly the first to say something like this.

  17. MJG says:

    Casey,

    There are a couple of collections of essays on John’s gospel and history coming out of some work in SBL. They try to address the “dejohannification” (their term) of Jesus. Either would be fascinating reading; you could dip/browse:

    John, Jesus, and History, Volume 1: Critical Appraisals of Critical Views

    John, Jesus, and History, Volume 2: Aspects of Historicity in the Fourth Gospel

    Bauckham’s book on the gospels and eyewitnesses is also stirring things up, whether one agrees with him or not:

    Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony (chaps. 14-17 on John)

  18. [...] provided by the narrators, which generally accords with later church perspectives on the text.   Mike Gorman puts it up to the age-old question of the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith [...]

  19. [...] interpreters while also realising that they were humans. Michael Gorman makes some good points here about the role of the creeds (and tradition) that are worth [...]

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