Archive for the ‘Jesus’ Category

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (2)

Monday, April 19th, 2010

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.

N.T. Wright Wheaton Conference Report (1)

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

I am back from the NT Wright conference at Wheaton College in Illinois: “Jesus, Paul, and the People of God: A Dialogue with N.T. Wright.” I plan to offer my reflections in three parts: general, Friday (Jesus), and Saturday (Paul).

To begin, here are some general and rather random thoughts about the conference as a whole.

First of all, it was simply big, impressively big: lots of books, lots of people, lots of interesting people, both on stage and off. There were 1,100 people registered, plus some Wheaton students and faculty and, in the evenings, the general public watching in the gym on big screens. I have no official count, but it would not surprise me if there were 2,000 people in attendance Friday evening. The crowd was fascinating. Though mostly white, there was some racial and ethnic diversity, but there was definitely a wide span of ages. Lots of younger folks of course—college and seminary students, the newly ordained, etc.—but also people my age and older. The crowd was also denominationally diverse, with some Catholics, Orthodox, and even a Jewish rabbi sprinkled among the Anglicans and Protestants and post-Protestants of various stripes. I kept bumping into both younger and established biblical scholars and theologians, including some rather legendary figures like Kenneth Bailey and René Padilla. I spent some time with Nijay Gupta of Ashland (and soon Seattle Pacific), Woody Anderson of Nashotah House, Rodrigo Morales of Marquette, and Andy Rowell of Duke’s ThD program. I also saw Todd Billings of Western Seminary and met numerous other professors from various fields and places.

Second, it was stimulating: lots of good presentations, lots of interesting and even important conversations. I was particularly happy to get to interact with a few younger students who are preparing for ministry and/or considering doctoral work. I always relish those opportunities at SBL and elsewhere, but there were far more students here than at SBL.

Third, it was well organized and executed. Nick Perrin (NTW’s onetime research assistant) and Jeff Greenman, both of Wheaton’s faculty, did an excellent job, and the many orange-shirted student volunteers giving directions, etc. could not have been more helpful.

Fourth, it was doxological, which is what theology should be. Each session included sacred music by gifted instrumentalists, prayer, and congregational singing (chiefly Taizé and Iona pieces). Grant LeMarquand of Trinity School for Ministry in Pittsburgh (and NTW’s former student) led the prayer and worship, ably assisted by musicians who were also from Trinity.

Fifth, the conference basically lived up to its subtitle: a dialogue. At one level, this was a laudatory event, a love-fest for Bishop Tom, if you will, or at least a profound expression of appreciation. But even the most appreciative papers offered critique, or at least suggestions for improvement or new directions. There was time for feedback from the Bishop to the papers, time for interaction between him and the presenters, and questions from the attendees. That said, however, there probably should have been more time and space allotted to interaction between the panelists and NTW. These were major figures giving substantive engagements with his work about important issues, yet he only had about 5 minutes max to respond to each paper (15-20 minutes to respond to four papers, though he took a bit more time). His responses were therefore necessarily—for the most part—brief and even rushed, with some papers getting lots of attention and some a lot less. The actual give-and-take dialogue, though good at points, was not extensive.

It was unfortunate that Richard Hays, one of the conference organizers and the co-editor of the conference volume that will appear, had to leave (to preach as this father-in-law’s funeral) after giving the first address.

Sixth, the conversation was rather comprehensive: Jesus in relation to history and story/theology, Jesus and John (since NTW has focused on the synoptics), Jesus and economic justice today, Jesus and ethics in light of his eschatology; justification and union with Christ in Paul, NTW’s emergent-friendly ecclesiology, Paul’s individual eschatology, and righteousness in Paul.

Lastly, Bishop Tom was at his rhetorical best in his chapel address and in his two evening lectures. Not a lot of new ground, but vintage Wright on God’s mission and the church, Jesus, and Paul.

On a personal note, I was glad that my student Susan was able to attend the conference–and speak briefly with Bishop Tom—since she is doing an independent study on NTW and Paul this term. I was also glad that I could meet up with Fuller student Angela, who went to Greece and Turkey with me in February.

On a different note, presenter Markus Bockmuehl had a terrible and expensive time getting from Oxford to Chicago for the NTW conference—via trains to Paris and Zurich—and was fearing he may have to return via Africa! I am anxious to hear what happened to him.

More to come. Meanwhile, check out the initial reactions from Nijay Gupta and Andy Rowell (also here), who also has posted links to audio and video of the conference.

Bad Friday

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Bad Friday

Good Friday?

I don’t think so.

This is a Friday of failure
of frustration

of betrayal

of denial
of disappointment
of death

of abandonment

of love wasted
of faith shipwrecked
of hope dashed

of evil victorious
of good crushed

This is a bad day
for the disciples
for Jesus
for God
for us.


N.T. Wright for Everyone and Upcoming Conference

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Each year Wheaton College near Chicago holds a conference on theology. This year’s conference, which I hope to attend, will be on the work of Bishop N.T. (Tom) Wright on Jesus and on Paul. There are excellent—no, world-class—participants (Jeremy Begbie, Markus Bockmuehl, Richard Hays, Edith Humphrey, Sylvia Keesmaat, Nick Perrin, Marianne Meye Thomson, Kevin Vanhoozer, and Brian Walsh) plus, of course, presentations by the good bishop himself.

As part of the run-up to the conference, Bishop Wright’s former teaching assistant, Nijay Gupta (Ph.D., Durham), and some other folk are posting short papers to introduce people to NTW’s work. Nijay’s excellent summary of NTW’s work on Paul is introduced here and can be found in full here.