Thanks so much for that ‘First Things’ Wright essay, Kendel. That is a rich set of connections and commentary to help tie the Gifford Lectures together - adding in more recent insights also then. I’m still working through it.
Speaking of your links and other resources, Kendel, Wright’s agenda to read Christ back into history again is being echoed I think in Brian Zahnd’s recent book “The Wood Between the Worlds” - which I have only just begun reading. But early on he’s been hammering on this theme which is highlighted well by this passage from later on in his book, which I found by a simple text search. He brings up the sermon on the mount frequently - essentially saying that our modern obsession with wanting to focus on nothing but “victory”; and we think that the light of the resurrection somehow repudiates the way of the cross, and that in Jesus second coming, we imagine him essentially saying “screw all that sermon-on-the-mount stuff! Y’all were right about that not working, but don’t worry - on my return I’m gonna do it right this time and heads are gonna roll!” And so the modern American evangelical turns their back on the Jesus of Hebrews that is “the same yesterday, today, and forever.” But enough of my paraphrase … here is the excerpt.
If we imagine God as the omnipotent one seated upon a throne, we must always remember that at the center of this throne is the slaughtered Lamb. The sovereign throne and the suffering cross are not two different things—they are one and the same. The cross is the throne of God. The one upon the throne is the crucified one. The sacrificial death of Christ is the way that God rules the world. Christ does not rule with the thunderbolt of Zeus or the hammer of Thor. Christ always reigns from the cross, never from an F-16 fighter jet. If we literalize the metaphorical violence of Revelation, we create a theological catastrophe. We end up with violence as God’s salvific solution. We end up with God saving the world by killing it. We end up with God adopting the condemned way of Cain. We end up with Jesus renouncing his Sermon on the Mount. We end up with the cross of Christ as superfluous and even pointless. We end up ruining the whole gospel story.
Zahnd, Brian. The Wood Between the Worlds: A Poetic Theology of the Cross (p. 184). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Yeah. Wright’s emphasis on the Kingdom of God as a renewal of all things, a making right is so refreshing and heartening compared to literalized apocalyptic horror.
And the implications of those vastly different “kingdom visions” is huge, even now.
In old Lutheran liturgy what the priest does during the Creed is striking: at the words “came down from Heaven” the priest kneels, then at the words “was crucified also for us” he stands. This shows forth the truth that the Incarnation belongs to what is called the “humiliation”, but that the Cross is the beginning of Christ’s exaltation. This hearkens back to several Fathers who called the Crucifixion Christ’s enthronement.
That’s a nice summary of the entire Left Behind series (which I call “theological fantasy”).
Kinda like the Cross is Jesus picking up the tab at dinner then saying, “Let’s go kick some infidel ass!”
It makes Christianity into a form of Islam.
I can relate to this. Today I picked up a book from the thrift store. It caught my eye with the title A Lifetime of Reading. The table of contents had a wonderful selection of reading from Plato to Edgar Allen Poe. For a $1, why not? I started reading it and realized it was the author’s commentary or vignettes of these various works. He’s a good writer so I’m going to continue picking through it.
The book was written in 1960, so it is striking view of the Western world from a very different time.
This quote comes to mind from John Wilesy’s review of Jesus and John Wayne:
And I make my criticism through the lens of one of the most powerful essays I have ever read. It is an essay on writing history by Beth Barton Schweiger, entitled “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” published in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and The Historian’s Vocation. Schweiger argues that the Christian historian has a duty to love the historical subjects she studies, who are now dead. This love is not sentimental, nor does this love absolve the subjects of their sins. Loving the dead means we tell the truth about them, as far as it is possible given our limitations and the complexities of the past.
Selected lecture 3 bits that caught my attention.
Lessing’s Ditch doesn’t only separate contingent and eternal; now it separates past and present. No divinity is visible. Only a shadow remains.
~24 min in Wright critiques ‘historicism’:
Popper saw idealist historicism as the root of 20th century totalitarianism, blaming Hegel and Marx. Pantheism and materialism had claimed to know hidden laws, not just about what had happened, but what would happen. This is how things must turn out; and that ‘must’ is the telltale sound, the soft footfall of the historicist burglar in the household of human wisdom. Popper pressed the panic button at that point. … “don’t go there again…”
…they - (the ’predictive historicists’ ) sailed the boat right into the harbor. ‘Here comes the Kingdom of God’. Instead, what we got was the 20th century.
This immediately brought to mind the Orson Scott Card novel Speaker for the Dead, where the task of a Speaker for the Dead was to tell truth about the deceased. Has anyone else read that?
Can you recommend any science fiction that pictures a world where God intervenes? Chris Walley’s The Shadow and the Night?
Yeah. The 20th century isn’t quite what people expected for the Kingdom of God, I think. I guess it depends a whole lot on who you area, where you live, your socio-economic status and the like. These are things that Wright actually hints at in the lectures.
Plus the horrors of two world wars (and all the “little” ones, too).
Related to this erroneous prediction that the Kingdom of God was finally coming at the end of the 18th, mid 19th, late 19th century, I think it’s valuable that Wright spends so much energy on the problems that “predictive historicism” creates. If everyone was certain that this was it, the big day, the arrival of the long-awaited kingdom, then it’s very easy to point at the horrors that came instead and bawk.
The ultimate straw man. The false prediction lead to disaster instead, rather than fulfillment, new creation, renewal, etc to blood baths and and an irrefutable demonstration of human brutality. The mildest skeptic could look at it and say, “Surely you were wrong about God. If this is his kingdom, I want nothing to do with it.”
Craig Keener made an interesting comment in his lectures on Revelation about how spiritual awakening often precedes a spritual conflict at the personal level. He also made reference, I recall, to revivals that preceded great world conflicts like the Welsh revival.
Speaking of revivals, you all know that NT Wright was speaking at Asbury a few months before the revival broke out there
Novel length – no. I vaguely recall some short stories that sort of fit, but nothing major.
Finally! Finished notes on Lecture 3. Much to process in the next few days. This part from about 46:02 was worth writing out in my notebook and then typing:
“History will show not that Christianity is based on a mistake, but that some of the ways in which we have perceived and reexpressed it have introduced mistakes by not paying attention to setting and meaning.”
and then following a few moments later:
“If theology is true to itself, it can’t simply snatch a few biblical texts to decorate an argument constructed elsewhere. It must grow out of historical exegesis of the text itself.”
These require - particularly - the third of the four virtues that Wright said are required for doing good history and therefore good theology: Penitence. If our traditions or theologians or selves have introduced attractive distortions into theology based on poor historical work, then penitence is required. But also change.
I’m looking forward to talking these things over with you lecture hounds, before we move on to the 4th one on Friday.
I’ve been putting that off since . . . Saturday? I’m not sure; I’ve been focused on yard work that contributes to my conservation work. Today I disposed of a lot of weeds, mixed with dirt so most will survive and grow, plus hauled some Christmas trees out to the dune line to serve as sand fences that catch sand and build dunes.
I have that in my notes from when I first listened to these!
When I think of historical exegesis my mind always goes back to a guest presentation by some lingui-archaeologists who described the long process that finally led to being able to define what the term “city of gold” (from Akkadian, IIRC) referred to, beginning with finding it in a list of assets held by a royal treasury and tracking it through mention in a list of jewelry owned by a queen and finally learning that it was a type of crown. Knowing this led to understanding a Hebrew word (I forget which) the meaning of which no one was quite certain.
[Note to those who are curious about quoting people who are themselves quoting … You can select text from another post that is using quotes itself, and your quote will leave their quote embedded as such in your own quote! - just as I did with Kendel’s quote of Wright below. (So long as your selection includes some text outside the embedded - and now nested - quote.) ]
It does indeed seem that a much-needed and ongoing task through all religious history is the constant need for eisegetical clean-up of cultural and traditional accretions, some of which turn out to be less than helpful, or even harmful to our pursuit of true and faithful discipleship.
Well stated! Where Wright claims that “it must grow out of historical exegesis of the text itself”, I would insist on the additional caveat that our own traditional and cultural responses to past exegetical (and even eisegetical?) work is not necessarily all bad or of no value. Nobody (I think Wright would and does agree) interprets and applies scriptural understandings in a vacuum. We each are obliged to “make the narrative our own” and weave it into our own life situations. We can do that in false and self-serving ways, and it can also be done in faithful and Spiritually attentive ways. Or more likely - always a messy mix of both of those things, we being what we are. So clean-up crews always have work to do; but I wouldn’t characterize that work as being always and only demolition work.
Thanks for those thoughts, Kendel. I’m also looking forward to revisiting the fourth lecture.
@klw we’ve talked about our views on the ideas and practice before. I think you are more thorough about the theory and praxis here than I am. However, I am curious where Wright stands on this. He keeps digging at the U.S.'s separation, indicating that it is problematic. While, I think it’s a side issue here, I would like to know more about how he sees it. I think it’s also come up in relation to education. It seems like he does see an important roll for a state church and maybe other things I haven’t figured out yet. It’s hard for me not to bristle at such ideas.
When I wrote that I was thinking about Epicureanism. And I’ve gotten some very good information on it from some of you (Terry in particular).
Still I wasn’t asking quite the question that was developing. This is closer: Wright keeps pointing to motivation of the Enlightenment – it wanted to be the center of history, and thus must cut Jesus and Christianity down to size in order to overcome it and take the position for itself. I am curious about the reality of “The Enlightenment” having such motivation. I have my doubts about it.
It seems to me, perhaps wrongly, that the Enlightenment rolled along pretty well without particular reference to theology, or Christendom or Christianity. Maybe I have that wrong?
I like the way Wright talks about the process here. It’s much more “real” than what I think most people assume about written “history.”
In connection, @Andy7 mentioned North Americans (I’m including both Canadians and Americans here, although I think Canadians show a stronger commitment to this project) coming to terms with colonialism and the narratives we tell about it. Right now in the U.S. there is a strong movement to update history textbooks to tell our history more accurately. The pushback and accusations of “Revisionism” have actually been shocking. Because this isn’t the way people learned history as kids, they think it’s wrong, twisted, politicized. Without recognizing that that has been the case for a very, very long time.
Wright, as a historian, describes the reality of the discipline, that the product – history – is always shifting, as historians (and those who rely on the historian’s work) attempt to work closer toward the truth of what happened and write the narrative faithfully to the truth, rather than to a supporting mythology for whatever one wants to believe.
We cannot recreate the past. But real historians should seek to show the past as accurately as possible.
I am a librarian and work professionally with some historians, and one of my closer friends is also a historian. They are relentless. I mean absolutely relentless. They will travel great distances, pay their own hotel and transportation for the opportunity to check a few facts in an archive of obscure documents. Everything must be checked, cross checked, demonstrable, documented, footnoted, and if the source is dubious, that’s noted, too.
Good historians want to be honest historians, and as Wright says, they are putting their work out to the public for scrutiny. They don’t make assumptions. They really trust no one. They check EVERYTHING.
This last section of Lecture 3, particularly in context of the second half of Wright’s article/lecture How Can the Bible be Authoritative?, remind me of the last chapter of Myron B. Penner’s book, The End of Apologetics. The abstracts of those chapters on pages 17 and 18 are enough to introduce Penner’s view.
I don’t “know” Wright’s work and thinking well, so I am often flabbergasted, when he does things like talk about revising belief and doctrine, when we identify a problem with it. And that we need to make it our own, as you said, @Mervin_Bitikofer. This really isn’t how the traditions I’ve been a part of work. It would be seen, I think, as “liberal.” Rather than honest and necessary.
I think this might be the intersection of Penner’s Lived Hermeneutic, and Wright’s (borrowed) Hermeneutic of Love.
Most serious believers (including Wright I think) would not say it exactly this way - they would probably rather couch it in terms of returning to a more faithful or reliable understanding that would have been closer to original authorial / cultural understanding native to the writing in question. And in that respect they would probably think of it as undoing a revision or change that happened later in church history or tradition that they think can now be seen to have been scripturally unwarranted. But of course to the adherents of any such precious doctrine meeting that kind of criticism, they will usually hear none of it and insist that the doctrine was itself a core part of scriptural understanding all the way back to Christ.
I guess to adopt any posture of humility about one’s own strong beliefs might be seen as an inherently ‘liberal’ thing to do … if conservatives really want to continue to concede all humility to the other side. One would think they might have some hesitation about letting that happen … but be that as it may be - I don’t answer for them. An insufficiency of humility will lead groups into some very bad places and they are paying a dear price for it on the cultural front, the piper perhaps having yet to be entirely satisfied.
- Serendipitous coincidence: I was just listening to Jim Stump and N.T. Wright’s Biologos Interview yesterday [N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection]
- Stump: …
- What are the other kinds of options scholars have given for this scandalous notion that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, dead and buried, and then on the third day rose again from the dead?
- How do scholars understand the kinds of accounts that we have that seem to testify to this but give differing explanations?
- Give us a little survey of what those options are, and at least the short versions of what’s wrong with those and why the better option is that Jesus really did rise.
- Until the rise of what we now call historical criticism in the 18th century, there had always been skeptics, of course, but skeptics outside Christianity.
- But then from the 18th century onwards, there were skeptics who came up from within a broadly Christian tradition, particularly interestingly, because within the Lutheran world, there was so much emphasis on the redeeming power of the cross, that often the resurrection didn’t seem to have much work to do.
- It’s almost as though the Easter story is just a kind of a nice addendum, and then oh, by the way, you know, he rose again, and he ascended to heaven, that’s the end of the story sort of thing.
- Any sense that the resurrection was actually the launching of new creation on Earth, as in Heaven, just had disappeared from the theological tradition.
- Then, when skeptics from within Western scholarship came up and said, well, actually, he never really did rise.
- Then people started to say, well, look, Paul says it was a spiritual body and so that presumably means that Paul didn’t think it was a physical body.
- Paul was the earliest writer we’ve got, so all these stories in the gospels were obviously written down later on, because the gospels were probably written in the 60s, or 70s, or 80s, or 90s, so clearly, people started to make up stories a long time after the event.
- The original idea was simply that after Jesus’s death, his followers had this strong sense that God loved them anyway, or that Jesus’s project was still continuing, or that there really was some sort of a life after death.
- That then got downgraded into what a great many people in churches were taught through the 18th 19th and 20th century, so that the people who had swapped the biblical gospel of new creation for the Platonic gospel that the real aim is for us to go and live with God in a non physical, non spatio-temporal place called heaven. Once you’ve got that, then what’s the point of resurrection? So many people grew up saying, I believe in the resurrection of the body, in the Creed, but actually meaning I believe in the immortality of the soul, which is, of course, a very different thing. But once you’ve got a lot of would be Christian people believing that actually what matters is the immortal soul going off to heaven, then what’s the point of having a bodily resurrection? Then the skeptical scholarship comes along and says, well, there you are. When they said he was raised on the third day, what they actually meant was that God’s Kingdom continues, and that we will one day go and be with him, which is, of course, not what the language of resurrection meant at all. So there’s been an odd confusion between skeptical scholarship and muddled believers, who will say, well, clearly Jesus is alive because when we say our prayers, we have a sense of his presence. But obviously, he’s alive in a spiritual way, because he went to heaven, so he’s no longer around. The amount of sheer muddle and misinformation, both among Christians and among non-Christians has been such that it took me a lot of unpicking in the big book, and in the smaller book, Surprised by Hope, to try even to lay out what the options were. Of course, then you get skeptics who come along and say, well, if he didn’t actually rise from the dead, then, in what sense was there anything achieved at all by his life? Was he not simply whistling in the dark? Or was he not simply suggesting that there might be new ways of ordering your life which will be less unpleasant than other ways? And so the whole thing gets downgraded. To try to come back from that, and to say, no, let’s actually read the texts which are about new creation being launched in the very physical body of Jesus. This has been and for many people continues to be quite a shock. This is not what they expect to hear on Easter morning.
I’m also curious to hear Wright unpack his “two kingdom” view a bit more. From what I’ve gathered so far, he is out to do battle with gnostic/ epicurean/ enlightenment dualisms about the “material” versus the “spiritual”. I think Wright is saying that during the Enlightenment, people came to place “reason and logic as demonstrated by science in the physical realm” as the most important for society, and tried to relegate God to an unimportant “spiritual” role either as a deist–not acting in any significant way, or relegating religious belief as only an “internal/ individual pietistic practice”. In this way, one’s (internalized) spiritual beliefs would be private and have no impact on a secular society-- on education, the economy etc etc. Perhaps Wright is saying that this is what the American founding fathers were trying to do. But I’m not a student of the American constitution. Jefferson was a deist though?
I think the Anabaptist “two-kingdom” view is a bit different than this. We think the material world is very important, and how one lives one’s life (with physical actions in relation to others in the public sphere) is a critical part of one’s faith. (Faith is not only an internalized intellectual assent to doctrines). I think of an example in Ephesians when the idol-sellers became angry with the Christians and started rioting because their idol-selling profits were apparently evaporating. Clearly those early christians were living out their convictions in allegiance to their “New Kingdom” in the public sphere. And those convictions were conflicting with, and impacting the economy of the “Worldly Kingdom”. It’s only that the methodology of affecting societal/ economic/ educational change is different once one is a citizen of the “New Kingdom”. i.e., those early Christians did not try to grab political power and pass laws for all people in society against the buying or worshipping of idols. They simply lived out their true allegiance and its ethics among themselves, but in a way that it had public and material ramifications, ripple effects in the larger society. That began to subvert the idol trade from the inside-out. One could make the same argument for slavery in the NT?
I think it’s true of the later Enlightenment but not the earlier. They were both humanistic, but early on humanism conformed to culture and sought to improve it, but later humanism was exalted to the position of being the ‘savior’ of the culture with the ability to decide what should be kept and what should be discarded.
Thinking of Lutherans . . .
I knew a Lutheran pastor who used an interesting comparison for the Cross and the Resurrection: it’s like ice on your windshield on a cold winter morning; the Cross is the stimulus that causes the moisture across the whole windshield to crystallize, creating beauty, while the Resurrection is when sunlight hits that freshly-formed ice and you know you weren’t seeing things, that the ice is real.