In a prior post I mentioned that I have been listening a bit to N. T. Wright and now I am starting to read him. I have begun reading "The Challenge of Jesus." I have to say that I really enjoy listening to Wright. There is something about that British accent that grabs the attention of this American. But I think my enjoyment of him goes much deeper than just the accent, he has a wonderful way of communicating substantive comment in an understandable manner.
Having just begun the book I would say the same about his writing style. If this book is any indication of his other writing, he is very engaging. He communicates substance with style, shall I say. His writing is erudite, yet clear.
One thing that is not so clear to me, and I think to some others, is his view of Jesus' self-understanding. He has a chapter in the book on Jesus and God in which he deals with Jesus self-understanding by answering two questions - 1) Was Jesus God? and 2) Did he know he was God, and if so, in what way?
With that as an intro I'd like to take the rest of the post to process a few of my own thoughts showing where I think Wright is helpful and where his views are problematic. Any insight from friends and foes of Wright would be much appreciated.
I'll begin by sharing where I think he is helpful, or at least not heretical.
Wright seems to think that we start in the wrong place when we talk about God. He thinks we tend to bring a preconcevied view of who God is into our study of the Bible in general and Jesus in particular and then seek to fit Jesus into that. He thinks we ought to go the other way around. We need to look at the history of Israel and their understanding of God, and look at the man Jesus, and extrapolate from those back to an understanding of who God is.
He didn't say it this way but I think he might agree with this summary of what he seems to believe. If you were to ask the first century Jewish man on the street who is God, that man probably wouldn't answer "God is God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth."
Of course all of that is true, and those words, which for the uninitiated are taken from the Westminster Shorter Catechism question #4 are properly deduced from Scripture, but this is not what was in the mind of the first century Israelite.
The people of Israel viewed God through the lens of creation and covenant. If you asked them who God is they would answer that He is the one who created the world and all that is in it and who chose Israel to be His people. In other words, they would define God in terms of His great works and His covenantal relationship to the people of Israel.
That is an insight I find very helpful. It does not negate the truth of the shorter catechism's statement, yet it sets a helpful trajectory for us as Christians as we develop our understanding of what it means to be the new covenant people of God.
Also, one frustration I have with Wright is that he can be clear and brilliant on many things, providing many eye-opening "aha!" type insights, yet there are times he can be downright confusing. On some matters he writes quite elliptically, not getting to the point I want him to get to. To me that comes out the most in his views of Jesus self-understanding. Yet, I do think on the question of "was Jesus God," we can safely say that his views are orthodox (I know, I know, Wright will breathe a sign of relief when he finds out that I have graciously pronounced him orthodox). On that question Wright gives what I believe is a good answer:
In Jesus himself, I suggest, we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life: the loving God, rolling up his sleeves (Is 52:10) to do in person the job that no one else could doo; the creator God, giving new life; the God who works through his created world and supremely through his human creatures; the faithful God, dwelling in the midst of his people; the stern and tender God, relentlessly opposed to all that destroys or distorts the good creation nd especially human beings, but recklessly loving all those in need and distress. "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall carry the lambs in in his arms; and gently lead those that are with young" (Is 40:11). It is the Old Testament portrait of YHWH, but it fits Jesus like a glove. (Challenge of Jesus, p. 121)
Obviously, the language here isn't creedal or confessional, but it is clearly biblical and I do think Wright identifies Jesus with YHWH strongly enough here that creedalists and confessionalists ought to recognize at least this statement as orthodox.
I am jumping on that for now because some of his other statements on the self-understanding of Jesus are muddier. And in our present climate where the hermeneutics of suspicion seem to rule, muddiness is often equated with heresy. I also want to be careful that Wright not fall victim to guilt by association. A long time ago in a blogging galaxy far, far away, an emergent leader was discussing why some emergents might be sympathetic to Arianism and Wright's name came up:
1. The work of theologians such as NT Wright has encouraged the emerging church to relocate Jesus in a plausible historical context. Inevitably this has brought the human, Jewish Jesus sharply back into focus and has raised again the question of how we make the lengthy theological transition from apocalyptic prophet to second person of the trinity. As we come to understand more fully the worldview and motivation of Jesus the Jew, it becomes harder to think of him as somehow almighty God in human form. I recognize that to some extent this shift of emphasis is offset by more recent interest in relationality and community within the trinity (see this discussion).
Wright does indeed keep the human, Jewish Jesus in sharp focus in his writing and speaking, but his discussion of Jesus is highly nuanced. If there are those who are reading Wright who are dabbling with Arianism, I would hope that, absent direct evidence from his own body of work, that he not be mindlessly linked to them.
Which brings us to Wright's muddy waters. If Wright's view that Jesus is God is orthodox, his view on Jesus self-understanding is confusing at best to me, and problematic at worst. In the paragraph after the one I just quoted by Wright, he says this:
Let me be clear, also, what I am not saying. I do not think Jesus "knew he was God" in the same way that one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short. It was not a mathematical knowledge, like knowing that two and two make four; nor was it straightforwardly observational knowledge, like knowing that there is a bird on the fence outside my room because I can see and hear it. It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge that I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful; like the knowledge of the musician not only of what the composer intended but of how precisely to perform the piece in exactly that way - a knowledge most securely possessed, of course, when the performer is also the composer. It was, in short, the knowledge that characterizes vocation. As I have put it elsewhere "As part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which only Scripture and YHWH himself could do and be.
That reads like something I have heard him say in various talks and I have to confess that, having now read it several times and typed it out, I am still confused by the whole thing and am trying to unpack it.
A few thoughts come to mind here. If Wright is implying that there is some sense in which Jesus' knowledge and understanding were limited during His earthly sojourn, that is not, in and of itself, problematic. Philippians 2:5-9 speaks of the self-limiting nature of the incarnation. Matthew 24:36 and Mark 13:32 speak of the fact that Jesus doesn't know the day or hour the events he has just spoken of will occur. Luke 2:52 speaks of Jesus growth in wisdom, which implies a limitation of wisdom.
Similarly, Wright implies that there is a distinction between the thoughts of the Father and the thoughts of the Son. In other words, we might want to consider whether, during His earthly sojourn, Jesus always knew what the Father was thinking as the Father was thinking it. The above Scriptures suggest He did not.
I would even be willing to concede that, whenever and however Jesus thought of Himself as God, He wasn't reciting the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds in His head.
So, cutting all that slack, Wright's statement just seems to weak to me and the analogies don't seem on point. Wright asserts that Jesus didn't know Himself to be God in a mathematical or observational sense, yet I couldn't discern an argument that backed up the assertion. BTW, I don't think Jesus needed a mathematical or observational kind of knowing to know He was God, I just think Wright may be throwing a straw man out there as I have never heard anyone speak of Jesus' self-understanding in those terms.
It is this idea that Jesus knew Himself to be God as a matter of vocation that is troubling to me. I appreciate Wright bringing vocation into the discussion, but it seems to me that there is a way of knowing one's identity that either transcends or is distinct from one's vocation. I know I am a human being in a different way than I know what my vocation as a human being is. I am not arguing that Jesus didn't know the vocation to which He was called, I am arguing that He has to have known He was God in a way that preceded, transcended, or stood distinct from His knowledge of His vocation.
For example, it is hard for me to imagine that the apostle John knew of Jesus' pre-existence, as he wrote about in John 1:1-3, and Jesus didn't. It seems to me that Jesus would have to have been the one to have told John of that, and thus we would have to assume that, during His earthly sojourn, He knew of His pre-existence. This seems to me to be a kind of knowedge that would transcend the "knowledge of vocation."
Anyway, I am getting a headache thinking about all of this and trying to sort it out, so I am going to start bringing this post in for a landing. I hope I have conveyed that there is great value in reading Wright, and even when you don't agree with him, he brings up things that are worth wrestling through. On this last item though, that Jesus knew of His divinity as a matter of vocation, it seems to me that Wright is in error, that his views could lead to other errors, or that his thoughts in this book are simply incomplete and expounded elsewhere. I don't offer that as some kind of judgment on him or his work, I know he has written a good deal more which may or may not clarify things. And I know there are others who know his work better than I who may be able to leave some comments which may clear up my confusion.
Having said that, Wright is very concerned, rightly I believe, with the human Jesus. He thinks many of us have a gnostic/docetic view of Jesus that doesn't give full weight to His humanity. Fair enough, but if Docetism is the error on the one side, Arianism is the error on the other side, not giving full weight to His deity. As I said, I don't think he is Arian and I'd be willing to defend him against the charge, at least based on what I've read so far. Yet if some of us inadvertently lean toward or open doors to docetism, it seems to me that Wright's thoughts on Jesus self-understanding inadvertently leans toward or opens doors to Arianism.