N.T. Wright Reviews Pope Benedict

Wright reviews Pope Benedict’s JESUS OF NAZARETH Holy Week: From the entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection here. Excerpts follow:

Benedict’s venture has already been dismissed by many (including Casey) on the grounds that it treats the four canonical gospels as more or less straightforwardly “true”, whereas the entire modernist “quest for the historical Jesus” has wrestled with the challenges posed by H. S. Reimarus in the eighteenth century and a multitude ever since. The attempt to place Jesus historically (or the assumption of a particular answer to that question) has been a significant element within European and American modernism. But you would hardly know that from the Pope’s books, which proceed (as he says) more after the manner of Thomas Aquinas’s “theological treatise on the mysteries of the life of Jesus”. Reading Benedict feels more like being on retreat, pondering ancient and subtle wisdom, than attending a seminar to struggle with questions of history.

Yet he has not simply ignored history. He has read the great German exegetes of the past generation, Protestant as well as Catholic, and draws on them for particular points even though the format of his work does not make for detailed discussion. He denies the suggestion that he is producing a “Christology from above” (in which the orthodox theological cart is placed before the historical horse) by arguing that scholarly exegesis of the New Testament “must see itself once again as a theological discipline, without abandoning its historical character”, forswearing popular but shallow positivism and combining a “faith-hermeneutic” with “a historical hermeneutic” so as “to form a methodological whole”.

The Pope suggests that this is a step forwards. Many, though, will inevitably see it as a step backwards, to a pre-modern, pre-critical reading which simply pushes the problems to one side and allows the great ecclesial tradition to rumble on as if there had been, after all, no real cause for concern about the reliability of the New Testament in the first place. The parallels between this approach and the stance that the Church is perceived to take on some other issues will, naturally, raise eyebrows. The business of whether theology and history can actually meet without a serious explosion is of course a question which, in one form or another (whether through debates on science and religion, or on faith and politics), has stood behind a good deal of intellectual conflict in the West over the past two centuries. Many will take more convincing than is provided in Jesus of Nazareth before they will readily accept such a marriage.

Benedict’s book, for all that, is full of surprises. There is a welcome emphasis on the rootedness of Jesus and his followers in Israel’s Scriptures, something which older exegesis, both Protestant and Catholic, often passed over. The heart of the volume is an exposition of Jesus’s vocational understanding of his own death in terms of the Psalms and Isaiah, particularly the “servant songs” of Isaiah 42–53, leading to a clear statement of the cross as the moment of vicarious, substitutionary atonement. This, Benedict writes, “constitutes the most profound content of Jesus’ mission”. This is not a view that Protestants normally expect popes to hold. Some Roman theologians, I suspect, will be surprised as well.

There are plenty of details to keep the reader alert. Benedict’s own tradition shows through here and there, for instance on Mary. It is fascinating to watch him treading carefully through minefields: “the Jews” who demand Jesus’s death are not the nation as a whole, but only the Temple hierarchy on the one hand, and the supporters of Barabbas on the other. And the historical detail sometimes needs attention: first-century Jewish corpses were anointed for burial not (as Benedict suggests) to keep corruption at bay, but in order to offset the stench of decomposition as more bodies were placed in the same cave-tomb before secondary burial of the fleshless bones.

Two major linked emphases indicate the underlying strength and weakness of this book. First, Benedict stresses that Jesus believed he was constituting himself and his followers as, in some sense, a new Temple. This, I believe, is historically correct, and is near the heart of the Christology of all four gospels. But, second, Benedict insists that, with this, Jesus “achieved a separation of the religious from the political, thereby changing the world”. This, he says, “is what truly marks the essence of his new path”. Jesus “had inaugurated a non-political Messianic kingdom”. The cross indicates a radical stripping away of all power. This results in “the new community”, which Benedict describes as “the new manner of God’s dominion in the world”.

The problem with this is that the Jesus of the gospels (which, on Benedict’s principles, ought to be determinative) insisted that through his own work, Israel’s God was becoming King “on earth as in heaven”. The Pope’s proposed disjunction (reflecting, perhaps, a measure of penitence for earlier ecclesial power politics?) plays into that modernist split-level world which Benedict’s whole project is designed to outflank. The integration of history and theology that the Pope is proposing at the level of exegetical method stands in tension with the separation of politics and religion he is endorsing at the level of meaning.

Benedict offers, inevitably, an exegesis of the gospel passages that deal with Daniel 7, and the strange prophecy of “one like a son of man” who “comes on the clouds of heaven”. He takes the normal view, that these passages are predicting the “second coming”.

N.T. Wright in Boise

Back in April of 2003 I was able to attend an all day seminar with N.T. Wright on the resurrection. He had just published his massive book defending the resurrection of Jesus and was lecturing on that subject. I took notes on the occasion and I don’t believe I put them up on my blog, so here they are, six years later.

About thirty folks met at First Presbyterian (PCUSA) church in Boise on Monday with N. T. Wright. We were seated on the platform of the church under an enormous cross with Dr. Wright seated at a desk with a few books in front of him. I noticed the Septuagint and his new book amongst others. He
lectured from 9 am to 3 pm with a break for lunch basically covering the material from The Resurrection of the Son of God and doing a Q and A every hour.

I talked to Wright beforehand and he said the next major book in the series would be on Paul. He is also working on Galatians and Philippians and does not know when he is working what article will go in which book. He mentioned that it will be more difficult to work as the Bishop of Durham, but that he is looking forward to doing pastoral work again. He said one of the problems of being at Westminster is that you are always just dealing with the next 500 tourists and that he looks forward to having an actual congregation. He mentioned Paul’s pastoral inspiration, how he founded churches and wrote at the same time. He also made an aside about how pretentious it is to be enthroned physically at Durham, but he has to sort of go along with it all.

He critiqued the modern, fuzzy notions of heaven and life after death, and made a point of calling the resurrection the real goal, which is “life after life after death.” He dealt extensively with what was expected in the hereafter in pagan literature and then in the Jewish world. He said that the early Christian belief was originally close to the position of the Pharisees within Judaism, but with key mutations, six of which follow:

1. No spectrum of differing beliefs about the resurrection. All Christians believed in the resurrection with the exception of Gnostics who came later.
2. Periphery to Center. The belief was peripheral in Judaism, but became absolutely central in Christianity.
3. Transformation. In Judaism there was not an expectation of transformed physicality—i.e. a new body that was the same, but on a higher level. But in Christianity, this was the expectation (I Cor 15).
4. 2 moments of resurrection. Jesus first, everyone else second. This was not known in Judaism.
5. Different metaphorical use of the word. In Judaism res. could stand for national restoration as in Ezekiel, but in Christianity this meaning ends and it is used of things like baptism (Rom 7) and holiness (Col 3).
6. Resurrection of the Messiah. Jews did not expect the Messiah to rise again, because they did not expect him to die.

Wright had a lot of positive things to say about Polkinghorne’s work on the new creation as Polkinghorne is coming from a scientific background and so has a lot of insight into such things.

Wright called Rev. 21-22 the ultimate answer to Gnosticism. He said that of all the modern writers he read in researching the new book, C.S. Lewis’ chapter on the resurrection in “Miracles” was the best he came across (I read it today, it is good).

On the subject of hell and damnation, Wright said that it is not only possible but also certain that some reject God and say no to Christ. He said that we should all want to be Universalists in the sense that we don’t want to see anyone go to hell but that we should realize that we cannot. He said that worship is the chief thing that humans do and that those who continue to worship something other than God may in some sense cease to bear God’s image and ultimately become what Wright called “ex-human.” Just as the redeemed will be human on a higher level, the damned will be “beyond hope, beyond pity” so that the saints in the new creation will be able to experience joy without regret for those who are lost.

I had Dr. Wright sign my copy of the new book and out of curiosity asked him if he had met Martyn Lloyd-Jones at some point. It turns out that indeed he had back in the 70’s. He said he reviewed a couple of the Romans series that Jones had put out. Though he did not agree with Lloyd-Jones conclusions at all points, he had immense respect for the man and the devotion and time he had put into the book of Romans. He said Lloyd-Jones was deeply suspicious of him because he was an Anglican, but that he had been over to Lloyd-Jones for lunch. He remarked that the movement at Westminster Tabernacle that was so energetic in the 50’s and 60’s was not meeting the current climate of London intellectually.

Jesus vs. Islam

     In his “Dialogues with a Muslim”, Manuel II Palaiologos writes:

     Now I would like to refute your pretension of attributing the highest dignity to the law of Mohammed. I will speak concisely and simply.
     First there came the law of Moses, which you judge imperfect. This law set down in writing circumcision and everything that your law later took from it. Then came baptism and chrismation and our other mysteries and a better and more perfect law than the first. That our law is better than that of Moses you yourself have admitted. But then with your law there comes again circumcision and practically all the precepts of the first law.
     If this is the case, how can you call it progress? Is there any right order in this? None at all, I am sure you will admit. It is like turning in circles, or going from what is higher back to what is lower.