A new generation of church leaders can’t get enough of N.T.Wright. He is the most published living Bible scholar in the world and defends the faith with freshness and clarity. Christianity Today refers to him as a genius, and the most important Christian apologist since C. S. Lewis. He served as Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, and he is now teaching at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
At the heart of Wright’s theological vision stands his view of Jesus, who is at the same time someone foreign to us but becomes far more beautiful than we had at first realized.
He has written prolifically on Jesus, including Simply Jesus (2011). He acknowledges that accepting Jesus fully has never been easy.
BELIEF IN JESUS’ BODILY RESURRECTION, DIVINITY, AND HEAVENLY LORDSHIP TODAY MUST OVERCOME THE GOLIATHS OF MODERNISTIC WORLDVIEWS, NARRATIVES OF SECULAR PROGRESS, AND AN INCREASINGLY POWERFUL DESIRE TO FLOURISH, EVEN IF IT MEANS PUSHING GOD OUT OF OUR LIVES TO DO SO.
But the first Christians stood up against the forces of Roman authority, deeply religious paganism and Jewish monotheism, and the growing influence of the Greek philosophers. For the earliest Christians, accepting the gospel was not without punishing opposition, but it was always simple enough. To join the Christian community all that was needed was a baptismal confession that Jesus is Lord, and that the God and creator of the universe endorsed, empowered, and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth bodily from the dead. It is just as straightforward today.
Today we see about us in Western civilization a generation of church-going men and women many of whom feel uncertain about the real Jesus and whether they trust the church to get him right. N.T. Wright’s vision of who Jesus was and is remains one of the most exciting articulations around. He is a bright beacon, helpful for those who love and are concerned for their skeptically-inclined brothers and sisters.
For Wright, Jesus of Nazareth and the Jesus of our faith cannot be separated as if one was an unknowable person from the past, blurred by the agendas of the early church, and the other a Jesus- shaped god, crafted in our own image. Wright reminds us that we can know the Jesus of history to a very great extent. Jesus was a first-century eschatological prophet who preached the kingdom of God, died to institute it, and has an agenda for his followers. Jesus is the same person today.
It is a crucial point that we must know who Jesus was in the first-century, and in his Jewish setting, especially.
AT ONCE, THE THEME OF THE “KINGDOM OF GOD” EMERGES AS JESUS’ CENTRAL MESSAGE, AND THE GOSPEL COMES INTO FOCUS AS THE ANNOUNCEMENT THAT THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN JESUS IS THE LORD OF THE WORLD. WHAT DID JESUS THINK HE WAS UP TO? WHAT DID HE DO AND SAY, WHY WAS HE KILLED, AND DID HE INDEED RISE FROM THE DEAD?
N.T. Wright is the most prolific author among living Bible scholars. He served as Bishop of Durham in the Church of England and now teaches at the Univeristy of St. Andrews in Scotland.
In Jesus and the Victory of God (1996) Wright stated:
The relevance of Jesus, then, becomes radically different depending on whether one accepts or rejects the witness of the early church to his resurrection. Furthermore, even if one does accept that witness, it means radically different things depending on one’s view of Jesus prior of his resurrection. If he was a docetic figure [God, but not fully human, ed.], the divine being of so much would-be orthodox Christology, his resurrection would simply validate the salvation he had revealed and offered. It would prove that he was after all ‘god’... If he was a teacher of timeless truths, the announcer of the timeless call to decision, or the pioneer of a new way of being-in-the-world, his resurrection would presumably endorse the programme he had articulated… But if he was an eschatological prophet/Messiah, announcing the kingdom and dying in order to bring it about, the resurrection would declare that he had in principle succeeded in his task, and that his earlier redefinitions of the coming kingdom had pointed to a further task awaiting his followers, that of implementing what he had achieved. Jesus, after all, as a good first-century Jew, believed that Israel functioned to the rest of the world as the hinge to the door; what he had done for Israel, he had done in principle for the whole world. (p. 660)
Jesus’ actions before he went to the cross and after the resurrection enlarged the worldviews of his followers. Some, who would still see themselves as faithful Jewish monotheists, began worshipping him shortly after his resurrection, while others doubted what they were seeing.
Wright offers a challenge to us: for those of us who worship Jesus, we must never arrogantly assume that we know all there is to know about him already. Our task is to keep going, to keep learning about the real Jesus. And there is another task for those who struggle with Jesus and the claims of Jesus bodily resurrection and heavenly lordship. Rather than feeling any need to exit the church, perhaps you have been given the gift of the reformers afresh: to locate the pressure points that modernistic worldviews place on faith in Jesus, to discover the ways that church might, in fact, have Jesus wrong, challenge the deficiencies of modernistic worldviews, and help us all know Jesus a little bit better. In The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (1999), Wright ends up saying:
I am someone who believes that being a Christian necessarily entails doing business with history and that history done for all its worth will challenge spurious versions of Christianity, including many that think of themselves as orthodox, while sustaining and regenerating a deep and true orthodoxy, surprising and challenging though this will always remain. (p. 16)
It simply will not do to declare this question out-of- bounds, to say that the church’s teaching will do for us, thank you very much, so we do not need to ask historical questions. You cannot say that to a serious and enquiring person who engages you in conversation on a train or to someone who wanders into a church one Sunday and asks what it is all about. If Christianity is not rooted in things that actually happened in first-century Palestine, we might as well be Buddhists, Marxists or almost anything else. And if Jesus never existed, or if he was quite different from what the Gospels and the church’s worship affirms him to have been, then we are indeed living in cloud-cuckoo land. The sceptics can and must be answered, and when we do so we will not merely reaffirm the traditions of the church, whether Protestant, Catholic, evangelical, or whatever. We will be driven to reinterpret them, discovering depths of meaning within them that we had never imagined. (p. 18)
[WRIGHT CONTINUES:] AND OUR TASK, AS IMAGE-BEARING, GOD- LOVING, CHRIST-SHAPED, SPIRIT-FILLED CHRISTIANS, FOLLOWING CHRIST AND SHAPING OUR WORLD, IS TO ANNOUNCE REDEMPTION TO THE WORLD THAT HAS DISCOVERED ITS FALLENNESS, TO ANNOUNCE HEALING TO THE WORLD THAT HAS DISCOVERED ITS BROKENNESS, TO PROCLAIM LOVE AND TRUST TO THE WORLD THAT KNOWS ONLY EXPLOITATION, FEAR AND SUSPICION.
So the key I propose for translating Jesus’ unique message to the Israel of his day into our message to our contemporaries is to grasp the parallel, which is woven deeply into both Testaments, between the human call to bear God’s image and Israel’s call to be the light of the world. Humans were made to reflect God’s creative stewardship into the world. Israel was made to bring God’s rescuing love to bear upon the world. Jesus came as the true Israel, the world’s true light, and as the true image of the invisible God. He was the true Jew, the true human. He has laid the foundation, and we must build upon it. We are to be the bearers both of his redeeming love and of his creative stewardship: to celebrate it, to model it, to proclaim it, to dance to it. (p. 184)
This is just a small snapshot of N.T. Wright’s vision of Jesus. At its best, Wright’s perspective helps Christians get ahead of the cultural curve. It can help us shape new futures that embrace Jesus rather than other figures or agendas that rehash old and problematic worldviews.
A great old hymn, Once in David’s Royal City (1848), is used by N. T. Wright to reflect on Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish man who is both Lord and king of the world to come.