Friday, May 11, 2012

Jesus and the Return of Israel's God to His People: Review of N. T. Wright, How God Became King, Part 5

In our last post we noted that N. T. Wright, in his new book How God Became King, compares the Gospels to a quadraphonic stereo system.  To understand them properly, one must recognize the four strands or dimensions that contribute to what they are saying, and one must calibrate them properly so as to listen to them in their proper balance.  The first dimension, which we dealt with last time, concerned the backstory of the Gospels in the biblical story of Israel.  The Gospels, argues Wright, present themselves as the climax of Israel's story.  This "speaker," in his view, has been turned down too low—indeed, for many it has been turned off altogether—and hence must be turned up considerably.

The case is the opposite with regard to the second speaker.  This speaker enables us "to hear the story of Jesus as the story of Israel's God coming back to his people as he always promised" (83).  Indeed, "the rather noisy conservative Christianity" of the post-Enlightenment West has consistently and emphatically portrayed the Gospels as the story of God incarnate.  Jesus is God.  In itself this is not problematic for anyone who confesses the validity of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. 

The problem arises in the realm of nuance.  What God are we talking about?  The somewhat distant God of western imagination?  No.  The Gospels clearly speak of Israel's God, the God who has involved himself in the messy history narrated on the pages of the Old Testament (84).  And what, according to the Gospels, is this God doing in the story of Jesus?  Is he simply acting to "save people from their sin"?  Well, yes, in a way.  But this must be understood within the larger context of Jesus' embodiment of God's intention to establish his rule over Israel and world in its entirety (84).

It is here that Wright reiterates his well-known summation of the biblical story of what has been called "salvation-history," based on the foundational notion that God's covenant with Abraham was the answer to the problem of human sin (Genesis 3), and hence was the means by which God's program for humanity and creation (Genesis 1) is to be fulfilled:
The story of God and Abraham is the starting point for the whole of the rest of the biblical narrative, and it in turn gains its meaning from what has gone before.  God is now, through Abraham, going to undo the plight of the human race and will thereby enable humans to pick up again the threads of the project that had been theirs from the start (looking after God's world, making it fruitful, and peopling it), but that had been aborted through human rebellion (86-87).
Within this story is yet another theme that has a direct bearing on the point of the Gospels, viz., God making a dwelling place for himself on earth.  Drawing on the work of John Walton and others, Wright sees Genesis 1 as signifying that creation is a temple, a dwelling place for himself, with human beings as the "image" designed to reflect him and bring his creative order and rule to the earth (87).  The long story arc from Genesis 3 through Genesis 12 through the captivity and deliverance of Israel from Egypt comes to its completion in Exodus 40:34-38, where the "Shekinah" glory of God takes up residence in the Tabernacle.  Israel is the true humanity, designed to rescue the world.  Their God, YHWH, lived among his people in the localized presence of the tabernacle (88).  Israel's covenant failure and resultant exile had a concomitant, disastrous corollary.  God abandoned the Temple.  As a result, the entire Second Temple period of Israel's history was characterized by the sense of divine absence, even after a portion of the people had returned and rebuilt the Temple (89).  Yet the Old Testament story does not close with the hopeless story of national devastation and divine abandonment.  Indeed, the prophet Malachi asserted that YHWH would one day suddenly appear in his Temple, and urges the people to be morally prepared for that coming (Malachi 3:1-2) (89).  It is Wright's contention that all four Gospels—in other words, not only John—present the story of Jesus as the story of Israel's God come back to his people at last (90).

At this point Wright steps back to address the "dialogue of the deaf"—a priceless expression indeed—between the post-Enlightenment skeptics who look to the Synoptic Gospels for their putative human Jesus and the post-Enlightenment devout who look to John for the "divine" Christ of Chalcedon who declares his "oneness" with the Father (John 10:30) (90).  He then proceeds to work his way through each of the Gospels in order to demonstrate that the same "high"—i.e., "divine"—Christology not only may be found in each, but is in fact central to what each is saying (90-104).  Israel's God had indeed come to his people, in both judgment and mercy, in and as Jesus of Nazareth.  In Wright's words:
But fourth, looming up behind and beyond all of these was the sense we find in the very earliest Christian documents that all of these pointed to a strange new reality: that, in Jesus, Israel's God had become present, had become human, had come to live in the midst of his people, to set up his kingdom, to take upon himself the full horror of their plight, and to bring about his long-awaited new world (95).
Jesus, in other words, is rightly confessed to be "God."  But understanding the story in its full biblical context will help to shield Christians from understanding the Gospels "within a modernist frame of reference, in which a 'divine' Jesus is a mere 'superman' figure, striding through the world six inches off the floor" (104).  Moreover—and here I detect a possible echo of Barth, and not in a bad way—"the gospels offer us not so much a different kind of human, but a different kind of God: a God who, having made humans in his own image, will most naturally express himself in and as that image-bearing creature" (104).

This chapter should come as no surprise to any who have read Wright's earlier books on Jesus, especially the magisterial Jesus and the Victory of God and the more popular (but no less challenging, as my former students can attest) The Challenge of Jesus, in both of which he argued that Jesus himself envisaged his vocation along these lines.  It is no shock that he believes the Evangelists picked up on this dominical theme.  And I believe he is entirely correct.  The Gospel of John may be more explicit in this regard, considering his presentation of Jesus' eternal-yet-distinct-from-the-Father, "personal" divine existence (John 1:1), his "incarnation" (John 1:14), his unity with the Father (John 10:30), and the mysterious interpenetration (perichoresis) of Father and Son (John 14:10-11).  But the Synoptics are not without their own, though more oblique, witness in this regard, not only in the "Johannine thunderbolt" (Matthew 11:25-27), but in the many passages that Wright adduces, not least Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 1:21 (with Matt 28:20), Luke 19:41-44, and Luke 8:39.

Once again, some might argue that Wright has constructed a straw man to demolish.  Surely, they will say, no learned Christian, let alone Bible scholar, would hold to the vaguely modernist, anachronistic "divine Jesus" against which he argues. Perhaps not.  But I have taught undergraduate Christians pursuing degrees in Bible who steadfastly maintain that the point of Jesus' miracles was "to prove he was God," and continue to believe that the stories of Jesus' physical and intellectual limitations can't be taken at face value because, as God, "he had to be able to know and do these things."  To be sure, Wright is attempting to counter popular, rather than scholarly, viewpoints.  But my experience tells me that Christological ignorance is every bit as alive in my America as it is in Wright's England.  Yes, Jesus was—and is!—God, but understanding that confessional item is not sufficient to understand the points the various Evangelists were making.  To that end, Wright does yeoman's work in this chapter.

No comments:

Post a Comment