This is a summary of a summary. Based on Stephen Kuhrt’s helpful outline, here are the main themes and emphases in Wright’s thinking.
Wright is a historian, and he is very keen to place the story of the Bible in general, and the story of Jesus in particular, in historical context. He has a high level of confidence that the events recorded in the Gospels ‘really happened’. He emphasises the importance of understanding Jesus (and Paul and others) in the light of their Jewish backgrounds. He rejects the temptation to separate faith from history, the Christ in whom we believe from the Jesus who was born, lived, and died.
Rejecting the scepticism of the Jesus Seminar, Wright advocates a study of the historical Jesus that would be similar to that taken for other historical figures, such as Alexander and Great and Julius Caesar. This approach would take account of all the available data, possess an inner consistency, and be able to shed light on other related questions. In the case of this last point, an account of the historical Jesus needs to show him as a credible (if deeply subversive) figure within 1st-century Judaism, and also to show how he could be the starting-point for the beliefs that his followers soon developed (such as that he was a proper object of worship).
Wright emphasis the importance of placing understanding of the biblical message in the context of an overall metanarrative. In any culture, such ‘big stories’ help make sense of attitudes, behaviours, symbols and so on of the people within the story, and helps us to understand their mindset and word view.
The story of Israel
We must, claims Wright, pay full attention to the story of Israel (and not just to the individual narratives within that story). Moreover, we must recognize that the New Testament writers present Jesus as the climax of that story.
The story of Israel (with Jesus as its climax) is driven forward by the covenant which the Lord established with Abraham. This was a plan whereby his chosen people would carry forward his intention to deal with sin and reverse the effects of evil, and for renewing the entire creation. God’s plan is for a renewed world, populated by a renewed people.
This is not just about counting how many gods there are. It is about asserting, in rejection of idolatry and dualism, that there is one Creator and Covenant-Maker.
Righteousness, Torah, Temple
For Wright, God’s ‘righteousness’ is his faithfulness to his covenant. The law is important within the covenant, not as a way of earning God’s approval, but as a way of life for those whom God had delivered through the Passover and Exodus. The Torah was also intended as a witness to the surrounding world, to show how God’s image-bearing creatures could fulfil the creation mandate by ruling faithfully over that creation.
The Old Testament story goes through many twists and turns, as Israel is shown to have failed to keep the law and thus failed to be distinct from, and a light to, the nations. But God in his faithfulness continues to keep his covenant plan alive. Sometimes, God does this through Israel’s failures, as when Israel’s desire for a king resulted in the incorporation of David into the covenant plan.
Israel continued to sin, and eventually the Temple was destroyed and the people were taken into exile. Scriptures such as Isaiah 40-55 teach that the path to covenant renewal will come through the suffering of God’s ‘servant’.
According to Wright, most 1st-century Jews thought that Israel was still in exile. True, they (or some of them) had returned to their land. But they were still ruled and oppressed by foreign powers. They still awaited the fulfilment of promises (in Deuteronomy, Isaiah 40-55, Daniel, Ezekiel) of complete liberation, a new and greater Exodus, and a return of the Lord to Zion (Jerusalem) as King. Theirs was a story still in search of an ending.
The key issue for most 1st-century Jews was not, “What will happen to me when I die?” but, “When will the Lord liberate Israel?” Concordant with their belief in God as Creator and Covenant-Giver, they looked for the transformation and renewal of this world, and not escape into some other world. Jewish apocalyptic does not refer to ‘cosmic meltdown’, as many think, but rather uses powerful metaphor to describe earthly events in terms of their cosmic significance.
The term ‘gospel’ should be understood in terms of the end of Israel’s exile and the liberation of creation. The hope of a ‘messiah’ to bring this about is a further development. Such hopes had been raised by recent events, such as the Maccabean victory of the Syrian oppressors in the 2nd century BC. Various groups, such as the Essenes, Zealots, and Pharisees, held various versions of this set of expectations. Others, such as the Sadducees and the Herodians, with their interest in maintaining the status quo, had no interest in it.
Within this eschatological vision, there is a note of ambiguity regarding the Gentiles. On the one hand, the promise to Abraham spoke of ‘all nations’ being blessed through him. On the other hand, the fulfilment of the hope seemed to rely on Israel’s oppressors being defeated.
In the Old Testament, the cosmos is regarded as consisting of two interlocking spheres. ‘Earth’ is that world of space and time in which our experiences most obviously take place. ‘Heaven’ is the sphere in which the usually-hidden spiritual realities of God’s creation are most obviously present. The prophets were able to see and speak of these spiritual realities, and looked forward to a time when both heaven and earth would be restored and reconnected.
The idea of resurrection was first used (in Ezekiel 37) as a metaphor for Israel’s future liberation from exile. Without losing this meaning, it took on a more literal meaning too, referring to the raising of the dead in vindication or judgment (Daniel 12:1-3).
Praxis and symbols
Wright, in common with a number recent scholars, rejects the idea that Judaism was a religion of self-salvation. Keeping the Torah – especially circumcision, food laws and Sabbath observance – were the badges of identity that marked God’s people out.
Jesus fits well the model of a prophet in the Old Testament mold. He is both an oracular prophet, teaching through spoken words and symbolic actions, and a prophet who leads a movement for the renewal of God’s people.
Jesus proclaimed in word and actions that, through him, God was bringing the exile to an end and was ushering his new age and his new kingdom, or rule, to Israel and the world. Jesus indicated that the time had come for Israel to let go of those symbols that separated it from the rest of the world. Strict boundaries were replaced by open fellowship and a welcoming of ‘sinners’. Israel’s vocation to be a light to the world is renewed and revitalised. It was this rejection of the symbols of difference that was at the heart of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, rather than the conflict being about legalistic religion versus heart-religion. Jesus’ invitation was inclusive in that it welcomed all people, and met them ‘where they were’. But it did not leave them there.
Wright argues for a broader definition of ‘repentance’ than is often given. Jesus’ call to repentance is not so much a call to turn away from personal sin as it is a call to turn away from a path of revolt against Rome towards a very different approach – one that is exposited in the Sermon on the Mount. If Israel’s many sins had been forgiven, then similar forgiveness should be shown to one another and even to one’s enemies. The gathering of twelve disciples symbolises the regathering of the people of God around the person of Jesus himself.
Jesus saw the real enemy not as any earthly power, but as Satan and the cosmic forces of evil. We note, in this regard, his resistance of temptation at the beginning of his ministry, his many exorcisms, his refusal to countenance violence, and his promotion of a way of life that included a willingness to suffer in order that God’s kingdom might ultimately triumph.
Underlying Jesus’ teaching was this retelling of the story of Israel and its fulfillment. Much of this was done using parables, which revealed the ‘mysteries’ of the kingdom to those with ears to hear. The parables of the Sower and the Prodigal Son, for example, do not simply convey general spiritual truths, but rather concern the return of Israel from exile. Others, such as the parables of the Talents and that of the Ten Bridesmaids, do not offer long-range forecasts of the ‘Second Coming’, but concern rather the return of the Lord to Zion at that particular moment in time. In such parable, the ‘shock’ is that judgment, assumed to be of the pagan nations, is directed against Jews whose miss the Lord’s return.
The fall of Jerusalem
Jesus’ warnings about judgement focus specifically on the prospect that if Israel continued to ignore the coming of God’s kingdom, and pursued alternative agendas instead, then the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple would inevitably follow. Once again, apocalpytic language describes these events in portentious terms, leading many to mistakenly conclude that Jesus was talking about the end of the world. But such language is, Wright says, being used to indicate the cosmic significant of these actual historical events.
Jesus demonstrated from his words and actions a clear understanding of his messianic role in relation to Israel’s return from exile, the defeat of evil, and the return of the Lord to Zion. He understood his role as Messiah to be Israel’s representative by fulfilling her call to be the Lord’s servant. His actions at the Last Supper indicate that he understood his death as accomplishing a new Exodus and the two key Messianic tasks: rebuilding the Temple and defeating Israel’s enemies.
Atonement in the Gospels
The Gospels present a rich theology of atonement. They do this partly by depicting the full extent of evil in the oppressive powers of the day, the misguided agendas of Israel, the failings of Jesus’ own followers, and the deep forces of evil behind all this. The death of Jesus occurs as a result of all these forms of evil coming together. Already, in the earlier parts of the Gospels, Jesus has overcome evil by thoroughly engaging with those caught up in it, such as people with leprosy and tax collectors. In his death, he allowed this evil to do its worst, and so exhausted its power. As Israel’s representative Messiah or King, he bore God’s judgement on sin, with his resurrection being the appropriate result.
Jesus and God
Jesus did not merely proclaim the Lord’s return to Zion; he embodied it. He did what, according to the Scriptures, only the Lord could do. In presenting himself as the one who replaced the Temple, Jesus showed himself as the one in whom God was at last becoming present. Jesus’ awareness of his divine identity was vocational rather than intuitive; he understood that he was called to do what only God was capable of doing. Once again, the resurrection was the confirmation and vindication of this.
The resurrection of Jesus
The very lack of theological development in the resurrection accounts shows them to be carefully preserved primary accounts. Paul recognised in the resurrection an indication that God had acted decisively in the middle of the present age for the whole world.
The gospel, for Wright, is not the method by which people get saved. It is, rather, the proclamation that in Jesus, declared by his resurrection to be Messiah and Lord, God has become King and has begun putting the world to rights. Everything that is now done in the name of Jesus and serves the purposes of his kingdom is gospel-work. There is, accordingly, no disjunction between evangelism and social action.
Paul thinks and writes as a Jew, but with his theology re-thought around the conviction that Jesus is the Messiah. Central to his mission was to call the Gentiles to exchange their idolatry for worship of the one true and living God. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has announced him to be Lord of the whole world and the one to whom the Gentiles are now called in obedience of faith. The Gentiles can now receive God’s Spirit and join God’s single family.
For Wright, the ‘victory’ model predominates in explanations of Jesus’ death and atonement. Israel’s sin, heightened by her privileged position with regard to the Torah, was passed on to her representative King, the Messiah, in whose death God executed his judgement on sin and condemned it. The forces of evil that lay behind human sin were exhausted and disarmed, and God’s new age was ushered in (Col 2:15). All those who belong to Christ, through baptism and faith, are joined to him in his death and resurrection. Their sins are forgiven and they are enabled to live a new life within a world which is itself being remade.
For Wright, the righteousness of God is not some abstract moral quality, but is rather his faithfulness to his covenant. Righteousness before God is a status which is the result of being pronounced ‘not guilty’ by the Judge. Wright rejects the idea of ‘imputed righteousness’, saying that it is inappropriate to think of God ‘transferring’ his righteousness to us. Those blessings and benefits previously thought to come under heading of ‘imputed righteousness’ fall more naturally and logically under the rubric of ‘union with Christ’.
Wright rejects the view that Judaism was concerned with earning God’s salvation through ‘works of the law’. These ‘works of the law’ were, rather, identifiers of those people who would be declared righteous on the day of judgement. For Paul, these badges of identify no longer apply, and serve only to divine and alienate; the only things that mark out people are those who will be justified at the last day are the inclusive signs of faith and baptism.
Son of God
The title ‘Son of God’ was not, first and foremost, a recognition of Jesus’ divinity. The term was first used for Israel herself, and then for her representative Messiah. When applied to Jesus, then, it spoke initially of his crucial role in God’s purposes. In the New Testament, the term also acts as a polemic against the Roman Emperor, who was often referred to as ‘Son of God’. In Paul’s writings, these meanings are not lost, although he does build on them as he recognises that Jesus did what only what God could do, and had been exalted to share God’s glory. Within his strict monotheism, Paul cannot but see Jesus as God’s ‘second self’ and his ultimate expression as a human being.
The Old Testament, notwithstanding its settled monotheism, is able to speak of God as being present in his wisdom, glory or law. The paved the (in Paul, especially) for a recognition of the Spirit as part of the unity-in-diversity within the Godhead.
For Paul the term ‘Lord’ for Jesus was definitely an ascription of divinity, given that ‘Lord’ in the Septuagint always translated the divine name ‘Yahweh’. Yet the proclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’ constituted a definite challenge to the Rome and its ideology, given the corollary, ‘Caesar isn’t Lord!’ Paul goes so far as to say that human authorities as established by God and are therefore his servants.
Wright detects strong political overtones throughout the New Testament. For example, the first half of Acts climaxes with the downfall of the Jewish King Herod Agrippa after he persecutes the church and claims for himself an authority that only belongs to God. The second half of Acts closes with Paul proclaiming the kingdom of God and the lordship of Christ ‘right under the Emperor’s nose’. In our own day, the proclamation of Jesus as Lord similarly challenges evil, including in its ‘imperial’ forms. A Gnostic eschatology, which hopes for a disembodied escape from the world, has no place in biblical Christianity. The Christian hope, with its conviction that ‘Jesus is Lord’, challenges the present power structures of the world.
This language was frequently used of kings and emperors visiting their territories. Used of Christ, it therefore has counter-imperial overtones. Tied in with eschatological imagery drawn from the Old Testament, these terms represent the future appearing of the Messiah as bringing to fulfilment the Day of the Lord and completing the restoration of creation as it is flooded with the presence of God. This will be the time of the resurrection of those who have died in Christ, along with the transformation of those still alive at the time. Our hope is not to be taken off to some ethereal existence in ‘heaven’, but rather to populate the new creation. Passages such as Jn 14:1-6 and Lk 23:43 speak of the intermediate state, prior to the final resurrection and the joining of the ‘new heavens’ and the ‘new earth’.
Future judgement will be in accordance with the entire life lived. Justification by faith is a bringing forward of God’s verdict of the last day into the present, based on faith in Jesus as Lord, which is the first fruit of the final transformation of God’s people. Those who are not found ‘in Christ’ will fidnd their choice confirmed: they face continued existence but with the loss of any remaining image of God within them.
The people of God are called to anticipate in the present the future resurrection life. They proclaim that ‘Jesus is Lord’ in word and deed, imagining and embodying the new creation that Christ brings. The Holy Spirit brings both God’s presence and the ‘advance payment’ of the eschatological life. God’s people function as ‘priests and rulers’ – again anticipating their eschatological role – in leading the praises of the entire creation and reflecting God’s rule to the world. The Church is equipped to exercise within itself the judgement that it will one day have over creation. Another advance sign of the new creation is the extraordinary unity of its people across normal divisions of race, gender, and class.
It follows that Christian virtue is eschatological and vocational, with ‘eternal life’ being not some arbitrary reward but rather the outcome of learning to live within the new creation that we will one day inherit. Because of nature of this new creation, as seen already in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, what we do with our bodies matters 1 Cor 6:12-20. The supreme Christian virtues are faith and and (especially) love: these will last into the new creation and form ‘bridges’ into it. Jesus’ call to ‘be perfect/complete’, Mt 5:48, is therefore a call to start living more like the people we will one day be.
Christian virtue cannot be reduced to a set of rules. Rules might point to right ways of living, but they lack the power to bring it about, fail to present a fully positive vision, and do not have sufficient flexibility in the light of the situations we face. Nevertheless, the exercise of virtue requires sustained effort so that we can develop good habits of attitude and behaviour. This will lead to the renewal of our minds by the Holy Spirit and a gradually-increasing conformity of our lives to God’s will. In this way, the Spirit draws more of God’s future into the present reality of our lives and prepare us for our responsibilities in the new creation. Christian living will always involve a struggle but if, like Christ, we endure, we will also reign with him, 2 Tim 2:12.
‘Worship’ is about the church being led by the Spirit in ways that anticipate God’s future age. The sacraments are specific points along the way, acting as effective signs of Christ’s resurrection body, as that part of creation that has already been renewed, into the world. Both baptism and the Eucharist have past, present, and future dimensions. The ordinary and earthly nature of the sacraments points to salvation in a renewed earth, rather than escape from it, and they point to a world full of sacramental possibilities, since every good thing (including marriage) can potentially anticipate the new creation.
The overlap of heaven and earth is also seen in the nature of prayer. Caught in this overlap, we see only dimly, and require the Spirit’s assistance. The Church does not sit smugly on the sidelines, but ‘groans with prayer’ in the midst of a suffering world. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying to join to him in his kingdom movement.
The authority of God exercised through Scripture
In Scripture we find that God has delegated authority to act, speak or write on his behalf. The Bible is not merely an inspired commentary on the way salvation works. It is, rather, an integral part of God’s plan for bringing in the new creation. God’s authority is exercised today when the Bible story is retold, and people are summonsed to live within its narrative.
The fifth act
If the first four acts of God’s story are ‘creation’, ‘fall’, ‘Israel’, and ‘Jesus’, the fifth act is ‘the Church’. The first scene of this fifth acts is contained in the Bible, together with an indication of how the whole story will finish. Led by the Spirit, the Church is not to improvise its part in that fifth act in the light of where the story has come from and where it is going. The Church thus plays it role in the further coming of God’s kingdom, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.
Tom Wright for everyone: Putting the theology of N.T. Wright into practice in the local church.