Thursday, 16 August 2012

A few thoughts from "Jesus and the Victory of God"

I've been reading N T Wright's "Jesus and the Victory of God". I've not got all the way through yet, though it's fairly repetitive and there's plenty of sign-posting of what's coming later, at greater length.

Amongst other things, it is interesting, insightful and irritating. It illustrates Wright's strengths and weaknesses quite well.

Chief among those weaknesses is his downgrading of the Bible's words, so that they are no longer the words of God. Again and again we read things of the like of "and Jesus probably really did say this" or "and it is not unlikely that Luke was telling the truth". (Those aren't particular quotes - I'm summarising). Yea, did God really say? Wright answers, "there's a reasonably good historical probability in its favour". That's not a passing answer for a teacher of the church.

Another weakness is his inexcusable and incessant caricaturing of conservative evangelicals - especially inexcusable as that's his background, so he ought to know better. Convert syndrome? Trying-to-hard-to-distance-myself-so-that-my-friends-in-the-liberal-academy-like-me-better? Does he so routinely push conservative evangelical exegesis out of the picture with a dismissive wave because it better helps him present old, familiar insights from the conservative tradition as if they were a brilliant and original discovery and he wants to appear brilliant and original? A combination of the above? Something else? Who knows? It's sad to see such a clever and accomplished man doing it, whatever the cause is.

Another big weakness is that once Wright picks up his hammer, everything is a nail.

The exile/exodus theme is a critical one for Biblical theology. Wright sees that and appreciates it (though again, he should no better than to present it as a new insight; it's only a new insight for those in the liberal academic guild who've spent decades and even centuries (I prepare my sermons each week using Calvin and Matthew Henry, and it's always surprising how much is "old hat") deliberately ignoring conservative scholarship - see above...).

So, he sees the importance of the exile/New Exodus themes. But he proceeds from there to not just see its explicit invocations, and then to see its relevance, and parallels, and the like at other points. He can see nothing else. Forgiveness of sins? That's a code phrase which basically means return from exile. Repentance? That's a code phrase which at the root means the return from exile. Jesus' forming a new community? That's a way of indicating that the exile is over. The kingdom coming? At heart, that means the return from exile. The parable of the sower? That's a discussion of the return from exile (I kid you not). Etcetera, etcetera... and I really mean, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera (etcetera...).

I believe that D A Carson once very insightfully remarked something to the effect that Wright has a great gift for bringing out what is in the background, and placing it in the foreground - together with an infuriating knack for booting what was in the foreground into the background; or even out of the picture altogether. This could be expanded on; but it's enough for now.

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