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History and Eschatology: Jesus and the promise of natural theology, by N. T. Wright

by
03 January 2020

Does this study reset the terms of the debate, wonders John Saxbee

THE Gifford Lectures were endowed in 1887 “to promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God”.

Biblical scholars have rarely featured in the list of distinguished lecturers — Bishop Tom Wright is only the third, after Rudolf Bultmann and James Barr — and he seizes with characteristic erudition and panache the opportunity to reclaim for his discipline high ground too readily conceded to the natural and social sciences.

Among his 80 or more books The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK, 2003) is surely one of the best-known and most widely respected. While he does not explicitly base his argument here on that earlier work, the latter does inevitably raise “So, what?” questions. So, what for the relationship between God and the world; divine and human nature; the way things are and the way they shall be — and how do we know? Or, in theology-speak, natural theology, ontology, eschatology, and epistemology?

Furthermore, modern ways of thinking may have postulated what Gotthold Lessing called a “broad ugly ditch” between natural and so-called supernatural phenomena, but historical events such as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are no less “natural” than the subject-matter of the natural sciences, and should be validated accordingly.

Of course, the more weight that Wright places on the bodily resurrection of Jesus to support his argument, the higher the stakes are raised when it comes to the way in which evidence for the resurrection is credited and evaluated. The case that he forcefully argued in The Resurrection of the Son of God is bound, he concludes sadly, to be rejected by the neo-Epicurean world-view of modernity, in which “natural theology” might be defined as “sorting out God whilst bracketing out Jesus”. He knows that, in terms of contemporary and cultural assumptions, he is engaged in a Sisyphean endeavour — but no one does it with such breadth, depth, and total conviction.

He begins by demonstrating how so-called modernist and “enlightened” thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries were not modern at all. They were simply reworking the ancient philosophy of Epicurus, in which it is assumed that “God and the world have become utterly detached from one another.”

A robust alternative to such Epicureanism is required, but that cannot be a retreat into Romanticism, Platonic Idealism, or other-worldly supernaturalism. These collude with Lessing’s either/or epistemology to the same extent as materialist and reductionist approaches. What is required is an account that allows for both/and.

To achieve this, the relegation of the historical Jesus to a pre-Enlightenment supernaturalist ghetto “untouchable by historical criticism but also unknowable by any form of genuine history” needs to be reversed. Not least among Wright’s targets here is the assumption that New Testament eschatology amounted to nothing other than the expectation of an imminent end of the world — something that, especially in Schweitzer’s case, owed more to Nietzsche and Wagner than to any ground-breaking research into Jewish apocalyptic. Such an expectation would push nature and history to the theological margins, thus, once again, colluding with Lessing’s “broad ugly ditch” between the eternal truths of reason and the contingent truths of history.

The study of Jesus in the context of first-century Jewish culture must be addressed, but not filtered through the lens of secular Western culture. All genuine historical study must think itself into the minds of people who think very differently from ourselves. This Wright proceeds to demonstrate in chapters devoted to “Jesus and Easter in the Jewish World” — and here we find him very much at home and on fine form.

Drawing on recent studies described as “Temple theology”, together with weekly sabbaths pointing to a particular kind of eschatology, these key Jewish symbols are shown to open up a vision of a new creation overlapping with, and radically transforming, the present creation. Herein lies the promise of an authentic natural theology.

Just as the Temple symbolises the overlapping of heaven and earth, and the sabbath the interlocking of present and future, so these cosmological and eschatological symbols have come to life in the person of Jesus. Furthermore, human beings as made in the image of God find fulfilment in Jesus as the ultimate image-bearer.

Wright concludes that “within the world shaped by a Temple-cosmology, a sabbath eschatology and an image-bearing anthropology, the resurrection of the crucified Messiah . . . is the declaration that the new world has been born in the midst of the old and that this makes sense of the old world like nothing else could or would.”

Whether Wright’s exposition of Temple and sabbath theology can bear the weight of interpretative responsibility placed upon it will, no doubt, be hotly debated. But that such a debate must be intensified is a tribute to his forensic analysis and extraordinary biblical scholarship.

Wright subtly develops Wittgenstein’s dictum about “love believing the resurrection”. God so loved the world that he raised Jesus from the dead, and believing the Resurrection is our response of love — a response which, epistemologically, cannot be reduced to mere assent to the results of historical investigation.

Crucially, as a result of the resurrection, Wright’s “epistemology of love” is extended so as to affirm that God rescues and remakes the world rather than, as so much Christian eschatology asserts, bringing it to an end — a point worth pondering at a time when climate change poses a stark choice between re-creating the natural world and destroying it.

Finally, with such an emphasis on the transformative effect of the historical incarnation, it is appropriate to look for signs of God’s purposes manifest in real time, albeit as “broken signposts” culminating in the crisis of the crucifixion, but in the post-resurrection world as evidence of God’s new creation innate in the human vocation to be image-bearers pointing to the reality of God, the world, and the relationship between them.

So it is that the final chapter applies “the promise of natural theology” to the practice of missiology and the tasks entrusted to the Church in the new age that dawned on Easter Day.

Wright has won laurels both as a populariser and as an author of weightier studies. This falls into the latter category, but is, none the less, accessible as an essay in natural theology with far-reaching consequences. For example, must a major study of the history and theology of the Bible, such as Professor John Barton’s recent magnum opus (Books, 5 April 2019), which does not refer to Temple theology, let alone major on it, be considered irredeemably flawed?

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

History and Eschatology: Jesus and the promise of natural theology
N. T. Wright
SPCK £19.99
(978-0-281-08164-6)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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