I had the privilege this week to meet N. T. Wright, one of the most prolific contemporary authors with regards to Jesus (both theological and historical) and the New Testament.
Wright gave a talk at Princeton University on the historical person of Jesus, and during the interview, Prof. Eric Gregory inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) alluded to a dichotomy that I had long been unconsciously aware of but had never consciously thought about, let alone heard articulated: the difference between Christ as a religious/theological figure and Jesus as a person in the history of the world.
The ensuing conversation led my mind to wonder about the relevance of the Jesus of history when considering my own faith in Christ as the second person of the Trinity. Does it matter whether I know of Jesus’ life and teachings? I suppose the easy answer is yes, but to take things even further, I wonder if it should matter what was behind his teachings? What kinds of cultural prejudices existed that could determine what Jesus taught, how he lived, and with whom he interacted? The even scarier question would be this: how have my own cultural distinctions (specifically from that of Jesus’ day) tainted my understanding of what he was trying to get across to his audience?
I suppose there is a sense in which his teachings and ideologies were transcendent, but some questions continue to plague my mind. In recent years, some have attempted to convince me that Jesus was some sort of political revolutionary or insurrectionist. But if that were true, why was Governor Pilate so hesitant to execute him? How could he rightfully say, “I find no fault in this man,” if Jesus were not some kind of seditionist?
Another related thought: some have similarly said that Jesus was subverting the established Jewish religious tradition. I doubt this idea less than the previous one, but some questions still remain. If he were so blatantly subversive, why did so many call him Rabbi? Why was he welcome to speak in synagogues?
But back to my original concern: Does any of this matter?
Perhaps of even deeper controversy are these considerations with regard to Paul’s writings. Recently (thanks to Wright) I’ve become aware of a criticism of Pauline interpretation that has me asking even more questions. Paul’s argument with Judaism (and by extension, Judaizing Christians) was not with regards to legalism. That is to say, he wasn’t concerned with the Judaizers’ presentation of a barrier to salvation.
The Judaism of Paul’s day has often been paralleled to the Romanism of Luther’s day. But is that a correct analogy? Is Paul’s argument with Judaism the same as Luther’s argument with Romanism? Much—if not all—popular Protestant and Evangelical interpretation of Paul’s writings approach his teachings with this attitude.
But what if instead his greater concern was with communal identity? What if justification and salvation are concepts that are not as intertwined as we’ve believed since the mainland Reformation? Reading Paul’s writings again have me concluding that his battleground wasn’t legalism (though I’m willing to bet that if he lived under the auspices of the Roman church, legalism might have been his battleground). Rather, I’m inclined to believe that his concern was the inclusion of all people in the identity of the family of God.
Justification seems to take on a different meaning than I’ve believed for much of my life. But recently I’ve become unconvinced that God’s righteousness is imputed to the individual. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense the more I think about it.
Wright uses the idea of a courtroom to analogize justification. God is the judge, and humanity is the defendant. A judge possesses two kinds of righteousness: one wherein he is considered righteous in his courtroom if he judges rightly based on the evidence presented to him, the testimonies of the plaintiff and defendant, etc.; the other being that which the judge gives to the defendant should he be found not guilty. One type of righteousness is faithfulness to the truth and to justice, and the other type of righteousness is right standing with the judge and with society. But a judge cannot imbue the defendant with faithfulness to the truth. A judge can, however, declare the defendant to be in right standing.
I wonder if that’s more of what we see in justification rather than what we in evangelical circles call “imputed righteousness.” Because of Christ’s death on the cross—for us and in our place, God declares us righteous—in right standing with him.
As Wright expounded upon the historical figure of Jesus, the event of his resurrection came up in discussion (naturally). It seems as though Wright is less concerned with proving the event of Christ’s resurrection than he is with discovering what it actually means. (After all, as Wright explains, the rise of Christianity as a world religion necessitates the veracity of Christ’s resurrection; otherwise, the fledgling movement would have died almost immediately after his crucifixion.)
It’s pretty easy to fall into a slight form of Docetism by saying that Christ’s bodily resurrection simply proves that he is God. But what does that say for the rest of the story?
I wonder if Christ’s resurrection marked the culmination of the story of Israel, that through Jesus God was fulfilling the promises long thought neglected. Through the eyes of the Hebrew people, God had forgotten about them when he allowed them to be taken into exile. Prophet after prophet claimed that God would return to the Temple, but God never appeared. God had become silent, and he had removed his presence.
Then in shocking and shameful display, God did return to the Temple, but instead of coming in power, he came covered in his own blood. Throughout Israeli history, the Temple is the dwelling place of God. This is why it is so bizarre to the Jewish ear that Jesus would say, “Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it up in three days.”
Christ’s resurrection not only serves as the final climax of Israel’s story, it serves as the birth moment of the Church.
The resurrection of Jesus is where our story begins.