NT Wright and Simply Christian

In advance, the following is a paper that I wrote reviewing a portion of NT Wright’s “Simply Christian”  for an ethics class for my second Master’s degree. It’s not a review of the full book, because our class was broken into groups and each member of the group covered different portions of the book. Thus, in the following, I’m looking at Chapters 8-10. You’ve been warned.


N.T. Wright’s book, Simply Christian, is a love filled attempt to provide a description of what Christianity is about being an explanation to Christians and commendation to non-Christians (ix).  Every page pours forth love.  There is no mistaking it: Wright is a faithful, wise, and sincere lover of Jesus Christ and he communicates Jesus’ love to others magnificently.  Last week, we covered the first four chapters that discuss the echoes of justice, the quest for spirituality, the desire for relationships, and the draw of beauty.  This week, the reading took us further into the Bible story.  Wright, in chapters 5-7, walks the reader through who God is and what His relation to  Heaven and Earth is (pantheism? Panenthies? Or Overlapping, Interlocking?); who Israel is and what they believed and hoped for; and, finally, Jesus and the coming of God’s kingdom.  In chapters 8-10, Wright covers a description of who Jesus was (and is), the Holy Spirit, and the effecting work of the Spirit in the life of the believer (living by the Spirit).  For the purposes of this paper, I will be focusing on chapter 8: “Jesus: Rescue and Renewal”.  There will first be a summary of the chapter, followed by a critique of Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ awareness of his divinity and what I believe to be a lack of discussion of God’s wrath and the Cross.

Wright begins by attempting to answer the question “why did Jesus’s followers hail him as Messiah?” especially since he didn’t act like the expected Messiah (106).  Jesus was not a military leader nor did he instigate any military uprisings (intentionally) (106).  There was no mention of rebuilding the Temple (106).  He spoke with knowledge and wisdom (like a prophet) and he did miraculous works; but, according to Wright, this is not enough to call him the Messiah (107).  The Messiah, it was believed in Jewish tradition, would be a Ruler, a mighty king like David, the one who would lead “the triumphant fight against Israel’s enemies” (Wright 107).  Jesus was none of these.  Rather, He suffered and died; and this, says Wright, His followers could never have understood, no matter how many times Jesus told them (107).

Jesus was a royal and suffering servant, as it was recorded in Isaiah.  “…it is in Isaiah…that we find …God’s coming kingdom, the renewal of creation expressed not least in remarkable healings, the power of God’s ‘word’ to save and restore, the ultimate victory over all the ‘Babylons’ of the world, and the figure of the Servant itself” (107-8).  What was not understood about the Messiah was that in order for evil to have its true end, the Messiah, the propitiation for sins, had to suffer the result of sin: death; and be resurrected to defeat it.  Wright phrases it this way, “God’s plan to rescue the world from evil would be put into effect by evil doing its worst to the Servant–that is, to Jesus himself–and thereby exhausting its power” (108).

Wright then turns his attention to Jesus and his relation to the Temple.  As we know from the bible, Jesus attacks the Temple (for example, turning over tables) with the intent to challenge “…in the name of Israel’s God, the very place where God was supposed to live and do business with his people….God would destroy the city and the Temple, and would vindicate not the Jewish nation as a whole, but Jesus himself and his followers” (109).  The enemy was not Rome, “but the powers of evil that stood behind human arrogance and violence, powers of evil with which Israel’s leaders had fatally colluded” (110).  The rescue was coming, “not from mere political enemies, but from evil itself, from the sin which had enslaved them.  His death would do what the Temple, with its sacrificial system, had pointed toward but had never actually accomplished” (110).  Jesus was the intersecting point of the in-breaking of the kingdom, turning what people considered truth on its head, just as he had done to the merchant tables in the temple.  He would be the unexpected royal and suffering Messiah (110).  Nothing could have prepared his followers for this: not anything from the history of paganism nor the “puzzling, shadowy prophecy” in the Old Testament (Wright 111).  Wright puts it excellently, “The death of Jesus of Nazareth as the king of the Jews, the bearer of Israel’s destiny, the fulfillment of God’s promises to his people of old, is either the most stupid, senseless waste and misunderstanding the world has ever seen, or it is the fulcrum around which world history turns….Christianity is based on the belief that it was and is the latter” (111).

The next item on Wright’s agenda is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and, subsequently, the rise of Christianity.  He writes, “…we are talking here about resurrection, not resuscitation” (112).  He poses two theories that attempt to contradict the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.  The first is “cognitive dissonance”, which is, “the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on saying it all the more shrilly when faced with contrary evidence” (112).  Wright explains how this theory fails by using the example of self-proclaimed Messiah, Simeon ben Kosiba, who was killed by the Romans in AD 135 (ref. 106), “nobody went around afterward saying he really was the messiah after all, however much they had wanted to believe that he had been” (112).  The second is the argument that the concept of “resurrection”  was a common characteristic of religions in the ancient Near East.  “Dying and rising ‘gods,’ yes…But–even supposing Jesus’s very Jewish followers knew any traditions like those pagan ones–nobody in those religions ever supposed it actually happened to individual humans“ (113).  Wright, I think, comes to the correct conclusion about Jesus’ resurrection and the rise of the church, “…the best explanation…for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus really did reappear, not as a battered, bleeding survivor, not as a ghost…but as a living, bodily human being” (113).  A bodily resurrection it was; for had it not been (had it been “Ghost” like), Jesus’ well-read Jewish followers would have described his body as a shining star, the way the righteous appear at the resurrection in Daniel 12:3 (113).  Jesus’ interaction with Thomas (plus other examples) indicates that His body was real in His resurrection.

Believing the resurrection is not an easy thing to do, especially considering our post-modern, skeptic, science based worldview (Wright 114).  Believing, says Wright, requires a worldview switch.  “Sometimes, to make sense of the actual evidence before us, we have to pull our worldview, our sense of what’s possible, into a new shape.  That is the kind of thing demanded by the evidence about Easter” (114).  Believing in the resurrection is more than just the comforting thought of an afterlife, which, according to Wright, has been the significant “wrong turn” by Western Christendom (114).  Wright explains, “Resurrection isn’t a fancy way of saying ‘going to heaven when you die.’  It is not about ‘life after death’ as such.  Rather, it’s a way of talking about being bodily alive again after a period of being bodily dead.  Resurrection is a second-stage postmortem life: ‘life after ‘life after death’” (115).  In other words, since Jesus has been raised, God’s kingdom has been ushered in, “and that means we have a job to do.  The world must hear what the God of Israel, the creator God, has achieved through his Messiah” (114-5).  The resurrection is one more event of heaven and earth intersecting and interlocking (Wright 115).  By the resurrection of the Suffering God–one who really does know our pain and anguish–the world and humanity have been renewed and revived, lifted up and given new breath, with a commission to go and “make new creation happen in the world” (Wright 116).

The final portion of the chapter deals with Jesus divinity.  Jesus is, according to Wright, not merely an echo but the actual voice, “a voice which speaks of rescue from evil and death, and hence of new creation” (116).  Historically, Wright explains, those who followed Jesus “had never imagined that a Messiah would be divine” (116).  However, the early Christian Church adhered to Jewish monotheism while affirming that Jesus was divine; this occurred not many centuries later after much thought and contemplation, but within a single generation of the event of the Cross, resurrection, and ascension (Wright 117).

Though the early Church was aware of Jesus’ divinity, Wright explains that Jesus was not (118).  What Wright argues is “…not to diminish the full incarnation of Jesus but to explore its deepest dimension, is that Jesus was aware of a call, a vocation, to do and be what, according to the Scriptures, only Israel’s God gets to do and be.  That, I believe, is what it means to speak about Jesus being both truly divine and truly human(118).  Wright explains, “The closer we get to the cross, the clearer the answer we get to the question, Who did Jesus think he was?” (118).  The closer we get to the Cross the better we see Jesus as fulfilling what God wanted to do: return Israel to himself, to judge and to save, assuming authority over the Temple (Wright 118).  Did Jesus, who had this divine sense of vocation ever think he was mad?  Wright affirms, “certainly”; yet,

“Jesus was certainly shrewd enough to be aware of the possibility of delusion.  But …he was sustained not only by his reading of scripture, in which he found so clearly the lines of his own vocation, but also by his intimate prayer life with the one he called Abba, Father.  Somehow, Jesus both prayed to the Father and took upon himself a role which, in the ancient prophecies, was reserved for YHWH–that of rescuing Israel and the world.  He was obedient to the Father, simultaneously doing what only God can do” (118-9).

Wright closes by emphasizing that Jesus was not aware of his divinity as you and I are aware of our gender or the temperature outside (119).  Jesus’ awareness was closer to a deep awareness of a vocation; like I know I want to be a professor, Jesus had a deep knowledge, “a powerful and all-consuming belief…that within the very being of God there was a give-and-take, a to-and-fro, a love given and received.  Jesus seems to have believed that he, the fully human prophet from Nazareth, was one of those partners in love” (119).

Wait.  What?  What did he just say?

It’s not often I get to see an overlap between 1990’s British Teen-Pop with 2000’s British  Brilliance.  Recently, I was listening to the Spice Girls all time chart busting tune: “Wannabe” (don’t judge).  This song explains what it takes to be their “lover”: essentially, you have to be accepted by their friends.  But there’s more to the song.  The songwriters want to tell you what they really want, (really, really, really want).  But they don’t.  Essentially, they say, “I’m gonna tell you what I want and it’s “zigazig ha”.  Wait. What?  I don’t know what that even is.  I, the listener, am dragged along thinking I’m gonna know, finally, what they really want…yet I end up disappointed with nothing really explained.  I’m left with “zigazig ha”.

This is how I feel here, with N.T. Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ awareness of His divinity.  Wright seems to explain Jesus’ awareness of His divinity as an hyper-enlightened man who intuitively got his vocation right.  “Zigazig ha”.  While I appreciate Wright’s ability to play-up Jesus’ humanity, he simultaneously down-plays (in a significant way) Jesus’ divinity.  With the events of the Transfiguration and Jesus’ Baptism rattling around in my head, I cannot help but be confused by Wright’s language.  How could  Jesus’ experience, at His Baptism, when the dove floated down from heaven with God’s voice booming above, “This is my son.  My chosen one.  Listen to him” (Luke 9).  Or, certainly, if not at His baptism Jesus would have had an awareness (the real awareness) that he was divine (though also human) at the Transfiguration.  In addition, throughout Jesus’ ministry, he knew he had the power to forgive sins, which only God could do; and He said that if you’ve seen Him (Jesus) you’ve seen the Father.  Not to mention all the people recorded as referring to him as the Lord, as in God.  All of this indicates that at some level Jesus was aware of his divinity in more of an active way than just a deep knowledge of a vocation.  I feel that Wright has given his reader “zigazig ha”.

Yes, I am attempting to be comical (Wright’s writing is significantly better than the Spice Girls’); yet, I feel that what Wright has done at many penultimate moments within his book is drop his reader short of really understanding something truly beautiful, truly brilliant.  For instance, in chapter 8, there is virtually no discussion about Jesus being the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the one upon whom God would fully unleash His wrath.  Wright correctly identifies Jesus as the Suffering Servant–suffering for the world because of sin; yet, he seems hesitant to make reference to God’s just wrath over sin and how Jesus is the perfect propitiation, the Judge judged in our place.  This is one of the primary points of the Cross:  we are the ones who failed, we are the ones who deserve God’s wrath, yet, through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross God’s wrath is fully mete out, fully satisfied, once and for all.  By faith in Jesus we are justified, pronounced “not guilty”, and able to stand in God’s presence (in Christ, not on our own); this is the message that I need to hear daily.  This is the message I long to hear in Wright’s book, but I don’t.