N.T. Wright is the most interesting man on the earth – or close to it. He is considered a fundamentalist to the liberal academic guild and considered a liberal in some Evangelical quarters. Have they both misunderstood him? Does he reside somewhere in the middle? Does he transcend both categories? Does he even care? Will I be subject to the same criticisms should I say something affirming of this book? – I certainly hope not. You can disagree with Wright on some points, but you ignore him to your peril. He is a topnotch historical scholar who is deeply concerned about a rule from Hermeneutics 101: The text can never mean what it never meant.
Essentially, the most important task in understanding Scripture is to reconstruct the sitz im lebem – the “setting of life”. This is also understood as contextualized interpretation. Wright does a masterful job in viewing the text through the grid of 1st century Judaism. If you disagree with Wright’s conclusions and thesis, then you must combat his thinking concerning the historical background through which he draws his conclusions. Could he be wrong on some points and over-extrapolate the data? – Certainly. Can he be guilty of misreading 1st century Judaism on certain points? – Perhaps. All in all, one must read Wright with an understanding and appreciation of what he is doing and how he goes about it. That is how I seek to read him and anyone else for that matter.
“The Challenge of Jesus” (TCOJ from here on out) is Wright’s attempt to survey the person of Christ in an accessible fashion for the interested layperson or seeker. Wright cites his three goals in the preface of the book (pgs. 10-11): 1) Historical integrity when talking about Jesus, 2) Christian discipleship that professes to follow the real Jesus, and 3) to convey a Mission that will transform the world in the power of Jesus’s gospel. Chapter 1, “The Challenge of Studying Jesus”, is an able survey concerning the history of scholarship on Jesus and the challenges one faces when undertaking such a task. There are so many underlined excerpts in my book, but I will limit my references to one a chapter or so. For chapter 1, Wright states (pg. 26):
If we really believe in any sense in the incarnation of the Word, we are bound to take seriously the flesh that the Word became. And since that flesh was first-century Jewish flesh, we should rejoice in any and every advance in our understanding of first-century Judaism and seek to apply those insights to our reading of the Gospels.
Chapter 2, “The Challenge of the Kingdom”, advances what Jesus vocation was in relation to Israel and the world. He was the true Israel who ushers in the greater exodus from exile. Wright attacks a common misunderstanding among modern Christians that the kingdom Jesus enacts is some entirely future and otherworldly place. This is a dualist error that is quick to extract the spiritual from the physical, and thus look with pessimism on the present and physical. Wright is right (couldn’t avoid the seeming pun) in reminding us that all messianic expectations based on the Old Testament corresponded to an earthly reign that would usher in new creation of sorts – restoration language exceeding the glory of first creation. Wright also mentions how Jesus’s fulfillment of Israel’s vocation means blessing for the nations, rather than the annhiliation of the nations. The suffering servant vicariously suffers judgment and exile so that the exiled might be brought into the true Israel. Wright says (pg. 49),
Jesus stood firmly against the retelling of the story that had become customary in his day. God’s purposes would not after all be to vindicate Israel as a nation against the pagan hordes, winning the theological battle by military force. On the contrary, Jesus announced, increasingly clearly, that God’s judgment would fall not on the surrounding nations but on the Israel that had failed to be the light of the world.
Chapter 3, “The Challenge of the Symbols”, connects Jesus vocation to the major symbols of Judaism: Sabbath, food, nation and land, and the temple. This was my favorite chapter in the book. You can’t appreciate the actions and teachings of Jesus apart from the heart of Judaism and how Jesus vicariously becomes all that Israel treasured. Jesus was the true Sabbath, the living water and bread from heaven, the obedient Israel who has access to the earth, and the true temple.
Well, I realize that my review is already longer than I had intended, so I will push the fast-forward button at this time. Chapter 4 deals with the crucifixion of Christ and harmonizes the seeming paradox of death with the Messiah’s vocation to Israel and the world. Chapter 5 deals with the deity of Christ. This may be the most controversial chapter in that Wright thinks that Evangelicals are too reductionist in understanding Jesus’s claims to divinity. Wright carefully affirms the deity of Jesus, but corresponds it more to Jesus’s identity as related to his vocation. Chapter 6 covers the resurrection of Jesus and Wright is scholar par excellence on this specialized topic to which he devoted a highly respected volume, “The Resurrection of the Son of God”. Chapters 7 and 8 represent Wright’s applied theology – the hermeneutical “so what?” exclamation after mining the meaning of Scripture. Wright surprising devotes chapter 7 to the challenges of postmodernism and ways in which the message of Jesus can be contextualized to all the inherent flaws and existential cravings of the postmodern. Chapter 8 encourages the Christian to embrace the vocation of “sent ones”, commissioned by Christ with the Holy Spirit to enact mission in the world.
All in all, I enjoyed this book and have lots of notes that will work themselves into my future studies and sermons. I did fail to mention a few concerns and criticism, which were very minimal. Wright’s aim was to be more accessible than his weightier academic offerings, but I suspect that the average lay person and seeker would find themselves challenged at times, especially with Wright’s references to other Jesus scholars and his disagreements with the likes of E.P. Sanders and others on several points. I probably wouldn’t recommend this as introductory literature for the believer and would probably only refer it to one who is at least somewhat familiar with the likes of C.H. Dodd, Albert Schweitzer, and others. If I could extract chapter 3 on symbols, chapter 4 on the crucifixion, chapter 6 on the resurrection, and chapter 8 on the mission of the church/Christian, then I would heartily recommend as a briefer work to most anyone.
© 2011, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.