Who was Jesus? A Critical Review of N.T. Wright

Who exactly was Jesus? At first glance, this seems like a relatively easy question to answer. When asked by Jesus himself, Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16, ESV). Q.E.D. There it is, delivered in one crisp sentence, the definitive answer to the question— no need of a theological treatise of the question. It is answered right there in the Bible. According to N.T. Wright, in Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2011), however, the answer is not that easy at all. For Wright, there is no one-sentence answer to such a loaded question: the way to answer it is “by putting together layer upon layer” — Wright’s Jesus is hardly simple, regardless of what his title says.

Wright splits his book up into three parts: part one lays a sort of framework for the discussion, allowing Wright to make a case for just how radical Jesus really was; part two is where Wright spends most of his time answering his aforementioned question; and part three is where he discusses some of the ramifications of a belief in this Jesus — in essence, “what does it all mean for us now?” Wright occupies a curious position throughout his book, and it isn’t altogether clear to whom he is writing. Some of the book is directed toward atheists, agnostics, and those already disposed to viewing the Bible as archaic gobbledygook: skeptics, he calls them. Some is directed toward Christians who, he believes, have failed to think and talk about Jesus as he really was: conservatives, in his parlance. Wright is thus defending the veracity of the Biblical narrative and critiquing other defenders all at once. This third way makes for interesting reading, but also muddles his argument just a bit, making it unclear whether some of his emphases are just that, or whether they are a harbinger of an entirely new way of thinking about Jesus and Christianity as a whole. As his subtitle suggests, I do not think it is altogether wrong to believe the latter.

Jesus, Wright argues, was a truly radical figure, and not only radical in a religious sense. In his telling, Christ was a revolutionary political figure. Jesus’s ministry began in the midst of what Wright describes as a proverbial hurricane, with the Roman empire and the Jewish people, along with all of their history, context, assumptions, and hopes, acting as extraordinary high-pressure systems. As Wright convincingly argues, Jesus’s statements that God was now in charge were quite a big deal: “That’s not only exciting talk,” Wright says. “It’s fighting talk. It’s treason! It’s sedition! … It’s the start of a campaign” (69). This, of course, would cause quite a ruckus among the Romans and Jewish elites — they were the ones in charge. But Jesus also rankled many Jews by refusing to endorse their national ambitions. God may have come to be in charge, Jesus was saying, but not to inaugurate his kingdom as you think he will.

Jesus was also truly radical in the ways in which he fulfilled some Jewish assumptions. For Wright, Jesus was the Temple incarnate — where for the Jews, the Temple was where heaven and earth met, heaven and earth now met wherever Jesus was present. No longer would God’s children practice the Sabbath as a signpost that someday God’s purposes would be accomplished; rather, “Jesus was announcing that the future to which the signpost had been pointing had now arrived in the present” (137). And with the arrival of Jesus, God’s children see the material world transformed by the presence of his Son. In the end, Jesus as the political revolutionary was so radical because of the ways he flouted human convention. “It was about giving up the ordinary kind of revolution,” Wright says, “in which violent change produces violent regimes, which are eventually toppled by further violent change, and discovering an entirely different way instead” (147).

In short, Jesus was the representative of God who died and rose again to inaugurate God’s kingdom on earth, to begin the new creation that was always intended, and bless the whole world through the works of his children. Thus, this has many implications for Christ’s followers today, for “Jesus rescues human beings in order that through them he may rule his world in the new way he always intended” (212). For Wright, then, “The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people” (218). The kingdom is at work when kingdom people do good works, by blessing their neighbors, the poor, the destitute, the sick, by speaking truth to power — by serving the lowest of society, just as Jesus did. Jesus’s kingdom transforms relationships, worldviews, behaviors, habits — his kingdom transforms all of creation. All of this work bears witness to the work of Jesus Christ and his wondrous kingdom, and in doing so, “We are declaring things that, by their declaration, will change the way things are going” (225).

Simply Jesus is an engrossing work, at times inspiring and infuriating. Wright writes in a tone reminiscent of C.S. Lewis, cleverly restating classic Christian viewpoints in a new and interesting way. However, at times this cleverness can make his overall argument seem opaque. Other times, it makes his argument seem quite wrong. For all the good in this book (and there is much to be commended here), one feels uneasy throughout — assumptions are challenged and doctrines heretofore taken for granted are questioned, or at least modified. Reading Wright is not for the faint of heart. For example, he writes, “In first-century Christianity, what mattered was not people going from earth into God’s kingdom in heaven. What mattered, and what Jesus taught his followers to pray, was that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven” (148). This is one of his consistent themes throughout — we aren’t merely to live as if our own salvation was all that mattered, but to have that salvation affect and permeate every aspect of the way we act and think. No qualms there! However, what he goes on to say makes this emphasis seem like a much bigger change in doctrine. Later, he writes, “If the Christian faith is true — if, in other words, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead three days later to launch God’s new creation and, by his Spirit, to reenergize his followers to be its active agents — then the moment of Jesus’s death is, like Jerusalem on those ancient maps, the central point of the world” (190, emphasis added). This after giving a very tepid endorsement of the concept of penal substitutionary atonement (185). This is either indicative of a profound, and I think unwarranted, switch in theological emphasis and priority or it is an example of cleverness and iconoclasm run amok. His overall point is true, and it matters — being active agents of God’s here on earth matters. But, surely, eternal salvation matters also. The ultimate destination of man matters. The proclamation of God’s glory and magnificence matters. For Jesus came not to “reenergize” his followers. Jesus came to seek and save the lost, as the one “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” (Romans 3:25, ESV). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV).

Wright argues that “the whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven, and that, at death, they could leave ‘earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on ‘earth’; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality” (146). This seems to be an example of a straw man destroyed to make room for Wright’s new understanding of Jesus. One can deny the contention of some that leaving earth behind for an ethereal heaven is all that matters while denying that the “whole” point of Jesus’s ministry was for people to change the way they act right here on earth. In some sense, Wright is immanentizing the eschaton, attempting to create heaven on earth, or, perhaps more accurately, eschewing thinking about an impermanent heaven for doing good and building God’s kingdom on earth right now. However, while the kingdom may have already come, it has not yet been fully consummated — people of faith are indeed called to “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city” (Hebrews 11:16). None of these quotes, taken on their own, are necessarily emblematic of some shift in theological thinking — all have aspects of orthodox Christian thinking. Taken as a whole, however, they seem emblematic of something new altogether.

Who then was Jesus? Wright is certainly correct that answering this question in a truly satisfying way requires discussion of context, history, theology, the Scriptures, and much else. Indeed, Peter, when he gave his “Messiah” response to Jesus’s query, was shortly after called “Satan” for misunderstanding what the great truth of Jesus as Son of God meant. However, there comes a point when all of this contextualization and complexity obscures the basic truth: that Jesus was and is the Messiah, the Son of the living God; that he came to give his life as a ransom for many; that all who believe and accept him have the right to be called his children, and are declared worthy by his worthiness, righteous by his righteousness; that it is out of love, gratitude, and adoration of the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that God’s children live out the Greatest Commandment, to love the Lord God with everything, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself; that this Messiah is returning again to reconcile all of creation to himself and finally consummate his kingdom on the New Earth. That is simply Jesus.

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