The Speckled Mind

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Surprised by Hope Part 4: Jesus and His-Story

"It is amazing that so many New Testament scholars write books about Jesus in which they discover that he agrees with their own version of Christianity…I am a liberal, modern, secularized Protestant, brought up in a church dominated by low Christology and the social gospel. I am proud of the things that that religious tradition stands for. I am not bold enough, however, to suppose that Jesus came to establish it, or that he died for the sake of its principles."~~E.P. Sanders

The desire to remake Jesus in our own image is irresistible. As Sanders so wryly notes, Biblical scholars are not immune from this disease--in fact, they are often the primary carriers. And, though artists are not always trying to depict reality as it actually is, the plethora of different renderings of Jesus' physical likeness serves as evidence that scholars are not alone in this tendency. Pastor and layperson alike also fall into the trap of imagining Jesus as a bit too much like themselves.

It's pervasive, and it is a problem--but where is the escape hatch?

It should be stated at the outset that I consider myself to be a carrier of this disease. I would never claim to have an objective standpoint from which I can critique others' views while leaving mine unsullied as 'the' correct view (nor would Wright). I do, however, want to see discussions about Jesus based on something other than religious impressionism.

And that 'something' is history.

Wright states the point with appropriate succinctness: "Christianity appeals to history; to history it must go." Despite the bumps in the road that the Quests for the Historical Jesus have incurred--one can hardly hear the words "Jesus" and "Seminar" in the same sentence anymore without a shiver--the followers of Jesus have nothing to fear in examining the historical context in which he lived. Let me reiterate--we have nothing to lose and everything to gain by questing for the historical Jesus, and letting his history determine our reading of scripture.

The apostle Paul would agree wholeheartedly with that proposal. In his words, "When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children." I love this verse because it holds together the story of God's salvation, sovereignty and timing (i.e., history) as a package deal. You can't have one without the others. Thus, the only Jesus that we should care about is the first century Jewish carpenter from Galilee. Certainly Jesus' status as God incarnate plays a role, but I would argue that you only get the latter in view when you've given appropriate effort to examining the significance of the former.

So where do we begin?

Millions of pages have been written on the historical Jesus, and hundreds of thousands more have been written in critique of those who have undertaken the quest. And, while most won't find all of the insights of those pages particularly helpful, one fact is inescapable and necessary for scholar and layperson alike: Jesus was a Jew.

I suspect I don't need to prove that to any of those who frequent this blog, but I would like to suggest that the implications of that small fact have rarely been considered by most pewsitters who read scripture.

As this post has already gone on too long, I would like to leave it here--looking forward to Part 5 in which I will discuss some of the Jewish aspects of Jesus that are too often ignored, why they matter and the personal difference that recognizing them has made in my own life. Part 5, then, will serve as a segue back into the issues more closely related to Surprised by Hope. Thus, Part 6 will examine the Jewish concept of resurrection and its relation to Jewish messianic thought. This will (I hope) bring us to the more practical implications of Wright's book for the mission of the church--maybe even in time for Easter! Wouldn't that be nice? I'd like to again thank all of you who are participating in the discussion and wrestling with the messy and beautiful business of living in a post-resurrection world.

May the life of Christ dwell in you richly.

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  • Great post, Tim. And the writing was good, too. :)

    These days I am starting to wonder about relationship between the "Jesus of History" and the experience of Jesus in the years and decades following his life on earth. The writings about Jesus (Gospels) and the writings about the movement which Jesus started (the other stuff in the NT), are at least in part, the history of experience, our glimpse into a community deeply and passionately moved by a Jewish Man from Nazareth.

    Why draw a distinction? Because I think Christians can still get along despite differences in belief about rigid historical facts pertaining to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

    Of course, my own personal bias is starting to come through...and I am starting to create Jesus in my own image. Darn. O well. Looking forward to part five and reading about the Jewish aspects of Jesus.

    By Blogger jb, at 9:24 AM  

  • Tim,
    That was an excellent post. I have found myself often asserting that without an appeal to history, Christianity is doomed to relativism.

    I see this as probably the biggest issue in Evangelicalism today. When people no longer care about scholarship, your average churchgoer can believe practically anything based on a cursory reading of the Bible. And sadly, though evangelicals talk a lot about truth, their definition of truth is as relative as it is certain.

    Anyway, you have convinced me to buy the book.

    By Blogger Naomi and Alan, at 7:27 AM  

  • I apologize that this comment rivals the length of your posting. You got me thinking about relevance, our King, Easter/Holy Week and lastly a little bit of March Baseball nostalgia. Forgive me for being vague on references to Wright, I am only 1/2 through the book.

    The relevance to Joe pew sitter and the crucified and risen king reigning here and now on earth with belief in resurrection (as opposed to platonic immortality of an immaterial soul) could not be more profound.
    To love our enemies is not just a statement of what we will someday be able to do amidst the clouds, but rather it is a statement for Joe pewsitter to jump into right now in believing the Kingdom of God has come to earth. However,it is obvious that loving our enemies is going to not work out well for us in the realm of the kingdoms originating in earthly power, and thus belief in the hard saying of Jesus will then lead us to a literal dead end of the cross or figurative dead end of Jesus's teaching by accommodation to the kingdom's originating of earth. Precisely here is where we require a belief in a real resurrection and a belief that God has brought the promise of new life and victory over the cross and death into the present earthly realm. This has profound effect to Joe pewsitter. To love our neighbor as ourself when our neighbor is the Samaritan can become something we are now freed to do. As our imagination becomes captivated by the promised reality of God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, I as Joe pew sitter may find myself not only freed to, but in fact acting out a joyful yearning for the full consummation of what has been given in part and promise. No longer must we seek to save our power, pride and life at the expense of loving our neighbor. We now have a new king who has suffered and reigns in victory and we must preach this in direct contrast to the kingdoms originating from man. As this good news is preached, we may may now take up the cross of the king and rejoice triumphantly in loving our enemy as others scorn us and seek our destruction as 'teacher of the law' and 'rulers of the earth' once did to our victorious king of all. God's kingdom distinct in that it originates from God's action and with faith is seen as victorious amidst the suffering weakness in the cross. The victory of our God is on earth and it is now, but it looks weak, disgraceful and hopeless when seen from the eyes of man. Without the real resurrection, this is all a massive failiour to be pitied above all!

    That this king is victorious and is given power over all that is presently seen and unseen is clearly a theme that the writer of Mark is highlighting in the stories of Jesus healings, exorcisms, and calming of the storms. Caesar and his centurions may appear to able to command the men of earth with a sword, and Caiaphas with religious authority, and our rich young ruler with money. All of these powers come of earth and the works of man. Mark's crucified king comes without power as man has constructed it, but commands with surpassing power from God amidst the real earth over all that which emperors, teachers of the law, and the super rich of the day were still subjected to. Our king commands the wind and waves, the demons, sicknesses, all on earth in present time and finally puts even death itself below his feet as his kingship from heaven arrives to earth.
    This idea, Tom Wright correctly draws us back to in his observation that in Revelation, the New Jerusalem descends to earth. It is a beautiful telling of the story which is simultaneously true for both past, present and future. What was, what is, and what is to come!

    Some may erroneously still see this as the king of a pie in the sky setting of clouds in heaven. But that destroys the power of the good news that is clearly directed to the down trodden and oppressed when we hear this instead of the good news that this king reigned even from the cross. The writer of John's gospel presents the glory of our crucified king, with Jesus words of being "lifted up" as references to his enthronement as the king from the cross who ruled then and forevermore above Caesar and Caiaphas who hold their power with the means of men and earthly might. Just as Caesar and Caiaphas were real forces originating of earth that our king on earth descends to reign over, we must now live and proclaim that God's kingdoms has in fact descended and now reigns over the empires and religious authorities of today! How often does Joe pewsitter hear that we must give alleged to the real presence of the kingdom of God where we love our enemies above the decaying empire that says kill our enemies before they can kill us?

    The idea that Jesus's death was merely a means for God become able to forgive the the debt of sin so that we may not suffer the punishment of death and may leave earth to goto heaven is a rejection of the good news that our crucified Christ is king over death, all power and glory, in heaven and on earth, both now and forever. As Write points out, such a distortion of the good news leaves us with the awkward question of asking why must Jesus rise from the dead and it leads us to often give the hollow answer of saying that it was so that we'd know he was God and that he has saved us by sacrificing for our sins.
    (onto baseball)
    Not that this is a totally wrong answer, but rather it is as useless and deceiving as a hollow baseball covering with no center. It looks the same on the surface, but does it play like the game was intended? Is our game played with a solid core ball? Does it have weight and hurt when we get hit, or does seem to lack real force and float about in changing the winds? Is Joe pewsitter hearing that the empire of "peace through powers of man" and "kill your enemies before they kill you" incompatable with the empire of The Crucified who loves and forgives the crucifiers?
    You are right in saying that Jesus wouldn't get crucified for preaching that he would die so that man can go away to heaven. We also are good to remember our history and know that several generations of Christ followers were feed to lions because they rejected their empire and played a different game with a different force. Not because the simply believed in a different world that would someday come after God destroyed the present one. They believed in something more unsettling to earthy powers of the day. I fear that we have been begun playing Christian theology with a safe-T-ball and denied the solid core of the classic game. The questions Wright is raising makes the Christian game uncertain and much less safe,... but is maybe better in line with the classic stories of old.

    (reaching out at nostalgia)
    I am also reminded that a hard baseball brought my childhood hero to end his playing days in a pool of blood on ground in 1995. Then later fading from collective memory as his untarnished image was exposed for its imperfections, and then dying two years ago as a sort of mixed portrait of success and failures. I'm not sure I like this resulting story as my imagined endings before that ball hit him in Sept 1995. However, it is the real earthly story of a game I fell in love with long ago. Wright said we can not deny death or at least have significant confusion about it. Let's not abandon the real stories and the real game for some untarnished heroes and a safer hollow cover.

    "He brought such joy to the game. He elevated the play of everyone around him,"

    By Blogger Post_Fidelitas, at 5:13 PM  

  • Great post, Steve--and thanks for your thoughts. I hope to work through them in due course. One thought on the subject though--I understand that you come to the subject of eschatology with a certain soteriological ax to grind. Let us be very careful of ever saying, "the cross means ____". Anything you fill in that blank with will be necessarily minimalist. Though I have personally undergone a radical transformation in my eschatology, I don't find that a drastic shift in soteriology is also necessary as a correlative.

    All that to say--I probably won't deal explicitly with the soteriological dimension of your insights--I don't want you to think they've been ignored--just overlooked =)

    By Blogger timmer k., at 9:30 PM  

  • Thanks for being kind to my broad swipes of thought. I only bring up bad soteriology to highlight soteriology's hollowness without a good eschatological wound center. You are right, echatology is the whole point. The solid center of the baseball is eschatology, that of Christ crucified/resurrected and his future for creation. The Crucification/Resurrection is clearly presented as an eschatological event and not soteriological. To understand it primarily as a soteriological event may suffice in selling products of salvation, but ultimately it is what leaves us with a soft and hollow center. Eschatology should not be a chapter at the end of bad systematic theology books. It is the study of our central hope in the resurrected Christ. Perhaps I've been too obsessed with J.Moltmann, but he seems to say this very well:

    "eschatology means the doctrine of the Christian hope, which embraces both the object hoped for and also the hope inspired by it. From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day. For Christian faith lives from the raising of the crucified Christ, and strains after the promises of the universal future of Christ. Eschatology is the passionate suffering and passionate longing kindled by the Messiah. Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine." J. Moltmann Theology of Hope p16

    By Blogger Post_Fidelitas, at 4:06 AM  

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