History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology
by N.T. Wright
As usual with Wright, he has provocative things to say and I noted many of them with appreciation. He certainly enlarges perspective.
As to this book, a couple of comments. It is a compilation/result of a lecture series (The Gifford Lectures) so the book is highly contextualized as a result. It is about “Natural Theology” and I felt like I was entering into a conversation mid-stream that was dealing with ideas to which I was not privy, and I was looking up a lot of things midstream – disrupting the flow of the book. Wright is also verbose, it feels like he likes the sound of his pen too much. It also felt like he got caught up name dropping, quoting from theologians and expecting you to know the quote/context/argument without looking it up or being reminded of it. I know this is part of the process, in order to critique something, you have to engage in the ongoing conversation, I found I wasn’t up for it and wanted him to make his point.
David Ferguson comments on the back cover: “An impressive and timely publication…Bold, lively and accessible, it will generate widespread discussion.” I didn’t find it accessible. I am a pretty savvy reader of theology with an MDiv., and I found it cumbersome at times. I think it is worth reading, but make sure you are sitting at a desk and taking notes. The book could have been laid out better as well to help the reader, with headings and a bit of outlining.
I want to say that what he says in this book is available in more accessible formats in some of his other writing – but am not aware of which would be appropriate. He deals with the resurrection quite a bit, so maybe “Surprised by Hope” (but it has been at least a decade since I read that) or his more recent work on the crucifixion “The Day the Revolution Began” but I haven’t read that.
Things I Loved
One of Wright’s strengths is his ability to tie things together and paint the big picture of the story of the Bible. And he does that here.
He challenges the modern worldview (which he labels as Epicurean), specifically the tendency to separate the natural from the supernatural. He refers to this repeatedly in the book by utilizing Lessing’s picture of the ugly ditch. For him this is where history and theology converge. When we discover and acknowledge the worldview of the first century Jews and presumably by extension, Jesus and the apostles, we are driven to the worldview that sees heaven and earth as overlapping, and in the same way a now and not yet/developing future. I found this to be a most helpful discussion, especially his “Three Ways” epistemology:
- The Temple = Cosmology
- The Sabbath = Eschatology
- The Image Bearing = Anthropology
“I have argued so far that modern theology and exegesis have been shaped by the Epicurean heaven/earth split; by the post-Renaissance chronological split between past, present and future; and by understandings of human nature shaped by those two. I have proposed an alternative perspective rooted in Israel’s traditions, seeing the temple as the microcosmos disclosing God’s ultimate purposes for the heaven/earth world; the Sabbath as the advanced foretaste of the Age to Come; and humans as constituted by the Image-bearing vocation. These are then reshaped quite drastically and in unexpected ways, around Jesus and the spirit. But the new shape still presupposes an integrated cosmos, a purposed new creation already tasted in advance, and a vocational anthropology.”p. 219
“I have proposed historical arguments for a fresh understanding of Jesus and the Gospels in the Jewish world where the temple stood for the coming together of heaven and earth, the Sabbath stood for the long promised future arriving already in the present, and humans were seen as Image-bearers, as God reflectors, standing at the threshold of heaven and earth, of past and future.”p.251
Wright’s Vocational Signposts
There are seven features of human life which can be observed across different societies and times. I named these ‘vocations’ as a shorthand for ‘vocational signposts’, though they are often present as inarticulate aspirations and impulsions; they are all, I suggest, different aspects of the overall vocation to be genuinely human. We know them in our bones. The seven are a somewhat odd assortment. The loose labels I assign provide enough for the ongoing argument. To take us to the heart of traditional questions about ‘natural theology’, but what we find at that heart may be unexpected.
The seven are Justice, Beauty, Freedom, Truth, and Power, Spirituality and Relationships. These are not all the same kind of thing, and exact classification is in any case not my point here…The point about all seven, to put it crudely, is that we all know they matter but we have trouble with them. I am not claiming that everybody everywhere thinks the same about all these – far from it. What I am suggesting is that these seven broadly name areas of life which confront more or less all humans, and all human societies, and that each of them presents us with puzzling questions. We know they’re important, but we can never quite grasp them the way we feel we should.p. 224
These signposts are out of whack for Wright and they serve as both a connective tissue of all humanity and the focal point of the work of the gospel and New Creation. As history moves ahead and heaven and earth grow more indistinguishable, where the work of the church comes to completion and rest and where the image-bearers resemble the image – these seven signposts will be brought into focus and repaired.
Overall, the ideas in this book are important, I just wish he made them easier to discover.
This book makes me want to explore these books:
Photo by Pascal Mauerhofer on Unsplash