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Wheaton Theology Conference: Bishop Wright’s Friday Night Keynote: “Jesus and the People of God”

Both nights the Bishop gave a keynote address, first on Jesus, then on Paul. In Friday evening’s keynote, Wright had a chance to outline his work on the historical Jesus. Earlier in the day, he commented that the day’s dialogue was causing him to rethink what he might say in his address. I don’t know if he decided to pursue that course, but he did seem to address a number of the critiques in one way or another.

Repeatedly, Wright expressed dismay, even exasperation, at the ways in which his theology was misconstrued. At one point, during this keynote I believe, he said something like, “The struggle with theological discourse is that people expect you to say everything you believe on a given topic every time you say anything. If you leave something out, well, then they think you don’t believe it.” This of course is an impossible task for any theologian, including Wright. I suppose Barth and Calvin recognized similar predicaments (see Church Dogmatics and Institutes of the Christian Religion). Yet, what isn’t said can sometimes be as important as what is.

In any case, Wright said a few things Friday evening. He echoed Hays’ call to see Jesus’ work as cosmic and reorienting. Hays’ said “Jesus is Lord” is a fundamental affirmation necessary from the outset for a right historiography to be possible. Similarly, Wright exhorted us that “Jesus can’t just be my savior; he must be savior of all.” Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reorient the whole world, not just my personal spirituality.

Wright argued as well that the Gospels offer the reader insight into what Jesus was actually thinking. As I’ve studied the Synoptics, Jesus often seems inscrutable. His actions and reactions are hard to interpret. How much harder then to discern what he was thinking! Yet, Wright believes it’s possible, that the Evangelists reflect Jesus’ train of thought. Understanding what Jesus was thinking was one of Wright’s objectives as he sought out the historical Jesus, culminating in Jesus and the Victory of God.

Because he believed knowing Jesus’ thinking was possible, Wright asked some especially challenging questions: Who did Jesus believe he was? Did he struggle with questions about his vocation? Did he foresee every step of his ministry, or did he make decisions along the way? These aren’t questions I’ve ever asked about Jesus. I simply assumed that Jesus understood his divine mandate, had a clear course of action, and was following the script.

Wright believes that Jesus’ did not have ahead of time the script that led him to Calvary. This suggestion challenged my assumptions—ones I didn’t know I had. Of course, Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection (Matt 26:24; Mark 14:21; Luke 22:22), but until then what did he understand of it? When did he realize he would be crucified, and not stoned or shoved off a cliff? Earlier in his ministry, how did Jesus’ think of his mission? To think that Jesus had any questions at all radically challenges me. But those questions also give Jesus more humanity than I’d ever imagined. Do Wright’s questions diminish Jesus’ divinity? I think there is that fear. But I wonder if this fear is unfounded.

Wright also sought to expand the purpose and vision of the canonical Gospels. The Gospels are not only about Jesus, Wright argued; they are also about Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God. They are about “Israel’s God coming in his Kingdom,” that is, Jesus. Wright likened Jesus’ work here in the middle of history to Jesus’ first work of creation. Just as in Genesis God created the world through Christ the Word (John 1:2-3), so too God is recreating the world through Jesus resurrected—the second Adam. Through Jesus, God is “putting the whole world to rights,” inaugurating a new creation.

In much of evangelicalism today, talk of God’s Kingdom and talk of Jesus’ Cross inhabit separate spheres. Evangelicals—good dualists that we are—feel it necessary to emphasize one over and against the other—justice over salvation or salvation over justice. Wright, however, believes these two things are inseparable. They work together and are found together.

Finally, Wright believes that Jesus’ work in the world defines the Church’s mission today. He said, “We [the Church] are to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel. We must look at the Gospels and Acts to know what that means. Sometimes that means people die, sometime thousands get converted, or somewhere in between.”

Elsewhere:

Dr Michael Gorman provides a more in-depth review of Bishop Wright's Saturday evening lecture, "Paul and the People of God." He also has some thoughts here on Wright's Friday morning chapel and Friday evening plenary address.

Black Coffee Reflections posted his notes of Wright's Friday evening lecture.
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