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A mixed-bag of deep insight and troubling Christology
on August 15, 2012
In his book, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament, Christopher J. H. Wright argues that a complete understanding of the person and work of Jesus is dependent upon an appreciation of His understanding and relationship to the Old Testament. While the subject matter and Wright's presentation are captivating, the theological ramifications of his assertions range from deeply thought-provoking to troublingly unorthodox.
In his preface, Wright succinctly and passionately declares that "in reading the Hebrew scriptures I am handling something that gives me a closer common link with Jesus than any archaeological artefact [sic] could do." Wright is an accomplished author and pastor, as well as the head of Langham Partnership International (John Stott Ministries in the U.S.A.). His book seeks to guide the reader to a deeper understanding of Christ by shedding Old Testament light on His place in history and the grand plan of God, as well as Jesus' own values and understanding of His identity and mission. His contention is that "the deeper you go into understanding the Old Testament, the closer you come to the heart of Jesus" (Wright, ix).
BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
In this particular work, Wright digs deep into the narratives of the Old Testament to uncover the cultural expectations and messianic thought that set the stage for Jesus' entry into the world and then coalesces all of it in light of the full New Testament revelation to show the redemptive purposes of God woven throughout. Addressing this in terms of Jesus' fulfillment of both the story and the promise of the Old Testament, Wright shows Jesus as the pivotal point in all of history both in terms of fulfilling the historical expectation of Israel for a deliverer, and as the culmination of God's plan to bring blessing and salvation to the nations of the world. The author then moves to show how this placement of Jesus within the context of historical Israel shaped his own understanding of both his identity and mission, and applies this to the mission of the Church. Finally, Wright analyzes how an understanding of the Old Testament aided Jesus in living out his identity as He faced the challenges of his convictions, sorted out the "whirling confusion of thought" in His mind, and wrestled "with the future direction of his [sic] own calling" (Wright, 182-186).
The initial points of Wright's book are very compelling. He sets the advent of Christ into the greater historical picture of Israel, building a historical pedigree of Jesus as not only a Jew and a Davidic heir, but as the divine agent of blessing through Israel to the rest of humanity (Wright, 4). The author's point, which becomes a seminal theme throughout book, is that God's plan from the beginning was to use Israel as a conduit of blessing to all nations. In this light, and drawing on parallels in language and structure between Matthew and Genesis, Wright argues that Matthew was intentional in painting his portrait of Christ as an unmistakable "new creation", the pivotal point of human history, "the end of the beginning" and "the beginning of the end" (Wright, 8). His application of passages throughout the Pentatuch, the Psalms, and the Prophets paints a very clear picture of the intention of God to bring salvation to all nations, rather than bringing it to them only as a result of Israel's inability to exist as the people He intended. This is an important point because the picture of Israel being the people of God while He allows the rest of the world to suffer in ignorance as the objects of His wrath is a common criticism by opponents of the Old Testament. Through his analysis, Wright reconciles the God of the New Testament with that of the Old by pointing out that even the destruction of nations such as Canaan served the greater purpose of creating an Israel through which He could bless the entire world with salvation through Christ.
A controversial matter arises several times in the book when Wright deals with prophecy. Particularly in the second chapter, the author refers to an analogy of a father promising his son a horse, but in the meantime a car is invented, which the father presents to his son instead. Wright uses this to talk about the promises of God, saying that "because it is the relationship behind it that matters, the material form in which it is fulfilled may be quite different from the original form in which it was originally made", thereby allowing for God's promises to be fulfilled in ways unimaginable at the time the promise was initiated (Wright, 70). While this may indeed be valid in the application Wright cites, the principle itself can easily be misapplied if it is appropriated to prophecy carte blanche. Additionally, it reflects a troubling modern tendency to attempt to apply prophecy (particularly eschatological prophecy) in a one-to-one or one-to-many relationship with particular events and figures using human reasoning. The promises of God are true, and will be fulfilled in His timing and by His methods. These will likely often defy all human pattern-matching and finger-pointing as God weaves His tapestry of history.
The primary difficulty of the book arises very early (toward the end of the first chapter), but is easily overlooked amidst the promising arguments that surround it. Here, Wright writes of Jesus, "the New Testament presents him to us as the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. And the Messiah `was' Israel. That is, the Messiah was Israel representatively and personified" (Wright, 44). If this is not an obvious reflection of a skewed Christology upon the first reading, it takes on that character in light of the rest of the book. As the author moves into his third chapter, Jesus and His Old Testament Identity, Wright's Christological nuances become much more bold and assertive. Throughout the remainder of the book, Christ is painted as having learned of His identity, mission and values from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. In other words, "it was the Old Testament that helped Jesus to understand Jesus. . . The answers came from his Bible, the Hebrew scriptures in which he found a rich tapestry of figures, historical persons, prophetic pictures and symbols of worship" (Wright, 108). Jesus is said to have taken "upon himself a staggering identity with awesome personal consequences" by "internalizing three Old Testament figures", namely Davidic King, Son of God, and Davidic Messiah (Wright, 109). Elsewhere, Jesus is painted as using the Scriptures as the means by which Jesus "understood his own essential identity" and "gave depth and colour to his primary self-awareness as the Son of his Father God" (Wright, 135). Using these statements, Wright creates an image of Christ almost akin to the old heresy of adoptionism where Jesus learns of His identity and mission gradually as He matures following His baptism. This understanding, Wright contends was revealed to Christ at the baptism, with the words of The Father being as much for Jesus' instruction as it was it was for the crowd's (instruction)(Wright, 105). Then Jesus developed a further understanding of His mission "from a deeper reading of his scriptures" (Wright, 145). This progressive revelation within the mind of Jesus serves to undermine his divinity even to the extent that it implies He did not know what His mission on Earth was for the first three decades of His life. We are then left with two alternatives. Either we must conclude, as with adoptionism, that Jesus was not divine prior to His baptism, or that He was divine, but His knowledge was so limited by His assumption of humanity that He did not know fully who He was. These are both utterly unacceptable alternatives, as a Christ who was both divine and human from the moment of His conception is taught clearly both in the Scriptures and in the earliest canons of the Church. Insult is added to injury as Wright repeatedly comments on the incompleteness of Christ divinity with comments about a "whirling confusion of thought in the mind of Jesus" (Wright, 184) and His "wrestling with the future and direction of His own calling" (Wright, 187). The very idea that Christ learned from the Scriptures is a denial of His pre-existence and the fact that the Scriptures are His words. If "the Word" was indeed in the beginning with God, and "was God", then how could this Word incarnate go to the Scriptures to derive anything at all, since He is the source of those very Scriptures? If Jesus is "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8), how could He possibly have needed to learn anything about His identity or mission? Though this fallacy in the author's line of reasoning soured the last half of the book for me, the validity of Wright's arguments in the first sections still stands.
This book as a whole is one I would hesitate to recommend to a general lay reader due to the deviant Christology that permeates its second half. That being said, the first one hundred or so pages offer an insight into understanding the Old Testament in the light of Christ, and vice-versa, that is quite enlightening. I would recommend it for advanced readers with a solid Christological base, and suggest that its better principles be taught second-hand rather than being given cover-to-cover to the layman.
Christopher J. H. Wright set out on a noble and necessary pursuit with Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament. Along the way, he accomplished his goal of presenting a compelling and detailed argument for the inseparable link between the story and promise of the Hebrew Scriptures with Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, he also went down paths of reasoning that are very deviant from an orthodox understanding of the person and nature of Christ. This produced a work that is at the same time profound and profane, holy and heretical, and is not suitable for casual reading except by the forewarned and critical mind. This theological briar patch serves to overshadow what otherwise would be a very insightful treatise.