“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

N. T. Wright on the Humanity of Jesus

You can watch a brief video clip here of N. T. Wright responding to the question "what do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that Western, 20th century, evangelical Christians have about Jesus?"  Wright makes a crucial point here - we must be careful to uphold the twin pillars of Jesus' divinity and his humanity, as did the early church.  Neither is to be emphasized at the expense of the other.  That Jesus was God incarnate does not mean that he could not have struggled emotionally or intellectually as a man (for example, his wondering in Gethsemene if there was a way other than the cross).  Wright notes a certain "evangelical nervousness" when these questions arise, but we need to recognize that Jesus' fallibility in certain areas (in understanding the world scientifically, for example) as a man is not inconsistent with his divinity.


  1. Shane Claiborne, author of The Irresistible Revolution and Follow Me to Freedom, argues that the biggest misunderstanding Western evangelical Christians have about Jesus is that he actually humbled himself and lived among the poor. Shane laments the modern church's distance from the poor, how removed we've become from injustice and suffering. He challenges the church to find God in the desert places of Empire and in relationships with people, not in books of systematic theology or stained-glass windows. The command to "love your neighbor as yourself" has become manageable. We can't understand the poor until we understand what poverty is like. These readings are convicting, yet incredibly joyful, and they've left me with some questions...

    At what point does Christian scholarship become an idol that keeps us from living among the poor as Jesus did? Does it separate us from the poor, the very people Jesus calls us to in order to bring the Kingdom of God to Earth? Shane says he's learned more about God from the tears of homeless mothers than any systemic theology ever taught him. At what point do we stop studying Christianity and begin living it, as the body of Christ in Acts? I've struggled with these questions, but the response that "there are different spheres of influence...," hasn't placated me. All I can think about is, what if? What if Jesus meant the things he said?

    Nietzche's madman claims God is dead. Because we have killed. We have intellectualized him, relegated him to a world of abstract concepts. He no longer animates the very matrix of human beings. He's merely an idea in the modern world, and we pay our respects to him in church. While I don't entirely agree with this because to completely refrain from Christian scholarship seems unnecessary and a little absurd, I also am convicted by Soren Kierkegaard's argument that, "Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close...it is dreadful to be alone with the New Testament!"

    Any advice would be much appreciated!

  2. Some thoughts...

    Ministering to the poor is essential for Christians - it is "true religion" (James 1:27). The Incarnation itself is God "becoming poor" (James 2:5) for us, and we are to imitate Christ. As Shane Claiborne points out Jesus lived with the poor and repeatedly emphasized the importance of giving to the poor and becoming spiritually poor in order to enter the kingdom of God. I am glad Shane emphasizes this and I think this is something evangelicals need to recover. Every Christian should become familiar with poverty to some extent.

    But it certainly doesn't mean we need to turn away from Christian scholarship, and if idolizing scholarship is turning people away from making Christianity real in their lives and acting out their faith in ways like giving to the poor, then I would guess they are not seeing how these two spheres work together.

    Looking at what the early church did is, I think, a great way to approach any question about how to live as a Christian. Yes, they did live their faith out as described in Acts, and its pretty clear that theology and doctrine was a huge part of that faith. Paul's letters and Peter's sermons indicate that they thoroughly studied the OT and Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, and very carefully thought out the theological implications. Christian scholarship at its best today follows this pattern, looking at Scripture, history, and the world, and carefully drawing out the theological truth.

    So I don't think it is a good idea to divide Christian scholarship from the Bible, as Kierkegaard seems to do. After all, the New Testament is, in a sense, the first Christian scholarship. It is full of exhortations for Christian living, but that is always backed up by theological interpretation of history and the Old Testament. For the most part, Paul's letters start with some logical and systematic explanation of the Gospel, and after these deep theological sections he gives practical exhortations. And the practical section usually starts with "therefore" - Paul is saying, "what all this theology and doctrine means is that you need to live out your faith." Take Romans for example...Paul spends the first 11 chapters with an extremely thorough exposition of Christian doctrine and theology, and then he says in 12:1 "therefore...in view of God's mercy..." by which I think he means "in view of all I have been saying in these first 11 chapters..." and then he goes into practical topics. The end of 1 Corinthians 15 also comes to mind. This is Paul's most thorough explanation of Christ's resurrection and what it means - very deep theology and very beautiful - and he ends it by saying "therefore...always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord." It seems that according to Paul, the natural conclusion to all theology/thought/scholarship is living out one's faith. The more you study Christianity, the more it will help you live out Christianity (I am reminded of Billy Graham's response to the question of whether he had any regrets...he said he would have studied more).

    All that to say, Christian scholarship and the study of theology is important. It helps us understand God more and deepens our understanding of the Gospel, which will enable us to preach the truth more effectively.

    Shane Claiborne may have learned more about God from being with the poor, and I think we all can to some extent, but that doesn't mean every person will learn the most about God in this way. Some may experience and worship God most fully by being with the poor; others, like Thomas Aquinas, may write volumes of philosophical thought or systematic theology and fall to the ground in worship in the midst of their writing...and that too has an impact for the kingdom. The lives of the saints are saturated with service to the poor and with the study of theology...(I seem to have reached blogger's comment character limit)...

  3. ...Yes, there is a danger of intellectualizing God and detaching theology from the real world. We need to avoid this not by turning away from Christian scholarship but by thinking about how it relates to life.

    What is Christian scholarship, after all? What is theology? It is the study of who God is and what he has done in the world. Since God has given us the clearest revelation in Jesus Christ and in his death and resurrection, Christian scholarship should gravitate towards this truth, this Gospel. And the Gospel is an incredibly practical and livable philosophy of life, especially for the poor and broken and weak.

    Theology and Christian scholarship can help us to see this truth more clearly and take it to those who need to hear it. Systematic theology, philosophy, and Greek and Hebrew can help tremendously with this. And if we do our theology right, it will send us out with renewed passion, and then we must go and bring our theology books with us. (And academia can be a mission field too...)

    Christian scholars need to think about what theology means for the poor, or for those who are suffering, and when they do their theology will be stronger and deeper. The head can't think properly about God without the heart. We also need to remember theology and doctrine when we minister to the poor, because that is why we minister to them (Paul "therefore...").

    Some may be called to spend more time studying theology, others may be called to live with the poor. We need both - if all our scholars went to the mission field, or all our missionaries spent all their time studying, we would have big problems. In Paul's words, what if every part of the body of Christ tried to be an eye, or a hand? So in that sense there are different spheres of influence, I think (I'm not sure if that's how you meant it). But I think each person needs to be pursuing God with their mind and with their actions, studying and thinking some of the time and putting into practice at other times (and this is a balance, because we don't want young people running off into the mission field without adequate training, nor do we want Christian scholars to care only about publishing papers and getting tenure). How this balance should work out in each person's life (or in the Church today as a whole) is a tough question, but the two spheres aren't inherently at odds, but mutually reinforcing - practice needs doctrine in order to make sense, and doctrine naturally leads you into practice. If we pit them against each other we misunderstand both.

    Here (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2010/03/18/vanhoozer-on-redramatizing-theology/) is a talk by Kevin Vanhoozer on this topic that you may find interesting.

    My train of though seems to have grown increasingly disconnected here. These are my thoughts, anyways. I'd be curious to hear what you think.


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