Tuesday, December 6, 2016

N.T. Wright's The New Testament and the People of God: A Book Report (Chapter 1)

I am an agnostic.  My dad is a Christian.  A few months ago, my dad and I decided to read together New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright's magmun opus, a series of six books entitled "Christian Origins and the Question of God" and discuss each chapter of each book as we read them.  The first book is entitled The New Testament and the People of God.  As I read this difficult book, I am taking notes, and creating a book report on each chapter, which I will post on my blog.  Here's my report on the first chapter of the first book.

 Chapter 1: Christian Origins and the New Testament

The field of New Testament studies is a contentious one, with lots of voices and viewpoints, as Wright explains: "There are many places [in the New Testament] whose fragile beauty has been trampled by heavy-footed exegetes in search of a Greek root, a quick sermon, or a political slogan.  And yet it has remained a powerful and evocative book, full of delicacy and majesty, tears and laughter."

People can become overly dogmatic regarding their particular way of reading this book: "This book [the New Testament] is a book of wisdom for all people, but we have made it a den of scholarship, or of a narrow, hard, and exclusive piety."

Some academics insist on reading the New Testament in a totally historical way: "There is sometimes an arrogance about this claim to power.  Building on the apparent strength of history, and able to demonstrate the inadequacies of the simple way of life which preceded them, such scholars have set up concrete gun-stations where before there were vineyards, and they patrol the streets to harass those who insist on the old simplistic ways."

Some fundamentalists (and others) insist on a solely devotional/personal/traditional reading: "It exists, so it seems, to sustain the soul, not to stretch the mind.  Such attitudes have responded to arrogance with arrogance."

What is needed is an open mind to different perspectives: "Both sides need to reckon with the fact that there might be other alternatives, that the either-or imposed in the eighteenth century (Enlightenment) might be false."

Wright gives the example of the parable of the wicked tenants, and offers four approaches to reading it:

1.) Pre-critical Approach: "That of prayerful Christians who believe the Bible to be Holy Writ, ask few if any questions about what it meant in its historical context, and listen for the voice of God as they read the text."  This approach "fails to take the text seriously historically, it fails to integrate it into the theology of the New Testament as a whole, and it is insufficiently critical of its own presuppositions and standpoint."

2.) Historical Approach: Tries to understand the text in its historical context, as revealed by the ongoing process of scholarship.  Asks questions like: Did Jesus actually tell the parable? Were there similar stories of owners and tenants in the Jewish milieu? How did the early church use this parable in its preaching? How has the writer used the parable within his work?  Has the writer altered or adapted the parable to fit his audience?  Some problems with this method: It may not give the text any relevance to our lives, it might be over-optimistic of our ability to arrive at "objective" historical truth.

3.) Theological Approach: How does the parable fit into the overall theology of both Mark, and the New Testament as a whole?  A problem: It can undercut the historical/unique importance of the parable, to make it fit into a pre-established theology.

4.) Postmodern/Literary Approach: Examining the process of reading itself--self-consciousness of self as reader and text as text.  Asks questions like: What do I bring to the text by way of presupposition, and in what way am I changed through reading it?  There are actually some interesting similarities between this and the pre-critical approach, but postmodernism is suspicious of larger Truth claims--only what's going on in the process of reading.

[Discussion question: What is your preferred approach to the New Testament, and why?]

The state of things is such that people often adhere faithfully to one of these 'approaches' to reading, while neglecting the others. Wright thinks all these approaches have some value: "the heirs of the Enlightenment have been too shrill in their denunciation of traditional Christianity, and Christianity has often been too unshakably arrogant in resisting new questions, let alone new answers, in its stubborn defense of...what?"

Wright has an optimistic view of the possibilities of combining these approaches: "Although the Enlightenment began as, among other things, a critique of orthodox Christianity, it can function, and in many ways has functioned, as a means of recalling Christianity to genuine history, to its necessary roots.  Much Christianity is afraid of history, frightened that if we really find out what happened in the first century our faith will collapse.  But without historical inquiry, there is no check on Christianity's propensity to remake Jesus, never mind the Christian god, in its own image."

"Whether, therefore, one has a Christian or non-Christian point of view, a thorough examination of this text [the New Testament] is a necessary responsibility.

Some foundational questions:

1.) How did Christianity begin, and why did it take the shape it did?

2.) What does Christianity believe, and does it make sense?

[Discussion question: Is "Christianity" a singular thing?  What to make of all the varieties of Christianity both in the past and present?]

3.) Who was Jesus, and was he in any sense responsible for the beginning of Christianity?  What were his aims, what did he hope to achieve, why did he die, and why did (what we now call) the church come into being?

4.) Was Paul the real founder of "Christianity," the corrupter of the original message, or was he the true interpreter of Jesus?  What was the structure and content of the belief-system that motivated him to undertake such an extraordinary labor?

5.) Why are the gospels what they are?  Where do they stand in relation to Jesus and Paul?

6.) What is Christian theology?  In what way ought it to be the same today as it was in the beginning?  Is such continuity even thinkable, let alone possible?  What counts as normative Christianity?  How do we know?  Is there a worldview available to modern human beings which makes sense of the world as we know it and which stands in appropriate and recognizable continuity with the worldview of the early Christians?

Wright raises possible conflicts between taking a historical, theological, and literary approach to the New Testament.  His task is to try to integrate all three approaches.  Then he spends time discussing these three approaches to the New Testament--the possibilities and problems inherent in each:

1.) The Historical Approach: "New tools and texts have opened up worlds of thought and life of which our predecessors a century ago were ignorant.  Studying the history of the early church, including the history of its beliefs, is possible, fascinating, and potentially fruitful."  Some difficulties with this approach are the endless speculations and differences of viewpoint and conclusions, the impossibility of being a totally 'objective' historian, and the question of why the history of early Christianity is even relevant for the present day.  The historical project, though valuable, must include theology and literary criticism.

2.) The Theological Approach: "The attempt to read the New Testament from a historical point of view, and, either simultaneously or subsequently, to draw its major theological emphases together into a coherent statement which can then address subsequent generations, our own included. The quest for "timeless truths."  He cites various scholars and their approach, particularly Rudolph Bultmann.  Some problems: "In order to produce a 'normative' statement out of the New Testament it is practically inevitable that one will emphasize one part of the text at the expense of the rest..."

3.) The Literary Criticism Approach: "The new emphasis in gospel studies is not on the creative evangelist so much so much as on the text itself.  The study of the phenomenology of reading, and the application of this to what happens when today's readers read the New Testament, is an increasingly popular field...giving an account of how texts can speak afresh in situations other than their original ones."  The problem of sliding into total subjectivism.  No ultimate Truth, only truth as I see it.


"What we now require is a creative synthesis of all of these three approaches: historical, theological, and literary...we need to do justice, simultaneously, to an emphasis on serious history (including the history of Jesus), Bultmann's emphasis on normative theology, and the postmodern emphasis on the text and its readers."  That is his project.


  1. That is a great summary, clearly stated, good questions! Curious, you appear to approach a subject in a straight forward objective manner, have you evaluated the shortcomings of the evolutionary paradigm of our day? (To be clear, chemical soup to molecules to single cell, to multicellular to vertebrates... To man) Thanks Jesse! Looking forward to future episodes! Mark Vandermause