“I do not think Jesus “knew he was God” in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself, ‘Well, I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!’ ( N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, 154).”
I have found from time to time that the Jesus I knew by faith seemed less and less like the Jesus I was discovering by history (The Meaning of Jesus, 25).
N.T. Wright, formerly Bishop of Dunham, is well-known for his association with the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) and for his staunch defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I was first introduced to Wright’s books through a pastor who thought Wright had been unfairly criticized. The pastor encouraged me to read him for myself and not to be swayed by unfavorable reviews. He told me that Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope, was the best he’d read on heaven. So I began to read Wright. I started with Surprised by Hope, and I found much that concerned me on a number of topics.
Instead of agreeing with the pastor, I was shocked that any Reformed pastor who had read the book would recommend it, given how far off-base Wright was on many different issues. I continued to read Wright’s books and articles, and I also began researching what others had written in critique of his work. I discovered that the one area I found the most troubling almost no one had written about: Wright’s Christology.
Early on in my reading, I began to wonder if Wright really believes that Jesus is/was God. This article is the result of two years of research into what Wright believes, or at least has written, about Christ. The books and articles I’ve read and will quote here are: Surprised by Hope, The Meaning of Jesus, Simply Jesus, Jesus and the Victory of God (I’ve read portions, but not the whole of this one), “Jesus and the Identity of God“, and “Jesus’ Self Understanding“.
To help explain why I began this research, here is Wright’s answer for “Is Jesus God?”
When people ask “Was Jesus God?,” they usually think they know what the word God means and are asking whether we can fit Jesus into that. I regard this as deeply misleading (The Meaning of Jesus, 144).
I do not think Jesus “knew he was God” in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself, “Well, I never! I’m the second person of the Trinity!” ( The Meaning of Jesus, 154).
This article will look first at what Wright has written concerning Jesus generally and then specifically at how Wright interprets the major events in Jesus’s life.
First, N.T. Wright is very concerned, in all his writings, that modern readers of the Bible pay attention to the historical setting and context of the books. For the New Testament, he writes that it is important to understand what a first-century Jew would have believed about God, salvation, Israel’s history, and Israel’s future. This, then, is the way he approaches understanding Jesus:
We have to make a real effort to see things from a first-century Jewish point of view, if we are to understand what Jesus was all about (Simply Jesus, 9).
Wright recognizes that his understanding of Jesus and many key doctrines are not traditional, but he says that’s a good thing:
This way of looking at the climax of Jesus’s story is not, to be sure, the standard, traditional, “orthodox,” “conservative” reading, though it highlights from a new angle the “traditional” dogmas of “incarnation” and “atonement.” My contention is that it enables us to understand the original, historical reality for which those dogmas are later, often dehistoricized, abstract summaries (Simply Jesus, 172).
He then briefly outlines common views within Western Christianity that he says need to be rethought:
Here we find the classic Western Christian myth about Jesus, which is still believed by millions around the world. In this myth, a supernatural being called “God” has a supernatural “son” whom he sends, virgin-born, into our world, despite the fact, that it’s not his natural habitat, so that he can rescue people out of this world by dying in their place. As a sign of his otherwise secret divine identity, this “son” does all kinds of extraordinary and otherwise impossible “miracles,” crowning them all by rising from the dead and returning to “heaven,” where he waits to welcome his faithful followers after their deaths. … In the Protestant version, Jesus commissions his followers to write the New Testament, which reveals the absolute truth about Jesus and, once more, how to get to heaven (Simply Jesus, 30).
He goes on to explain the error of this understanding:
[I]t will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people “how to get to heaven.” That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven, and that, at death, they could leave “earth” behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on “earth”; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality (Simply Jesus, 146).
[M]ost important, we must avoid jumping to the conclusion, from all that has been said above, that Jesus was doing things that “proved his divinity” – or that the main point he was trying to get across was that he was the “son of God” in the sense of the second person of the Trinity (Simply Jesus, 149).
Wright is, of course, aware that many theologians have used the title, “Son of God,” to refer to Jesus’s divinity. He cautions against using it in that way:
[F]or most people the phrase “son of God” carries with it all the connotations of that first myth, in which the supernatural being swoops down to reveal secret truth, do extraordinary “miracles” to prove his “divinity,” die a redemptive death, and get back to heaven at once, enabling others to get there too.
And if I say – as I’m going to – that I don’t think that story is the right way to talk about Jesus, some will say, “So you don’t think he’s the Son of God, then?” and condemn me as a hopeless liberal. Whereas if I say – as I’m going to – that I do think Jesus was and is the “son of God,” albeit within a very different sort of story, others will condemn me as a hopeless conservative (Simply Jesus, 32).
According to Wright, theologians have modified the way that Paul and older Jewish writers used the phrase:
Paul, like other New Testament writers, uses the phrase “son of God” to denote Jesus. Later theologians, forgetting their Jewish roots, would read this as straightforwardly Nicene Christology: Jesus was the second person of the Trinity.
Paul’s usage, though, is much subtler and offers further clues not only as to what the earliest Christians believed, but also why. “Son of God” in Jewish thought was used occasionally for angels, sometimes for Israel, and sometimes for the king (The Meaning of Jesus, 149).
What, then, did “son of God” mean to Paul and the early church? “Son of God” was a way “of saying that what had happened in Jesus was the unique and personal action of the one God of Israel” (The Meaning of Jesus, 150).
So what does Wright mean when he says that “what had happened in Jesus was the unique and personal action of the one God of Israel?” It’s somewhat hard to explain, and it would help to look first at how Wright interprets the major events in the life of Jesus, events that are often used to illustrate how Jesus was both God and man.
First, Wright says this about Jesus’s birth:
Jesus’ birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants. Christmas looms large in our culture, outshining even Easter in the popular mind. Yet without Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 we would know nothing about it. … One can be justified by faith with no knowledge of it (The Meaning of Jesus, 157).
If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different (The Meaning of Jesus, 164).
Wright understands that many theologians consider the uniqueness of Jesus’s birth, “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin,” very important. He disagrees:
Those who have emphasized Jesus’ divinity have sometimes made the virginal conception central. … The birth narratives have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus’ public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross (The Meaning of Jesus, 158).
Next, Jesus’s public ministry began with his baptism. The account of Jesus being baptized, with the Spirit descending as a dove and the voice of God speaking and proclaiming Jesus as His Son, is regularly used to show the Biblical basis for the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit all together. Wright gives a different explanation:
Jesus joins the crowds, and, as he is baptized, his vocation is confirmed and sharpened by a voice from the heavens: “You are my son! You are the one I love! You make me very glad” (Mark 1:11). … All the signs are that Jesus understood his baptism as the moment when he was “anointed” like Israel’s kings long ago, for this task. Israel’s God was acting through him, in him, as him. The baptism confirmed what Jesus had intuited long before and gave him the moment and the platform from which to launch the kingdom movement through which the saving plan would be accomplished (Simply Jesus, 167).
Wright says that the baptism confirmed, for Jesus, that he’d “intuited” correctly that he was called by God to “launch the kingdom movement.” And in case we misunderstand what Wright means by “anointed,” he explains:
This, again, is where the ancient idea of “anointing” comes into play. An individual is solemnly smeared with holy oil as a sign, and perhaps as a means, of a special “equipping,” or “enabling,” from YHWH himself to perform the necessary tasks. Such persons are no longer acting on their own authority or initiative, but on God’s (Simply Jesus, 59).
According to Wright, Jesus, then, was “equipped” or “enabled” by God to do what he did.
Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness further served to confirm, for Jesus, that he truly had been anointed at his baptism:
His secret wilderness victory, however, played the same role in his career that David’s killing of Goliath played in his. It indicated that the anointing at his baptism, like David’s anointing by Samuel, had been real (Simply Jesus, 168-169).
What about the miracles that Jesus performed? How do those fit into Wright’s understanding of Jesus? According to Wright, Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, commanded nature, not because he was God and had the power to do so, but rather because he was illustrating what the new creation would be like when heaven and earth came together:
We can see the material world itself being transformed by the presence and power of Israel’s God, the creator. We see it already, to be sure, in the healing stories. … Jesus not only heals the sick; he raises the dead. He feeds the hungry crowd with a few loaves and a couple of fish. Something new is happening, and it’s happening to the material world itself. He commands the raging storm to be quiet, and it obeys. …
Perhaps they are not even evidence of a kind of “interventionist,” miracle-working, “supernatural” divinity of some “conservative” speculation. Perhaps they are, instead, the sort of things that might just be characteristic of the new creation, of the fulfilled time, of what happens when heaven and earth come together (Simply Jesus, 142-143).
Wright goes on to remind us that Jesus’s miracles are not “proofs of divinity”:
Jesus’s powerful acts of healing, then, together with the other extraordinary things the gospels credit him with, are not done in order to “prove” his “divinity” (Simply Jesus, 150).
What about forgiving sins? What does it mean that Jesus forgave sins? First, Wright points out that what Jesus meant by forgiving sins was not what the early church understood it out to be:
Israel’s God had dealt with the state of exile-because-of-sin in which Israel, and the whole world, had languished. Although the early church developed ways and means of making this point that went beyond anything that Jesus himself had said … (The Meaning of Jesus, 100).
When Scripture says that Jesus would save His people from their sins that meant, Wright explains, that their physical exile was now over:
Embedded within the earliest strands of Christian tradition we find an already formulaic statement: the messiah died for our sins according to the scriptures. … It was not, first and foremost, a way of saying that the moral failures of individuals had been atoned for in some abstract theological transaction. That would come, and quickly; we find it already in Paul’s mature thought.
But in the beginning it was a claim about what Israel’s God had done, in fulfillment of the scriptural prophecies, to bring Israel’s long night of exile to its conclusion, to deal with the “sins” that had kept Israel enslaved to the pagan powers of the world, and to bring about the real “return from exile,” the dawn of the new day, for which Israel had longed (The Meaning of Jesus, 98).
When Jesus forgave the sins of individual people, Wright explains that this was merely the outworking of Israel’s forgiveness as a nation and return from exile:
Individual forgiveness is the up-close-and-personal version of what it looks like when God does what he promised and restores his exiled people (Simply Jesus, 82).
Wright also downplays the significance of Jesus being without sin:
If we ask the question of how this particular human being is the instrument of salvation and do not say as our first answer, “because in him God’s Israel-shaped plan to save the world came to fulfillment,” then we leave a huge vacuum in our thinking (and in our reading of scripture). I believe it is because of this vacuum that people have elevated minor themes, such as the sinlessness of Jesus, to a prominence which, though not insignificant, they do not possess in the NT itself (“Jesus and the Identity of God,” emphasis added).
The transfiguration is another event that is often used to illustrate the divinity of Jesus. Wright disagrees with this since Moses and Elijah were transfigured, and many other mystics have experienced transfiguration:
[T]he Transfiguration of Jesus is not, as it stands, a “proof” of his “divinity.” Moses and Elijah were “transfigured” too. So, in this nineteenth-century story, were the Russian mystic and his disciple. What the story of Jesus on the mountain demonstrates, for those with eyes to see or ears to hear, is that, just as Jesus seems to be the place where God’s world and ours meet, where God’s time and ours meet, so he is also the place where, so to speak, God’s matter – God’s new creation – intersects with ours (Simply Jesus, 146).
Instead, the transfiguration was a central moment when heaven and earth met and God’s glory came down on Jesus as it once did on the Temple:
It is within some such set of suppositions that we might make sense of the strangest moment of all, at the heart of the narrative when the glory of God comes down not to the Temple in Jerusalem, not to the top of Mount Sinai, but onto and into Jesus himself, shining in splendor, talking with Moses and Elijah, drawing the Law and the Prophets together into the time of fulfillment. The transfiguration, as we call it, is the central moment (Simply Jesus, 144).
Also, despite the way in which it has come to be used, Jesus’s role as Messiah does not indicate that he is God:
‘Messiah’, or ‘Christ’, does not mean ‘the/a divine one’. It is very misleading to use the words as shorthand for the divine name or being of Jesus (“Jesus’ Self-Understanding”).
Which brings us to what Wright speaks of as Jesus’s “vocation:”
The historian must assume that Jesus of Nazareth was gripped by a strong sense of vocation. All that we know about him suggests that he was powerfully aware, not just of a general numinous quality to the universe, but of the deeply personal presence and purpose, strength, and guidance of the one he called “Abba,” Father. … It also means that Jesus was aware, as many other Jews down the years – most recently his own cousin John – had been, that he had a particular vocation, a role to perform (The Meaning of Jesus, 40).
And what was Jesus’s vocation? According to Wright:
My case has been, and remains, that Jesus believed himself called to do and be things which, in the traditions to which he fell heir, only Israel’s God, YHWH, was to do and be. I think he held this belief both with passionate and firm conviction and with the knowledge that he could be making a terrible, lunatic mistake. I do not think this in any way downplays the signals of transcendence within the Gospel narratives (‘Jesus’ Self-Understanding,” emphasis added).
Speaking of Jesus’ “vocation” brings us to quite a different place from some traditional statements of gospel christology. “Awareness of vocation” is by no means the same thing as Jesus having the sort of “supernatural” awareness of himself, of Israel’s god, and of the relation between the two of them, such as is often envisaged by those who, concerned to maintain a “high” christology, place it within an eighteenth-century context of implicit Deism where one can maintain Jesus’ “divinity” only by holding some form of docetism. …
Jesus’ prophetic vocation thus included within it the vocation to enact, symbolically, the return of YHWH to Zion. His messianic vocation included within it the vocation to attempt certain tasks which, according to scripture, YHWH had reserved for himself. He would take upon himself the role of messianic shepherd, knowing that YHWH had claimed this role as his own. He would perform the saving task which YHWH had said he alone could achieve. He would do what no messenger, no angel, but only the “arm of YHWH”, the presence of Israel’s god, could accomplish.
As part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be. He was Israel’s Messiah; but there would, in the end, be “no king but God.” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 652-653, emphasis added.)
So, according to Wright, Jesus believed himself called to do for Israel what the Scriptures said only God would do, and part of this vocation would be to “enact, symbolically” God’s return to Jerusalem. But, Wright says, Jesus knew he could have been making a terrible mistake.
Wright is well-known for his defense of the bodily resurrection, but I think it’s important to consider how he interprets both the death and resurrection of Jesus. Here is how Wright applies his idea of Jesus’s vocation to his death:
He [Jesus] seems to have construed his vocation in terms familiar in the stories of the martyrs. He would go ahead of the nation to take upon himself the judgment of which he had warned, the wrath of Rome against rebel subjects. That was what his royal vocation demanded. That, I believe, lies at the heart of the New Testament’s insistence that Jesus died the death that awaited others, in order that they might not die it (The Meaning of Jesus, 93).
Wright explains that Jesus believed himself called to inaugurate God’s kingdom through his own death:
Somehow Jesus’s death was seen by Jesus himself, and then by those who told and ultimately wrote his story, as the ultimate means by which God’s kingdom was established (Simply Jesus, 182).
Jesus came to believe that the only way one could defeat death itself, and thereby launch the new creation for which Israel and the world longed, was to take on death itself, like David taking on Goliath in mortal combat, trusting that Israel’s God, the creator of life itself, would enable victory to be won (Simply Jesus, 171).
Wright warns that Jesus’s death is often misunderstood:
[I]t is easy to belittle Jesus’s death theologically. … [N]otoriously, it can be done by imagining a straightforward transaction in which a God who wanted to punish people was content to punish the innocent Jesus instead. This always, of course, leaves unanswered, the question of how such a punishment could itself be just, let alone loving (Simply Jesus, 181).
The same warning goes for the resurrection:
I have heard, too, that the resurrection means that Jesus is now alive, and one can enter into a relationship with him. That is true so far as it goes, but it is not the specific truth of the resurrection, and it is certainly not the meaning that the evangelists and Paul read from the first Easter (The Meaning of Jesus, 117).
Wright explains that the resurrection of Jesus is not meant as a “proof of divinity:”
Despite a long tradition, I do not regard the resurrection as instantly ‘proving Jesus’ divinity’ (“Jesus’ Self Understanding”).
So what does the resurrection mean? According to Wright, there are two main points. First, the resurrection confirms that Jesus did in fact have a vocation to be the Messiah and that God has vindicated him:
Rather, the meaning of the resurrection must begin with the validation of Jesus as messiah, as Paul says in Romans 1:4. It means that Israel’s God, the creator, has affirmed that Jesus really was, all along, his “son” (The Meaning of Jesus, 118).
Jesus was the messiah; and the explanation was that God had vindicated him by raising him from the dead (The Meaning of God, 110).
Second, Wright says that Jesus’s resurrection means that the kingdom of God has come and the new creation has begun. Jesus is, himself, the prototype of the new creation:
Jesus’s risen person – body, mind, heart, and soul – is the prototype of the new creation. We have already seen him as the Temple in person, as the jubilee in person. Now we see him as the new creation in person (Simply Jesus, 189).
Wright also has a different interpretation for the meaning of the ascension. The ascension is also not about Jesus’s divinity, but rather his humanity:
The ascension thus speaks of the Jesus who remains truly human (Surprised by Hope, 103).
Nor would the ‘glorification’ of Jesus, his ascension to God’s right hand have that effect: Jesus had, in New Testament theology, thereby attained the place marked out from the beginning not for an incarnate being but for the truly human one (“Jesus’ Self-Understanding”).
The significance of the ascension, according to Wright, is that Jesus is now lord and that “there is already a human being at the helm of the world.” (Surprised by Hope, 103)
Moving on to Wright’s view of the second coming, Wright says that Jesus never spoke of a “second coming:”
The first thing to get clear is that despite widespread opinion to the contrary, during his earthly ministry Jesus said nothing about his return (Surprised by Hope, 113).
Wright explains that when Jesus told parables of about the master who goes away and returns that he was speaking about how God was returning to Jerusalem through Jesus’s own work:
[T]he stories Jesus tells about a king or master who goes away for a while and leaves his subjects or servants to trade with his money in his absence were not originally meant to refer to Jesus going away and leaving the church with tasks to get on with until his eventual second coming, even though they were read in that way from fairly early on. …
In their original setting, the point of these stories is that Israel’s God, YHWH, is indeed coming at last to Jerusalem, to the Temple – in and as the human person Jesus of Nazareth. The stores are, in that sense, not about the second coming of Jesus but about the first one. …
Jesus was having a hard enough time explaining to his disciples that he had to die … . How could they possibly have understood him saying something about further events in what would have been, for them, a still more unthinkable future? (Surprised by Hope, 114).
The apocalyptic language that Jesus uses in Mark 13 (and similar passages) is not describing the end of the world, according to Wright, but rather, his death and the coming destruction of Jerusalem:
[Mark 13] is to be read as a prediction not of the end of the world, but of the fall of Jerusalem. When the Old Testament prophets speak of the sun, and the moon being darkened, the stars falling from heaven, and so forth, they do not intend that this language be taken literally. …
In the same way, the language in Mark 13: 24-27 about the sun and moon being darkened, and particularly about the Son of Man coming on the clouds, should no be taken in a crassly literalistic sense (The Meaning of Jesus, 46).
Many have traditionally read Jesus’ sayings about judgment either in terms of the postmortem condemnation of unbelievers or of the eventual destruction of the space-time world. The first-century context of the language in question, however, indicates otherwise.
Jesus was warning his contemporaries that if they did not follow his way, the way of peace and forgiveness, the way of the cross, the way of being the light of the world, and if they persisted in their determination to fight a desperate holy war against Rome, then Rome would destroy them, city, temple, and all … (The Meaning of Jesus, 46).
Wright goes on to explain that the modern Western church has completely misunderstood Jesus’s “return:”
Many Christians, particularly in North America, have been taught for the last century and a half that when Jesus returns he will come down from “heaven” and that his faithful people (i.e. Christians) will then fly upward into the sky to meet him and be taken to heaven with him forever. …
But it’s a complete misunderstanding. It’s based on a misreading of what Paul says about the return of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17, just four verses, with the idea of a “rapture” in only one, as the basis for a complete theory of everything. … The point is that this language is not meant to be taken literally (Simply Jesus, 195-196).
Instead, Wright says that there is a better explanation for what will happen at the end of time. Jesus will not “return” exactly. Instead, he will reappear when heaven and earth come together:
Thinking of the second coming or of Jesus “returning” often raises the same kind of problems that we saw with the ascension. People who still think that “heaven” is a long way away, up in the sky, and that that’s where Jesus has gone, imagine that the second coming will be an event somewhere like the return of a space shuttle from its far-off orbit. Not so.
Heaven is God’s space, God’s dimension of present reality, so that to think of Jesus “returning” is actually, as both Paul and John say in the passages just quoted, to think of him presently invisible, but one day reappearing.
It won’t be the case that Jesus will simply reappear within the world the way it presently is. His return – his reappearing – will be the central feature of the much greater event that the New Testament writers promise, based on Jesus’s resurrection itself: heaven and earth will one day come together and be present and transparent to each other. That’s what they were made for, and that’s what God will accomplish one day.
It has, in fact, already been accomplished in the person of Jesus himself; and what God has done in Jesus, bringing heaven and earth together at immense cost and with immense joy, will be achieved in and for the whole cosmos at last (Simply Jesus, 197).
So far, we’ve seen that Wright denies that “son of God” or “Messiah” are titles that refer to Jesus’s divinity. We’ve also seen that Wright says that Jesus did not know he was God. In addition, Wright has reinterpreted Jesus’s baptism, temptation, miracles, forgiving of sins, transfiguration, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. He downplays the importance of Jesus’ birth and sinless life, and he redefines Jesus’s work in terms of “vocation.”
So what does Wright say about the incarnation? And how does he explain the relationship between Jesus, the Son, and God, the Father?
Here is how Wright summarizes his understanding of who Jesus was:
I suggest, in short, that the return of YHWH to Zion, and the Temple-theology which it brings into focus, are the deepest keys and clues to gospel christology. Forget the “titles” of Jesus, at least for a moment; forget the pseudo-orthodox attempts to make Jesus of Nazareth conscious of being the second person of the Trinity; forget the arid reductionism that is the mirror-image of that unthinking would-be orthodoxy.
Focus, instead, on a young Jewish prophet telling a story about YHWH returning to Zion as judge and redeemer, and then embodying it by riding into the city in tears, symbolizing the Temple’s destruction and celebrating the final exodus.
I propose, as a matter of history, that Jesus of Nazareth was conscious of a vocation: a vocation, given to him by the one he knew as “father,” to enact in himself, what, in Israel’s scriptures, God had promised to accomplish all by himself. He would be the pillar of cloud and fire for the people of the new exodus. He would embody in himself the returning and redeeming action of the covenant God (Jesus and the Victory of God, 653, emphasis added).
Wright also says that Jesus read the Scriptures and felt a calling to do and to be for Israel what the Scriptures said that God Himself would be and do for Israel. As such, because of his anointing and his special awareness of God, Jesus “embodied” or acted out “symbolically” the return of YHWH to Zion:
Jesus could, and I have argued, did believe that he, in filling these roles, was doing something for Israel that Israel could not do for itself, something that in its scriptures only its God, YHWH, could and would do (The Meaning of Jesus, 208).
He [Jesus] believed, it seems – the stories he told at the time bear this out quite strikingly – that as he came to Jerusalem he was embodying, incarnating, the return of Israel’s God to his people in power and glory (Simply Jesus, 48).
Wright says, then, that Jesus embodied the presence of God in the way that the Temple once did:
Around and within all is the presence, the presence of Israel’s God himself, no longer in the pillar of cloud and fire, no longer in a wilderness tabernacle or an ornate stone-and-timber Temple, but in and as a human being, the Human Being, the Image-bearer, Jesus himself (Simply Jesus, 178).
It [the Temple] was the place where heaven and earth met. … And Jesus, as we have already seen, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up – but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. …
[T]he joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living. …
[T]his is the very heart of what later theologians would call the doctrine of the incarnation. But it looks quite different from how many people imagine that doctrine to work. … Jesus was behaving as if he were the Temple, in person. He was talking about Israel’s God taking charge. And he was doing things that put that God-in-chargeness into practice (Simply Jesus, 135).
The last thing I want to look at here is the way in which Wright describes the relationship between Jesus, the Son, and God, the Father. Wright consistently speaks of them as separate entities, but in a way that is different from traditional descriptions of the persons of the Trinity. Here Wright gives his definition of the Trinity:
The Trinity is precisely a way of recognizing and celebrating the fact of the human being Jesus of Nazareth as distinct from while still identified with God the Father, on the one hand … and the Spirit, on the other hand (Surprised by Hope, 103).
Wright also explains that reason Jesus has equality with God the Father is because of what did, not because of who he is:
Paul has Jesus exalted to a position of equality with “the Father” because he has done what, in Jewish tradition, only the one God can do (“Jesus and the Identity of God”).
In addition, Wright writes that Jesus’s reign is temporary:
In fact, Paul in that passage (1 Corinthians 15:20-28) says something we might not otherwise have guessed. The reign of Jesus, in its present mode, is strictly temporary. God the father has installed Jesus in power, to act on his behalf; but when his task is complete, “the son himself will be placed in proper order” under God the father, “so that God may be all in all” (Simply Jesus, 223-224).
In summary, I believe that Wright has redefined what it means to say that Jesus is God. From the general consideration of Jesus’s work to the specifics events of his life, death, and resurrection, Wright has fought against what he sees as errors in the church’s understanding:
My problem with “proofs of divinity” is that all too often, when people have spoken or written like that, it isn’t entirely clear that they have the right “God” in mind. What seems to be “proved” is a semi-Deist type of Christianity – the type of thing a lot of Christians in the eighteenth century, and many since then, have thought they should be defending.
In this sort of Christianity, “God” is in heaven and sends his divine second self, his “Son,” to “demonstrate his divinity,” so that people would worship him, be saved by his cross, and return with him to heaven (Simply Jesus, 149-150).
And he has sought to correct those errors with his own reinterpretation:
Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew, possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple, and dying on a Roman cross—and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word “god” to be recentered around that point (‘Jesus and the Identity of God”).
In conclusion, Wright says:
After fifteen years of serious historical Jesus study, I still say the creed ex animo; but I now mean something very different by it, not least by the word “god” itself (“Jesus and the Identity of God”).
Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She is also a homeschooling mother of 3 boys and member of a PCA church in Spring, Texas. This article first appeared at her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and is used with permission.