Tuesday, October 9, 2012

A review of Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright's The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions

I will add several posts here reviewing The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions one section per post.


 Critical issues in contemporary Protestant theology can be further distilled in the pivotal discussion between Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright in their collaborative book, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.  Borg was one of the members of the Jesus Seminar, and is professor of religion at Oregon State University.  Wright is Canon of Westminster Cathedral, historian, and a major biblical theologian of the “New Paul” school.  Their alternative perspectives crystallize key theological issues in dispute between liberal and evangelical theology particularly on the relationship between the “historical Jesus” and biblical theology.  The cover of the book hypes the contrast between the “liberal and conservative” credentials of Borg and Wright respectively, a point to be taken, yet with some advisement. 

 The contrast is clear enough in that Borg’s grounding point throughout is the tension between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith.  Borg points to the many retrojections of key Old Testament passages and allusions by the early church in the New Testament that the biblical writers draw upon to highlight the Christological significance of the Risen One, depicted as the “son of God.”  In addition, Borg notes, the New Testament contains deified depictions of Jesus, which, according to the proponents of the Jesus Seminar, are well beyond any self reference the historical personage of Jesus of Nazareth would have likely said about himself. 

Borg accepts the Christological claims in faith as God indwelling in Christ and discovers both Jesus and the Bible anew.   However, it is a depiction which is metaphorical, the way in which God speaks to a specific faith community in and through its own particular idiom.  This keeps open the possibility, and on Borg’s reading, the likelihood that God speaks as fully to other faith communities in other ways.  The claim of exclusivism, of Christ as the full embodiment of God in human flesh, as the way the truth and the life without equivocation is categorically rejected by Borg even as such imagery speaks profoundly to the believing faith community.  The question of ultimate truth remains largely unexamined in Borg’s depiction in his primary focus on the existential significance of Christ’s mediation of God in the light of the compelling challenges of modernity/ postmodernity and the ongoing work of constructing the historical record.  There is an implicit acceptance of a non-foundational postmodern credo in his theology, itself, an invariable form of foundationalism.

 Building on the work of E.P. Sanders, J.D. Dunn and others in reconstructing the “Jewish Jesus,” whom Borg accepts, N.T. Wright places the mission of Jesus within the historical context of second temple Judaism.  From such a vantage-point, this makes plausible the view that Jesus self understood his calling as Israel’s Messiah, which was not simply a later retrojection by the early church.  Notwithstanding this grounding in Israel’s history, the Messiah as embodied by Jesus radically reconstructed prevailing perceptions of a liberating king in the image of a conquering David.  This somewhat altered perception of God on a cross, nonetheless, could find justification in Jewish scripture as a legitimate midrash, once the vision was unleashed of Christ as a crucified and resurrected redeemer king.  In this respect Wright takes on the challenge of historical Jesus scholarship, but gives it a new twist in drawing out the ample ground of considerable continuity between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith as expressed particularly in the synoptic gospels and the letters of Paul.

 On Wright’s interpretation the gospel supersedes the Torah while noting that Christ revealed is the fulfillment of the law in light of Adam’s sin and Israel’s inability to fulfill both its letter and spirit through acts of human righteousness and unrelenting faithfulness to the core credo (Deut 6:4-9).  In his various work, Wright provides a profusion of evidence to demonstrate the plausibility of Jesus’ self-understanding based on this reconstructed messianic vision, thoroughly congruent with the deepest teachings of Israel’s God as suffering servant, as most fully embodied in Isaiah.

 Wright’s argument is a double-edged sword for Reformed-based Protestants.  On the one hand, he has made a massive contribution in locating New Testament theology firmly in Jewish soil, therefore helping to establish the historical credibility of at least a good potion of its basic texts.  The connection between Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and the Suffering Servant as Israel’s God, in turn, provides justification for the more creedal-based texts in some of the latter epistles and the Gospel of John.  Thus, on Wright’s reading, with God acting in and through the process, the Jesus of history, both pre and post crucifixion leads cumulatively to the Christ of faith and the means by which the Abrahamic vision of bringing God’s kingdom to the world is imaginatively realized. 

 The lurking concern remains the place of historical accuracy as the basis for faith.  From the perspective of narrative theology establishing greater linkages between history and the text enhances credibility, if only in the respect that if an utterly radical disconnect between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith existed, credulity would, at the very least, be severely strained.  That is, narrative theology works, to the extent that it does, because at the least there is a modicum of connection between that which is depicted in the text to that which actually existed as far as the historical record can disclose.  Borg and J.D. Crossan accept this, too, except they emphasize the discontinuities and the retrojected nature of the New Testament depiction of Jesus in conformity to the image of the early church, while Wright draws out the continuities grounded in Jewish history.  Even the mission to the Gentiles provided, on Paul’s argument, the basis for the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant, and is congruent, therefore, with the most basic teachings of the Torah.  This is a major argument Wright (1991) draws out in The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology.

In the very process of establishing a tighter connection between faith claims and the historical record, a concern arises that Wright might be placing too much emphasis on historical accuracy as the basis for a faith stance that needs to remain grounded in “the substance of thing hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11:1).   Thus, with Borg, the historically marginalized figure of Jesus of Nazareth residing in the outpost of the Roman Empire some 2000 years ago cannot be the basis for faith.  It is, rather, on God working through Christ and placing him, as Christian theology has it, as the central figure in human history even if the events described in the New Testament are not historically accurate.  Wright does not deny this in his embrace of both history and faith, allowing each to have its say at their appropriate levels of discourse. The question remains how far the disconnect can go.  On this, Borg and Wright diverge even as both acknowledge in different ways the invariable tension between the claims of history and those of faith.  These issues go to the heart of The Meaning of Jesus:  Two Visions.

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