NT Wright is seriously wrong
I have come to the view that there are serious mistakes in NT Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God.
One error is that Wright presents a view of salvation history which is anachronistic at key points; and which fails to notice the difference in the portrait of God in the New and Old Testaments.
Wright wants to present God as having had a plan from the time of the fall for defeating evil. The plan involves the selection of
Israel to be a light to the world. There are a number of problems with this.
Wright says that God’s idea was from the outset that Israel would be the light of nations. But this idea is first found in Second Isaiah, about the mid 6th century BCE, and is a reaction to the apparent abandonment of Israel by God: if God will not restore us to our former national sovereignty perhaps he means us to have spiritual leadership. It is anachronistic to suggest that this is what God intended all along.
Further, God’s promises to Abraham, Moses and David were generous and far reaching covering everything that Israel could desire in terms of national sovereignty, prosperity, good health and fecundity. Of course, they were only partly realised because Israel was disobedient, but the answer to that was to repent of the disobedience and resume the promised idyllic existence. What is the inner logic in God’s deciding to develop an entirely new grand plan (Israel as the light of nations) in which all the earlier promises are simply ignored?
Thirdly, the idea of evil is a critical element in Wright’s understanding of the divine plan. But evil is not an OT biblical notion and enters into Jewish thought by way of Zoroastrianism and apocalyptic writings in the last two or three centuries before Christ. It is grossly anachronistic to make it an element of God’s plan for Israel from the outset. Also the idea of evil is treated as though it is a straightforward one but it is far from that.
I have suggested in the preceding paragraphs that Wright, in an attempt to find a divine grand plan for humanity, has constructed a spurious continuity between Jewish tradition and Jesus. But he is even more assiduous in ignoring the possibility that Jesus rejects major elements of Jewish tradition as found in the Old Testament.
For Wright, God is faithful, loving and merciful, the picture of God that might be derived from Jesus. It is important to his overall thesis that God is portrayed in this way, since otherwise it is hard to sustain the idea that God had the same plan of salvation all along. But the OT God is quite different from the picture painted by Wright.
The God of the OT is a God of power who throws his weight around in earthly affairs. Jesus’ concept of God’s activity in the world is much more like the period of after the Babylonian captivity, when God is absent, than the period of Abraham and Moses when God is constantly intervening in the world. Wright’s suggestion, that God uses the Romans as a means of bringing down destruction on the Jewish nation in 70 AD for failing to heed Christ, is an appeal back to that primitive God and is quite foreign to the NT account of Jesus.
Further, despite his protestations to the contrary, the God of the Old Testament exercised power with little regard for issues of justice and mercy. Sometimes he is deliberate in the exercise of his power, seeking to advance his interests through planning (as when he hardens the heart of Pharaoh or leads the people out of danger or gives them success in battle); at other times his power is vented in anger or pique or is cruelly whimsical. His use and abuse of power comes to a head when Job demands an explanation for the torments that God has allowed to be inflicted on him. God’s only response is that he is immensely powerful and Job is puny. Job’s final words say, in effect, that God condemns himself out of his own mouth.
Wright says that Jesus accuses Israel of being possessed by Satan in part because it prefers the path of violence to that of peace. Now there is no doubt that Jesus was against violence but was his criticism directed at the Jews of his own day or the tradition to which they were heir? Wright must claim it was directed at the Jews of Jesus’ own day if he is to protect his version of God and the constancy of his salvation plan.
But in most of the Old Testament, God is a warrior God and the Lord of Hosts- certainly in the Pentateuch, Judges and Kings; and also in the Psalms. If Jesus was claiming that he was going to restore Israel, then Jesus’ hearers had good reason to expect that the Lord of Hosts would come in power and might to sweep away the occupying Romans and restore Israel to its rightful place of supremacy among the nations. They could also legitimately anticipate that he would achieve this by the means he had employed so often in the past, a massive intervention in the natural order of things- for example, use of the elements to destroy enemies, supernatural enhancement of Israel’s military prowess, manipulation of the minds of Israel’s enemies to advance God’s plans. These expectations were not some nationalist perversion of the scriptures but their constantly repeated and explicit claims. It is therefore difficult not to conclude that in attacking violence, Jesus had the mainstream Jewish tradition of the OT in his sights, not its current custodians.
My second major criticism of Wright is his view that it Jesus is mistakenly thought to have been an innovative teacher of timeless ethical truths. Wright rejects this for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus’ ethic may have had a different slant but it was not distinctively new. In fact everything that he preached can be found in the OT scriptures, at least in germ, if they are read with sufficient sensitivity. Occasionally he asks the reader whether Jesus may have been denouncing the OT tradition as distinct from its current custodians but he rejects the idea out of hand. In my opinion this is mostly wrong but I will leave that for another post.