Book Review: Jesus, Paul and the People of God

Jesus, Paul and the People of God,
Nicholas Perrin and Richard B Hays
SPCK, pb, £19.99

Bishop Tom Wright’s influence on contemporary theology has been immense, extending far beyond New Testament studies. In 2010 the proceedings of the Wheaton Theology Conference were devoted to examining Wright’s views on the historical Jesus and his writings on Paul. There are four papers on Wright’s understanding of the historical Jesus and four papers on his interpretation of Paul. Wright offers a brief response to each paper but he also contributes long papers on both Jesus and Paul, each one a tour de force.
In his introduction Nicholas Perrin suggests the book can be regarded as something of a Festschrift. But instead of offering essays that are tangential of Wright’s own interests, the contributors to this volume engage with what Wright himself has had to say. The fact that they are friends or former students does not stop them making some forceful criticisms although all express their appreciation for Wright’s achievement.
One of the interesting themes to emerge from this essay is Tom Wright’s attitude to the church. On the one hand he is not afraid to say that the church has got things wrong. History alone is the judge. In his long paper on Jesus he accuses the church of inventing its own picture of Jesus, of trying to fit Jesus into its own story of how ‘the second person of the Trinity revealed his divinity and saved people from their sins into a disembodied heaven’.
On the other hand the church is right at the centre of Wright’s understanding of the Christian faith. In a fascinating contribution Jeremy Begbie looks at why Wright is so popular with people involved in the emerging church movement. He tries to show why Wright’s ecclesiology appeals to them. In his response, Wright likens himself to the man who discovered he had been talking prose all his life without realising it. “I have been developing an ecclesiology for the last few decades without being aware of it,” he confesses.
A stress on the communal nature of Christianity and a fear of an individualist approach to salvation lie at the root of both Wright’s criticism of Reformation views on Justification by Faith and his suspicion of talk of heaven as our final resting place.
Kevin Vanhoozer understands Wright’s desire to stress that justification means God will bring gentiles into Abraham’s family but wonders if some of the traditional Reformed understanding could be preserved if there is also an emphasis on adoption. Markus Brockmuehl writes a more hostile essay on Wright’ denial that heaven is our final destination but his paper has the result of eliciting clarification from Wright.
“I have never rejected the traditional Christian belief that the faithful go to heaven when they die,” Wright assures us. “The point is that it isn’t the final destination.” After death we go to be with Christ but he will bring us with him when he comes to set up his ‘new heaven-and-earth world’. For this reason there is a sense in which the departed are permanently in heaven but it is not quite the sense as understood by popular piety.
A contribution from Richard B Hays draws from Wright the confession that he is no fan of Karl Barth! In fact Wright does not appear to be a fan of systematic theology. The Jesus who grips his imagination is the Jesus who proclaims that the exile is coming to an end and God’s kingdom is coming. Talk about the ‘true ontology of historical being’ leaves Wright cold.
But Wright’s work has enormous implications for systematic theology. Jeremy Begbie shows how his understanding of the Ascension has implications for the doctrine of the church. In the Ascension, Jesus goes ahead into God’s future against the time when heaven and earth will become one. The Spirit both ensures we have access to Christ and also preserves a space between Christ and the Church so that the Church can never claim Christ as its possession. The Church is certainly central to Wright’s account of Christianity but it can never be identified with Christ.

 

John Polkinghorne has a reputation as a top-class physicist who has also made a deep study of theology and is able to write about both disciplines with distinction. So far there have not been many guides to his thought but now a journalist Dean Nelson, who has written for the New York Times as well as the religious press, and Karl Giberson, a Professor of Physics, have teamed up to produce Quantum Leap (Monarch) a clear guide to Polkinghorne’s thinking on a range of topics as well as a brief study of his life.
The Exorcist (now at last available on DVD) was responsible for arousing a good deal of curiosity about deliverance ministry but it did not shed a good deal of light on the topic. Most dioceses have official exorcists but few know much about their ministry. In Exorcism and Deliverance, edited by William R Kay and Robin Parry (Paternoster), people from a number of backgrounds and disciplines combine to examine a very important subject. This is part of Paternoster’s ‘Studies in Pentecostal and Charismatic Issues’ series but the book will appeal to a much wider audience.
The Faith and Order Advisory Group of the Church of England (FAOG) is now being merged with the Doctrine Commission and the House of Bishops’ Theological Group to form the Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England. FAOG’s swansong is The Journey of Christian Initiation (Church House), a book of essays edited by Paul Avis.

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