Book Review: History and Eschatology

History and Eschatology Tom Wright Book Review

Reviewing books by N. T., or Tom, Wright is always an adventure. Partly because there are so many of them, partly because he has fans and detractors in similar numbers, and partly because his output is so broad, covering both academic and popular streams, and touching on all sorts of things. I should also note that this particular book is published by SPCK, an imprint of the company I work for. The book I’m reviewing today, though, is perhaps one of his strongest. In fact, apart from the couple of issues I had with it, it may in fact be the best way to a) get a grip on all the different things Wright is trying to do and b) understand what he’s trying to say. Ostensibly, though, History and Eschatology is ‘just’ the publication of Wright’s Gifford Lectures. This is a series of lectures aimed at speaking into the questions of ‘natural theology’. Natural theology, it should be noted, is generally agreed to be the practice of “using the cognitive faculties that are “natural” to human beings—reason, sense-perception, introspection—to investigate religious or theological matters” (from here), and in a Christian sense could be summarized as trying to argue for God without mentioning Scripture, or other ‘super-natural’ things. With this in mind, some may be somewhat perturbed that Wright, best known as a New Testament scholar, was invited to give a series of lectures on the topic. This book goes some way towards showing why that might not have been such a bad idea.

In typically bombastic but excitable style (Seriously, for a big hardback with oodles of references [and a panopoly of self-references to Wright’s wider corpus], this is a really readable and enjoyable book) Wright makes the case that in order to do ‘natural theology’ properly, we actually have to give appropriate weight to the Bible, in particular with regard to the historical character of Jesus: “History matters; and thus Jesus and the New Testament ought by rights to be included as possible sources for the task of ‘natural theology’. In saying this I am certainly not attempting to revive the kind of rationalist apologetic that would seek to ‘prove’ the Christian faith by a supposed ‘appeal to history’. ‘History’ is far more complex than that“. History and Eschatology is a book that never strays too far from it’s title, as Wright writes “With Jesus’ resurrection comes the possibility, and perhaps even the promise, of a renewed ‘natural theology’“. In order to get to Jesus, though, wherein Wright is most comfortable, the reader is treated to a whistlestop and probing tour of the history of thinking itself, and offers a confident argument: “To make the case for including Jesus in the topic at all, I shall dismantle some of the now standard misunderstandings of his public career and teaching and go on to argue for a fresh placing of him within the Jewish symbolic as well as historical world of his day“. This is a confident book, as befits a scholar of Wright’s prodiguous output.

I should note at this point my one major issue with History and Eschatology. Readers of this blog will know that I have particular interest in theological anthropology, that is, what it means to be human. A key thread running through Wright’s work (Both specifically here and more generally) is that the original creation was good, and in the Resurrection that goodness is affirmed and validated. Wright is surely correct in his observation that “if you get rid of the image-bearers, you might glimpse some kind of a god, but it won’t be the Jewish or Christian one“. That humanity is made in the Image of God is an undisputed and vital biblical theme – what this actually means, however, is somewhat debatable. Wright is blunt (And, in my view, not entirely correct) when he states “the notion of ‘being made in the image’ is functional or vocational—not that ontology doesn’t matter, but that the stress and weight of the ‘image’ language here is on the tasks which the humans are called upon to do“. I want to ask simply: is that true? Is what we do, what makes us human? Was what Jesus did what made him Jesus? Yes, in part, but not in the final and firm way Wright seems to frame it here. The vocation of humanity is important – yet I would argue (At least in part in line with Wright’s own argument elsewhere in this book!) that the ontology as beings created to be in loving relationship is actually more important. This vocation is important but it is secondary to the fact that humanity is made in the Image of God. That is what we are – what we do, perhaps, is to reveal that more and more as we relate rightly to God, creation and each other. This might seem like a niggle, but I think it is an important point. Ironically, I feel it more strongly precisely because of the way Wright constructs his argument more generally.

Throughout History and Eschatology Wright is wonderfully preoccupied with creation and new creation, with Genesis and with the Resurrection. This forms the basis of what he calls “the epistemology of love“, drawing together various threads in his previous work to state firmly:

Love, as historical epistemology, opens itself to first-century Jewish modes of thought and refuses to slap them down as ‘ancient worldviews’ which we ‘moderns’ have left behind, to be replaced with a heavy-handed assumed Epicureanism or Platonism. Love, as theological epistemology, finds itself drawn to explore the ancient Israelite, and then Second Temple Jewish, Temple-cosmology and Sabbath-eschatology, focusing both on the one true Image-bearer, discovering through both a worldview in which not only the resurrection of Jesus but, through it, the reaffirmation of creation’s goodness makes (so to speak) a sense that goes on sensing. Love itself, knowledge itself, are thereby renewed, so that by responding to the creator’s love revealed in the resurrection a new mode of knowing is born to greet the new mode of reality to which Temple and Sabbath had all along pointed. Love, as vocational epistemology, discovers like Peter a fresh calling to tend the flock, to feed the sheep, to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel.

To get to this point, Wright has traced the way in which questions of natural theology have been asked and answered, in what is almost a historical biography of ideas and relevant people. The resurrection is central to his argument – “the resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of creation’s renewal” – this is just one of a number of ‘signposts’ that give us a sense of what is going on. Natural theology, then, is reimagined to be a useful pursuit, as we being to recognise ‘broken signposts’ that point beyond themselves. For Wright, “the signpost of a broken human being, in whose fate the horror, shame and injustice of the world seem to be drawn together, sums up the problem of natural theology. The resurrection, however, compels us to look back at that symbol, and that problem, and see them differently. When love believes the resurrection—when the historical hermeneutic of love grasps the eschatological truth of new creation—that love will discover its own true identity.” It is worth noting that this ‘love’ is not some soppy feeling, but rather something closer to what David Wells describes as God’s ‘holy-love’, and most certainly includes justice. The cross, then, is also central: “The cross of Jesus belongs totally within the ‘natural’ world, the world indeed of nature red in tooth and claw—including human nature, where Orwell’s terrible image, of a boot stamping on a human face for ever, sums up the world. But when we look at this event from the angles we have now explored we can say with trembling but grateful confidence that here the living God is truly revealed.” This reader, at least, was reminded of 1 John 3:16!

At it’s heart, History and Eschatology is a book about what many Christians call the Kingdom of God. If we can (as I would suggest we should) note and put aside Wright’s emphasis on vocation over ontology in what it means to be human, we can end up somewhere very interesting. This is not theology for theology’s sake, but an observation of truth, in love, that affects the way we live. Wright writes;

The signposts must come to life afresh. When we fight for justice and stand up for the oppressed, we are knowing God, making him known, demonstrating by the spirit his own passion for justice. When we delight in beauty and create more of it, God the glad creator is displayed and honoured. When we cherish freedom and share it; when we speak truly, and especially when we speak new creation into being by articulating fresh truth, the God of Genesis and Exodus is present, celebrated and known. When we exercise power humbly and wisely, and hold to account those who do otherwise, we are living out publicly the power of the cross and demonstrating that the innate human vocation, given in the creation of image-bearers, was a true signpost to the reality of God and the world. When we worship and pray, and above all when we enter into wise, self-giving and fruitful relationships, we are knowing and honouring the God of creation and making him known. There will be grief in all this. There will be love in all this. There will thus be knowledge: we will be engaged in the true, image-bearing ‘natural theology’. Those who discern the dawn must awaken the world.

That line resonated with me very deeply. “Those who discern the dawn must awaken the world“. Wright is not for a minute arguing that what we do is what God should be doing, but rather that everything the Christian is invited into is part of the coming Kingdom of God. This is the eschatology part of Wright’s title, rooted in this history part that he identifies with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is vital to note the importance of eschatology, here “Once you eliminate the biblical eschatology of new creation, you are left with an escapist ‘eschatology’ to be activated in the present by existentialism (Bultmann), or with the depressing theory that we live in the best of all possible worlds (Leibniz), or with a shoulder-shrugging Epicureanism, or with Sartrian despair.” This is a realistic, eschatology, too; “the present world still reflects, from the Johannine point of view, the fact that it has been taken over by ‘the ruler of this world’. (Here there is of course a tension, since in the Gospel Jesus appears to claim that the ruler will be cast out’ through his death, but in the First Epistle we are firmly told that ‘the whole world is under the power of the evil one’ [1 John 5.19]. This appears to be more ‘now-and-not-yet’.)“. From an activist, Vineyard/charismatic perspective, there is much to celebrate in Wright’s view that “Every healing is a reaffirmation of the goodness of the currently sick body, just as the resurrection itself is the reaffirmation of the goodness of the original creation. Every time there is a fresh work of justice or liberation, a fresh telling of truth or wise exercise of power, a new glimpse of beauty, experience of spirituality or embrace of love—every time the resurrection reveals the broken signposts to have been telling the truth after all, the quest of natural theology is affirmed.” The final sections of this book would find their place in the ‘inspiration’ section of any Christian’s library.

So, then, as this review approaches the 2000-word-mark, is this book any good? If you don’t like Wright’s work, this book is worth reading as he engages robustly and has done his homework. If you do like Wright, then this book will probably make your heart sing. Personally, other than the problematic emphasis on vocation rather than ontology (doing rather than being, in normal people language) in his discussion of what it means to be made in the Image of God, I found this a thrilling and exciting read. Those thinking critically and academically about history, natural theology and related issues will find much to chew over. Pastors and Christian disciples, however, will find in these pages a rich and robust articulation of what it actually means to say that the Kingdom of God is now and not yet. I recommend HIstory and Eschatology warmly.

  1. Caleb Woodbridge

    Thanks Tom – good review and I look forward to reading this! *to-read pile totters nervously*

    I wonder whether Wright might include “being created to be in loving relationship” within the vocation of humanity? Relationships are both a state of being and a type of activity, so if Wright’s emphasis is on relating *as an action* then the difference you’re highlighting might not be as sharp – or at least, located in a different place. I’ll have to read it to see what I think!

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