Jesus’ resurrection & the “putting-to-right of all things” » NT Wright’s Easter Sermon

My family and I traveled to England with some friends to celebrate Easter at Durham Cathedral. It was in every respect a delightful time and not least of which because of NT Wright’s sermon at the Sung Eucharist on Easter morning, “The Uncomfortable Truth of Easter.”

The following remarks from Bishop Wright’s sermon are directed specifically to the ongoing debate in Great Britain regarding a bill which would allow animal-human embryos to be created for scientific research.

Real Christianity, the full-glass version, is both the truth that makes sense of all other truth and the truth that offers itself as the framework within which those other truths will find their meaning. The one thing it doesn’t do, uncomfortably for today’s pluralistic world, is offer itself as one truth among embryo1.jpgmany, or one version of a single truth common to all. And this discomfort – so disturbing that many people try to hush it up, to belittle it, to pat it on the head and say ‘there, there, that’s a nice thing to believe’ – comes out today in several areas, not least in some matters of urgent public debate. Let me just mention two.

First, the current controversy about embryo cloning. Our present government has been pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby. The euthanasia bill was another example; defeated for the moment, but it’ll be back. The media sometimes imply that it’s only Roman Catholics who care about such things, but that is of course wrong. All Christians are now facing, and must resist, the long outworking of various secularist philosophies, which imagine that we can attain the Christian vision of future hope without the Christian God. In this 1984-style world, we create our own utopia by our own efforts, particularly our science and technology.

We create our Brave New World here and now; so don’t tell us that God’s new world was born on Easter Sunday. Reduce such dangerous beliefs to abstract, timeless platitudes. The irony is that this secular utopianism is based on a belief in an unstoppable human ability to make a better world, while at the same time it believes that we (it’s interesting to ask who ‘we’ might be at this point) have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people, and to play games with the humanity of those in between. Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species-bending. Look how clever we are! Utopia must be just round the corner.

Have we learnt nothing from the dark tyrannies of the last century? It shouldn’t just be Roman Catholics who are objecting. It ought to be Anglicans and Presbyterians and Baptists and Russian Orthodox and Pentecostals and all other Christians, and Jews and Muslims as well. This isn’t a peripheral or denominational concern. It grows directly out of the central facts of our faith, because on Easter day God reaffirmed the goodness and image-bearingness of the human race in the man Jesus Christ, giving the lie simultaneously to the idea that utopia could be had by our own efforts and to the idea that humans are just miscellaneous evolutionary by-products, to be managed and manipulated at will. The Christian vision of what it means to be human is gloriously underscored by the resurrection of Jesus, and we as Easter people should make common cause with all those who are concerned about the direction our society is going in medical technology as in so much besides.

…The resurrection of Jesus is the beginning of the final putting-to-rights of all things. In the light of the resurrection, the church must never stop reminding the world’s rulers and authorities that they themselves will be held to account, and that they must do justice and bring wise, healing order to God’s world ahead of that day. Those who want to depoliticize the resurrection must first dehistoricize it, which is of course what they have been doing enthusiastically for many years – and then we wonder why the church has sometimes sounded irrelevant! But we who celebrate our risen Lord today must bear witness to Easter, God’s great act of putting-right, as the yardstick for all human justice.

Bravo Bishop Wright. Responses or reactions?

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4 thoughts on “Jesus’ resurrection & the “putting-to-right of all things” » NT Wright’s Easter Sermon

  1. James – I would imagine that part of Wright’s worry regarding Jesus’ historicity is that the modern, historical-critical approach to Jesus research can result in a distancing and control-wielding over what potential relevance this Jesus might have for the contemporary world. Without sounding too existential, if I can distance myself from what I can know about who Jesus really was (and whether he really was) then I can distance myself from what claim he may have on me. The Word made flesh stops being very fleshly. Making a tight connection historically, as Wright and others have done, serves at least to tighten the gap a bit between Jesus’ historical personhood and his claims. That is one way of approaching the issue.

    On the dogmatic front, I might start with how similar purposes could be served with a doctrine of God.

    Your thoughts?

  2. James, let me think off the top of my head with you then about how “theology proper” might use its tools, methods, and resources for moving from Jesus’ historical context to ours. Firstly, I should confess my preference for using conceptual resources as sparingly as possible and staying as closely tied to the Scriptural narrative as possible. When using concepts, I tend to think they should ultimately push us back to the text not away from it, being as “lightweight, informal, and transparent to the biblical witness” as possible.

    With that in mind, one might look (as you mentioned) to a robust Pneumatology, a doctrine of the Spirit. Pannenberg might be a good example on that front, his pneumatology actually being spread throughout his doctrines of creation, anthropology, Christology, church, and the culmination. For him, to speak of Jesus’ continuing relevance is not only to play the history card (which he does) but also to appeal to the Spirit’s ongoing work in partnership with the Son – something clearly found in the NT.

    On the other hand, what Pannenberg does not have is much of a doctrine of the ascension. It serves only to point to the necessity of the Spirit’s work after the Son’s physical departure and thus one finds little of the ongoing kingly ministry of Christ. If one were hoping to stay more in the tradition of Calvin than Luther at this point, then I suppose the ongoing work of the exalted Lord and his mediation before the Father would run closer to the surface here (the ultimate reality of Jesus as you mentioned I think). This line of thinking reminds me of an essay I read recently by Sandra Fach (which is sitting here in front of me) in which she said, “New life made possible because of Christ’s life lived, given up on the cross, and risen from the dead, is completed in the ascension to the right hand of God where Christ lives not only for himself but also for us.”

    One more way to frame the issue (likely an underlying theme throughout many different ways to do it and more emphasized in some than others) would be to place a great deal of emphasis on divine freedom. In the same volume I quoted a second ago, John Webster appeals along these lines saying, “The light which Jesus Christ is, his effulgent majesty, is not simply a state but an action and movement. In his majesty as the eternal Son, he is not inert and passive, resting in a separate and secluded glory. Rather, the majesty of Jesus Christ is known in and as the action and movement in which he imparts himself. He himself moves towards us; he comes to us.” This shifts the emphasis a bit.

    Dogmatically, I love Webster’s move here and my only fear is that it could seem too formal or abstract to some in the church less accustomed to conceptual moves such as this. For it to work well in a ministry setting (either preaching, teaching, or counseling) this move would have to be tied very tightly to points in the scriptural witness of Christ’s ongoing ministry. For me, as much as I like this move, I probably tend more toward the pneumatological thrust because I suspect it might have more “hooks” for lay people to grasp. I am still working that out.

    I am done rambling. Your thoughts?

  3. James, I might not be following you exactly, but would your question boil down to: What does historical exegesis have to do with dogmatic theology?

    If so, I think there are some interesting questions in there, particularly when historical exegesis is reading the text as historians qua historians (at least typically). Take Wright’s trilogy, which is a frontal attack on the Historical Quest, by trying to answer their questions on their own ground. Does this have anything to do with dogmatic work, or even, a proper reading of the text? I’m not so sure it does. But I think there is a lot to talk about there, not the least of which is what role does historical context play in the exegetical task – and how much does that play into dogmatic theology. I too often hear exegesis described in solely historical terms, which assumes an ontology of the text (or lack thereof) which I am not comfortable with.

    In any case, I don’t know if that helps spark some more conversation here or end it! LOL.

  4. James, I think I understand! I share some similar questions. My background is in New Testament studies, and I have often wondered what correlation the two disciplines share. For instance, much of the historical side of NT work is trying to answer the question: what did someone in the first century hear when they heard this text read? Is this an important question for dogmatics? I don’t always know.

    My worry is that we, as evangelicals, have over-emphasized the historical, and are left with simply an ancient text. I have even heard some very conservative NT scholars refer to themselves as historians rather than New Testament “theologians.” I think that is very disconcerting.

    I agree with you about the principle of analogy, if used well, but if that is all we have, then eat and drink for tomorrow we die! What I appreciate about what Wright is doing, particularly in his trilogy, is to try and argue from “enemy territory” in a way which gives validity to the New Testament, but inevitably points to the cross. My worry with this kind of apologetic task is that it can try to validate the cross, which, I think must remain, and will always remain foolishness. I get uneasy when the historical questions (surely Jesus “knew” he was going to be killed, anyone would know that who was preaching politically charged rhetoric around the countryside) seem to re-write the story as Christians have always known it.

    In any case, I think you are right, we have to take seriously the incarnational reality of the Christians claims, as claims within history. Why don’t you just figure that all out and get back to me!

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