April 5, 2020

Review: Jesus and The Victory of God by N.T. Wright

Jesus and the Victory of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 2)For the past year, I’ve been reading N.T. Wright more than any other author. His “big books” have been mountains that I was determined to climb carefully and thoroughly. Today I finished what easily goes to the top of my list of books that have impacted my life, my ministry, my faith and my understanding of the Bible: Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, the second book in his Christian Origins and the Question of God series.

I have been reading the Bible since I was a child. I’ve been reading the words of Jesus for at least 40 years of my life. I have clear memories of reading those “red letters” in my KJV Bible as a child. Ive listened to thousands of sermons. I’ve majored in religion in college. I did almost 5 years of seminary and graduate study. I’ve taught the Gospel of Mark at least 50 times, and I have a passion for that particular Gospel. I’ve read ??? books on Jesus and the Gospels. I’m in my second year of teaching the Gospel of John now. I’ve preached many many hundreds of times from the Gospels.

I am at home in the Gospels. Too much at home. It is hard for me to feel the excitement and power of the New Testament. I have lived in the New Testament so long, I am innoculated against much of its Good News. Jesus is there, but he is not living, breathing and real.

The effect of Wright’s book is inestimable. Speaking for myself, it has done a remarkable job of shaking my notion of Jesus loose from the museum display where it tends to end up. Perhaps you can relate.

There is a tone, a feeling, to the knowledge of Jesus that most of us have within our minds and hearts. That knowledge is fragmented. We all have a collection of stories, sayings, beliefs, confessions, hymns, sermons, movies, art and other kinds of presentations about Jesus. Because Jesus is a cultural icon in western culture, he meets you everywhere. The result of this is an accumulation of information and reaction about Jesus that has very little in common other than the fact that it is about Jesus. The overall impression is the Jesus of our culture, church or theological “team,” and not the Christ who was too dangerous for the world to tolerate.

Luke Timothy Johnson, in The Real Jesus, says that the Jesus of history is unknowable by historical methodology. It is the Christ of the church’s confession of faith who is the “real” Jesus. Attempts by historians and “Jesus Seminar” types to recover the “real” Jesus are a waste of time. We have the only real Jesus in the church’s worship and experience.

N.T. Wright does not share this skepticism. Nor is he daunted by the accumulation of unrelated and varying material about Jesus that is present in our culture’s knowledge base. He believes that real knowledge of the historical Jesus is possible. In fact, he is optimistic that we can know much about this Jesus, and what we know can enhance and revitalize our faith in the twenty-first century.

Wright’s method was described in The New Testament and The People of God. The difficulty of that book paid off as the methodology was used to evaluate the first century world. Now, in this book, the same methodology is brought to bear on three major questions: What was Jesus’ relation to Judaism? What was the meaning of his words and actions in ministry? Finallym, What was the purpose of his death?

Wright takes the reader on a long journey, but in the last quarter of the book the reader will begin to have an experience that makes the difficulties of the journey worthwhile. A picture of Jesus emerges that validates the New Testament, but at the same time deeply challenges the church and the culture in which we live. Jesus emerges from Wright’s book no longer a character in our sermons and Bible studies, but as one who fits into the first century world, and has deep relevance for our own. Jesus is revealed in the pages of scripture in a new and provocative way.

The book is not simple, but it is accessible to any college educated reader. Wright has a good bit to say about New Testament scholarship in places, but this is not an “in house” book. It is a book that has paid dividends in my preaching, teaching, ministry and worship over and over again. It will be read again as I return to many of Wright’s sections on particular teachings and actions of Jesus.

In The New Testament and The People of God, Wright suggests that we remember the New Testament message that we only truly know God in the face of Jesus Christ. Wright’s efforts to renew and excite the study of Jesus have made God more real to me, and made the Bible a new book. It is hard to thank Wright sufficiently for what his studies have meant to my own. I owe him an immense debt.

Wright’s book isn’t without drawbacks. There are passages that I believe Wright bungles in order to get to some of his larger goals, but this is rare. Critics of Wright’s work on Paul, however, will be considerably surprised at what they find here. I believe that interpreting Wright on Paul is made much easier when Wright’s work on Jesus is kept in mind.

One warning is absolutely necessary: Wright’s views on eschatology will be difficult for most traditional evangelicals to grasp. It is essential that those views be understood, however. It is Jesus’ version of Israel’s eschatology that is the key to so much in this book. Simply be warned that advocates of traditional “end of the world” eschatology are going to find something quite different here.

There is no book I can recommend higher. Its subject would exhaust endless armies of scholars and the writing of countless books, but your time spent with Wright and his presentation of Jesus will do nothing but make this King greater and more worthy of your own love and service.

Comments

  1. What a glowing recommendation! It’s now on my list. My very long and quickly growing list.

  2. My experience of Wright has been exactly the same, Michael. He has given me back the Jesus I always sensed was there. It pains me so when some of my Reformed friends (most of whom have never actually read him) speak of him as if he were the Antichrist.

  3. Last Easter I purchased and began reading Bishop Wright’s book on Jesus’ Resurrection. It was both engrossing and consuming, but very long. So, after reading diligently for about a week, I put it down and intend to read it over Easter this year. So, I appreciate very much the hearty endorsement of Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. As an aside I was encouraged to see Bishop Wright in a recent issue of Christianity Today giving his endorsement to Seattle Pacific University. The good bishop is certainly a sign of hope for the Anglican communion.

    I was troubled by aspect of your write-up, however. You are assign to L.T. Johnson far too negative a stance as regards coming to a knowledge of the so-called historical Jesus. His book The Real Jesus is far from being skeptical about the possibility of knowing Jesus Christ. In his book he is skeptical about the enterprise of finding the “real” through historical research. It is his argument that the real Jesus is known precisely from the faith of the Church because it is among believers that Christ dwells. Therefore, The Real Jesus is a critique of the Jesus Seminar in particular and the whole enterprise that began at the start of the 20th century to discover the historical Jesus. Johnson’s point, for which he makes a positive case in the book which he wrote as a follow-up to The Real Jesus, entitled Living Jesus, is that the quest for the historical Jesus is the quest for a dead man. Since Jesus is alive and not dead, Johnson contends, we can know him in the here and now by and through the Holy Spirit, which he calls “the mode of Christ’s resurrection presence among us [Christians].”

    I welcome Wright’s faithful contribution to the discussion. If I might, I would heartily recommend, if one wants to read what is the master work in English on Jesus’ earthly existence, the first two volumes of John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew.

  4. Jeremiah Lawson says

    This book did more to spur my faith than just about any devotional book I’ve ever been given. An advantage, for me, of the length of the book is that if you already have a moderately detailed background of NT studies you could read Jesus & the Victory of God as a stand-alone book, which I did. It was only later I got around to the other large books in the series.

    On the SPU note, I was first introduced to Wright’s work by the late Dr. William Lane, whose commentary on Hebrews I’m still meaning to read. Twelve years ago when Lane told me about Wright’s work he said this guy was going to become a very important NT scholar. Looks like Lane was right.

    I consider myself pretty evangelical but since I lean more toward partial preterism than most of my evangelical pals I found Wright’s eschatology pretty easy to follow. But then I also get used to people freaking out when they find out I’m not a dispensationalist. It is Wright’s take on Jesus’ eschatology that some people are still taking issue with but I think this book is so rich that even if you don’t agree with Wright’s take on that subject you can still get a lot of benefit from reading the book.

  5. Charis Aletheia says

    I haven’t read this book yet (I would like to eventually), but I did find this other review of the book done by Robert Stein of Southern Seminary:

    http://www.etsjets.org/jets/journal/44/44-2/44-2-PP207-218_JETS.pdf

    Thought some might find it helpful, as it seems to flesh out and compliment Michael’s review well.

  6. For a list of contemporay Jesus historians, a list of their books and short biographies ( Wright, Johnson, Crossan, Borg, Funk, Vermes, Fredriksin, Meier etc) to include their vision of Jesus see http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

    For a list of how various parts of the NT are rated historically by many of these authors see
    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/theories.html

  7. sharpeilover says

    I am so excited to read a book without the typical dispensational view…thank you for reviewing this, I look forward to the many truths I will find between the pages.

  8. Michael,

    I am glad you posted this. As background, I am a lawyer with no training whatsoever in theology. I do have a solid background in history, and methodolgy as it was current in the 70’s when I did some (uncompleted) graduate work.

    I started with volume 1, which I agree is important bckground if only to understand how Wright is going to approach the subject, what he is going to consider as evidence, and how he is going to weigh it. There is really nothing remarkable about it, except as it is contrasted with what seems to count as “doing history” in American seminaries and religious studies departments. In the early 90’s, I read some of the Jesus Seminar stuff, and my reaction was “these people are crazy. Whatever it is they are doing, it is not history.”

    I read volume 1, and started on volume 2, JATVOG, with the thought that that would jsut be a further leadup to the real culmination, volume 3, “The Resurrction of the Son of God.” Well, I did read v. 3, and it is good, but volume 2 had the larger impact on my faith.

    You got right to the heart of the matter when you said:

    “Wright’s views on eschatology will be difficult for most traditional evangelicals to grasp. It is essential that those views be understood, however. It is Jesus’ version of Israel’s eschatology that is the key to so much in this book.”

    To me, very simply, Wright gets beyond all the traditional divisions of eschatology, amil, premil, postmil, preterist, and shows that Jesus’ redemptive mission is so big that it encompasses all of THIS world,for the present and the future, and that was His message for the first century, today and until when we are resurected into a redeemed world ruled by Him. I am 55, grew up in Baptist hcurches, and never heard anything like this. This is probably a poor summary, but I don’t have the words to describe how totlly cosmic this vision is. It is totally beyond all the preaching I heard about Heaven and Hell.

    BTW, I, too, have read the Luke Timothy Johnson book, and as a refutation of the Jesus Seminar, it is excellent. But he doesn’t really bring anything new to the table.

    Reading the three volumes together, i came away with a huge question, “Now What?” I had something else happen in my life a few years ago that I would rate as an equal challenge, that led to the same conclusion: my view of Jesus and God was just too small. I am still trying to work out the implications of that.

    Again, a very good review.

  9. Oops, the reference for the historical ratings of parts of the NT is http://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/intro.html .

  10. Nice review. I just started JVOG. For any wanting a more condensed version check out The Challenge Of Jesus also by Wright.

  11. Your review was good for this particular book, but what I found troubling with NT Wright, is his outlandish statements that ruin everything else he believes. How can you trust a man who claims that Lazarus never died and that his body did not stink like the Gospel of John said. Also his ideas that praying for the dead may not be biblical but that he sees nothing wrong with it!

    For these and other reasons, I can never recommend him. I can find other sources that are just as good without being mislead with other beliefs, that sometimes borders on the insane or just plain dumb.

  12. Ok “Puritan.” I am teaching the Gospel of John, and I happen to be using N.T. Wright’s “John for Everyone” book. If you will sit right there, I’ll be right back, and verify your claim.

    *comments on hold*

    Im back. You are either mistaken, and need to check your sources, or you are passing along gossip without regard for the reputation of N.T. Wright.

    And I quote:

    “The present passage is one of the most dramatic moments in the whole story of Jesus. When Jesus raised Jairus daughter in Mark 5, he ordered almost everyone out of the room, and when it was over he told them not to tell anyone. Now he stands in front of a large crowd, puts his reputation on the line, and shouts to Lazurus to come out. (The tomb, like many of the time, was clearly a cave, with a large stone across its mouth.)

    And the dead man comes out- a heart-stopping moment of shuddering horror and overwhelming joy, mixed together like dark mud and liquid gold. All this is hugely important. If we don’t feel its power, and find ourselves driven to awe and thanks and hope, then either we haven’t learned to read ro we have hearts of stone.

    N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Vol II, pgs 13-14.

    So….do you have quotes for your accusations and claims? We need to see them, because your claims are serious and I have never heard them before.

  13. Thank you Michael for agreeing with me. I too think that it is serious business.

    First, I did not say that he wrote. (And of all the books he has written, the “for everyman” series isn’t very good or deep. I guess he catches his heretical statements in time for the publisher. LOL)

    I said his “outlandish statements that ruin everything else he believes”

    One more time while I am sitting down and being instructed. “Statements, statements, not books.”

    Perhaps you should know that N.T. Wright rejects the historicity of the Lazarus story—he believes that Lazarus was only swooning. Begin listening to this Real Audio clip at 41:25.

    Transcribed for those without Real Player:

    Here, we have the miracle of Lazarus’ resurrection turned into the “miracle” of Jesus knowing what many other Jews already knew—that people sometimes seemed to be dead when they weren’t.

    WRIGHT: I’m not a professor but thank for the um… um… no. Oh, yes I will, briefly.

    Um… I, I take it that what is being described in John chapter 11 is what we would today call a “near death experience,” something that looked like death, but then, after a couple of days—and, of course, many Jews knew that people did seem to be dead for a day or two, that’s why they had the rule of going back to the tomb.

    BORG: Did he not smell?

    WRIGHT: No, that’s the point. That’s the point.

    [Intervening commentary from White from 41:45-42:39]

    WRIGHT : Um, that is exactly the point. When Jesus says, “Take away the stone,” he says, “I thank you, Father, that you have heard me,” the logic of the paragraph must be, “because there isn’t a smell.” That—uh—I’m quite sure that that’s what’s going on there.

    [Intervening commentary from White from 42:55-43:18]

    WRIGHT: But this, then, is a matter of, as in many cultures, near death experiences have been reported. And then it’s a matter of the timing and the significance and so on. The fact that it’s only in John and not in the synoptics is quite irrelevant; all sorts of things in modern as well as in ancient things happen, um, we find in one source and one source only.”

    Yes Michael, you are right. It is very serious.

  14. First, I am still waiting for a citation from Dr. Wright’s writings. I gave you one, and you call it names.

    I’ll check my copy of the Wright-Borg book to see what is said there.

    Second, if you want me to listen to James White, you don’t know me very well. Not a person I will read or listen to for any reason.

    “Puritan”….if you have shown up in these comment threads to make a contribution, that is fine. But if your purpose is to promote James White and other people of his persuasion and to ridicule the posts here, I’m not going to put up with it forever. I’ve had my fill of the Truly Reformed police. Post away, but I hope there is more to your contribution than what I’ve seen so far.

  15. The Resurrection of the Son of God, 443f.

    Read it for yourself. If Wright ever contradicted this in earlier debate, he certainly makes it completely clear in his volume on the Resurrection.

  16. Michael,

    I ran across this post while doing research for my own blog. What I find interesting is that I had a similar experience while reading Wright. I thought I knew pretty much everything about the Gospels and the Good News. But Wright made me rethink everything. I kept saying to myself, “Where’s this guy been all my life?”

    Rod

  17. It’s so interesting:,