Review of N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus

Most of my posts express an opinion.  This post is a little different, sticking more closely to the text of N. T. Wright’s Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.  About much I disagree with Wright, but his is such a fine example of a scholarly work accessible to educated laymen and women that it deserves a special place.  I’ll save most of my criticism for the conclusion. 

“I have done my best,” says Wright, “to explore the meaning of the phrase Jesus used as the great slogan for his project, the kingdom of God.” (loc 108)  His answer is that the kingdom of God is now, not just in the future.  God’s kingdom is not where we go after we die; it’s where we live now. 

When Jesus healed people, when he ate and drank with ordinary people, offering forgiveness freely to those who stood outside society, it wasn’t just an example of a future reality.  This was reality itself.  This is what it looked like when God was in charge.  This is what it means when Christ teaches us to pray “on earth as it is in heaven.” (p 106)

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The Kingdom of God is Within

The kingdom of God.  I’ve always wondered what the term “kingdom of God” meant.  What I’ve learned is that it’s complicated.  The term kingdom of God (βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦo) occurs 162 times in the New Testament.  It’s important because it concerns our relationship with God.  Is the kingdom coming for us?  Do we make it ourselves through the work of our hearts and hands?  Is God’s rule now or sometime in the future?  Or both?

There seems to be no difference between the terms kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven.  Matthew uses the latter because Jews, who were his primary audience, would have been uneasy with frequent references to the sacred name of God (Turner, p 41).  Mark and Luke refer to the kingdom of God, and so shall I.

The kingdom of God can refer to the second coming of Christ, when the world would be become God’s kingdom (Weiss, Schweitzer).  Or, the kingdom of God can refer to the new world already begun by Christ, the first advent.  We must work to make it happen, but at the same time it is already here, in the work of those who would bring it about.  This is called realized eschatology, or a variant, inaugurated eschatology, depending on the degree to which you think the kingdom is already present.  But using the right term is not so important.  Important is the idea that the kingdom of God has, in some measure, already begun with the life and death of Christ (Perrin, pp 1-2).

If the kingdom of God has begun with the life of Christ, what are we to do?  How does it happen?  One answer is that it happens because individuals have made the kingdom of God their own.  Inspired by their own experience of the kingdom of God, some men and women work to make the world in its image.  A variant of this view (it seems like all there are is variants) is that the kingdom of God is unfolding in the course of history, and best realized in utopian communities and the like.  Personalism is associated with this view in Catholic theology (Alford, pp 59-63).  As for me, it seems as if history is headed in the wrong direction, at least in the terrible twentieth-century.

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