Book Review

"Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters" by N.T. Wright

John J. Bombaro
N.T. Wright
Tuesday, May 1st 2012
May/Jun 2012

Simply Jesus is simply wonderful. This is N. T. Wright's best popular-level book since The Challenge of Jesus, eclipsing its sister publication Simply Christian in every way.

As a precursor to the highly anticipated How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (HarperOne, 2012), Tom Wright first sets the stage with a full, yet entirely accessible, introduction to Jesus, the world's rightful king who has come to reclaim God's earthly kingdom. But while this is not a dogmatic work on Christology or theology, it is everywhere christological and theological. And that is the genius of Simply Jesus; it sets forth Jesus of Nazareth within biblical and extra-biblical narratives and texts in such a compelling way that the reader capitulates to the doctrines of the incarnation, substitutionary atonement, resurrection, and the ongoing reign of Jesus as requisite history. In his presentation of Jesus, dogmatic implications fit the story naturally. Classic Christian theology comports with the story and the story comports with real history.

Thankfully, Wright distances himself from some of the ideological commitments of other New Perspective advocates, such as James Dunn. Instead for him, in the fullness of time’specifically, the time of first-century messianic-expectant Judaism’the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ of God, becomes manifest. He is the king, and being king means the fulfillment of astonishing prophesies and the culmination of Israel's destiny that, again, comports with concrete history to which Wright constantly turns.

Simply Jesus typifies Wright's masterful teaching style. In fact, this is N.T. Wright at his best. He does what so few since the days of C.S. Lewis have been able to do: distill for the widest spectrum of readers into common parlance matchless learning garnered in the upper stratosphere of academia. The storyteller in Wright transports readers into the first century and gives them the experience of pursuing the prophet from Nazareth from his nativity through his ascension with the Old and New Testaments as well as extra-biblical authorities. The result is an altogether accessible, readable, and captivating portrait of Jesus, formed and informed by the literature of the intertestamental period and, supremely, the apostolic gospel witness.

Wright is frequently criticized for soft-peddling sin or, at least, minimizing its significance in New Testament soteriology. Not so in Simply Jesus. Conversations about sin are frank and yield correlations between the Passover lamb of the exodus and Jesus himself as "the great sacrifice by which God was to rescue his people from their ultimate slavery, from death itself and all that contributed to it (evil, corruption, and sin).’¦This would be the means by which 'sins would be forgiven'" (180).

Correspondingly, within Simply Jesus, Wright offers his most encouraging statements on penal substitution, saying, "There is too’¦a massive sense in which Jesus' death is penal." He then fortifies this statement with an explanation of how the biblical doctrine of representation (federal headship) climaxes with Jesus bearing the sins of many in divine judgment "literally, physically, and historically" (185), with unmistakable soteriological implications.

Through fourteen chapters, Wright effectively and didactically employs the metaphor of "the perfect storm" to heighten the impact of Jesus in his historical context as well as sustain dramatic tension-seeking resolution. The worldview claims of the Roman Empire collide with Jewish expectations concerning their own history, and at their most volatile intersection we find Jesus momentously challenging and revolutionizing both.

The fifteenth and final chapter, "Jesus: Ruler of the World," sets forth a series of useful reflections on how to talk about "Jesus as king" in the real world. The principal metaphor in Scripture, "kingdom," just may be the most communicable point of contact with a contemporary culture that not only is unable recognize biblical vocabulary, but to whom the very categories of Scripture are utterly foreign. My students at the University of San Diego, for example, cannot comprehend why "the wages of sin is death." Although they are unfamiliar with classifications of sin and divine wrath (or repulsed by both), they are fully conversant in categories of "treason," for which they know the penalty to be death. High treason against the sovereign warrants the death penalty, and they understand it, even agree with it. Wright has found ways of leading people to understand the unwelcome message of Romans 6:23 by first articulating a powerful kingdom narrative around it that not only reestablishes the meaning and significance of the text, but constructs digestible points of contact for people of our time.

To be sure, Simply Jesus has deficiencies. First, Wright opts for his own translation of the New Testament reproduced from his The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (2011). Sadly, his fashionable translation is dire at times and frequently stands as an obstacle to the richness of the text. This sometimes radical contemporarization of Scripture neither seems consistent nor necessary, nor warranted given Wright's expressed purposes of introducing and acclimating persons to the kingdom community that has, as a defining characteristic, a unique vocabulary.

Second, Wright patronizingly regurgitates certain distinctives of his Anglican social-justice perspective that appears in most of his works. I need only mention the name Desmond Tutu and the picture is complete and understood by readers of N. T. Wright to be recycled goods from numerous other works.

Third, his statements on the coming judgment of Christ are weak at best. Perhaps this is part of his strategy to put the best light on Jesus, especially since this book is a gateway to further investigative or devotional commitments. Still, one has a sense that the topic of future condemnation of unbelievers is unsavory for Wright.

Likewise, conspicuously downplayed is the issue of "justification" or, indeed, as Wright so famously likes to treat the topic, "vindication." This is a disappointing gloss over.

One would do well, however, to remember Wright's target audience and purpose in penning this book: to introduce at a popular level and in an apologetical way a true-to-history Jesus of Nazareth who fits the billing of the world's ever-reigning king. Given such considerations, Simply Jesus, despite its shortcomings, will likely be your first-suggested reading to would-be converts or pop-cultural evangelicals undergoing Osteen detoxification.

There will be the temptation to lump Wright's endeavors into the same basket of disapprobation found with Scot McKnight's The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Zondervan, 2011). In McKnight's work an anachronistic "soteriological Jesus" (reified by generations of theologians) is contrasted with the story of "King Jesus": the latter being the original substance of gospel proclamation. To be fair, McKnight did make certain concessions that he overstated his case during his interview on the White Horse Inn. Wright, on the other hand, is attempting to contextualize Jesus as the Messiah both historically and biblically, and thereby further infuse traditional accounts of incarnation and atonement with substantial, real-world weight. In the author's words, "My contention is that [understanding the death of Jesus within the context of the Bible's total story] enables us to understand the original, historical reality for which those dogmas [of the incarnation and atonement] are later, often dehistoricized, abstract summaries" (176). For Wright, just like McKnight, the atonement has a context. Wright's gift to the church is articulating that context clearly, memorably, and much better than McKnight.

Tuesday, May 1st 2012

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