Book Review

“History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology,” by N. T. Wright

David VanDrunen
N.T. Wright
Monday, March 1st 2021
Mar/Apr 2021

History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology
By N. T. Wright
Baylor University Press, 2019
365 pages (hardcover), $34.95

History and Eschatology presents N. T. Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures, a prestigious Scottish lecture series established in the late nineteenth century. The purpose of the series is to promote the study of natural theology. “Natural theology” can be used in different ways, but it generally refers to the knowledge of God that human beings can acquire through the created order. To put it mildly, this is a controversial issue.

Most people think of natural theology and knowledge of Jesus as two separate inquiries: nature may reveal truths about God, but only Scripture reveals Jesus’ incarnation, death, and exaltation. Wright challenges this separation. He argues that Jesus, a fully human being who lived in the real world of the first century, was part of the natural world and is an important source for doing natural theology.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I describes the historical context for the study of natural theology in recent centuries. Wright argues that much of the Enlightenment revived the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism. For Epicureanism, it’s possible that a god exists, but if so, he’s far away from this world and doesn’t care about it. Thus the world is on its own and there’s no life after death. Accordingly, Enlightenment thinkers developed politics, science, economics, and history without God. But unlike ancient Epicureans, Enlightenment thinkers believed they were bringing in a new age and hence emphasized the idea of progress. Wright argues that mainstream (especially German) scholarship about Jesus and the Gospels developed in this context. In particular, New Testament scholars imported their own ideas about inaugurating a new age back into the first century, arguing that Jews of Jesus’ day, as well as Jesus and his followers, believed the world was going to end imminently.

Part II sets out to correct this blunder on the part of New Testament scholarship. First, Wright calls for rigorous historical study of the Gospels in their original context, especially the first-century Jewish world. Such study shows that the New Testament writers didn’t think the world was going to end imminently. Rather, they thought that Jesus’ coming marked the return of the God of Israel, and that his kingdom had already become present, although it would reach its final goal in the future. This meant the renewal and transformation of this world, not its end.

In part III, Wright begins to bring “the question of Jesus and the question of ‘natural theology’ back together again” (155). First, he discusses the “worldview” of many Second Temple Jews, which shaped the thought of Jesus and his followers. They believed that heaven and earth were integrated rather than absolutely separate, as in Epicureanism. In the Old Testament, they saw hope for the redemptive transformation of this world. This would result one day in a new creation, which was anticipated through the temple and the Sabbath. Yet only when Jesus died and rose did these Old Testament-rooted convictions truly come to make sense. Jesus’ work of new creation “recontextualises and reinterprets the old” (190).

Part IV argues that something similar is true with respect to natural theology. As Jesus’ followers “read backwards” to make sense of the Old Testament in light of Jesus’ work, so we should also read backwards to make sense of the natural world. Wright speaks of “broken signposts.” The natural world has always contained signposts pointing to God, including widespread notions of justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships. Yet these signposts are broken: we struggle to agree about such notions and to put them into practice in a satisfying way. But Jesus’ resurrection provides “retrospective validation of the signposts” (225). We see that they’re meaningful and pointed in the right direction. Therefore, the church shouldn’t try to escape the world but should instead “embrace mission at every level” (253). That is, from the beginning God intended to fill this world with his glory and to dwell within it, and he has willed to accomplish this through obedient human beings. So, the church now pursues the healing, justice, and beauty that will be fully realized when this world attains complete restoration in the new creation.

This is a theologically rich book. Those without an advanced theological degree or who don’t read much academic theology will likely find it challenging. But Wright is a clear and engaging writer, so even such people might find it accessible.

There are many things to appreciate. For one thing, Wright’s proposal about modern thought as Epicurean is interesting and thought provoking. History is immensely complicated, and attempts to tell its story in a concise way inevitably oversimplify things. But Wright’s account has considerable explanatory value and will at least stimulate readers’ thinking.

The book also provides a great deal of helpful biblical theology. “Biblical theology” refers to understanding and explaining God’s work as described in the Bible, as a developing, coherent, and unified story that culminates with the coming of Christ, his redemptive work, and the dawn of new creation. Wright does a lot of biblical theology, focusing on themes such as the image of God, the temple, and the Sabbath. Even where one thinks Wright doesn’t get things quite right, there is much to learn and ponder.

Wright also deserves commendation for exploring natural theology and Jesus’ work in an integrated way. In recent years, Protestants have shown renewed interest in natural theology. This is an excellent development, in my judgment, but it’s important not only to affirm the reality of natural revelation but also to explain how natural revelation serves God’s larger redemptive plan. Again, while Wright may not have gotten things exactly correct, he reflects on crucial issues.

Alongside these notes of appreciation, I also wish to engage Wright critically on two matters. The first relates to his theme of broken signposts. In general, I believe he has his finger on something important. For good biblical reasons, classical Reformation theology has thought that biblical revelation is clearer than natural revelation, and also that the New Testament is clearer than the Old Testament. Thus when Wright says that New Testament witness about Christ illuminates both the Old Testament story and our knowledge derived from nature, he stands in good company. My question is whether Wright attributes enough integrity and power to nature and the Old Testament. Are the “signposts” as broken as Wright suggests? According to Scripture, God often judged ancient Israel for failure to understand and live according to the Old Testament. And Romans 1–2 indicates that God holds all people accountable for not understanding and living according to natural revelation. Signposts? Yes. Broken? Not so broken that the signposts themselves are unable to leave people inexcusable before God. Wright discusses Karl Barth’s famous critique of natural theology both critically and sympathetically. I suspect he remains still too sympathetic.

I also wish to engage critically an obsession of Wright’s. Wright repeatedly rebukes a view he believes has taken over much of Protestant Christianity in recent centuries—namely, that Christians’ true hope and longing is to leave their bodies, escape this world, and “go to heaven” in their “souls.” Against this, Wright emphasizes the resurrection of the body and the new creation as renewal of the present world. Now, to be sure, Christians must hope for the resurrection of their bodies and for a new creation that brings this first creation to its ultimate destiny. But I wonder whether Wright has exaggerated the prominence of the view he rails against. I’m not sure about Wright’s Anglican context, but I don’t know many serious Christians who have given up on the resurrection or think it’s worthless to work for good things in this world. In fact, I perceive danger in exactly the opposite direction: many Christians are far too overwhelmed by the attractions and trials of this life and far too little comforted and encouraged by their “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven” for them (1 Pet. 1:4). They easily forget that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14). Scripture clearly indicates that there will be both continuity and discontinuity between this world and the new creation. Wright, I fear, underplays the discontinuity. He mentions important texts that speak of the radical change Christ’s second coming will bring, such as 1 Corinthians 7:29–31 and 2 Peter 3:5–13, but he waves them away without argument (65, 137). Perhaps this perspective explains why Wright emphasizes Christ’s resurrection but almost completely ignores his ascension. Wright has made a place for natural theology and highlights God’s good gifts and purposes for the present world. This is good. But I believe his case would have been stronger if he had grappled more seriously with the fact that the world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor. 7:39) and that the “new creation” is radically new, even if not brand new.

David VanDrunen is the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.

Monday, March 1st 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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