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Book Review: History and Eschatology by N. T. Wright

January 22nd, 2021 | 14 min read

By Elizabeth Stice

History and Eschatology is a dense but rewarding book based on NT Wright’s Gifford Lectures, in which Wright is attempting to redirect natural theology, bringing history and biblical exegesis to the questions of natural theology to see if that “might offer some fresh parameters within which the old questions would appear in a different light.” He hopes not only to redefine natural theology, but that “fresh thoughts about history might lead to fresh ideas about Jesus and by that route eventually to the God of creation; and that on the way we might learn something about the nature of knowledge itself.” Wright’s attempts to stretch the genre of natural theology involve what Brad East has described as “a curious and idiosyncratic account of natural theology” and an approach to it that will fail to satisfy some. For those willing to follow Wright’s arguments anyway, History and Eschatology may not offer traditional natural theology but it still offers some notable ideas.

Wright begins his Gifford lectures with an exploration of the historical context of natural theology itself. He argues that modern natural theology is tainted by the Enlightenment, which “has distorted subsequent discussions to this day,” by “introducing false alternatives and truncating assumptions about knowledge itself,” specifically causing us to see a division between material and spiritual things. Many people think that belief in the material and disbelief about the spiritual is what it means to be modern, but Wright convincingly argues that it is effectively a “revived” Epicureanism coupled with a belief in progress. Some people may consider themselves too modern for Christianity, but there is no actual reason to believe that adherents of Epicurus and Lucretius are too advanced to relate to other ancient worldviews.

While Christians have rejected the materialism of modern Epicureanism, Wright believes that many have been unwilling to fall back on Jewish thought and have essentially found refuge in a casual Platonism. This can be seen in the extreme popularity of the misattributed C.S. Lewis quote, “You do not have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.” As Hannah Peckham explained for Mere Orthodoxy, the widespread use of the misquote “indicates that a robust defense of the theology of the body is needed.” The moderns have embraced the material, but many Christians have embraced the spiritual over the material, which some believe is reflected in the rise of cremation among Christians. Wright worries that Christians have drifted dangerously close to Gnosticism and have largely given up “biblical hope of new creation and bodily resurrection.” Many view our surrounding material world as merely something to leave behind and heaven as the ultimate reality. In the words of the hymn, “the things of the earth will grow strangely dim” when we turn our eyes upon Jesus.

Wright offers a provocative way forward for all parties: history. The human events of the past happened within the natural world and, therefore, deserve to be considered as evidence in the realm of natural theology. Wright suggests that “if history is real knowledge about the real world, it must take its place near the heart of any theological investigation which seeks to bring that real world into engagement with the question of God.” Opening the door to history is also opening the door to the Bible, because it was “written and edited within the world of space and time, by a large number of individuals situated in ‘natural’ communities and environments” and the Bible itself claims to “describe events within the ‘natural’ world.” It deserves to be considered alongside other historical evidence and historical evidence deserves to be considered with other natural evidence.

In “Of Education,” John Milton suggested that the purpose of learning was to “repair the ruins of our first parents.” While NT Wright’s historical tour of natural theology and biblical studies does not take us back to Adam and Eve, it is an attempt to repair the ruins of many of our intellectual forebears, for the same end, “regaining to know God aright and out of that knowledge to love him.” Wright believes that for many people today, our understandings of knowledge rest either in a Platonic or Epicurean worldview, but what is altogether missing is the Jewish worldview that is actually present in the Bible. In rediscovering the biblical worldview, through the use of history, Wright believes we will find an alternative and better approach to understanding both the natural and theological.

After making the case for considering it, Wright turns to first-century Jewish thought as represented in the Bible. In particular, he highlights the discourses around the Temple and Sabbath and understandings of the imago dei. The Temple “assumed an integrated cosmology of heaven and earth”—a clear alternative to the divide in both Epicureanism and Platonism. The Sabbath “stood for the long-promised future arriving already in the present,” an alternative to both the progress narrative of modernism and the end times thinking of some Christians and reflected in works like the Left Behind series. Humans, as Image-bearers, areGod-reflectors, standing at the threshold of heaven and earth, of past and present,” making human activity (the subject of history) more natural evidence for God’s existence. This understanding of the first-century Jewish worldview reflects the decades of scholarship NT Wright has produced and especially his writing about the Kingdom of God.

Now that Wright has fully explained that he will not be arguing from an Enlightenment viewpoint, he turns to the resurrection, which he considers the lynchpin of his natural theology argument. It is not just that Wright thinks we can consider the resurrection a historical event, but that he thinks it points us to a different epistemology altogether, an “epistemology of love.” To skeptics, he explains that this love is “engaged relational knowing.” In this case, it engages through a willingness to approach the resurrection through history and Jewish thought and cosmology and recognizes in the resurrection a vindication of creation. It is relational knowing because it is vocational and learns through practice.

What is there for the person committed to natural theology, who wants to “reason up” to the divine from worldly evidence? Wright describes seven “broken signposts,” which are features of human life that we all engage in some imperfect way and which are, in a sense, shared vocations across cultures. These signposts are Justice, Beauty, Freedom, Truth and Power, Spirituality, and Relationships. Wright does not think that we can fully reason “up” from them, but that we recognize the importance of these things even while we live with our inability to get them fully right. These broken signposts point us to the ultimate broken signpost—the crucifixion, a demonstration of injustice, ugliness, falsehood, malicious use of power, broken relationships, a lacking spirituality, and denial of freedom. We can see the crucifixion as the disciples initially did—as a crushing defeat. We react so strongly to the crucifixion, in part, because it is the sum of all the wrong things about our world.

But resurrection follows the crucifixion. “The cross is where the downward spiral of human despair meets the love which was all along at the heart of creation.” The cross is the ultimate natural revelation. It reveals both the brokenness of our world and God’s love reaching out with redemption. Wright argues that the resurrection “points to a retrospective validation” of the signposts. Broken as they were, they were signposts nonetheless. Where they were pointing is not where natural theology arguments typically end up. As Wright puts it, “the reality in question turns out to be, not the God of ‘perfect being’, nor the prime mover, nor yet the ultimate architect, but the self-giving God we see revealed on the cross.” Following the resurrection, Christians in their image-bearing mission offer more evidence of the new creation, in their lives and in their many vocations connected to God’s plan of redemption.

Is this natural theology? It may not be. Brad East considers Wright’s complaints about the inadequacies of natural theology to essentially “restate its self-definition in the form of critique. Which is to say, to misunderstand it entirely.” But as East himself says, that does not mean the book has nothing to offer. For those willing to consider Wright’s approach and wrestle with the book’s content, the book may still hold a blessing.

First and foremost, History and Eschatology can help us to examine the foundations of how we approach knowledge of the world. In this book, Wright presents a clear biblical alternative to two competing Western worldviews. The first is the kind of materialism which underlies a great deal of modernism, from much of Enlightenment science to Marx to Freud, that asks us to see the world apart from the spiritual.

The second, closer to home for many Christians, is a spiritualism which asks us to dismiss the physical, both its evidence and its significance, and can be seen in phenomena ranging from Christian dismissal of global warming to the reality described in works like The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark Noll and Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Many evangelical Christians have abandoned the intellectual world (especially much of science) because the intellectual world has largely pursued the physical through the lens of modern Epicureanism.

But revived Platonism is not the only alternative. We do not have to choose sides in this divide, because the Bible teaches a God who dwells among his people and a world that integrates the spiritual and the physical. Isaiah 6:3 says that “the whole earth is full of his glory.” Many Christians may not fully identify with the approaches that Wright describes as Epicurean or Platonist, but this book may help identify aspects of both that shape our perceptions of reality.

Though History and Eschatology is not about apologetics, it has interesting implications for it. As Wright points out, within apologetics (and natural theology) people will try to reason up to God from nature and the evidence in our surrounding world. They may have a rational case for some kind of deity, or reason their way to a deity that somewhat resembles the Father within the Trinity, “the God of the ‘omni’s — the omnipotent, omniscient, omnicompetent deity, the celestial CEO of much Western imagination.” But apologetics almost never takes us along a rational path to Christ on the cross (it is not even necessarily the point, just as it is not traditionally the point in natural theology). Wright’s broken signposts and the inclusion of history (with Jesus as a historical figure) takes us to the crucifixion, to the God who descended and died. And Wright’s insistence on image-bearers as further “natural evidence,” brings us also to the kind of apologetics described by Dallas Willard in The Allure of Gentleness. Willard described apologetics as a helping ministry defined by gentleness and “aiding others in removing doubts,” but, ultimately, “we are talking about a life here.” For non-Christians, Wright’s argument for the inclusion of history in natural theology may also expand the field of evidence for the existence of God.

Wright’s advocacy for history is one of the most engaging aspects of the book. He recognizes that this may not be well-received by some Christians. In a helpful overview of historical biblical scholarship, he explains the existing antagonism between those who claim to pursue a “historical Jesus” and those who preach a divine Jesus. Among twentieth century biblical scholars, the people who pursued the “facts” often had different ambitions from those who preached “faith.” Yet Wright argues for more and better Christian engagement with history, even issuing “a plea at this point, therefore, to the larger world of theology: do not fear or reject history. You have nothing to lose but your Platonism.” This is a surprising suggestion for more reasons than the history of biblical scholarship.

While the liberal arts are declining in practice and perceived significance, Wright is asking Christians to engage more directly with history. Why? Apart from establishing the existence of a “real” Jesus or the persistence of biblical texts, what can Christians gain from more history? Many things. Wright argues that real history can “defeat the defeaters,” referring to the random and unfounded theories that emerge about Jesus just as they emerge about Shakespeare and form the backbone of cultural products like The DaVinci Code.

History can also “dismantle the distortions,” by pushing back against the “ordinary Christian misconceptions” and “direct the discussion” by encouraging us to begin with biblical exegesis rather than the theology that emerged around biblical texts. These misconceptions are often identified by Christian research groups, which uncover ancient heresies in present-day pews. Though history is more art than science, its approach to evidence is empirical enough to help ground us in shared reality.

But Wright is not only an advocate for the products of history, but for its practices. In its art, history can be instructive in Christian virtues.

“…it requires humility, to understand the thoughts of people who thought differently from ourselves; patience, to go on working with the data and resist premature conclusions; penitence, to acknowledge that our traditions may have distorted original meanings and that we have preferred the distortions to the originals; and love, in that genuine history, like all genuine knowledge, involves the delighted affirmation of realities and events outside ourselves, and thoughts different from our own.”

This approach to history is well-described in works like John Fea’s Why Study History? a book which introduces Christian undergraduates (and others) to the discipline and emphasizes the possibility of history as a spiritual discipline, a way of learning to encounter and love others and practice the missio dei. These practices are good not only for Christians, but Wright thinks for evangelism, because history is a “public discourse” with the kind of evidence that can actually be helpfully used in apologetics. And it is the kind of “risky public discourse which matches and celebrates the divine risk, the divine humility, of incarnation itself.”

Wright’s advocacy of history is also closely related to his understanding of the significance of the past. For Wright, we live at an intersection between the present and the future, in a Kingdom which affirms this creation but intends to renew it, and which is already present and yet also arriving, real but not yet fully realized. How do we make sense of this? The past is the key to a correct, biblical understanding of Christianity. Like the Protestant Reformers, Wright asks us to turn back to the earliest foundations of the faith. For Christians, this is another call to step away from years of accumulated meanings and return to the original texts and their original meanings. Wright also asks us to use the past and history for a form of retroactive appraisal. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, who did not initially understand what had happened to Jesus, we can sometimes better comprehend events looking back and not just projecting forward.

Wright argues that it is from the standpoint of the crucifixion and resurrection that all of his signposts can be interpreted. Throughout the Gospels we see that those who had the law and prophets were unable to fully anticipate the form that God’s plan for redemption would take and that even the disciples did not comprehend many of Jesus’ statements until much later. John 12:16 tells us that during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the “disciples didn’t understand at the time that this was a fulfillment of prophecy.” They understood it later, “after Jesus had entered into his glory, they remembered what had happened and realized that these things had been written about him.” This emphasis on retroactive appraisal is an interesting approach to knowledge, one which calls to mind “the angel of history,” who moves through time facing backwards. What might it mean to seriously consider and embrace this aspect of Wright’s epistemology?

At the beginning of History and Eschatology, Wright said he hoped to get us to some new ideas about knowledge itself. By suggesting history can be used to explore God’s role in the world, he has tried to open the door for spiritual knowledge to be linked more closely with other kinds of knowledge. It is reminiscent of a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Metaphysics,” in which she wrote:

“From this perspective my faith does not differ qualitatively from anything else I know. I take the exalted view of experience. I believe that we do indeed inhabit the theater of God’s glory. So I by no means intend to deprecate faith when I say that it is of a kind with our knowing of things in general. It raises profound questions, of course, as does everything else.”

Wright’s new ideas about knowledge are clearest in his idea of an “epistemology of love.” Throughout the text he returns often to a quote from Wittgenstein, “it is love that believes the resurrection.” What might this mean? For Wright, love is “delighted engagement” with the other, neither “positivist objectivity nor subjective projection.” And all knowing is “engagement and involvement and not merely detached observation.” As he explains, this is an approach that is neither an argument nor a sentiment. His epistemology of love emphasizes knowing as relational, communal, and full-bodied. Love knows the resurrection; it is also love that teaches us to know and experience and share the worldview of the Gospels and the calling of Christ. His epistemology of love, with its delighted engagement of and relational involvement with the other, offers us an approach to knowledge that resembles the way God has approached the world. That, in itself, is well worth considering.

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