Wright, N. T. History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019. 365 Pages. $34.95 (hardcover).
In 2018, N. T. Wright, Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews, became the first New Testament scholar since Rudolf Bultmann to deliver the Gifford Lectures, an annual series of lectures established in 1887 to highlight natural theology and its relationship with science, history, and philosophy. Wright’s lectures challenged many of the presuppositions underlying the academic study of these fields while pressing for a Christian understanding of natural theology. The end product—which has now been published as History and Eschatology—draws from his decades of extensive research in NT exegesis, hermeneutics, theology, and the history of ideas.
Wright begins his argument with a couple of significant assertions: First, “If Jesus himself was a fully human being and thus a genuine part of first-century historical reality, as the church has always taught, and as modern critics have indeed sharply insisted, it makes no sense to exclude him from the ‘natural’ world” (4). Second, “The growing influence of Epicureanism on modernity created an intellectual as well as social environment in which it was now felt fitting and appropriate to study and organise life in this world without reference to God or the gods” (9). In other words, the standard criteria for engaging in natural theology have been wrongly defined since they exclude the fully human Jesus and the events of his earthly life; and this misconstrued definition results from allowing modern Epicureans to define the terms. Throughout his lectures, Wright takes the time to exegete NT passages concerning the crucifixion and resurrection to demonstrate the raw, earthy humanity of Jesus who through the incarnation shed real tears and bled actual blood. He also examines Western civilization’s history of ideas and concludes that the worldview of the Enlightenment adheres to an ancient eschatology fixated on human progress. What is more, he demonstrates that modernists (both liberal and conservative) have adopted Epicureanism as evidenced by their desire for pleasure, self-preservation, and pragmatics over against love for God and neighbor.
Wright’s scriptural and cultural analysis rightly identifies the failure in modern theological method to appreciate the Jewish worldview of the apostles. He correctly emphasizes the need to hear the earliest witnesses to Jesus’s natural life on their own terms. Wright’s argumentation leads to at least two thought-provoking conclusions: First, scholarship à la Bultmann robs itself of its own methodological validity by ignoring the historical reality of Jesus’s crucifixion. Liberal scholarship cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Second, Christian theologians have surrendered too much ground by allowing modern Epicureans to define theological terms and categories which create false dichotomies: natural/supernatural, historical event/miracle, etc. These categories do not naturally flow from biblical exegesis. History and Eschatology may be Wright’s most important apologetic work to date. He makes a compelling case against modern Western civilization in a way that recalls Augustine’s City of God. While challenging in its depth and scope, lay leaders, pastors, and scholars alike should seriously grapple with Wright’s reading of history.
CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. The present book notice was written by Jason B. Doty, PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and research assistant for the Center for Biblical Studies.