Wrightsaid Q&A – June, 2007

Webmaster’s note: Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham, has agreed to answer a few questions occasionally from the Wrightsaid email list.  I am pleased to make this Q & A available on the N.T. Wright Page.  These are his responses for June, 2007.

Question: Do you know of any early expositors who interpret Mark 13 the way you do?

Answer: Off the top of my head, no. But then I’ve been away from that stuff for ten years now.

I would want to say that Mark 13 and parallels, in recording (quite clearly!) Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, is having Jesus say something which, granted how the biblical narrative plays out, necessarily also foreshadows the ultimate End. But assuming the latter as the surface meaning of the text produces obvious problems… oh well, you know the rest!


Question: It would seem that in your view, early Christians had the expectation for the Lord’s return in his generation and the expectation of the imminent coming of the Son of Man in judgment on Jerusalem. It would have been very difficult for the believers in the first century to distinguish these two expectations. On what basis could they make such a distinction?

Answer: I do think that for the first generation it must have been difficult to sort out which events might happen when and how it would all relate to the events of which Paul writes in Romans 8.18-25. But I also note that he can write of the ‘day of the Lord’ as something of which the Thessalonians might hear by letter (2 Thess 2.1-2), and one assumes therefore that this cannot be the event(s) spoken of in Romans 8, 1 Cor 15.21-28, Ephesians 1.10, or Revelation 19–22… So there was some differentiation possible.


Question: You say Jesus did not know he was God in a straightforward, propositional sense, and he would not have described his relationship to the rest of the Trinity in the terms used in the early creeds. Jesus instead “knew” his standing/role in a non-propositional sense, in terms of vocation and calling.

Answer: I don’t think I use the word ‘propositional’; nor do I say ‘non-propositional’. These are your terms to try to summarize what I say and I do not think they help.

The point is this. There is of course nothing in the gospels that suggests that Jesus uses the key terms from the Nicene and Constantinopolitan creeds (such as homoousion etc). All the evidence suggests that when Jesus uses ‘son of God’ language of himself this is rooted in his firm belief that he wasIsrael’s messiah and that he understood, within this, his sense, which he must have known was unique, of close relation with the one he called ‘abba’. But there is no evidence that the notion of ‘trinity’ as later developed was something he reflected on or spoke about. Even in the ‘trinitarian’ formula at the end of Matthew we don’t, of course, have any developed language about ‘person’, ‘substance’, and so on. That is what I mean by ‘didn’t describe his relationship to the Father or the Spirit in the terms used in the early creeds’.

The question of whether ‘know he was God’ is even the right way of expressing the problem is itself puzzling. The later Trinitarian theologians might have said ‘know he was divine’ or whatever, but — ‘God’ without remainder? Peculiar in such a context. Yes, I do think Romans 9.5 predicates theos of Jesus, but everyone knows that’s unusual and — in a typically Pauline way — challenging, terse and demanding further exploration.


Question: If this is the case, then

(i) I wonder on what grounds the apostolic (or later) church came to believe in a high christology. If Jesus didn’t have a justified, true, belief that he was in fact God, how could anyone else? One can, of course, posit that the Holy Spirit filled in the details post-resurrection in a fully propositional form, but some evidence of this would be desirable.

Answer: This is very odd, very rationalistic. I am not absolutely sure I know what you mean by ‘justified, true belief’ (and again note the apparently non-trinitarian ‘that he was in fact God’). I have said, again and again, that Jesus did indeed believe he was the one who had to do and be what in scripture YHWH says he alone can do and be. This was a justified belief — because he really did have that vocation and really did act on it and it really did work out the way one might have expected — the way, I think, Jesus expected – if and only if it was true; and I of course think it was indeed a true belief.

But the problem seems to be that some people expect a sequence like this:

(i) Jesus believed he was divine (let’s not say ‘God’ simply; I’m too Trinitarian for that!)

(ii) This belief of Jesus about himself was the reason why the early church believed similar things about him.

(Already we seem to be off the point which is about knowledge, rather than belief, but still…)

Whereas I have argued that when the early church — the very early church, already well before Philippians was written! — used language about Jesus which indicated its belief that he was somehow identified with Israel’s God without denying an interplay of roles between him and the creator — i.e. the prototrinitarianism we find not only in Phil 2 but also eg Gal 4.1-7 — this was a way of drawing out, reflecting on the significance of, the entire work which Jesus accomplished, and the Creator’s verdict on it all in raising him from the dead, coupled with the early church’s mulling over Jesus’ own ‘sonship’ language and its meaning for him and for them. In other words, it isn’t a matter of Jesus believing and teaching a doctrine about himselfand the early church learning this doctrine from him. That is impossibly rationalistic (again!) and cerebral and bypasses all the really important things that the NT seems to be telling us were going on…


Question: (ii) If Jesus got by without this sort of propositional knowledge, on what grounds do we take it to be so important?

Answer: Are you equating ‘justified, true belief’ with ‘propositional knowledge’? If so, I think I want to shift the terms of the debate quite radically. I want to ask, do you hold some kind of hierarchy of knowledge, whereby some kinds of things are the ‘real’ or ‘deep-level’ knowledge and others less so? As you may know, I have come to the view, following Lonergan, that love is the highest mode of knowing; and love, notoriously, is difficult to tie down in propositions. That doesn’t mean it isn’t knowledge, or that it isn’t true, or that it isn’t justified, or that it isn’t real. I think vocational knowledge — knowing, in prayer, what God is saying about who you are called to be and become and do — is quite close to love. I think knowing that two plus two equals four, while fully justified and true and real, is ultimately less significant than knowing I love and am loved, and knowing that God really is calling me to do and be certain things. And my frustration with the debate that swirls around this whole topic of ‘Jesus’ self-knowledge’ is that people often seem to talk as though ‘did Jesus know he was God’ is more like ‘knowing two plus two equals four’ whereas I think it’s much more like love or vocation.

In other words, I guess I have been driven, by my years of immersing myself in the gospels and in their Jewish context, to rethink all sorts of things about knowledge itself. I’m not claiming that the way I currently put it is correct. I just know (in several senses!) that it makes very good historical sense, theological sense (within a very high Christology and full Trinitarianism), and that it does NOT (against the comment immediately below) mean in any way a ‘weakening’ of Jesus’ self-knowledge but rather a strengthening of it. I’m grateful for the question but I would urge those who are puzzled by all this, not to give up or back off but stick with the question and consider whether their ideas of knowledge might need to be pulled about a bit. Or, if they don’t want to do that, whether they are prepared to argue against the ideas of knowledge I’m finding myself driven to.

Unless we have that debate, what’s happening is that some people are putting my rather careful statements onto the Procrustean bed of their own late-western epistemologies — like trying to play a Beethoven quartet on a guitar…


Question: In more general terms, I’m wondering what effects the weakening of Jesus’ self-knowledge a la NTW might have on our justification for more formal creedal statements regarding the trinity and incarnation.

Answer: The justification for formal creedal statements is this: (a) creeds are portable stories (as the form of the Creeds itself indicates) which summarize the narratives in the gospels in particular and highlight elements of them which Christians need to be clear on; (b) the early Christian justification for trinity and incarnation was not ‘this was what Jesus said’ but ‘God raised him from the dead and thereby demonstrated that Israel’s purposes had been fulfilled in him, i.e. that he was the Messiah; but Israel’s purposes were to rid the world of sin; but that was something only God himself can do; therefore within his messianic son-of-god consciousness we are right to see a deeper meaning, itself interpreted within the Jewish world of God-talk; therefore we can and must not only worship Jesus within our Jewish monotheism but also speak of him in this bewildering new way’…

In other words, please don’t flatten out early Christology into ‘Jesus taught it, the church taught it, that settles it’. Grapple with what Paul and the others were actually doing. And with what the gospels actually say.