“Tools for the Task” from The New Testament and the People of God
Introducing the Question of Christian Origins
Upon reading “Tools for the Task”, part II of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, I found the principles so helpful that I feel compelled to share the wealth. This section is pretty heavy lifting for the uninitiated layman like myself. My aim here is to shed some light on how the principles, the Tools for the Task, that Bishop Wright introduces to the reader are actually quite common sense but also quite profound and practical.
To understand the epistemological framework that N.T. Wright is building as the Tools for the Task of his study of Christian Origins, it is helpful to know the kind of knowledge he will be attempting to obtain. In his life work, Christian Origins and the Question of God, Bishop Wright is attempting to answer some very pertinent and practical questions. In our 21st Century western culture, there is great confusion surrounding the origins of Christianity. This quagmire of opinions plays itself out in the media, in academia, and in the minds of both the educated and the not so educated. It seems every pseudo-intellectual with a Mocha Frappuccino has an opinion about the origins of the Christian faith, and all these opinions seem to be a pop version of the last 100 years of academic criticism. N.T. Wright’s quest is to utilize sound historical and philosophical methods to make a systematically thorough analysis of the question of Christian origins.
Many of the scenarios that play out in the popular culture in the form of popular myth surround the question of “Who is Jesus?” One common myth is that Jesus never proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. In this view, it was only the church that developed these messianic claims. In this scenario, we have Jesus of Nazareth, the “historical Jesus”, on the one hand, and the Christ of faith, the creation of the church, on the other. Such a view is quite well-developed within both academia and the popular mind. The fact is that academic, “historical”/critical research and theory has found its way into almost every nook and cranny of the popular mind. One example of the popular mind is quite archetypically represented by the pop icon John Lennon when he said, “I’m all right with Jesus but his followers were a bunch of stupid blokes.” This sentiment takes as accepted knowledge the dogma of the popular myth of Christian origins. This perspective accepts a restructuring of history which sees Jesus as an enlightened mystic, but the apostles or the biblical writers (that is, the early church) as primitive-minded folk who misguided their faith into Jesus and thus created the personality cult of Christianity.
Such a view takes many forms in the popular mind. For example, I have an acquaintance, an intelligent and educated man, who believes that the most likely scenario is that Jesus didn’t even ever exist. This reconstruction starts with the idea that there is a gap between the historical Jesus and the Christian faith as developed by the biblical writers and takes this gap to its logical extreme. This scenario simply says that if what we know about Jesus is actually the construction of the minds of the biblical writers, and if this construction is divorced from actual historical events, then on what basis do we believe that there was ever even a Jesus to begin with? The assumption is that there are actually no historical events which are the referents of the biblical texts. The biblical texts, from this perspective, represent entirely the mind of first-century fanatics. So the question is, "how do we know or can we even come to know anything at all about the actual historical events referred to by the biblical texts?" Answering these questions is vital because the historical events are the actual ground of historic Christianity.
As we ask these questions in order to uncover the history behind Christianity, (i.e. Christian origins), it will not do to simply either accept or reject biblical authority. This is the approach of the anti-intellectuals otherwise known as fundamentalists. Biblical authority as the sole basis for our epistemology is fundamentally circular logic. How do we know the truthfulness of the biblical history? We read the bible. It is easy to see the circularity of this reasoning. Instead, we must develop some tools for the task. In my next post, I will discuss what appears to me and to N.T. Wright as the best way forward.