The Jesus of History and the Gods of Natural Theology
By Brad EastNovember 19, 2020
History and Eschatology by N. T. Wright
Looking back, then, at the last millennium in the West, there are three forms of natural theology worth lifting up.
First is that of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–’74), who at the outset of his Summa Theologiae outlined what are called “the five ways”: avenues by which meditation on the character of mutable existence as such proves the existence of that which “everyone” — meaning Jews, Christians, Muslims, and certain pagan philosophers — “calls God.” Such a demonstration is truly rational, in the sense that its arguments are valid and its premises true, but it is also modest. It doesn’t get you very far. You know that there is that than which no greater can be conceived, in the words of St. Anselm of Canterbury, that from which all things come and on which all things depend, the existence of which is necessary, for it is identical with its essence. Doubtless such knowledge should induce recognition of your contingency. But little more.
The second variety of natural theology is found in the tradition of Christian thought descended from John Calvin (1509–’64). Reformed thinkers did not so much differ from Aquinas as suggest that human reason is so weighed down by corruption and wickedness that it cannot lift itself to the heights of heaven. Natural knowledge of God might be obtainable in principle, might even convict us for our ignorance of that which ought to be evident, but it is subordinate to a more pressing matter: our dreadful condition. Must a blind man be hectored about the brightness of the sun? No: what we need is divine revelation, a sovereign God who stoops down to dress our wounds and heal our minds.
The third kind of natural theology came in the wake of the Enlightenment. Now the wider cultural and intellectual environment was in flux. A certain style of skepticism was on the rise. Skeptics began to shift the onus onto those who continued to affirm the existence of God — the biblical God, that is — in the face of so much humanistic, scientific, and philosophical innovation. Alone with himself, Descartes turned the lights down and doubted everything; only to discover that he must exist, since there must be a doubter if there is doubt, and God must exist with him. John Locke and others made parallel moves, rejecting the old ways of demonstrating the divine while declaiming overmuch reliance on revelation (without exactly spurning it either). Gradually natural theology drifted away from its moorings in Christian theology, where it had long served as an imaginative exercise in which believers bracketed Scripture’s authority and the church’s teachings about Jesus in order to use “unaided reason” to investigate the structures of existence and the ways in which they point to an infinite immaterial first principle.
By the turn of the 19th century, the triumph of Baconian science, Humean empiricism, and Kantian Idealism placed the burden of proof squarely on those Christians who wanted to defend at least the plausibility of their beliefs in God, miracles, and the resurrection, not to mention the capacity of reason to prove such things. Attempts at such defense took different tacks. Friedrich Schleiermacher faced the challenge head-on in his speeches to religion’s cultured despisers. Cardinal Newman laid out a whole theory of religious epistemology that justified both his own faith and that of his less informed brethren. And apologists like William Paley offered arguments like the one he is most famous for: the world is a kind of watch, and a watch requires a watchmaker.
This last example sets the stage for natural theology in a fully modern mode. It does not contest but grants the basically deistic terms of the debate. And in seeking to make faith reasonable, it cedes more and more ground until there is nothing left. Modern believers are stranded, in this story, either in the “public” world of reason, rigorous argument, and scientific inquiry, or in the “private” world of Gefühl, scriptural inerrancy, and fideistic revelation. Many held out hope that natural theology might offer a bridge or third way between skepticism and fundamentalism. It turns out, however, that natural theology of the modern variety is itself the source of the false choice between them.
Adam Lord Gifford (1820–’87) was a Scottish defense lawyer who took a keen interest in these matters. A wealthy man by the time of his death, he used his fortune to endow a lectureship in the major Scottish universities. He intended the lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God.” Ever since, the Giffords have served as a perennial intellectual honor in which an extraordinarily wide variety of scholars, thinkers, and writers are invited to deliver public lectures at St Andrews, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, or Glasgow on whatever topic they deem fitting to the last will and testament of Lord Gifford.
In 2018, the New Testament scholar N. T. Wright delivered his Gifford lectures at the University of St Andrews, which have been published in book form as History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. Wright follows his predecessor Rudolf Bultmann in more than one way: the latter gave the Giffords in the mid-1950s, thus suggesting that biblical scholars ought to make the most of their rare opportunity to speak a word to the philosophers and theologians; more to the point, Wright took the name for his book verbatim from the title of Bultmann’s own lectures. Both being scholars of St. Paul, the historical Jesus, and early Christian origins, there is more than a hint of patricide in Wright’s argument.
Not to say that Wright is unduly dismissive. His work as a whole attempts to strike a balance between respect for precedent, in faith and in scholarship, and strident disagreement on matters of central concern. Though at times Wright’s scholarship reads like a quiet evening conversation with Nicodemus, more often it amounts to overturning tables in the temple. The sheer volume of his output is staggering: a popular commentary on all 27 books of the New Testament; an English translation of the New Testament as a whole; massive tomes on the early church, Jesus, the resurrection, and St. Paul; a series of accessible introductions to Christian faith and practice, akin to C. S. Lewis’s works almost a century ago; and dozens more volumes, from academic to popular, on issues ranging from politics to theodicy to the pandemic. All while serving as a priest (and one-time bishop) in the Church of England and as a professor at Cambridge and Oxford.
Wright begins with suspicion of both the Enlightenment and the Christian theological tradition. The Enlightenment, he believes, generated an unwarranted skepticism — what he terms a sort of cultural Epicureanism — that simultaneously siphoned off God from human affairs and elevated reason to a false certainty. This twofold pride, though ambiguous in its legacy, denudes the spirit and puffs up a cold technocratic confidence, above all in the self and the progress we selves will ensure. This confidence later comes to naught in the killing fields of the 20th century.
As for Christian tradition, Wright argues it largely abandoned the essentially Jewish character of faith in Jesus and the message he proclaimed, handing itself over to more appealing suitors, above all philosophies informed by Plato. The fifth and 13th centuries in particular fare poorly in Wright’s estimation: however understandable in their time, and whatever marginal benefits they might offer, thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas or councils like Nicaea and Chalcedon are basically off the rails. For Wright, the proper response to both Enlightenment and sacred tradition is that of the Renaissance and the Reformation: Ad fontes! And the toolkit for returning to the sources is history.
The first half of History and Eschatology lays out what this means in detail. Summarizing the Enlightenment’s systematic uncoupling of “religion” and human affairs, Wright describes it as a movement that sought “politics without God, science without God, economics without God, history without God, and finally Jesus without God.” Jefferson and Robespierre, Darwin and Spencer, Smith and Marx, Gibbon and Voltaire, Reimarus and Strauss: they are all of a piece, facets of a single cultural revolution that revived Epicureanism as the dominant ideology of modernity and distorted the questions that natural theology was trying but increasingly failing to answer. To which Wright replies: Neat trick. Strip the world — and with it every valid intellectual inquiry — of God, then kindly request the poor benighted believers to go find him. In the Bible, “Where are you?” is the first question God asks Adam and Eve. The terms reversed, humans are now tasked with discovering God in a godless world.
If the game is rigged, Wright proposes reshuffling the deck. Moreover, he suggests why the discipline of history might provide a path forward. For history offers a means — a means of knowledge, that is, common to all and therefore “public” — of bypassing the accretions and distortions of intervening centuries, and of asking anew questions that since the 18th century have been laden with prejudice or anachronism. In addition, if natural theology is concerned with the goings-on of the observable world, of “nature,” then in principle nothing in recorded history is off limits. And that includes Jesus.
If it could be shown, therefore, that the life and teachings of Jesus and the shape of the movement that arose in the wake of his crucifixion address, in unique or provocative ways, the questions that animate natural theology, and that this can be discovered in an epistemically capacious way, through the tools of historical research, then perhaps the manifold challenges posed by Christian tradition, the Enlightenment, and natural theology could be resolved, not least by unsettling and reformulating the terms of the debate. That, in so many words, is Wright’s gambit in this book.
At this point, the reader of History and Eschatology faces an interpretive decision. For there is a serious problem, both historical and methodological, in the book’s argument. Wright constructs a syllogism: natural theology concerns nature; but Jesus is a part of nature; therefore, natural theology can take Jesus as one of its objects of reflection. And when he acknowledges that Jesus is typically cordoned off because he belongs to “religion” or “supernatural” “revelation,” Wright rejects the premise: since Jesus was a human being in history, and history is a matter of public intellectual inquiry, it is special pleading to exclude him from consideration.
But this is a curious and idiosyncratic account of natural theology. For on the one hand, as I outlined above, natural theology is properly a function of Christian thought: patristic and medieval theologians wanted to investigate whether God’s existence could be shown through reason alone by explicitly bracketing off the Bible, Jesus, and church teaching. On the other hand, natural theology is not really about “nature” at all, at least in the modern use of that term. Instead, it means one of two things. Either “nature” is opposed to “supernature,” that is, the regular happenings of the creaturely world considered apart from the divine will and action. Or “nature” is understood to mean the structures of existence as such: the character of being and the mind’s relation to it, for example. The proofs of Aquinas do not follow from either one-off occurrences or even observable regularities in “nature.” They concern existence itself: what it means to be or not to be. That is why they are called metaphysical proofs. And that is why Thomists are not susceptible to the criticisms of Paley’s Watchmaker argument.
In any case, Wright is unimpressed by these and other “natural” (or rational) arguments for God’s existence because they do not present us with the God revealed in the Nazarene crucified outside Jerusalem’s walls. They do not, in other words, portray the human face of God, or even his essential character. Instead, they propound “the God of the ‘omni’s — the omnipotent, omniscient, omnicompetent deity, the celestial CEO of much Western imagination.” Though the latter is a caricature, Wright is right that rational arguments for God’s existence do not bring one to the foot of the cross. But then, no natural theology has ever claimed as much. All such arguments accomplish is the establishment of a “something or other” that is transcendent of finite existence, faceless and nameless, that which utterly exceeds our words and ideas. As Denys Turner writes, “rational demonstration of the existence of God is reason stretched to the end of its tether.” And what it finds there, in medieval scholastic terms, is not a material but a formal object; as though you were walking toward me from a distance, and I knew the vague shape on the horizon to be a person, but without knowing who it was. Once I recognized you and remembered your name, I would realize that it was always you walking toward me, though before I recognized you I didn’t know you to be you. That, by analogy, is all that natural theology proposes to accomplish regarding God’s existence. To say that it is insufficient, given how little it can say, is only to restate its self-definition in the form of critique. Which is to say, to misunderstand it entirely.
The question for the reader, then, is whether the problem just outlined is fatal to the work. Some, with justice, will say yes: Wright’s argument is misbegotten, conceived on a misreading of what natural theology is, the scope of its inquiry, and the method of its investigation. A generous reading is possible, however, one that does not blunt the critique but nevertheless takes the project on its own terms, whatever Wright’s understanding of natural theology. Such a reading would evaluate the proposal in its own right and seek thereby to resituate it in relation to the wider currents of premodern and post-Enlightenment thought about God, Jesus, and history. That, anyhow, is what I aim to do in the following.
Recall that Wright’s account of the last three centuries is a declension narrative. Not only in its evacuation of God from human affairs but especially in the attenuated divinity left in its wake, the Enlightenment’s epistemology is an artificial constriction of every form of human knowing, living, and seeing. The irony is that when people in the West notice the straitjacket in which Epicureanism has placed them, the deity offered as an alternative is no help at all. Either a “perfect being” projected onto eternity, or a distant “god” enclosed in heaven and unconcerned with earth, or the butler-therapist of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: none of these is going to save us, none is worthy of worship, and none, certainly, is the intimate Creator God revealed at Mount Sinai and Golgotha.
Natural theology, on this reading, is a kind of play-acting in which we dress up divinity as the most benign of all possible absentee landlords. Little more than a guessing game, it leaves the world’s horrors unaddressed. The earthquake of Lisbon, the Reign of Terror, the Middle Passage, the trenches, the Shoah, enforced starvation, pestilence and famine and sword: “still th’abysses infinite / Surround the peak from which we gaze,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, and still “Thou art silent.”
Humans abhor a silence, and into the threatening quiet we thrust idols of every kind. But, Wright asks, if the churches are as guilty as the wider culture of proffering idols in the religious marketplace — especially the shadow-gods of modernity listed above — then where might one look for help in offering a true alternative? He answers again: to history. Specifically, to the first century, in Roman-occupied Palestine. There we find Second Temple Judaism, its scripturally saturated worldview of heaven and earth and the God of both, and a small band of followers of a failed Messiah, now dispersed and hiding in fear of the authorities. This might seem an odd place to look, trained as we are to find answers in the centers of power and prestige. But for just that reason Wright recommends we glance a second time. For he maintains that the worldview thus discovered has not been tried and found wanting. It has yet to be tried.
What, then, do we find? Wright reconstructs for the reader a historical portrait of a first-century Jewish worldview centered on a series of focal images — temple, Sabbath, and the divine image — reworked around a crucified and risen rabbi. Together, these images constitute for Wright a coherent, plausible set of answers to the questions about God and the world that animate natural theology. In doing so, he argues, they counter the regnant Epicurean answers that circulate as so much cultural common sense.
Against the “split-level” world of the Enlightenment, whether Epicurean or deist, Kantian or Platonist, the Jerusalem temple shows us that God is neither distant from nor identical to creation. Instead, he is radically present to it. Here heaven and earth overlap and intermingle. Since the beginning, God has gotten his hands dirty in the soil of creation. Setting up shop on a particular plot of land — or even, in the case of Jesus, in a particular human life — is only continuing the theme.
What the temple is to space, the Sabbath is to time: a respite, in the midst of labor and toil, which anticipates the final rest to come, the great Sabbath when God will dwell with his people amid a renewed creation. In philosophical terms, this stands against the modern rejection of final causality: creation has a purpose, a destination for which it is bound. Far from “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing,” it is a story with a plot, a protagonist, and more than one surprising twist.
The protagonist is the human person. For humanity bears the image of God; we are icons of heaven made from the dust of the earth. To bear this image means that we play a particular role in the drama. This role, or vocation, comprises both ruling and serving the good creation entrusted to us: toiling the ground, caring for one another, unfurling the hidden potentialities of all that surrounds us. Dominion is one word for this high calling. Another is culture. Either way, we are not, as a certain brand of popular scientism would have it, evolutionary latecomers blindly selected for meaningless self-propagation. We are royal priests of a cosmic temple, appointed by a generous God as stewards and shepherds of his limitless treasury.
Wright sketches this threefold ancient picture of the world in parallel to arguments for God’s existence from cosmology, teleology, and morality. But two elements complicate the story: crucifixion and resurrection. Each of which, in turn, raises the problem of evil.
In turning, at last, to Jesus, Wright wants to draw our attention to the multitudes he contains. On the one hand: heaven and earth interwoven, divinity and humanity united, a promise of liberation, a vocation pursued to the fullest. On the other: suffering, brokenness, and apparent pointlessness, the selfsame pointlessness that hangs over all human life, however virtuous, holy, or sublime. Somehow joined together in the cross of Jesus are at once the heights and the depths, joy and despair, love and dejection, life and death. As a species, we stand beneath it as a sign of grace and judgment alike.
Indeed it is a sign, Wright argues: a “broken signpost” that points beyond this world in the midst of the world as it is. The cross, he submits, is the key to natural theology because it is the end of a path walked by a flesh-and-blood human being who in all that he did and said affirmed the world as God’s good creation; and yet the world as it is brought him there, of all places, because it is fallen, lying under the reign of sin and death. And if the life of Jesus ended there, for good and all, then perhaps there would be no more to say than to observe the paradox in wistful gloom.
But the gospel is comedy, not tragedy, and Jesus did not remain in the grave. Or so the early Christians claimed, proclaiming to all who would listen that God raised him from the dead in the power of his Spirit to new, everlasting, and unconquerable life. More: They announced that such life is now offered through Jesus to all who follow the trail he blazed, living as he lived, loving as he loved, suffering as he suffered. Offered, that is, as a free gift, no matter one’s identity, talents, misdeeds, or failures. The initial offer, in fact, was to those who abandoned, denied, and murdered Jesus. That set the tone for the whole movement.
But the resurrection, Wright argues, is about more than personal salvation. It is about the renewal of the cosmos. It is a divine promise that what God has made will not go to waste but will be reclaimed, purified, and transformed by the same loving power that delivered Jesus from death. And if that is the promise of Easter, giving the faithful the eyes to see, in hindsight, what God was doing all along, even and especially in the midst of violence and rejection, then what else might we see differently in the light of the resurrection? What else might be a broken signpost pointing the way to the new world God is bringing to birth in the midst of the old?
Here is the post-Lisbon, post-Paley, post-modern theological epistemology Wright is after. Not an a priori certainty, through reason alone, that deity exists. Instead, a posteriori faith, hope, and love that the broken God from Galilee — “the wounded God of the Gospels” — is not only Creator and Lord and Savior, but is also launching the project of new creation, bringing heaven and earth together as they were always meant to be, and inviting human beings to join him in the task. On the far side of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter morning, we frail creatures have cause for confidence that we were not wrong to see signs of heaven in the ruins we all too frequently make of earth: broken signposts like “justice, beauty, freedom, truth and power, spirituality and relationships.” In their brokenness, in our inability to speak them aright or keep from garbling them, their eloquence invariably faltered. They could not shake the aura of wish fulfillment that hung about them; our failures always seemed to outbid the ideals we fell short of. But now, standing before the empty tomb, we realize what they were pointing to. In retrospect, it finally makes sense.
Does the foregoing qualify as natural theology? Probably not. At times it reads as an effort to arrive at grace (Jesus) without grace (revelation), via nature (history). Wright is closer to the Reformed than he realizes, even as his confidence in historical inquiry owes more to the Enlightenment than he lets on. Indeed, he should know better than anyone that his historiography, far from finding a consensus in the field, has proved highly contentious, even controversial. We are a long way from the assured results of historical criticism. Yet these lectures succeed in encapsulating his career-long project: neither natural theology nor mere history, they are instead a creative theological interpretation of the founding Christian message, an apologia whose principal criterion is historical plausibility.
Although the issue is more than semantic, it is clear that Wright is uninterested in adjudicating such labels. He is not asking for your approval, nor is he chasing a proof. The book avoids the oft-quoted medieval conclusion: quod erat demonstrandum. He does not want to compel your assent. To do so would fall prey to the very thing he is criticizing.
He wants, instead, to woo you. Or, if that is too much, he wants your left and your right brain both. He argues explicitly for what he calls an epistemology of love, a mode of human inquiry that forgoes detachment and seeks, in delight, to understand what is truly other than oneself. And since he is convinced that you have not had the opportunity to encounter the destabilizing, shocking news of the crucified God — as it was first told and understood by a few dozen terrified Jews in an upper room in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago — he wants to facilitate an introduction. Wright takes as axiomatic for modernity that Lessing’s ditch, between the accidents of history and the eternal truths of reason, is uncrossable, and that apologists for the gospel fail every attempt to bridge that ugly, broad expanse. What he wants you to consider, however, perhaps for the first time, is the possibility that it’s been crossed from the other side. And to ask yourself: what if it were true?
Brad East is assistant professor of theology at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. He is the editor of Robert Jenson’s The Triune Story: Collected Essays on Scripture (Oxford University Press, 2019), and his writing has appeared in The Christian Century, Comment, Commonweal, Marginalia Review of Books, Mere Orthodoxy, Plough, and elsewhere.
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