I have been using the break from teaching as a chance to catch up on some publications that I have not yet read. One of them has been Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright, the published version of the Wheaton Theology Conference from 2010. This conference generated a lot of conversation, and the essays that I have read thus far have been enjoyable and thought-provoking. In this post and the next, I want to reflect briefly on the issue of tradition and its role in interpreting the Scriptures. This issue comes up several times (indeed, it is a reoccurring theme in the volume). It appears most directly in N.T. Wright’s concluding essay to Part One (‘Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church’, pp.115-58), largely I think a response to Richard Hays’ piece. The essay, partly biographical, explores how Wright has come to his understanding of Jesus and the Gospels by rethinking the historical situation of Jesus as a Jew. He focuses particularly on how the kingdom of God is the central message of Jesus and how the cross and resurrection relate to the kingdom. It is his comments about how the Gospels have been interpreted throughout church history that I want to highlight here.

In his discussion about the role of the canon and the church’s misreading of it, Wright states,

But history has shown again and again that the church is well capable of misreading the canon, and that tradition can drift in many directions, some less than helpful, some decidedly destructive. To appeal to tradition and dogma as the framework for understanding Jesus is to say that not only the entire enterprise of biblical scholarship but also the entire Protestant Reformation has been based on a mistake. Some may find it strange to hear me defending either of these (critical scholarship and the Protestant Reformation!), but if the alternative is to say simply that tradition has got it mostly right I reply that the history of the church tells a very different story. (p.122)

Wright here puts the church’s reading of Scripture (tradition) in sharp contrast to biblical scholarship as well as the Reformation. He goes on throughout the essay to point out how the church has consistently misunderstood the gospels. He argues, for example, that the church has failed to grasp the canonical Jesus because it treated the gospels as an argument about the second person of the Trinity rather than about the Jesus who revealed the Kingdom of God. He declares that ‘[i]t is the Western tradition … that has insisted on inventing a Jesus “behind the gospel”’ (p.132). He continues:

Kähler’s own famous protest about the danger of historians discovering a Jesus other than the one in Scripture turns out to be sheer projection. The tradition—the traditional church—which Kähler embodied at that point did, and continues to do, exactly that. And the irony has been that the tradition has been so strong that nobody has even noticed. The Gospels have remained at the center of the church’s life, but they have been muzzled and emasculated. (pp.132-33)

A couple of sentences later he writes, ‘I think that the Western church has simply not really known what the Gospels were there for’ (p.133).

A few other quotes:

It is, in fact, the church’s dogmatic tradition, through which the Gospels have been forced to give answers to questions they were not addressing, or not addressing head on, that has made the apologetic and historical tasks much harder. It is harder to retrieve the canonical Jesus (YHWH in person and Israel in person) because the whole church has taught itself to read the canon in ways that significantly diminish it, a problem that can only be remedied precisely by a fresh (however dangerous!) historical reading. (p.135; emphasis removed, underline added)

This brings us to the second great point at which the entire Western tradition has not known what the Gospels are there for: the split, almost ubiquitous in tradition but never found in the canon, between Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom and Jesus’ pilgrimage to the cross. (p.137; underline added)

The question to be asked, then, is this: What sort of a kingdom is it that needs the crucifixion of the kingdom bringer for its completion? Or, conversely, what sort of meaning might one give to the cross—what sort of atonement theology might we envision—that effects the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven? The fact that this feels quite a strange question indicates worryingly that, as I have suggested several times, the entire Western tradition appears not to have allowed the canonical Gospels to make their full impact. (p.144; underline added)

These quotes are merely highlights of what I think is one of Wright’s key points in the essay: the church’s reading of the Gospels has not merely gotten a few points incorrect, but the whole church has massively misunderstood and distorted the Gospels. In the next post, I will raise a few questions about the value of tradition for the task of interpreting scripture.