Review of N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus (Part 2: Six Big Ideas)

Review of N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus (Part 2: Six Big Ideas) November 10, 2011

Whenever I read a book, I like to try and ascertain what the take-away ideas of the book are. Wright, though he obviously has a brilliant mind, does not always make this crystal clear. He writes like he lectures – it is fascinating, but in the end, I am not exactly sure what I learned. This could be my own poverty of mind, but it is my impression. So, I spent some time trying to reflect on what Wright spends his 200+ pages getting at. I think, at the risk of being problematically reductive, there are six “big ideas.”

1. NEW EXODUS: To understand Jesus, you need to understand Exodus typology and the expectation that history would repeat itself in a greater way with the Messiah. Jesus speaks in code, but it is code that Jews would catch immediately.

2. KINGSHIP OF GOD IN JESUS: this motif is rather obvious in the book, as Wright repeats it numerous times and the next book in this series is actually called How God Became King. The idea here is that God intended humans, as his image bearers, to live under his kingship (as the Creator), but also to have co-reign or viceregency under his authority to rule on his behalf in the world. When sin came into the picture, this vocation of humanity got all screwed up. Moreover, somehow God’s kingship over the earth became contested. Israel came to expect, one day, that God would reinstate his full rule again, and perhaps it would involve the direct work of a human ruler. The “trick” with Jesus was that he was the means through which God reclaimed his rule (hence the “kingdom of God”). This concept could use more clarification and working out how it runs through Scripture, but I presume Wright will cover this ground in the next volume.

3. VIOLENCE: While it does not feature centrally in this book, it certainly plays its part when we look at Wright’s assessment of failed messiahs of Israel. They demonstrated zeal for the Lord, but through violence. Wright insists that the power of the cross, in part, comes from Christ’s love-filled, hatred-accepting, non-violent solution. This is not Wright being a hippie as much as his reading of the significance of the cross and the failure of violence to actually end violence.

4. HEAVEN: One of my favorite chapters was on Easter and the Ascension because he does a good job of summarizing Surprised by Hope. Wright is insistent that God has not set a countdown for the abandonment of this earth, in view of a new life in heaven. The vision of God is to bring heaven and earth back together at last, so that what we do now on earth really does matter. It is still God’s creation. We are not just biding our time until heaven. Wright regularly appeals to the Lord’s prayer where the will of God is for his ways to permeate earth just as it is followed perfectly in heaven. I think this emphasis is well-grounded and timely.

5. HUMAN AGENCY AND MISSIONAL ECCLESIOLOGY: Wright persistently argues that humans are not just spectators in the story of redemption, but key characters – partners with the Hero of the story. Christianity is not a passive thing (receiving divine benefits like peace with God and heaven), but something active. Wright wants each Christian, as a member of the church, to know a sense of calling and purpose to contribute to God’s wider plan.

6. IMAGE BEARING: This emphasis really only comes in the last couple of chapters, but Wright tries to bring together the oft-separated passions of evangelism and social justice. Wright advocates for both, but wants to help Christians to fit them into the same thing called image-bearing. We herald because we are a transformed people. We serve because we are doing the work of God to infiltrate this earth with God’s rule. Sadly, too many Christians (even pastors and professors) see social justice as a minor role of the Church, something optional, while evangelism is essential. Wright, again, tries to set them within a broader category of “being human” in a way that supports all the ways we reflect and imitate God.

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  • joanne

    Thank you, excellent, I appreciate this and agree with your need to summarize Wright. I often come away feeling I am reading or hearing a brilliant mind, but I need to cut to the chase. I find it difficult to maintain focus with his perambulationary style. Is Wright saying anything new, or is he expanding and deepening our understanding of traditional Christian beliefs? Your work helps with teaching students in a secular and relativistic society.