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Wright and Torrance: Different Framings of the Gospel

December 18, 2013

In the video below, N. T. Wright discusses his new book on Paul’s theology. He strongly asserts that the ministry and death of Jesus Christ have to be understood within the history of Israel and the promises God made to Abraham, Christ himself being the fulfillment of those promises, the righteous Israel that restores humanity and thereby creation in light of the primeval fall. That much I think ought to be noncontroversial. Have a look.

What is wonky about this is the unapologetic plan-B-ness of Wright’s understanding of Abraham, the nation of Israel that comes from him and therefore Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s intentions with that nation. Wright paraphrases “that rabbi who said in I think the 3rd or 4th century” that basically prior to creation God said to himself he’d make Adam and if Adam blew it he’d make Abraham to fix what Adam broke. Now, my point in this post is not to argue counterfactuals about whether Christ would have come even if the fall hadn’t happened but to do deal more generally with the way Wright treats the relation between history and God’s will. Wright reads God’s intentions in linear temporal sequence such that what comes before must be the cause of what comes later. Abraham is understood in light of Adam; God’s promises to Abraham answer to the creational intentions gone awry in Adam. Jesus is then understood in light of Abraham; God’s work in Jesus answers to the promises made to Abraham.

This way of situating the gospel of Jesus Christ has significant merit. It helps restore to the church the Hebraic setting of all the New Testament writings, certainly including Paul. This is a significant gain. But it unhelpfully sets itself against an unnamed (at least in this interview) alternative framing of the gospel, presumably that reflected in Luther’s questions about how God can be found by sinners to be merciful which led to the bedrock Protestant conviction of justification by faith.

T. F. Torrance offers a helpful alternative to this binary opposition of frameworks by understanding all of Israel’s history from Abraham’s call forward as a particular kind of prehistory to Jesus Christ. To state it briefly, Torrance sees the history of God’s covenant with Israel prior to Christ as having the purpose of supplying a cultural matrix of thinking, speaking and religious liturgy that would make Christ’s eventual coming intelligible. This then allows that Christ be understood in light of Israel’s history a la Wright, but also allows, which Wright seems to not, that Israel’s history be understood in light of a necessarily post-resurrection insight into who Christ is in his relation to God and in the outworking of God’s plan of salvation as it relates to all creation. It is worth letting Torrance speak for himself here at length:

If we are to know [God] and speak about him in a way that is appropriate to him, we need to have fitting modes of thought and speech, adequate conceptual forms and structures, and indeed reverent and worthy habits of worship and behavior governing our approach to him. Let us consider God’s historical relations with the people of Israel in just this light. And let us think of it, for a moment rather anthropomorphically, in this way. In his desire to reveal himself and make himself knowable to mankind, he selected one small race out of the whole mass of humanity, and subjected it to intensive interaction and dialogue with himself in such a way that he might mould and shape his people in the service of his self-revelation. Recall Jeremiah’s analogy of the potter at work with his clay, which is so apt here. He takes a lump of clay, throws it down upon the potter’s wheel, and proceeds to rotate it under the steady pressure of his fingers until it is moulded into the kind of vessel suitable for his purpose. But when the clay proves to be lumpy and recalcitrant he breaks it down and remoulds it in accordance with his design, and he does that again and again until he has formed and fashioned a vessel to his liking which will serve his purpose well. That is how the prophets, and St Paul also, regarded Israel, as clay in the hands of the divine Potter which he subjects to his will, yet not in the mechanical way of a human potter with his impersonal handiwork but in the way in which a father imparts distinctive characteristics to his offspring. Thus God established a special partnership of covenanted kinship with Israel, so that within the intimate structure of family relations he might increasingly imprint himself upon the generations of Israel in such a way that it could become the instrument of his great purpose of revelation.

Far from being restricted to the people of Israel itself, that was a purpose which God had for all mankind, for he took Israel into his hands in this unique way in order to provide the actual means, a whole set of spiritual tools, appropriate forms of understanding, worship and expression, through which apprehension of God could be made accessible to human beings and knowledge of God could take root in the soil of humanity (The Mediation of Christ, pp. 6-7).

Torrance establishes a two-way framing here, framing Christ within Israel’s history and framing Israel’s history within God’s logically prior decision to send Christ. This more dialectical framing upholds everything Wright offers us but without castigating the patristic and Reformation formulations of Christology Wright feels compelled to castigate in order to establish a Hebraic Christological context. The early fathers’ insights about who Christ is within the inner relations of the Godhead are given space to speak to us today, as are the reformers insights about who Christ is within God’s plan and work of salvation for us, all while encouraging the work Wright wants to do of highlighting questions of who Christ is within the history of Israel which is the preoccupation of the New Testament writers.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2013 3:12 pm

    Reblogged this on Expand and commented:
    Love this! Great blog from Adam Nigh…Brilliant!

  2. January 1, 2014 7:14 am

    Does it make sense to talk about ‘logically prior decisions’ with regard to God?

    • January 1, 2014 9:21 am

      That’s a question I’ve given some thought to; I’ll admit it seems…ambitious to talk like that about God. But there are several cases in which, so far, I can’t see how it could be avoided. Creation and salvation, for instance; I can’t not think of God’s decision to save us from sin as logically subsequent to a decision to create us in the first place.

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