Thursday, May 15, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 4)

Chapter 4 of Surprised by Hope moved me to tears in parts and reminded me why I think N.T. Wright is the greatest Christian thinker/writer of our time.

The chapter is largely restatements of things Wright has said elsewhere in The Resurrection of the Son of God, combined with responses to the major critiques of his previous work. I see two major sections of the chapter--one dealing with the historical evidence for Christianity and one dealing with epistemology and why we believe. Both are great.

In the first part of the chapter, Wright reiterates what he wrote in The Resurrection of the Son of God, namely that historical evidence suggests that Jesus (to paraphrase Wright's wording) became physically, thoroughly dead, and then became physically, thoroughly alive. Wright reminds the reader than in the ancient world, nobody believed that people actually died and then actually became alive again. Some may have hoped for a future resurrection, but no one believed that it happened in the here-and-now. However, something happened to make the Christians claim that Jesus physically died and physically became alive again. Wright asks the question, what is the most likely historical event to have caused this change in thinking? His answer? The empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. Neither of these things by themselves would have caused a drastic reinterpretation of the resurrection. An empty tomb would be interpreted as grave-robbery (as Mary supposes in John 20:15). The appearances would be interpreted as hallucinations or ghost sightings (i.e. Mark 6:49 or Acts 12:15). However, taken together, the two led the disciples to conclude that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Thus the Christian movement began.

Having established that the resurrection of Jesus is the most likely explanation for the beliefs and behavior of the early Christians, Wright moves to talk about how we know what we know and why we believe what we believe. Wright writes about the role of historical investigation in "proving" the Easter story:

"We cannot use a supposedly objective historical epistemology as the ultimate ground for the truth of Easter. To do so would be like lighting a candle to see whether the sun had risen. What the candles of historical scholarship will do is show that the room has been disturbed, that it doesn't look like it did last night, and that would-be normal explanations for this won't do. Maybe, we think after the historical arguments have done their work, maybe morning has come and the world has woken up. But to investigate whether this is so, we must take the risk and open the curtains to the rising sun. When we do so, we won't rely on the candles any more, not because we don't believe in evidence and argument but because they will have been overtaken by the larger reality from which they borrow, to which they point, and in which they will find a new and larger home." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 74.

Ultimately, what role does historical investigation play in the life of faith? Do you agree with Wright that it is important, but it pales in comparison to other "evidences"?

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