History and Eschatology:
Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology
by n. t. wright
baylor, 365 pages, $34.95
In the broadest sense, “natural theology” attempts to describe God and his relation to the world by attending to nature or natural revelation, without taking special revelation or “supernatural” truth into consideration. For several centuries, natural theology has ignored history—specifically the history of Jesus. So argues N. T. Wright in his Gifford Lectures, published by Baylor Press as History and Eschatology. Wright proposes to fill this gap. Even on the premises of natural theology, Jesus deserves a place. Jesus and the church he founded, after all, exist within the natural world. Natural theology can and should be evangelized.
Wright blames the truncated state of natural theology on the modern revival of Epicureanism. Epicureanism is popularly known as a hedonist philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But the Epicurean lifestyle is founded on a metaphysics and physics that proved attractive to secularizing elites in the early modern period. God or gods may exist in an Epicurean universe, but he or they are too distant and indifferent to be relevant to us. Religion offers private comfort, but the enlightened know it’s merely a human invention to pacify the masses. Epicureanism is materialist atomism; the world hums along on its own steam as atoms combine, separate, and recombine. Death is the end, so there’s nothing to worry about.
On Wright’s account, Epicureanism splits reality and human experience. It forces us to choose between a godless world and a worldless god. The “supernatural,” if it exists at all, occupies a realm apart from nature. Orthodox Christians often unwittingly accept this dualistic framework, clinging to the supernatural and to faith but skirting the risky task of understanding history and the natural world. Gotthold Lessing spoke of a great ugly ditch between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. Secularists settled comfortably on the history side of the ditch, the orthodox on the other.
Wright has long described himself as an “historian” rather than as a theologian. He has been criticized for constructing a historical Jesus behind the Jesus of the Gospels, a “fifth Gospel” to measure the canonical four. In History and Eschatology, he dismisses the charge, claiming he only aims to understand the canonical sources more accurately and deeply. More broadly, Wright’s goal is to formulate a non-Epicurean mode of historical study and historical writing. He rejects “rationalism” in favor of a “critically realist” epistemology in which love is the primary posture of knowing. Taking up his task of historian, he’s open to the possibility that, by using the tools of historical investigation, we can study real-world events as signs of heaven’s presence and power.
An Epicurean framework inevitably distorts the ancient Jewish and biblical view that heaven and earth overlap. In the temple, heaven takes an earthly address. Sabbath is a “temple of time,” when we may taste the future day of God’s eternal rest. As images of God, human beings mediate between heaven and earth. God works through us to spread his order and wisdom in the world and to construct a cosmic temple where glory dwells.
Modern Christians have abandoned this worldview, and so have replaced the biblical hope for new creation with what Wright calls a “Platonic” hope for heaven. A similar error led Albert Schweitzer to conclude Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the world and died in despair when it didn’t happen. (Wright cleverly suggests that Schweitzer picked up his obsession with the end not from patient study of ancient sources but from the collapse of Valhalla in Wagner’s Ring cycle.) Much modern scholarship explains the New Testament and early church as a massive adjustment to unrealized hope. The mythology here, Wright rightly argues, is entirely that of modern scholarship. No ancient Jews expected the end of the world in the sense Schweitzer suggested. Jesus hoped for and prophesied the end of a disjointed world order, not the end of the space-time universe. Schweitzer’s eschatological mistake has massive implications for natural theology. If Jesus expected the end of nature, he won’t have much to say about nature.
What happens when Jesus is reintegrated into natural theology? Wright sketches a natural theology by expounding on seven universal human aspirations: justice, beauty, truth, power, freedom, spirituality, relationships. Each stands under a paradox. We know, for instance, that justice and beauty are necessary to a fully realized human life, but we also know justice is partial and beauty is broken. All seven “signposts,” Wright suggests, converge on Jesus’s cross, the broken signpost to which all other broken signposts point.
Yet Christians confess a meta-paradox: This broken signpost is where God reveals himself, where heaven is present on earth. Here God suffers the ultimate injustice, his beauty effaced. Here the God who is love is crushed by brute force. Here Truth is drowned out by Pilate’s scoffing question and the shouts of the mob. Because Jesus rose from the dead, though, this broken signpost becomes the source of universal renewal: fresh springs of justice, new depths of beauty, a kind of powerless power, a freedom that isn’t limited by chains or imprisonment, a social body of mutual edification. New creation emerges out of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, as the ordinary lives of ordinary followers of Jesus become a “natural” revelation of the presence and power of God.
The church’s confession is contestable and contested, and Wright won’t permit a retreat into fideism. Once we refuse to foreclose the possibility of resurrection and new creation from the outset, we can treat Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, Pentecost, and the church’s history as “historical” phenomena, subject to historical investigation and confirmation. Jesus the rejected stone becomes the chief cornerstone of a renewed natural theology.
Wright’s wide-ranging book is primarily about the two topics of his title, history and eschatology. On both, his central arguments are convincing. “Natural theology” should attend to history, and since Jesus is a historical figure, it needs to attend to him. Wright is also correct that New Testament eschatology is about the renovation, not the removal, of creation. Jesus, Wright knows, shakes natural theologians, and every other sort of theologian, out of our slumbers. Once we admit the Gospels into the historical record and really grasp Jesus’s apocalyptic prophecies, we’ll see more than we’ve dreamt of, a strange world where the sky cracks, veils tear, and gravestones roll away.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.