Right, Wright, and In-Between: A Review of “Simply Jesus” by N.T. Wright

I hate the way some people use the word “new”. Whether it’s a band promoting a “new” sound, or a college student talking about a “new” kind of rebellion, I have found that many people use the term “new” to refer to something that is actually old (i.e. not “new” at all). So, I confess when N.T. Wright subtitled his book Simply Jesus as “A New Vision Of Who He Was, What He Did, And Why He Matters,” I was annoyed. I thought to myself, “A New vision?!” Really? It seemed that Wright was going to be either so novel that he was in fact just un-biblical or he was just passing “old” off as “new”. The truth is actually, surprisingly (and somewhat not), somewhere in-between. Simply Jesus does present readers with a picture of Jesus from within his original context, an “old” understanding that has simply been lost overtime (i.e. “new” to us). But he also gets so caught up in his interpretation that I think Wright actually downplays some of the key aspects of what Jesus accomplishes in His death. The book is thoroughly helpful and eye-opening on a number of fronts. As Wright unpacks the Biblical history he does the church a great service. But his “new” understanding of the work of Christ seems to downplay the significance of personal sin and the way in which the cross and resurrection deal with it.

For Wright, the “new” vision is really about contrasting the Biblical picture of who Jesus was with the modern definitions of Jesus’ person and accomplishments. There are two basic views of Jesus today that Wright is arguing against. The first comes from a conservative point of view. Speaking of this “Jesus myth” he writes:

In this myth, a supernatural being called “God” has a supernatural “son” whom he sends, virgin-born, into our world, despite the fact that this is not his natural habitat, so that he can rescue people out of this world by dying in their place. As a sign of his otherwise secret divine identity, this “son” does all kinds of extraordinary and otherwise impossible “miracles,” crowning them all by rising from the dead and returning to “heaven,” where he waits to welcome his faithful followers after their deaths. (17)

Note the statements about God rescuing his people out of this world and waiting on them in heaven. The major problem that Wright has with this view is that it does not take into consideration the Biblical history and fulfillment that Jesus steps into within the gospels accounts. It blatantly ignores the “kingdom” concepts, which Jesus speaks so frequently of and which the Old Testament points to.

The second major “Jesus myth” is that of skepticism. This view sees Jesus as a good teacher who never wanted to start a religion, that is something his followers invented. Jesus just wanted to love and help people. “Some people seem to have felt better after meeting him, but that was about it” (18). Again this view ignores the historical and cultural context of the Scriptures.  For Wright the “new” vision, the correction vision, sees Jesus from within a framework of Biblical/cultural history all pointing backwards to God’s desire to establish a kingdom.

Wright unpacks the Biblical history with incredible skill. As he does he gives us a fresh look at specific Biblical scenes and characters. He helps us understand the specific content of passages and, more significantly, the role they play in the larger storyline of Scripture. Here is where Wright excels, and he gives us much help in this engaging example of Biblical Theology. His major contention is that the whole of who Jesus was and what he accomplished can only rightly be understood in the context of God’s desire to build a kingdom and Jesus’ fulfillment of that as the Kingdom/Servant. The shortcoming of the work, however, is that in his focus on this theological development Wright actually undermines key and foundational concepts of who Jesus was and what he accomplished.

For Wright the focus is on Kingdom to the exclusion of many other important aspects of Jesus’ person and work. In fact he ignores or diminishes to the point of mere caveat the significance of personal sin, speaking almost exclusively it feels of Jesus’ work as fixing Israel’s national failures and establishing the Kingdom. “There is…a massive sense in which Jesus’s death is penal,” (185) he contends. But even here he seeks to qualify this understanding. Wright adds:

This is both penal and substitutionary, but it is far bigger and less open to objection than some other expressions of that theory. Once you put it together with the previous model (Jesus as Messiah representing Israel and hence the world), you draw the sting of the main objections that have been advanced against it. (185)

For Wright Jesus’ death is primarily about his defeating the forces of Satan, darkness, and death. It is about overcoming the evil empire which prevented the Kingdom from being established, and this empire was greater than Egypt, Babylon, or Rome. Jesus’ death defeats the enemy that waged war against the possibility of an established Kingdom. Again, we can readily concede this is an aspect of Jesus’ death. But Paul surely speaks of Christ’s death at least as often (if not more frequently) in terms of payment for sin than in terms of securing the Kingdom. And Paul applies this not simply to Israel’s national failures, but to personal moral rebellion against God (and to gentiles no-less). Likewise Wright views the resurrection as Jesus’ being a new “prototype of the new creation” (195). And the ascension too is viewed through this same lens. The ascension points to Jesus ruling as King. All of this we may grant, but not the exclusion or downplaying of traditional soteriology.

There is so much value to this book that I cannot overstate how important it will be for pastors to read carefully Wright’s discussion of the historical and Biblical context in which Jesus lived and served and died and rose. But, as with some of his other writings, his views on what Jesus accomplished on the cross are not completely squared with the picture we get in the New Testament. The book doesn’t give us something “new” per se, but neither is it all clearly old. Some of it is right, and some of it is Wright. Read carefully and learn to put Jesus in proper context, but don’t borrow this authors doctrine of salvation.


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