Faith and Academics: N.T. Wright’s ‘The Challenge of Jesus’

In college, I minored in Christian Scriptures.

For someone as career-minded as College Me, it was kind of a silly move. I was majoring in Journalism and wanted to write (and tell people’s stories) for a living. A Scriptures minor simply had no practical career application. But I knew college was likely my one chance to study the Bible academically … and I cherished every moment.

I admired my theology professors so much. Every class was rigorous, thought-provoking, and challenged me to look at my faith (and our world) in new and nontraditional ways.

I value academics and faith both immensely, and — counter to what popular culture would have you believe — I don’t see any need for the two to be incompatible. 

British scholar N.T. Wright explains this his book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. As a scholar, Wright is seeking to paint an historical picture of Jesus of Nazareth.

This is Jesus according to history, not Jesus according to your 3rd grade Sunday School. To be sure, serious pursuit of academics will challenge our previously-held assumptions and beliefs about Christ. But it also provides new insight: helping us understand Jesus as his contemporaries did, not how 21st century Americans do… looking back on a time and culture 2,000 years away.

But it makes more sense to just let Wright explain:

1. Christians shouldn’t avoid serious pursuit of academics. Intellect is not some sort of subtle, stealthy danger to faith.

Faith and academics are not fundamentally incompatible, but that the serious pursuit of both is crucial. It is a challenging quest, but one that can help us from distinguishing what in our histories and traditions might not actually be as biblical as we thought.

2. Just because something is protestant and evangelical, that doesn’t make it Biblical.

“We believe the Bible, so we had better discover the things in it to which our traditions, including our ‘protestant’ and ‘evangelical’ traditions, which have supposed themselves to be ‘biblical’ but are sometimes demonstrably not, have made us blind.” (17)
3. The church’s long history means there’s been plenty of time for misunderstandings to take root. Shouldn’t we want to figure out what those are?
“Precisely because these texts have been read and preached as holy Scripture for two thousand years, all kinds of misunderstandings have crept in, which have then been enshrined in church tradition. The historian will often see not necessarily that the Gospels need to be rejected or replaced but that they did not in fact mean what subsequent Christian tradition thought.” (27)

4. A lot of Bible story retellings don’t get their facts right.

The fruit wasn’t an apple. The shepherds and the wise men weren’t with Jesus at the same time. And if these factual details in stories and common perceptions don’t add up — what other beliefs, assertions and commonly-held understandings aren’t in line with Scripture?

5. But the existence of misunderstandings doesn’t make the entire Bible invalid.

“Historical research […] by no means tells us to throw away the Gospels and substitute quite a different story of our own. It does, however, warn us that our familiar readings of those Gospel stories may well have to submit to serious challenges and questionings and that we may end up reading even our favorite texts in ways we have never imagined.” (27)
 6. Historical research is just another way Christians can grow to understand God better. (I would add: As long as research not given highest value or put on a pedestal, it is a great complement to [not an opponent of!] prayer, reading the Bible, practicing spiritual disciplines, and trying our best to act like Jesus did when he was on earth.)
“I regard the continuing historical quest for Jesus as a necessary part of ongoing Christian discipleship. […] By looking at Jesus […] we discover who God is.” (15)
7. That said, serious pursuit of both faith and academics will bring challenges. That is expected. It’s not something to be scared of.
When faith and academics disagree, Christians shouldn’t plug our ears and run away. We are called to share in the uncertainty–to wrestle with it–and to fearlessly seek ways that we can to know God better.

 To fearlessly seek ways that we can know God better. It won’t always be easy. It won’t be neat and tidy. But it will challenge and push us to see the world in new ways: to understand God — in a messy, raw, vulnerable, unexpected, and beautiful way.

There is no place I would rather be.

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