In recounting the trends of Protestant Biblical Scholarship as it pertains to Christology, N.T. Wright makes the following observation regarding trends in trying to reconstruct what the true faith really is:
The second tendency has often been in tension with the first, but still exercises a powerful influence. Protestantism appealed over the head of later ecclesial developments to the fountain-head: to the Bible and the Fathers, against the medieval church. If one went back to the beginning, one would strip off folly and rediscover faith. With the Enlightenment, the ‘bad period’ was quietly extended: now, everything between the Bible and the Enlightenment itself was under judgment, and the Bible itself was picked apart for signs of a genuine early religion, whether that of Jesus himself or at least that of Paul. At the same time, Romanticism constantly implied that the ‘primitive’ form of any movement was the genuine,
inspiredarticle, the original vision which would fade over time as people moved from charisma to committees, from adoration to administration, from spontaneous and subversive spirituality to stable structures and a salaried sacerdotalism. 1
Latent within Protestantism was this constant reform movement built within it. This occasionally
But then for the trends that N.T. Wright mentions, we might label these as led radical reform tendencies, which are baked more so into the mainstream culture. As much of Protestantism tried to maintain some continuity with its tradition, it sought the true understanding of faith over and against the Catholic stranglehold. This got passed onto the Enlightenment, switch from the faith itself to search for a religion of reason. Romanticism in protest of many of the trends of the Enlightenment
What all these movements share (sans perhaps liberalism, which tended to be more mainstream in modernity over and against the fundamentalist protest of modernity) however, is a deep suspicion of
No doubt, this was baked into Western Christianity once Jewish religious leadership of the Pharisees we
And yes, the Pharisees and scribes are seen as Jesus’ main, though not only, enemies. They bear a large responsibility in the circumstances that lead to his crucifixion. They are characterized in ways that we might today call petty, narcissistic, hypocritical, angry, oblivious, etc. There is no denying they were a terrible enemy that Jesus had to face.
But herein lies the problem: if we are to take Jesus’ teachings and life seriously, if we are to take the rest of the New Testament witnesses at their word, then the reason the true religion is hindered isn’t because of our enemies, and thus it isn’t because of some religious hierarchy in and of themselves. The Pharisees are not the Nazis of Christian faith.
Jesus wasn’t out to take the names of his Pharisee enemies down and beat them down one by one. In John 3, Jesus meets with the Pharisee Nicodemus, who was
If we think seriously, the problematic aspects of religion are more symptoms than they are the true causes of the problems. It would probably be more accurate to suggest that religious hierarchy manifests the problems rather than causes them; I would suggest a similar reality for political leadership. Outside of the few instances where those with authority have forcibly instituted their will upon people apart from any consent, most leadership arises because they reflect in some way the values of those they lead. But this wasn’t the Pharisees, their authority rested more in popularity than in fiat power. Then, once they get authority, some can use their power in self-serving ways, but there can even be punitive ‘saints’ who do nothing but what they have been called to do and they can cause problems also. In other words, religious leadership (and other leadership) can be a source of problems themselves, but the reason they are problems isn’t generally themselves, but there is something deeper; something cultural; something more insidious and pervasive; something that Paul can only really refer to by talking about spiritual forces of darkness.
But if we read Paul carefully, he never rails into a
This is the power that is present among all of us as humans; none of us are free from its presence. From this, we can say, all the other problems emerge or take advantage of, including the evil spiritual powers, including the religious hierarchy, etc. We can include with this also our modern discourse of the systemic and cultural sins that we see so present in our society; we can include the political zealotry that shoots first and often and fails to ever ask questions. Moving away from personal evils, we may even include a host of impersonal evils that is not anyone’s fault, such as mental illness, physical disease
The solution to this for Paul was to behold the power of God through the narrative traditions of Jesus’ own life, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification paired with the powerful works, revelation, and discernment of the Spirit that comes. In this, the veil of the present age is pulled back, sometimes for just a brief glimpse that can not be readily understood, and one begins to see the glory of God in Christ that the Spirit makes known. It is here that reign of sin and death as forces inhabiting the flesh are pushed back, their strongholds successfully sieged, their battle lines broken.
The Protestant Reformation, in seeking to be justified by faith brought forth something very important from the New Testament witnesses. At the same time, they didn’t really understand what the significance of faith in the New Testament was, using it more as a contrast with religious practice, structure, and hierarchy. As a consequence, the concerns of religion became more concerned by the conflicts latent with the social and political principles of whatever the present age was, and thus the search for true religion always had the face of society as its end result which it projected back onto God in a Feuerbachian sort of way. But, for Paul and the New Testament, faith was in contrast to the normal human mode of life that we all exist within apart from God’s own self-disclosure and our acceptance of it. This is why Christ was without sin to the point of the crucifixion and was then raised from the dead: to demonstrate God’s power over sin and death that inhabits the flesh. So, to have faith in the God who makes Himself known in Christ and the Spirit is to cease to be indomitability ruled by this flesh.