N. T. Wright. History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019).

N. T. Wright is the first biblical scholar since James Barr and Rudolf Bultmann, in 1991 and 1955, respectively, to receive a prestigious invitation to present a Gifford lecture. The lecture series was launched in 1888 to sustain a conversation about the possibility and character of natural theology. Wright gave his lectures in 2018 at the University of Aberdeen under the title “Discerning the Dawn: History, Eschatology, and New Creation.”1

The lectures were adapted into this book, History and Eschatology, in which Wright makes two main arguments. He contends that we see the presence of God in the world in such things as beauty, justice, and human relationships, however compromised our human experience of such things is. In these “broken signposts,” we see hints of God’s glory that will be restored, and these hints of glory offer places for followers of Jesus to engage in the world (chapter 7). Wright’s vision for how we are called to engage comes from his understanding of Christian eschatology—the end plan of God. According to Wright, God’s plan for the creation has been inaugurated in time and space through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and that plan now waits for full redemption. He uses this sense of eschatology to suggest new loci for natural theology, and he charts this eschatological vision primarily in chapters 5, 7, and 8. 

The book is also an argument for a new vision of what natural theology might be, and this is a vision rooted in history. The Gifford website defines natural theology as “the attempt to prove the existence of God and divine purpose through observation of nature and the use of human reason. Seen in a more positive light natural theology is the part of theology that does not depend on revelation.”2 All these terms receive consideration as Wright unfolds his argument. He contends that the life of a historical (natural) person, Jesus of Nazareth, who can be investigated using historical methods (human reason), has much to contribute to an understanding of God (existence and divine purpose). Thus, the life of Jesus ought not to be excluded from the task of natural theology (because this historical work does not depend on revelation). He wants “to relocate Jesus and the New Testament within the real first-century world without sacrificing their theological relevance” (xvi). We might think of his argument for doing natural theology as his attempt to restore the life of Jesus as a signpost for natural theology. This is the work of chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4.

An astute reader should now wonder how chapter 6 fits into the picture. Wright promises to show in this chapter that “with Jesus’ resurrection (a strange event, to be sure, within the present world but the foundational and paradigmatic event within the new creation) a new ontology and appropriate epistemology are unveiled” (xvii). The question for the reader is whether—and how!—all these parts are held together. 

Wright’s arguments move through four sections, each with two chapters. The first section traces the history of natural theology in general and then considers its implications for the historical study of Gospel texts. Chapter 1 starts with Joseph Butler and other writers of the early 1700s who accepted that “the world of creation and the world of scripture belonged closely together” (4). Wright suggests that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in combination with other events changed that optimistic assumption, and Deism was displaced by Epicureanism. Because the label Epicurean carries a lot of freight throughout the book, it is worth noting Wright’s definition: “the key point at issue is the great gulf separating [the gods] from us, together with the apparent randomness of the world and the non-intervention of divine forces” (21). Two characteristics, however, distinguish the eighteenth-century version from the ancient version: a confidence in human progress, co-opted from a Jewish and Christian sense of divine purpose (23), and a Platonic response by Christians who wanted to hold onto belief in a god within this framework (29).3

Chapter 2 looks at the implications of this modern Epicureanism for the study of the life of Jesus, focusing on D. F. Strauss, Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Ernst Käsemann. In particular, Wright shows how the historical context of these shaped their understanding of Jesus and his first-century world. He especially attends to eschatology and the way their proposed frameworks anticipated transformation of the world. Wright’s point is that within an Epicurean frame, eschatology is a difficult task, imagined by Schweitzer as the end of the world and by Bultmann as an existential experience and then, in both cases, read back into the life and teachings of Jesus. As a conclusion, Wright calls for better historical work so that the life of Jesus is not located as much in the twentieth century as in the first. 

In the second section, Wright turns to describing the task of the historian by defining two terms that speak about the transformation of the world: eschatology and apocalyptic. In many ways, the burden of demonstrating that historical research can contribute to natural theology is a methodological question, and chapter 3, on historical method, is the longest chapter in the book. Wright defines history as collecting facts about past events and arranging them into patterns that make sense to us (78). The word history is confusing because it can refer to any of the events themselves, the narrative about those events, the task of narration, and the meaning of the events (86). He admits that historical conclusions work with a “balance of probabilities,” but he suggests that this is like any other scientific endeavor (88). Wright’s conclusion is that Bultmann “has very little to contribute on genuine historical method” (93). Rather, Wright proposes critical realism as an approach that offers methodological control. Critical realism can function this way because it gives close attention to the data and proceeds by hypothesis and verification. It differs from the hard sciences in that history is not repeatable, and it includes the study of human motivations, but it is a rational public endeavor like other sciences (96). This historical work also calls for use of a sympathetic imagination, what Wright calls an epistemology of love (97).4 Thus Wright concludes, “The historical task, investigating historical events in the natural world, is actually a close cousin of the hard sciences which investigate objects and organisms in the same natural world” (101). In Wright’s view, all these characteristics commend historical work as the foundational task of theology, and they lay the groundwork for describing more accurately the cosmology and eschatology from the first century. 

At the end of this long chapter, Wright speaks against historicism, defining it as the view that history is somehow determinative; such views are used to promote grand schemes in a way that fosters particular actions in current affairs. True historical research counters historicism: “Commitment to the historical task obliges us to make a determined effort to reframe our great theological questions in terms of the actual life of first-century Palestinian Jews” (126). This is a strong claim: he is arguing that because the texts of an ancient time are authoritative for our theological questions, the historian is a guide for the theological enterprise.5 

Chapter 4 is simpler: Wright aims to provide a historical picture of first-century eschatology (129). He makes his case for an inaugurated eschatology that anticipates a final day, a now-and-not-yet perspective (132, 147). This is in contrast to the various ways eschatology and apocalyptic have been used in twentieth-century discussions by other New Testament scholars who didn’t get the history right, finding in the New Testament documents an expectation of an imminent end to the world or apologies for the delay of such an event. And it contrasts those whose understanding of apocalyptic sees no lines of continuity with our present life. In Wright’s view, the crucifixion is to be understood as a royal enthronement, inaugurating a kingdom that redefines power and politics (147) and anticipating a future consummation of all things (150). 

The third section lays a foundation for Wright’s positive contribution to the question of natural theology. Chapter 5 describes Wright’s understanding of the first-century worldview, particularly its cosmology, eschatology, and view of the human condition. Underlying these details is his conviction that “Second Temple Jews assumed that heaven and earth were intended to overlap and did in fact overlap in several contexts” (159). The temple was “the place on earth where you would find yourself in heaven,” an indicator of Jewish cosmology (166). The Sabbath was, and here Wright uses the words of Jon Levenson, “a weekly celebration of the creation of the world, the uncontestable enthronement of its creator, and the portentous commission of humanity to be the obedient stewards of creation,” an indicator of eschatology (168).6 Human vocation is “the summons to glimpse the new creation and, on that basis, to discern and respond to the meaning in the old rather than retreating from it or letting it go to wrack and ruin” (174). Wright acknowledges that this may not have been the vision of all Jewish people at this time, but he notes that such a worldview clashes with Epicureanism of an ancient or modern variety (169, 174). The chapter concludes by noting that this is the worldview of the earliest Christians and that it helped them to make sense of the resurrection. If we do not find this viewpoint in later centuries, it was not “so much rejected . . . as simply not grasped” (183).

In chapter 6, Wright turns to describing an epistemology that he argues will offer new loci for natural theology based on his restatement of cosmology and eschatology and that will replace the Epicureanism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He calls this “an epistemology of love” (205). He begins by arguing that the best explanation for the actions of the first disciples is that they “really did believe that Jesus was bodily alive again—albeit in a new body which seemed to possess properties for which they were quite unprepared—and that easily the best explanation for this is that they were right” (197). Furthermore, this bodily resurrection made sense, in retrospect, of many of the teachings and hopes of Israel, including the hope for the renewal of the creation. Jesus’s bodily resurrection also required some modifications to these teachings, namely to the expectations of the end, to the role of the temple, and to the identity of the image-bearer: “Jesus’ resurrection, by unveiling the creator’s rescuing and transformative love for the whole creation, opens up the space and time for a new holistic mode of knowing, a knowing which includes historical knowledge of the real world by framing it within the loving gratitude which answers the creator’s own sovereign love” (205). 

The last section of the book develops Wright’s positive vision of this kind of natural theology as he explores how this approach could be understood as natural theology. In chapter 7, he identifies seven loci where human beings see glimpses of the divine: justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships. He argues that these are present in “different societies and times . . . . as inarticulate aspirations and impulsions” (224). He suggests we think of them as signposts indicating what humans should do in the world, signposts of our human vocation. Not only do people have an imagination for these aspirations; they recognize when these values are transgressed or compromised. The signposts are broken. We might say that people know the Good and know when the Good is crucified. And so natural human experience points toward the central event of Christian faith, calling for its interpretation in light of the revelation of God—functioning in the way that one might expect in a natural theology. 

In chapter 8 Wright returns to the question of doing natural theology, but now “in the wider, new-creational sense” (253). He proposes that natural theology is best done not by imagining “the final moment when God will be ‘all in all’” (258) but by providing an explanation for “how the larger picture fits together and makes sense” (261). Natural theology in this key is less an apologetic and more a participation in the mission of God, the redemption of the created world. He ends the book by pointing to several practical contexts in which this could happen: healing and justice, the arts, the sciences, politics, and theology. His final vision is expansive and inviting: “The ultimate reality in the world is the self-giving God revealed in Jesus. It will invite us to enter into the larger public world opened at Easter. It will enable us to know him with, once more, the knowledge whose depth is love. That is how history and eschatology come together at last. That is how the true story of Jesus opens up the promise of a genuine, if radically redefined, ‘natural theology’” (277).  

There is much to commend in this book, including Wright’s mettle in taking on such a task. It is one thing to make a proposal within an ongoing conversation; it is another, more difficult thing to challenge the categories of that conversation and to propose new methods and goals for its success. Reimagining a discipline is not a task for the faint of heart. It is not a small thing to hope that “a Christian apologetic . . . might begin in the world of space, time and matter and end by speaking of the one true God” (74). And toward this hope, Wright makes a strong argument that the modern framework of natural and supernatural is counterproductive for the task of natural theology, that a cosmology where heaven and earth overlap offers a more fruitful framework. The fruit of that argument is his vision for what the church might do in our time and space. In a world where the church often retreats from or tries to co-opt the structures of society, it is encouraging to hear a robust call to participate in the arts and politics. There is hope and life in an expectation that God is present to heal relationships. And one can act with more confident faith if the current varieties of spirituality are viewed as broken signposts; a signpost can be an invitation for movement rather than a blockaded avenue. 

But in the end, I find two aspects of his historical method—which he makes foundational—troubling. The first can best be described using his definition of the historical task: collecting facts about past events and arranging them into patterns. There are few who can match Wright’s capacity for collecting historical facts about past events, whether that’s from the first century or the nineteenth. He draws from literature and poetry, from technical volumes and hymns. And he works hard to contextualize these facts—recognizing that events such as revolutions and wars influence ideas and distinguishing, for example, between the reception of ideas in Germany and Britain (e.g., 15–22, 88, 113). The development of various ideas is treated with nuance and detail. 

But this is not always the case. At times, Wright creates and labels patterns that are then treated as actual rather than heuristic frameworks. The most troubling example is his use of the label Epicureanism. He may be right that there are some affinities between the cosmology of nineteenth and twentieth German theology and ancient Epicureanism. The one, however, is not the same as the other, as even he notes by introducing codicils about progress and Platonizing. So what is gained by characterizing modern thinking in this reductive way? I suggest that the label functions primarily to reduce the disjunction between the integrated cosmology that he is arguing for and the split cosmology that he is arguing against. If the split cosmology is also an ancient model, these are just two ways of looking at the world, so he can say, “Our modern assumption of a split world does not mean that we understand cosmology and they didn’t—much the same way as, just because we’ve invented mechanical clocks, we mustn’t assume that we understand time and the ancients didn’t” (159). But I suggest that having clocks means we understand time quite differently than the ancients did. The ancients undoubtedly thought about time—but having the capacity for precision that comes with clocks has certainly changed how we engage ideas of time. In general, I think Wright underestimates the degree to which the categories in which we think about things actually change the way we perceive the thing itself.7

The same reductive tendency is apparent in his analysis of the ancient world. As important as the temple and the Sabbath undoubtedly were in ancient Jewish life, they are symbols of a pattern that Wright developed. Other patterns are possible—ones that give prominence to other data, like food laws and table fellowship or circumcision and ethnic identity. He is right to note that politics and religion were framed differently in the ancient world, but to reduce the ancient worldview to two variables is reductive of that world. Even Wright admits that his proposal is not representative of all Jews at the time—so we need to recognize that it is not the data but the historian that makes them significant variables. In the final analysis, heuristic frameworks are created by historians; they exist in the mind of the historians, not in the world they are describing. A framework can be debated publicly, but it is always derivative of the data and requires selection and prioritization. 

That leads to my second concern. In Wright’s schema, the one who saves us all from bad theology is the historian. I don’t see such prominence in the history of the church for this gift, and his occasional comments suggest that he doesn’t either. Rather, it seems likely that in an age which values history—such as our own—historians come into their own as the champions of what is valued at this time. The modern valuing of history called modern historical biblical work into being. This is not a criticism of this state of affairs but a recognition of the degree to which our age shapes how we think and what we value. This is exactly what Wright argues with respect to Schweitzer, Bultmann, and Käsemann. We may publicly debate how to do history, but even such a debate is a sign of our times. 

Without question, Wright is right that we have struggled in the modern age to understand how the divine is present with us and that modern cosmology has thwarted the ways we might imagine God’s presence. And much of his analysis of the ways our split cosmology has thwarted our thinking is worth considering. As well, his vision of how we might think about God’s presence in more fruitful and life-giving ways is to be welcomed. Even if you don’t care about his attempt to ground his eschatological vision of Christian life in history, chapter 7 is worth the read. But I do not think an epistemology of love is based on the sure results of history. The results of the historical task remain heuristic, not actual, and the historical task is significant because our age deems it so. Early in the book Wright asks, “how to stop both questions (history and eschatology) being fatally distorted by the pressures of the surrounding culture” (31). Instead, I think we need to reframe the problem as how we should answer these questions faithfully given that the pressures of the surrounding culture are a necessary part of our way of answering them. 

  1. To find Wright’s lecture and others, visit “Lectures,” Gifford Lectures, https://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures.
  2. “What Is Natural Theology?,” John Templeton Foundation, Gifford Lectures, https://www.giffordlectures.org/overview/natural-theology, italics mine.
  3. Wright summarizes his historical overview as “the resurgence of Epicureanism” modified by “postulating a pantheistic ‘progress’” or “finding a Platonic escape route” (39).
  4. He will describe this as “neither appraisal nor assimilation: neither detachment nor desire, neither positivist objectivity nor subjective projection” (103).
  5. This reminds me of the hopes of Johann Philipp Gabler, “An Oration on the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each” (1787), translated in John Sandys-Wunsch and Laurence Eldredge, “J .P. Gabler and the Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology: Translation, Commentary, and Discussion of His Originality” Scottish Journal of Theology 33, no. 2 (April 1980): 133–58.
  6. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil (Harper and Row, 1994), 120.
  7. This is perhaps to underestimate the nominalism of William of Ockham, which Wright notes briefly on page 8. See for example, the argument of Louis Dupré that modernity represents an essential distinction from what came before, Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).