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Wisdom from Tom

May 3rd, 2010

It was announced last week that Bishop Tom Wright, Bishop of Durham, is resigning his position at Durham to become Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity in the School of Divinity at St Andrew’s University. It is clearly a significant appointment for the university.

Some of Bishop Wright’s views are controversial among conservative and evangelical Christians, but some of his writings are very lucid and helpful. Here’s a couple of paragraphs from Virtue Reborn in which he reflects on Jesus as our example. I think he nails it. And he uses a great example from sport to make his point.

Many people, reading a chapter about Jesus and virtue, would expect a discussion of Jesus himself as our example. Surely, many will think, part of the point of his life was to show us how it’s done?

A counter-question: To what extent would this be a helpful, or even possible, line to pursue?

At one level, it certainly wouldn’t be helpful and might well not even be possible. Holding up Jesus as an example of how to live a moral life seems rather like holding up Tiger Woods as an example of how to hit a golf ball. Even if I started now and practiced for eight hours a day, it is highly unlikely that I would ever be able to do what Woods can do; and there are many people out there, younger and fitter than I, who are trying their hardest to do it and still find they can’t. Similarly, watching Jesus – with his astonishing blend of wisdom, gentleness, shrewdness, dry humour, patience with blundering followers, courage in confronting evil, self-control in numerous situations of temptation (managing, says Hebrews 4:15, to remain without sin, though he was tempted in all respects as we are) – makes most of us, all but the most proud or ambitious, feel like we do when watching Tiger Woods hit a golf ball. Only more so.

What’s more, the suggestion that we treat Jesus as a moral example can be, and in some people’s thinking has been, a way of holding at arm’s length the message of God’s kingdom on the one hand and the meaning of his death and resurrection on the other. Making Jesus the supreme example of someone who lived a good life may be quite bracing to contemplate, but it is basically safe; it removes the far more dangerous challenge of supposing that God might actually be coming to transform the earth, and us with it, with the power and justice of heaven, and it neatly helps us avoid the fact, as all four gospels see it, that this could be achieved only through the shocking and horrible events of Jesus’ death. Jesus as moral example is domesticated Jesus, a kind of religious mascot. We look at him approvingly and decide we’ll copy him (up to a point at least, and no doubt he’ll forgive us the rest because he’s a decent sort of chap). As if! If all we need is a good example, we can’t be in quite such a bad state as some people (including Jesus himself) have suggested.

Over against all such notions stands the entire tradition from Jeremiah with his warnings about the deceitful heart, through John the Baptist, with his warnings about the axe being laid to the roots of the tree, through Paul, with his warnings that if righteousness had come by the Law the Messiah wouldn’t have needed to die, through to Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, Kirkegaard …. and a host of others. And of course Jesus himself. He doesn’t go about saying, “This is how it’s done; copy me.” He says, “God’s kingdom is coming; take up your cross and follow me.” Only when we learn the difference between those two challenges will we have grasped the heart of the gospel and, with that, the taproot of a reborn virtue.”

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