I am sometimes asked, “Does Tom (N.T.) Wright believe Jesus is God?” Or I am told that he does not. I’m also asked the same question about Jimmy (J.D.G.) Dunn. Wright and Dunn are Brits. I know both of them, and we have discussed this subject briefly. I regard both men as being at the top of their craft–New Testament scholarship. Both are very cordial and a total delight to talk to. When Tom Wright does public speaking, he charms his audience.
For me, Wright and Dunn answer this question about whether or not Jesus is God with a positive answer. But it’s not the straightforward “yes” answer that most Christians are looking for. Almost all Christians are taught that if you do not believe that Jesus is God, you are not a Christian. And they are taught that this question has a straightforward answer, so that the proper answer to it is a very unequivocal “yes.”
I think Tom Wright dances around this question. For example, he co-authored a book with Marcus Borg, who certainly does not believe that Jesus is God. That’s why the publisher asked them to do this book entitled The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions. Part V is entitled “Was Jesus God?” It consists of two chapters. Borg authored ch. 9: “Jesus and God;” Wright authored ch. 10: “The Divinity of Jesus.” In a chapter so entitled, the reader would expect to get a yes or no answer about whether or not Jesus was God. Moreover, in Wright’s chapter you would think that he is going to tell us that Jesus is divine.
Borg begins his chapter by saying that people often ask him if he believes Jesus is God. Borg doesn’t answer it straight out either. Instead, he answers that Jesus did not believe he was God ([p. 145). Borg later says that Jesus “is not different in kind from us but as completely human as we are” (p.148). So, Borg obviously does not believe Jesus is God. But this statement also reveals that he does not believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead with an immortal body, and a later chapter is about that.
Wright in his chapter also says, “I do not think Jesus ‘knew he was God’” (p. 166). Wright has made this very statement in other books. That leaves the question open, so that Jesus may have been God but he just didn’t know it then. And that is what Wright believes. For he says on the next page, “The early church was not reticent about saying that Jesus was messiah, that his death was God’s saving act, and that he and his Father belonged together within the Jewish picture of the one God” (p. 167).
This is the same way Bauckham and Hurtado talk about the issue. They all dance around the question, “Was Jesus God?” But they give what must be understood as a positive answer to it. In fact, Wright begins this chapter by saying that he is often asked this question, and he answers, “I regard this as deeply misleading” (p. 157).
In Wright’s little book, Who Was Jesus? (p. 51), he says he was on a panel discussion at Oxford and the “interviewer tossed me the question: ‘Was Jesus God?’ That’s one of those trick questions that you can’t answer straight on. It assumes that we know what ‘God’ means, and we’re simply asking if Jesus is some identified with this ‘God.’ What we should say, instead, is: ‘It all depends what you mean by ‘God.’”
In both books I don’t think Wright then tells how this is a misleading question or even why we should get into the question of what is meant by “God.” This question, “Is Jesus God?”is a very historical question for the church. Wright, the consummate churchman, knows this quite well. He just doesn’t want to answer it point blank since I think he knows there is a lot in the Bible that is against a positive answer.
One time I told Tom about my RJC book and its thesis–that the Bible does not say that Jesus is God. I then asked if I could send him of copy of it. He said yes (and I did), but he also replied that he wouldn’t have time to look at it and indicated that he wouldn’t be convinced by it. I’ve seen him subsequent years, and he has not mentioned the book.
I seem to be from the old school, that you let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” a “no.” I do get frustrated sometimes when some scholars don’t give straightforward answers. Worse yet is if they say one thing in a book and then turn around and say the opposite. Scholars identify that innocuously as believing in a paradox; I usually call it believing in a contradiction. I’m not saying this about Tom Wright. But I do think that sometimes he should answer in a more straightforward manner.