New Story or New Act?

In his book The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright distinguishes between 5 “Acts” in the biblical drama. These Acts are as follows:

Act 1: Creation
Act 2: Fall
Act 3: Israel
Act 4: Jesus
Act 5: The Church

Working from this breakdown, Wright in Jesus and the Victory of God explains the dynamic at work behind Jesus’ apparent redefinition of Israel’s religio-national symbols around himself:

The clue to this redefinition lies in the controlling story itself. We are not faced with a new story altogether, but a new moment in the same story. The shape of the narrative is recognizably the same as that of the Jewish stories: it is the story of the creator god for filling his purposes for Israel. The difference is this: the Jewish tellings of the story locate themselves in what I suggested was Act 3 of the overall drama, where ask Christian tellings locate themselves and Act 5. The all – important fourth Act, in which the problems of Act 3 are dramatically resolved, has taken place, and it has generated in turn a new Act, in which the symbols appropriate to the third Act are now deemed inappropriate. Specifically, the new Act self-consciously sees itself as the time with the covenant purpose of the creator , which always envisioned the redemption of the whole world, moves beyond the narrow confines of a single race (for which national symbols were of course appropriate), and calls into being a trans-national and trans-cultural community. Further, it sees itself as the time with the creator, the covenant god himself, has returned to dwell with his people, but not in a Temple made with hands. Once we understand how the whole story works, we can understand how it is that the Actors have been given new lines to speak, that new praxis is now deemed appropriate, and that new symbols have been generated which performed, mutatis mutandis, the equipment functions within the new Act to those performed by the former symbols with in the earlier Act. We cannot, in other words, take The easy way out and suggest that the early Christians used kingdom – language in a completely non-Jewish sense. Their thorough reworking of symbol, praxis, and answers to questions was generated, not by the abandonment of the classic Jewish story, but by the belief that they were living in its long – awaited new phase. There is all the difference in the world between a new story and a new Act with in the same story.

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 219.

Update for clarification: In the ministry of Jesus he said and did things that challenged his hearer’s worldview. He offered forgiveness and healing apart from the Temple. He restored people to social acceptance. He touched the unclean and hung out with the “sinners” and “outsiders.” He said devotion to him fulfilled the requirement of faithfulness to the Torah. He claimed to be the fulfillment of the Temple. And the list goes on. But Jesus’ fulfillments look very different from many of the way these themes were developed in the Old Testament. They also often look different from the Old Testament prophetic promises. So the question is raised whether Jesus was scrapping the old Jewish story (i.e. the Old Testament) and starting something completely novel, a fresh movement unhindered and unrelated to the “Acts” of the biblical drama which preceded.

Wright is denying that’s what’s happening. Jesus isn’t replacing or scrapping the old story. Instead the various “redefinitions” of the religious/national symbols of Israel are centered around Christ because it was the point of the whole story to begin with. Symbols like Temple, Torah, and the sacrificial system were intended only as institutions during the earlier “Acts.” They pointed forward to a greater “Act”, when the promised King himself showed up to fulfill the promise made to Abraham (in Gen. 12) to bless not simply a single nation (Israel) but all nations. Now that the king has made his appearance, those bits of the drama from earlier “Acts” (which were glorious and appropriate in their original “dramatic” setting on the stage of unfolding history) are deemed inappropriate.


Posted on March 2, 2012, in N. T. Wright and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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