Christology – Borg vs Wright

If I can be allowed a brief introduction, I have a comment about the perceived theological location of each of the authors. During 2003/2004, while attending Westminster College, Cambridge, I heard three out of four lectures given by N.T. Wright about “New Perspectives on Paul”. More interesting than the lectures was the diatribe from the various seminaries regarding Wright. The Evangelical Anglicans, conservative as opposed to traditional (self-description), denounced him as “apostasy on two legs”, while the Anglican Catholic half of the Church of England considered him a defender, albeit somewhat radical, of traditional theology in the current age. The United Reformed Church (Westminster), a mixture of very traditional (reformed) to very conservative, generally considered him to be a liberal Catholic. (All that being said, the lecture hall was packed to the rafters.) Overall, the book we’re now reading was described in Cambridge seminaries as a conversation between liberal (Wright) and very liberal (Borg). The book’s cover, claiming representation from liberal and conservative camps, seems to be heavily dependent on one’s point of view. Very few conservatives in Wright’s home country view him as anything but liberal. Still, overall it appears that both authors fit somewhere in the less-than-extreme centrist majority of the imaginary liberal-conservative spectrum and, as such, posit stands most Christians should be able to get their heads around.


Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright, despite profound differences in the weights afforded each approach, both use history and tradition to define their Christologies. It may be an exaggeration, but not a major one, to say that each takes different modes of transportation, in different directions, from different origins, to arrive at destinations that are very close to each other. In a nutshell, of course in its brevity denying both authors full justice to their arguments, Borg uses tradition to supplement what can be known of the historical Jesus in order to flesh out his faith in Christ (p.14), while Wright uses history to inform his traditional understanding, or personal knowing, of Christ to arrive at a concept of Jesus the man (p.25-26). Ultimately, Borg’s admission that “[s]ome of the differences between Tom and me concern details of relatively minor importance” (p.230) rings loudly. Being born and raised British, but living in the U.S. for the last 34 years, I have more than conversational familiarity with both cultures. It appears to me that the biggest differences relate more to cultural approaches to theology and institutionalized religion than to any foundational understanding of Jesus as the Christ.

The divinity of Jesus, as discussed by Borg and Wright in chapters 9 and 10 respectively, provides a case in point. Borg sees a distinction between the “pre-Easter Jesus” and “post-Easter Jesus” (p.146-53). Building on his arguments in ch.4, in which he sees little historical evidence that Jesus claimed the various messianic titles afforded him by the Christian communities in Scripture, Borg describes God’s incarnation as “the embodiment … of God who is present everywhere” in the Spirit person of the receptive human, Jesus (p. 147-8). The ensuing Christological metaphors applied by early believers, following what Borg sees as a non-physical but nonetheless real resurrection (p.133), affirm that “for us, as Christians, Jesus is the decisive revelation of God, and of what a life full of God is like.” (p.156)  Tradition, in the form of the communities’ affirmation of the resurrected Jesus, provides the verification, absent historically, of Christ’s divinity.

Wright, who advances a Jesus who labeled himself as messiah (p.49) and is adamant about a physical resurrection (p.124), instead believes that Jesus knew himself to “do and be, … that which according to scripture only YHWH himself [sic] could do and be.” (p.166)  Citing Jewish expectations that YHWH would return in person to Zion, Wright states that Jesus’ language and actions intentionally reinforce the notion that he is the presence of God in the world in order to enact and embody the kingdom (p.164). History plays only a small role in Wright’s thinking and, then, in reality, mainly theological history. He uses what can be known or deduced about Jewish, and hence early Christian, expectations of God’s redemptive actions in the world to support the traditional stance of Jesus’ divinity when he states it is, “… the appropriate climax of creation. Wisdom, God’s blueprint for humans, at last herself becomes human.” (p.166)

What do these differences mean when the rubber hits the road? Both appear to believe that the parousia, the second coming of Christ, is a way of taking about “the Christ who is already here” (p.196), according to Borg, or speaking of “Jesus’ royal presence within God’s new creation”, which already exists according to Wright (p.202). Both see the living Christ as a transforming agent, here and now, in our lives (228, 250). How they arrive at these affirmations is directly related to their cultural origins. While Europe, or more specifically Germany, and the U.S. embraced modernism, with its elevation of critical study and diminution of tradition, as almost a natural progression of the various strands of Reformation thought, England’s Anglicanism remained a highly traditional form of non-Roman Catholicism. Britain, in which non-Anglican protestant churches are still categorized as “Dissenting” or “Nonconformist”, is a country steeped in, and intent on maintaining, traditionalism. While Borg and Wright both seem comfortable pushing against pre-packaged theology, they both do it from within the perspectives of their own cultures.

For myself, I found resonance with both authors. Possibly as a result of being raised Anglican and “converting” to Presbyterianism, I value both critical and traditional approaches. Engagement of the mind with the heart mandates a suspicious eye to traditional preconceptions, but also a judicious perception of that which critical scholarship can hope to provide. Faith is not “knowing”, in the sense that “knowing” is based in the presumption of fact. Factual evidence leaves us with no need for faith, just belief. Certain elements of faith call for “knowing” the unknowable – accepting that which cannot be proven in rational ways. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish which of these – tradition and critical study – is the horse and which the cart, and so at different times each leads the other.

Being absolutely sure of the errancy of male dominated Christianity, the critical study of Romans 16 by Elisabeth Shussler Fiorenza provided valuable information with which to question tradition[1]. Subsequently a search for the origin of this belief led to the tradition promulgated by the “Church Fathers” in order to cement positions of power/prestige/profit within their dominant culture. [2] Tradition develops to promote or protect particular beliefs – some of which may be healthy and some not. Critical study, history included, helps deconstruct traditional stands and shed slight on erroneous or oppressive structures. Historical “reality”, however, cannot be the whole basis for faith. Individual experiences of the revelations of Christ in our lives, or those we find resonance with in others’ lives, are beyond the realm of fact or rationality but, as attested to by both authors, are uncontestable as elements of personal faith. Ultimately, my acceptance of the historically verifiable masculinity of Jesus the human, along with the rejection of that and other human particularities in my concept of the divine Christ that I understand from some traditions, leads me to vacillate between being critical of tradition and reading history through somewhat traditional eyes.



[1] Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler, “Missionaries, Apostles, Co-workers: Romans 16 and the Reconstruction of Women’s Early Christian History.” Word & World Vol. 6/4, (St. Paul, MN: Luther Seminary), 1986.

[2] St. Clement of Alexandria wrote, in his book Paedagogus that in women, “the consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.” Tertullian called women “the devil’s gateway”. Origen, well known for his hatred of sex and women, castrated himself at the tender age of eighteen in his quest to achieve Christian perfection. St. Ambrose reminded believers, “Remember that God took the rib out of Adam’s body, not a part of his soul, to make her. She was not made in the image of God, like man.” Jerome called women the “root of all evil”. The list goes on and on and includes other “fathers” like John Chrystostom and Augustine of Hippo. The preceding quotes come from research for an essay by this author for a class in early Church History in 2002. The sources utilized in the essay were, among others,  Phelips, The Churches and Modern Thought; Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven; Warner, Alone of All Her Sex.

1 Response to “Christology – Borg vs Wright”

  1. March 16, 2009 at 11:29 PM

    This was a great rad until I got to foot note [2].
    These men who are quoted as “fathers” were obviously very much in need of therapy! The bible does not produce these views of women! It was a woman who bore Salvation Himself! My God inspired the Song of Songs! He made woman out of man’s side, to be an equal not his foot to be dominated by or his head to rule over. He saved Israel thru Ester, brought Jesus thru Ruth, appeared first in His risen form to Women! How can a Christian who knows circumcision has no value, think castration to be the will of God. Jerome must have great rank to change the root of all evil from the love of money.
    How backward is it to use only the Bible as a road map , to think everything after it may contain a shadow of the truth, but not the light of the Son? How Borg explains a non-physical entity eating fish and honey escapes me.

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