James K.A. Smith puts his finger on something that’s worried me about N.T. Wright in his review of Wright’s latest book. Wright sometimes gives the impression that post-New Testament development of Christian theology was a decline and that it’s possible–or desirable–for us to re-inhabit the thought-world of the 1st century (with the help of some judiciously applied knowledge of second-temple Judaism, of course). While understanding the historical context of Jesus’ life and mission is obviously important, Christians have always “translated” the gospel into different cultural idioms. Arguably this process starts in the NT itself: the theological frameworks of the synoptic gospels, John’s gospel, Paul’s letters, the letter to the Hebrews, and Revelation all have their differences. In the post-NT period, this picks up steam with the translation of the Christian gospel into language and concepts borrowed from Hellenistic philosophy, culminating in the debates at Nicaea and Chalcedon.
It’s possible, I suppose, to see all this as a departure from a pristine, “original” gospel. But to do that, you have to explain how we, as 21st-century Christians, are supposed to embrace the worldview (assuming there’s just one worldview) of the NT without qualification. A more promising approach, in my view, is to acknowledge that the gospel is always undergoing a process of reinterpretation and translation, and that this can be done faithfully. The earliest expressions of the faith–while clearly normative in an important sense–aren’t necessarily adequate for all later generations of Christians. For a different, and more positive, take on this process of reinterpreting the gospel through the centuries, I’d recommend Keith Ward’s book Re-thinking Christianity.