April 18, 2014

IM Book Review: How God Became King

How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
by N.T. Wright, HarperOne/2012

• • •

N.T. Wright continues his work of laying a foundation for what I believe will become the standard evangelical theology of the next generation.

Yes, I think his work is that important.

A key part of that work is lifting the Gospels to their rightful place of prominence in the Christian faith and message.

As the Torah (the five books of Moses, Genesis-Deuteronomy) is preeminent in the Hebrew Bible, so are the Gospels to the New Testament. The Torah is Israel’s foundational Story and, growing organically out of Israel’s Story the Gospels give us the Church’s foundational Story. If the Pentateuch is the Torah of Moses then the Gospels (plus Acts) form the Torah of Jesus which fulfills Moses. “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

In fact, together, the books we call “gospels” are THE Gospel. As Scot McKnight reminds us in his fine, complementary book, The King Jesus Gospel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four witnesses to the one Gospel, which is the Story of Jesus. We constantly obscure this by our language. It is “The Gospel according to Matthew,” “The Gospel according to Mark,” and so on, not “The Four Gospels.”

Since my earliest days in evangelicalism, I have been taught differently. The emphasis was not on the Gospels, but on propositional theology (doctrine) rooted in the epistles (mostly Paul’s letters). This theology was systematized and adhered to through “doctrinal statements” in the church and Christian institutions and shared with others as “the plan of salvation.” The result is the “soterian” gospel that McKnight writes about: a “gospel shaped entirely with the ‘in and out’ issue of salvation”; it becomes “so singularly focused on the personal-Plan-of-Salvation and how-we-get-saved that we eliminate the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus altogether.”

A better grasp on the Gospel requires greater emphasis on and understanding of the Gospels.

To this Wright adds the observation that even the ancient creeds can mislead us when it comes to the Gospel. Though they are certainly more about “the Story” than various statements of doctrine that arose after the Reformation, they de-emphasize or even leave out crucial parts of that Story. The Story of Israel is nearly absent, and the Story of Jesus is truncated. As Wright says, it’s like we have a “cloak without the body” — a framework of understanding that lacks an answer to a central question: Why did Jesus live? The creeds, rooted in the Grand Story of Scripture, tell of his coming, identity, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. But they have little to say about his “earthly ministry” of teaching, healing, discipling, and so on. They are long on Cross and short on Kingdom. As a result, we don’t have a full understanding of either.

Wright also points out that much of the modern critical emphasis on the “historical Jesus” gives us a “body without a cloak” — a search to find out who Jesus was in his life historically without adequately considering his birth and finished work.

As Tom Wright says in his new book: “We have all forgotten what the four gospels are about.” So it is imperative, both McKnight and Wright urge, that we restore the primacy of the Gospel as revealed in the four Gospels, and learn to read these books for all they’re worth.

How has the Church misread the Gospels?

In part two of the book, Bishop Wright uses the metaphor of a four-speaker sound system to make his points. The church has failed to “adjust these speakers” to the right volume and balance that will enable them to “hear the music” of the Gospels and their message.

  • Speaker One: The Gospels tell the story of Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s history. This speaker’s volume has been turned down so low that many Christians have failed to hear it at all. This has led to a de-historicized Jesus, a de-Judaized Jesus, and a world in which matter and spirit are in conflict rather than a world in which God is accomplishing his redemptive purposes through a flesh and blood people to put all creation right.
  • Speaker Two: The Gospels present Jesus as the coming of God to redeem his people. This speaker has often been turned up so loud that the message has become distorted, as though the primary purpose of the Gospels was to “prove” the deity of Jesus.
  • Speaker Three: The Gospels present the commencement of God’s renewed people and kingdom agenda in the world. Wright counters the view that they are documents that are really about the church — they are projections of early Christian faith that shape the story of Jesus to address issues in the early Christian communities. This speaker has also been turned up too loud, especially in the past century, giving the distorted impression that Jesus was creating something brand new in the church, and not launching a movement that grew organically out of the fulfillment of the Story that preceded him.
  • Speaker Four: The Gospels show the clash between God’s Kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. This speaker has not only been turned down, but unplugged and stored in the attic for many Gospel readers, especially those who have lived in cultures where Christendom has made little distinction between the two kingdoms. Wright notes that, from the beginning to end, God not only delivers his people from personal sin, but from the powers of the world which “set themselves against the Lord and his Messiah” (Psalm 2).

In part three of How God Became King, N.T. Wright notes how improperly calibrating the “speakers” and failing to hear the message of the Gospels clearly has led to a division between Christians who emphasize the “kingdom” and those who stress the “cross.” Instead, he says:

The gospels are telling us that the whole story belongs together: the kingdom and the cross are part of one another (and both, together, are part of the larger whole that includes incarnation, on the one hand, and resurrection, on the other). We have become stuck in habits of thought that pull these apart. Once you lose the kingdom theme, which is central to the gospels, everything else becomes reinterpreted in ways that radically distort, that substitute a subtly different “gospel” message for the one Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are eager to convey….

…We have lived for many years now with “kingdom Christians” and “cross Christians” in opposite corners of the room, anxious that those on the other side are missing the point, the one group with its social-gospel agenda and the other with its saving-souls-for-heaven agenda. The four gospels bring these two viewpoints together into a unity that is much greater than the sum of their parts….

Wright takes examples from the Gospels and links them with passages from the Hebrew Bible and shows that passages we have normally taken as being either “kingdom” or “cross” texts are actually about both. God became king through the cross.

He sums up his argument with three reflections:

  • “First, the evangelists insist that the kingdom truly was inaugurated by Jesus in his active public career, during the time between his baptism and the cross. That entire narrative is the story of ‘how God became king in and through Jesus. …through Jesus the Messiah, Israel’s God reclaims his sovereign rule over Israel and the world.”
  • “Second, this kingdom is radically defined in relation to Jesus’s entire agenda of suffering, leading to the cross.”
  • “Third, the kingdom that Jesus inaugurated, that is implemented through his cross, is emphatically for this world. The four gospels together demand a complete reappraisal of the various avoidance tactics Western Christianity has employed rather than face this challenge head-on. It simply won’t do to line up the options, as has normally been done, into either a form of ‘Christendom,’ by which people normally mean the capitulation of the gospel to the world’s way of power, or a form of sectarian withdrawal. Life is more complex, more interesting, and more challenging than that. The gospels are there, waiting to inform a new generation for holistic mission, to embody, explain, and advocate new ways of ordering communities, nations, and the world. The church belongs at the very heart of the world, to be the place of prayer and holiness at the point where the world is in pain — not to be a somewhat ‘religious’ version of the world, on the one hand, or a detached, heavenly minded enclave on the other.”  (emphasis mine)

That last sentence is so inspiring to me, and I expected Wright to build on that in the final part of his excellent book. However, he settled for giving us a chapter on how to better read the gospels and how to more thoughtfully say the creeds as Christ’s church.

What remains to be written is how the Gospels might shape us as his renewed people to actually live like Jesus in the world, the very heart of world, where the world is in pain. If God’s calling for his church is that we be a community of “suffering Kingdom-bringers,” this will require faithful pastors who lead their congregations in not only reading the Gospels but letting them turn us into “Jesus-shaped” people and church families in the neighborhoods where we live.

That book remains to be written. But N.T. Wright has laid a firm foundation for it.

Comments

  1. Tim Becker says:

    If hell exists, and it means living in unimaginable suffering for all eternity, then it’s no wonder that the personal- salvation- from- hell part of the gospel is all that matters. This idea of hell is so horrifying for most that any other aspects of the gospel pale in significance.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      How does this relate to the subject of Bishop Wright’s book?

      Sounds more like the foundation for Wretched Urgency and a natural setup for high-pressure fear salesmanship and/or guilt manipulation.

      Rabbi Boteach wrote once that “The difference between a religion and a cult is that a religion teaches you to revere life while a cult teaches you to fear death.” And tunnel vision on Personal Salvation as Fire Escape can easily drift into “cult” territory.

      • Rabbi Boteach also let his kids play with Michael Jackson. Really–he wrote an essay about it for Parade Magazine, saying he didn’t believe all those rumors.

  2. This is great! Thank you. I would say that Mike Breen and his 3DM friends have written the book you are seeking. Building a Discipling Culture is all about discipling people the way Jesus did. The thing is, it’s not meant to merely be read, but it is more of a workbook intended for discipleship groups (huddles) to work out in their lives. Are you familiar? I would also say the Breen’s Covenant and Kingdom addresses how the cross (covenant) and the kingdom are fused together all throughout the Scriptures. Familiar with this one?

    • I am not, but I will look it up. Thanks.

      I deliberately overstated my case when I said, “That book has yet to be written.” The emphasis is growing; I simply want to encourage more.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    That book remains to be written. But N.T. Wright has laid a firm foundation for it.

    Maybe that will be Bishop Wright’s next book.

  4. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    …We have lived for many years now with “kingdom Christians” and “cross Christians” in opposite corners of the room, anxious that those on the other side are missing the point, the one group with its social-gospel agenda and the other with its saving-souls-for-heaven agenda. — N.T.Wright

    i.e. A Gospel without personal salvation and a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation. Both with serious cases of tunnel vision. Two incomplete halves of a complete whole, reflecting the Platonic division of Body and Soul, which will not come together.

  5. David Cornwell says:

    When you think of this, what Wright is saying only makes sense. If Jesus came to give us a propositional theology, then He certainly missed the boat. It has always seemed to me that we try to ignore or reinterpret his teachings on the Kingdom. And He didn’t pray “thy kingdom come on earth” for nothing.

    Liberalism has too often forgotten the cross, while theological conservatism has left out a proper understanding of the Kingdom.

    I guess I now need to read another book.

  6. “To this Wright adds the observation that even the ancient creeds can mislead us when it comes to the Gospel. Though they are certainly more about “the Story” than various statements of doctrine that arose after the Reformation, they de-emphasize or even leave out crucial parts of that Story. The Story of Israel is nearly absent”

    But as McKnight states, in regards to the early creed of 1 Cor 15, “the Story of Israel is in “according to the Scriptures”

    • He’s speaking of the early church creeds, Rick, particularly the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed also has an “according to the Scriptures” clause, but in the creeds in general there is a noticeable lack of any reference to Jesus’ life or kingdom message. From one perspective this is understandable, given some of the battles they were fighting. However, it has led to a large missing piece in the center of the Gospels’ message.

      • Would you say it is lacking in 1 Cor 15 as well? it is difficult to separate that passage/very early creed from the early church creeds.

        McKnight speculates that the life is included in “Jesus” and “Christ”.

        Likewise, as McKnight states, if one states that 1 Cor 15 is not an adequate representation of the Gospel, and Paul presents it as it is, then the person is claiming that Paul got it wrong.

        • No, I think 1Cor 15:1-5 is a good summary, but it is also in context of an entire chapter in which “kingdom” plays an explicit part. McKnight makes the point that Paul’s gospel does not end with 15:5 but continues through verse 28.

          I agree with you and McKnight that it is there. What Wright is saying is that it is not as explicit as it might be (for understandable reasons, as I said before). The final chapter of his book discusses how a fuller grasp of the Gospels will give us a richer appreciation for the Creeds.

  7. In regard to Wright writing another book after this one to “flesh out” some things he talked about at the end…I started listening to a podcast where he was being interviewed by someone who asked how many books he had written. Wright said he THINKS he has written over fifty books. Amazing! I think I have only read five of them so far, but I liked them all. I haven’t read this one. The last one I read was Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters.

    Thanks for the review of this book, Chaplain Mike. I like the sentence that you emphasized. You do so much with being a chaplain, doing your own reading, and doing all this writing for internetmonk! Thank you for being you.

    • I’m glad he’s spent time writing books like How God Became King (which I agree is very good), I hope he gets his big book on Paul done soon for selfish reasons. I just know it will be awesome. I really appreciate his academic works. They are second to none, in my opinion.

      • Dana Ames says:

        Phil, he is hard at work on the Big Book On Paul and it in fact is morphing into three volumes:

        “Paul and the Faithfulness of God itself,
        then a second volume on the history of research,
        then a third volume collecting all of the Paul articles except the ones in “Climax of the Covenant”

        It will be 38 years of accumulated work.

        Pray for him.

        Dana

  8. Randy Thompson says:

    “The church belongs at the very heart of the world, to be the place of prayer and holiness at the point where the world is in pain — not to be a somewhat ‘religious’ version of the world, on the one hand, or a detached, heavenly minded enclave on the other.”

    An article I read recently in the First Things website speaks to this, I think. In it, Peter Leithart argues that evangelicals are unable to speak to the cultural challenges of our time “with any steadiness or effect” because they’ve neglected the heart of Christian worship, Communion. At first this sounds a bit odd; where is he going with this? But, the following from his essay addresses Wright’s concern well, I think:

    “The church is called to keep our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, as the focal point of worship, witness, service, and mission. How do we protect ourselves from darting off after each fresh fad? Jesus didn’t think Christ-centered preaching would be enough. He left his church not only a gospel to preach, but rites of water, bread, and wine to practice. It’s difficult to forget Christ and his cross when we proclaim his death in the breaking of bread at the climax of every week’s worship. When the Sign seals the Word, the church becomes a communion of martyrs ready to bear the cross because they have consumed the cross.”

    In other words, the bread and the wine anchor us in the world around us, and we experience, first hand, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us right here, right now. And, more specifically, the loaf and the cup serve us as the spiritual nourishment of Christ’s cross, where human tragedy is taken up into the Divine Tragedy of Good Friday, which is the entrance to the Divine Comedy of Easter. The water of baptism is our entrance into this.

    To take seriously these rites of food, drink and washing is to enter into Wright’s “place of prayer and holiness at the point where the world is in pain” for they take us into the presence of a God who both embraced our suffering and then filled it with His presence so that we need no longer suffer alone or without hope.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I know during my time in splinter-church Evangelicalism in the Seventies, I never experienced any sort of Communion rite. Bible studies (usually centered around Hal Lindsay)? Sure. Preaching from a pulpit? Sure. Soul-Winning Witnessing? Sure. Self-flagellation for Sin? Sure. Young Earth Creationism? Sure. Pin-the-Tail-on-The-Antichrist? Sure. But Communion? Never.

      (Note: Today, there would have been “Culture War Activism? Sure.” But this was before that; Culture War Activism got its push in the Eighties, with the Satanic Panic and rise of The Moral Majority. Before that, we just held our Rapture Boarding Passes tight and recited “This World Is Not My Home; I’m Just Passin’ Thru.”)

      It wasn’t until I went into a Liturgical Church that I experienced Communion. And here and now during Lent, I experience Communion every morning at Daily Mass.

      • me too, Ispent 25 years as a Baptist always prefacing communion reminder that the elements were symbolic and basically explaining away the significance , almost like saying we’re gonna do this even though it really doesnt mean anything

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          If “it really doesn’t mean anything”, then why do it?

          In folk beliefs about Faerie, once you eat and drink the food of Faerie, you become one with Faerie and can never return to Earth.

          In ritual magic, if you participate in the working (again by eating and drinking what is served as part of the working), you have become one with whatever is being worked and have given it power over you.

          Why, then, does the Deep Magic — “When we eat this bread and drink this cup” — not also follow this? Is He who is the Deep Magic less than what is in Faerie and folk magic?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And to head off the pile of rocks, I’m currently proofing a friend’s fantasy novel which deals with a type of Faerie and folk magic. That’s where the imagery comes from.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Randy: AMEN

    • Randy, thanks. I think Bishop Wright would agree.

    • “In other words, the bread and the wine anchor us in the world around us, and we experience, first hand, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us right here, right now.”

      Thanks for those words, Randy, and for your entire post. You know I always love your writing!

  9. My Lutheran brain wonders when God ever was not King, or how there are any kingoms that are not God’s kingdoms. Throughout the OT, he is engaging in his proper work of forgiving sins in love for the world (Kingdom of the right). From the (historical) fall, he repeatedly promises a saviour, provides means of forgiveness in the Levitical rites, and sends prophets to preach forgiveness, even to gentiles (think Jonah in Nineveh, coming out of the tomb-like fish). God’s alien work (kingdom of the left work) is often more prominent in the OT, in to punish those who reject him and to limit the damage of sin. He wipes out the sinful in the flood, destroys pagan tribes, and sends Israel into exile when they reject him as well. This is foreshadowing.

    While the Israelites expected a king who would use the Law to bring back glory to his people and punish his enemies in the Kingdom of the left, God’s ultimate revelation in Christ was to complete his alien work in taking the punishment for himself and that his natural proper work is to love and sacrifice and forgive. The whole OT builds to this great reveal. “How King became Lamb” is a better summary.

    It seems like Wright makes the same mistake as fundamentalist conservatives and Mainline liberals in failing to distinguish God’s two kingdoms. God doesn’t need us to bring about either Kingdom, he ever-rules under the law in the left-hand kingdom through our consciences and his appointed authorities to restrain and punish sin,
    and in the right-hand kingdom in grace to forgive sins and give faith. When Christians pray “Thy Kingdom come” they are thinking first of the right hand kingdom, for grace through faith, which does bring love and forgiveness. Luther’s doctrine of vocation covered well how that plays out in the life of a Christian.

    But that’s boring. To the extent Wright makes bringing about God’s kingdom a program for worldly reform, which is the only way I can read him, it’s just another theology of glory that won’t rise above our tea party rallies and global warming awareness campaigns. Ugh.

    • To the extent Wright makes bringing about God’s kingdom a program for worldly reform, which is the only way I can read him, it’s just another theology of glory that won’t rise above our tea party rallies and global warming awareness campaigns. Ugh.

      Wright never says that we can bring about God’s kingdom. We can participate with Him in doing kingdom work, and the things we do in Christ’s name are done for the kingdom’s sake, but I think your misrepresenting what Wright says. Also, Wright is very clear that participating in Christ’s kingdom requires following Him through the path of suffering. That’s the paradox of the Kingdom of God. It comes in the opposite way of worldly kingdoms. It comes from serving rather than dominating.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      While the Israelites expected a king who would use the Law to bring back glory to his people and punish his enemies in the Kingdom of the left…

      Sounds a lot like Left Behind‘s “TurboJesus” crushing and damning all His enemies or “Restoring America as a Christian Nation”, doesn’t it?

    • Boaz, I hear what you are saying, and I think Wright somewhat unfairly portrays Lutheranism and “two kingdom” theology in his book. In my view, a good dose of Lutheran thought would make this excellent book even better.

      On the other hand, I think you are misreading Wright. I believe you and I would both agree that the church has a mission in the world. From my standpoint, Wright is helping us clarify that mission in a Jesus-shaped way. And the result is a strong emphasis on the theology of the cross rather than the theology of glory. And I find it completely compatible with Luther’s doctrine of vocation and the church’s call to proclaim forgiveness and redemption.

    • David Cornwell says:

      We can’t bring about God’s Kingdom, because His Kingdom is already present with us and is coming in it’s fullness. We are part of it. But the power and the glory is His. Someday it will be revealed for every eye to see. Then every knee will bow.

      At least this is what I firmly believe.

  10. Wright has helpfully laid some foundation work for understanding Christ and THE gospel-evangel, as presented in Scripture. His section 2 in the book is not unlike these video teachings of his at Moody Bible Institute.

  11. That speaker number four being packed up and put in the attic helps explain a lot about the long-standing rejection of part of the witness of the Church for the first three centuries.
    http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Pacifism-Fruit-Narrow-ebook/dp/B005RIKH62/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_1

  12. Pastor Chuck says:

    Having read several of NTW’s books and listened to many hours of his interviews and lectures, IMHO, How God Became King is his BEST book to date. It picks up where “The Challenge of Jesus” left off. For me, his “Simply Jesus” was a bit of a disappointment…what I was hoping for in that book, I found in HGBK!