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