N. T. Wright’s How God Became King: Summary and Review (1)
In this, his follow-up to Simply Jesus, Tom Wright offers perhaps his most important contribution to understanding Jesus and the Bible to date. His thesis is that we have forgotten what the gospels are really about and created answers to their purpose that may contain some elements of truth but fundamentally distort and obscure their true intent. Because these are the foundational stories on which Christianity is built this is no idle charge – it cuts right to the heart of everything we hold true and real!
In Part One (chs.1-3), Wright analyzes how and why we have gone in reading the gospels. Other ideas and influences have so colored our reading of them that we have in effect, according to our author, not really read the gospels at all!
The church’s creeds are a key element in our un-reading of the gospels. A quick look at either the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds show that Jesus’ life is notable by its absence. They jump from Jesus’ virginal conception to his suffering and death under Pontius Pilate with nary a nod toward all the stuff in-between.
Nor does the kingdom of God – the central reality around which Jesus wrought his identity and earthly work – find a place in them.
The reason is that the creeds, to use Wright’s analogy, are a clothesline on which the early church washed out its dirty laundry, those matters most at dispute in the world of that time – the triunity of God, the incarnation of the Son. Teachings not in dispute were not necessary to include in the creeds.
The problem according to Wright is that after a short time the creeds were changed from clotheslines into teaching guides. In this way, the life of Jesus, the “stuff in the middle,” was increasingly marginalized and unattended to. Wright puts it this way:
“Nor am I saying that the church was wrong to develop its teaching in different, postbiblical language to meet new challenges and settle new difficulties. That had to be done, and it created the context for further faithful and fruitful Christian living. I am simply noting that these great statements of faith, which the church has treated as foundational for its life ever since, manage not to talk about what the gospels primarily talk about and to talk about something else instead.” (Locations 458-462)
If the gospels are really about How God became king in and through Jesus, and the creeds are about how Jesus became God, and the creeds gradually displaced the gospels as the chief teaching aids of the church, well, you can see the problem. A problem we have and continue to live with to the present day.
The ascendancy of form criticism and the massive influence of Rudolf Bultmann in the first half of the 20 the century only complemented and compounded this problem. Form criticism sought to determine the “setting in life” in the early church for the stories about and teaching of Jesus. This work led him to conclude that the gospels are about the preaching of the early church responding to the needs and crisis they faced. The actual history of Jesus, of which Bultmann believed little could be recovered, formed on the “presupposition” of New Testament theology rather than its ground and substance. “All that was needed was the fact of Jesus’s crucifixion; that was enough. Everything else one needed to know was contained not in his teaching or public career, but in the early church’s reflection on the meaning of the cross.” (489-490)
Conservative scholars fought to defend the historicity of Jesus that Bultmann debunked, but at core they shared an approach to Jesus similar to his. Due to reasons outlined above, they too focused on Jesus’ cross and resurrection and left his life, that “stuff in the middle,” unattended to other than to defend its actuality.
In ch.2 Wright looks at the opposite scenario: ways of dealing with Jesus minus the creedal affirmations of his divinity. He identifies three ways this happened: Jesus as a “revolutionary seeking to overthrow Rome, wild-eyed fanatic preaching ‘end of the world,’ or a ‘mild-mannered teacher of sweet reasonableness, of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of ‘man.’” (554-555)
These views do try to seriously that “stuff in the middle” about his life. Their problem is that they cannot integrate their treatments of Jesus’ life with the stuff the creeds focus on: his birth, death, and resurrection and their significance.
Failure to wrestle with these matters at the beginning and end of Jesus’ life ultimately falsified even the matters they did take seriously. In fact, its Achilles heel was the realization that even after the strenuous and admirable exertions of the Social Gospel movement to take Jesus’ call to action for social justice and the lessening of social suffering, so much of it still remained entrenched and wreaking havoc on God’s creation. How do we deal with that if there is not more to Jesus than an advocate for social justice we are to emulate? Is there something in the parts of his story rejected by these writers and thinkers that help us understand Jesus in a way that makes better sense of all this?
We can make a start at this by realizing that the error in the liberal charge that Jesus spoke about God while the early church spoke about Jesus was that Jesus indeed spoke about God, but did so in order to explain his own work in the world. Liberals are thus wrong to see this as a mistake. Conservatives erred in assuming the latter move of the early church to speak about Jesus was to secure and affirm his divinity. Jesus and Paul keep together what both liberal and conservative streams put asunder!
Underlying the theological attempt to keep Jesus and the kingdom of God out of the world (as either a violent revolution or as “the end of the world”) was a political agenda. They feared theocracy – God present and active in human history. The deism of the Enlightenment, Wright claims, is but “one version of the ancient philosophy of Epicurus, who taught that the gods, if they existed at all, were a long way away from the world of humans and did not concern themselves with it. As a result, the world we know grows, changes, and develops under its own steam, as it were from within.”
Jesus taught a version of theocracy, the kingdom of God, though one that differed radically from the versions others feared and wanted to avoid. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives, it seems, were willing to buy into it.
The gospel, though, is not about an otherworldy kingdom or a Messiah who needs to be proved divine. Rather, it is about how God, in and through Jesus, becomes king in his world.
“. . . the story of Jesus is the story of how Israel’s God became king. This is how, in the events concerning Jesus of Nazareth, the God of Israel has become king of the whole world. This is the forgotten story of the gospels. We have not even noticed that this was what they were trying to tell us. As a result, we have all misread them.
If we have so misread the gospels, what are the various answers we have given as to their purpose and that of Jesus’ ministry. Wright runs through six inadequate responses.
1. To show us how to go to heaven
2. To giving us ethical teaching
3. To set a moral example
4. To be a perfect sacrifice
5. To tell us stories we can identify with
6. To prove his divinity
“The result,” Wright concludes, “has been a series of displacement activities. The church has said, in effect: (a) we know the gospels are important, because they are the inspired apostolic witness to Jesus; and (b) we know what is important in Christian theology, namely, the divinity of Jesus and his saving death or, as it may be, his moral teaching and example; so (c) we assume that that is the primary message of the gospels.”
In the next section Wright turns to develop his thesis that the true purpose of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king.