N. T. Wright’s How God Became King: Summary and Review (2)
In Part Two (chs.4-7) of How God Became King N. T. Wright takes us on a tour of his understanding of the biblical story. He uses the image of a quadraphonic sound system with each of its four speakers representing the four key elements that must be properly blended together to properly play on the in the system. Expounding each of these key elements is Wright’s burden in the section.
A summary of these elements in terms of his four-speaker sound system looks like this:
1st Speaker: Gospels tell story of Jesus as climax of Israel’s story (off/too low)
2nd Speaker: Gospels tell story of Jesus as story of Israel’s God coming in human forms (too high)
3rd Speaker: Gospels tell the story of Jesus as story of launching of God’s great renewal movement (too high)
4th Speaker: “the story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar.” (off)
Wright has already claimed that we have misread (or not really read at all) the gospels. Here he details why he believes this is the case. And the problem turns out to be that these four speakers are all out of whack. Thus they produce a distorted sound which gives us little chance to hear the music clearly or rightly.
In particular, the 1st Speaker has been turned off or played far too low to make its proper contribution to the music. The 2nd and 3rd Speakers are played too high exerting too much influence on the sound. The 4th Speaker has usually been turned off and makes no contribution at all.
The open or unfinished character of the Old Testament points to its role as a story in search of an ending. The gospels each provide their own version of how Jesus is the One in whom that story finds it proper ending.
This ending is not a smooth, seamless progression that self-evident once we see it. No, it’s a bumpy ride that lurches from phase to phase and because it finally seems to have played itself out in failure, its resolution in Jesus has the character of a novum, something new and unexpected.
Failure to grasp this aspect of the Old Testament has lead later readers to assume that the Bible is about God’s relationship to humanity in general. Thus, the story of Israel is rendered unimportant and negligible.
“The problem is that we have all read the gospels, if we haven’t been careful, simply as God’s answer to the plight of the human race in general . . . But the story of Israel itself, for most modern readers of the Bible, is to be quietly left aside.”
And in missing the significance of the story of Israel for the Bible as a whole and for the gospel the church is called to announce to the world, we miss the fact that
“. . . when we turn to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John we discover that they at least think it’s important to retell the history of Israel and to show that the story of Jesus is the story in which that long history, warts and all, reaches its God-ordained climax. This is the first speaker to which we have to pay attention, and it’s clear that it needs to be turned up considerably louder than most readers expect.”
The second speaker in our sound system blasts out the truth that “Jesus is God!” However, by not hearing the music through the first speaker accurately or at all, we assume that the story of Israel has indeed failed; and that God has switched strategies and now we need only believe in Jesus who came and died for us. And this has nothing to do with Israel’s story.
Under the attacks of Enlightenment rationalism and historical criticism, then, the task seemed to be to try and defeat them by proving the existence of God and that Jesus himself is God. However, trying to prove the existence of “God” in general and Jesus as “God” in general, that is, playing the game on terms set by the Enlightenment and the critics of Christianity, lead Christians to fight the right battle in the wrong way.
In the New Testament Jesus does indeed talk about God, but not to prove his existence or even that he himself is God. Rather, Jesus talks about God in order to explain what himself is doing. He isn’t pointing away from himself to God but claiming that in and as him, God was returning to his people and becoming king in bringing the story of Israel to its intended conclusion (1st Speaker). To hear this 2nd Speaker aright, and keep us on the right track, we have to hear the first one as well!
What Jesus’ mission is all about is the contribution of the 3rd Speaker. Now, if the 1st Speaker is muted, and the 2nd is playing too loudly, the 3rd will be distorted. And this is what has happened. Critical scholarship, building on the rise of historical skepticism, has made it fashionable to believe that the gospels are telling us about the beliefs and practices of the early Christian communities but not about Jesus of Nazareth himself. Some theological movements taught us that all we needed to know about Jesus for salvation was that he died on the cross for our sins. Wright comments:
“The thing to bear in mind, though, as we adjust the volume on this third speaker, is this: just because the gospel writers were consciously telling the story of Jesus as the foundation story of the church, that doesn’t mean they weren’t telling the story of Jesus himself.
In fact, it is only as we tell the story of this 1st century Galilean peasant prophet that we discover that “the gospels are consciously telling the story of how God’s one-time action in Jesus the Messiah ushered in a new world order within which a new way of life was not only possible, but mandatory for Jesus’s followers.” This is the only way we access the presence and power of God for the life of the church.
And this movement, this new world order, this new renewal movement Jesus launched is activated, energized, and directed by the One who came, lived, died, and was resurrected for us and our salvation.
The 4th Speaker, so little noticed by us, begins with the recognition that if we hear the other three speakers in the right proportions, we will know that the story the gospels tell of Israel’s story reaching its intended conclusion by Jesus, that is, by God coming to and among his people in Jesus, and launching his great renewal movement which is to spread across the globe, will entail a critique of and conflict with the kingdoms of Caesar.
Though this conflict is intrinsic and necessary to the life and work of the people of God, and as important as it is,
“We must never imagine that in dealing with “political” forces we have gotten to the heart of it. As we shall see, it is only when we take fully into account the gospel writers’ belief that Jesus was involved in the ultimate battle against the ultimate forces of evil that we can begin to see how their combination of kingdom and cross—and, looking wider, of incarnation, kingdom, cross, and resurrection—makes sense.”
Though we have been blocked from seeing this aspect of the story in the West by our invention of the “wall of separation” between church and state and the privatization of faith to the inner life of the individual, hearing the other three speakers in their right proportions and accents can free us to begin to hear this dimension of the gospels.
“The four gospel writers, each in his own way, tell the story of Jesus as the story of the new and ultimate exodus. What our present fourfold exercise has done is to draw out the various dimensions of that new exodus and to highlight their significance. The gospels all insist that it was Jesus’s own choice to make Passover the moment for his decisive action. This, they are saying, was his own chosen grid of interpretation. And all four gospels together, once we have learned to listen to their four dimensions, bequeath to Jesus’s followers the task of being the people in and through whom the achievement of Jesus is implemented in the world. That is why the story told by the gospels is not only incomplete without two millennia of backdrop (the story of ancient Israel), which they assume we will know and which we in our generation often have to supply with considerable pedagogic effort. The story is also incomplete because it points forward to a future yet to come. “What’s that got to do with you?” Jesus asks Peter when he inquired about someone else’s future. “You must follow me” (John 21:22). John’s gospel ends, as they all do, with a forward look; and it is that forward look to which we shall return presently.”