How God Became King, NT Wright (Part 1)

The recent release by Tom Wright called How God Became King is a semi-popular work that is meant to shed light on the real message of the four Gospels. Wright’s thesis is: we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about. His major research questions are: “what exactly are they saying about Jesus?…What precisely are they saying about God?…what are they saying about this strange new movement [Christianity], and how do they resource it for its life and work?” (ix).

Wright’s concern here is not simply a historical one. He wishes to recover a proper reading of the Gospels so that the church may capture “a new vision for God’s mission in the world, in and through Jesus, and then—now!—in and through his followers” (x). The proper story the Gospels all tell, of course, is “how God became king [in Jesus].” Those who know Wright’s work well will find much in this book that is familiar from his many writings that engage with Biblical theology. What is helpful and fresh about this particular book is the concentration on the purpose and content of the four gospels as one story.

The book is divided into four parts: I (the problem), II (four dimensions of the canonical Gospels), III (the twin themes of kingdom and cross), and IV (the Gospels and the creeds). The first part (called “The Empty Cloak”) is divided into three chapters and we will deal with them together in this first post.

Chapter 1: The Missing Middle.

This initial chapter puts the spotlight on a serious problem in popular Christian theology today – if we focus our message of salvation on the sinless-and-miraculous birth of Jesus, and his atoning death on the cross for our sins (with an impressive resurrection and ascension for extra spice), what do we do with the middle part (the life of Jesus)? This is what Wright means by “the missing middle.” As far as Wright is concerned, many modern readers of the NT “experience the four gospels as an empty cloak. The outer wrapping is there—Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. But who is inside the cloak” (p. 5)?

Too often, Wright argues, we explain the message of the gospel in Pauline terms (sinners need an atoning death of a sinless man) that seems to be complete (or at least sufficient) without recourse to the majority of material in the Gospels.

When the Gospels are brought into the equation, it is as if bits and pieces of these four texts are mined for additional evidence that supports how Paul thinks of salvation (p. 9). One cannot help, to some degree, thinking about Christian theology in such ways because this appears to be the way the great creeds approach Christian truth. However, Wright insists that “the canonical gospels and the creeds are not in fact presenting the same picture” (11): “Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all seem to think it’s hugely important that they tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between the time of his birth and the time of his death” (11). In the end, Wright views creed and Gospels (canon) as complementary. They must balance each other out. The creeds were not meant to shape how we read the Gospels. But Wright’s argument is that this is, unfortunately, what has happened, to the extent that we forgotten how to listen to the Gospels. One important example of this given by Wright is the way that the creeds emphasize that Jesus is God, while the Gospels underscore the fact that God becomes king on earth through Jesus. There seems to be a thick storied-ness to the Gospels (which makes sense, since they are stories!) which is flattened out by the creeds.

Chapter 2: The Opposite Problem: All Body, No Cloak

In this chapter, Wright imagines the opposite problem as the first chapter. Instead of forgetting the middle bit, there are folks who have only looked at the life of Jesus (as a moral man) and ignored the important beginning and end. This, of course, comes through in historical-Jesus studies where Jesus is understood as a zealot, prophet, or teacher (26). While those who give attention to this “social gospel” have done the good deed of taking Jesus’ life into the equation, this approach “has neither the will nor the means to integrate that piece, the why-did-Jesus-live bit, with the outer, creedal questions, the puzzles of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming” (27).

Partway through the chapter, Wright addresses the “liberal” approach to the Gospels that sees Jesus as only preaching about God (and not himself), while the early church later “divinized” Jesus and focused worship on him. Can we detect a clear movement from a low Christology (Jesus as prophet, good man, teacher) to a high Christology (Jesus as God) in the New Testament? Do the Gospels reveal a (primarily) low Jesus? What did Jesus think about himself? How did he talk about himself? Wright makes, what I think is, the right observation that “Jesus was indeed talking about God, but was talking about God precisely in order to explain his own kingdom work” (32).

This brings us back to Wright’s key analogy in this introduction: “no middle” is a problem (you need the earthly life of Jesus); “middle only” is wrong (the Gospels clearly portray him in exalted terms). What is critical for Wright is the fusing of the horizons of heaven and earth in Jesus. For Jesus to proclaim the new rule of God (the kingdom of God) is to open the gates of heaven. However, because the inbreaking of this kingdom happened in and through Jesus, he is the meeting-place between heaven and earth, and the incarnation is the demonstration that creation is not being rescued from the earth, but finds heavenly redemption on earth.

While Wright does not express it this way, I think he is basically articulating a missional reading of the Gospels. Thus far, while Wright’s historical ponderings have been entertaining, he is not saying anything that hasn’t already been said regarding the “problem” of myopic readings of the Gospels. But we are still in the introduction. There are nine more chapters to go!” Now we are on to the third chapter.

Chapter 3: The Inadequate Answers

This chapter raises the question: how would various churches and theologians express the central message of the Gospels? Most of the answers given Wright finds “inadequate.”

  1. How to go to heaven. Wright has much to say about this, but one problem is the misunderstanding of the phrase “eternal life.” Wright explains that, in good Jewish eschatology, “eternal life” doesn’t refer to “a disembodied timeless eternity” (44). Rather, it is a way of talking about a future age of God’s redemption, “the new era of justice, peace, and freedom God has promised his people” (45). Having “eternal life” is not simply a guarantee on a distant future, but has to do with “the kingdom coming on earth as in heaven” (45).
  1. Doctrine. For many preachers, the Gospels offer notes on Jesus’ teachings. Wright doesn’t deny that Jesus was a good teacher, but the reader misses the point if he or she just takes his words as helpful stories about Christian truths. Jesus was teaching in new and mind-boggling ways (see the musical analogy on p. 47).
  1. Moral Example. While at times Jesus does encourage imitation, there are also enough occasions when he is doing something unique and unrepeatable. To reduce him to a moral example only is to fail to recognize his special origin, mission, and fate.
  1. Jesus the Perfect Sacrifice. This perspective emphasizes that Jesus lived perfectly and died to live that life in exchange for sinners. Again, there is a grain of truth here, but it misses a bigger story about God’s mission and the redemption of all of creation.
  1. Stories We Can Identify With. This is a moralistic view that focuses on putting ourselves into the lives of characters in the story. Again, sometimes useful, but not central.
  1. Proving Jesus’ Divinity. Personally, I (Nijay) see this approach especially in my student papers. Wright says, “To speak of Jesus’ divinity without speaking of his kingdom coming on earth as in heaven is to take a large step toward the detached spirituality—almost a form of Gnosticism—that the first two centuries of the church firmly rejected. Only recently did the awful realization dawn on me that a certain stance was not only possible, but actually occurring: people were affirming the divinity of Jesus…and then using it as a shelter behind which to hide from the radical story the gospels were telling about what this embodied God was actually up to” (56). What Wright expresses here, then, is his shock that an over-emphasis on the divinity of Jesus (without attention to his earthly humanness and mission) puts a blindspot precisely where the Gospels want you to look for the action of God, the climax of God’s story.

So, that is Wright’s opening salvo. He cuts down the all-too-often unreflective ways that scholars, pastors, and everyday Christians have (mis)read the Gospels. He has already given many hints as to his answer (clue: the title!), but the way he works through this is very interesting. Stay tuned for the next blog-installment of How God Became King, coming soon!

Please do chime in with your critical feedback (for those that have read the book) -I am currently using this as a textbook for my Gospel of John course and I would be glad to share your insights with the class!