Some years back I visited several Christian schools to help a friend’s widow choose where to send her four young children. While touring a large evangelical school, the principal showed me to the auditorium where the school choir rehearsed Joy to the World in preparation for the upcoming Christmas concert. At the conclusion of the song, the choir director instructed the children that Joy to the World didn’t apply for today, it was a “millennial hymn” because “Jesus doesn’t reign today.” The choir director’s comment would be non-controversial in many, perhaps even most, American evangelical churches.
Theologian N.T. Wright’s most recent book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, squarely takes on this implication of American Evangelicalism’s “premillennial” theology. Yet as Wright relates in the preface, the book aims to draw the attention of Christian layfolk in all churches to a set of important, yet often overlooked, themes useful to understanding the richness of the gospels.
How God Became King is basically a popularly written introduction to several theses in Wright’s academic work, particularly his work in the book series on “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” It draws most directly on the best book so far in that series, the brilliant Jesus and the Victory of God.
While Wright occasionally succumbs to the temptation shared by many scholars to overestimate the uniqueness of his own contribution (“We need a fundamental rethink about what the gospels are trying to say”), an important central purpose animates Wright’s argument in the book: When Christians understand the good news of Jesus Christ in the full-orbed narrative arc of the Scriptures, they cannot help but want to live the new life that Jesus offers us in himself as part of a community centered unreservedly in and around him and his work. Wright’s love for and mastery of the whole Bible—both Old and New Testaments—is so winsome and compelling, that his points not being quite as radical as he thinks they are is a foible easy to overlook.
Wright argues that four aspects of the gospels need to be brought (again) into balance in popular understanding. He does not claim that all are ignored. Rather, analogizing his argument to balancing a stereo system, he argues that several of these themes are “too loud” in relation to the others, and thereby prevent us from hearing the full resonance of the gospel.
The first theme to recover for Wright is that the “gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel.”
The ancient heretic Marcion radically divided the New Testament from the Old, maintaining that “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is not the God of the Old Testament.” While explicit versions of Marcionism have been long rejected, soft versions nonetheless continue to exist in much popular piety. Witness, for example, the popular contrasts of the “vengeful, wrathful” God of the Old Testament with the “loving, gentle” Jesus of the New Testament.
Wright wants to correct this, emphasizing that the gospels see the events surrounding Jesus as “bringing the long story of Israel to its proper goal.” This means giving the events of Jesus’ life as reported in the gospels their due rather than skipping the middle by going directly from his birth to his crucifixion. Wright famously quipped in an earlier work that it’s not as though Jesus could have been born a Viking who then saved us by dying in a fishing accident. Understanding the Old Testament—and by that Wright does not mean simply understanding a couple of isolated prophecies—is vital to understanding Jesus and his work.
The second, related dimension of the gospels that Wright argues must be restored as a proper focus of understanding is that “the story of Jesus is the story of Israel’s God coming back to his people.”
Wright concedes that Christians continue to contend for the deity of Jesus as against those who would deny it (including those in the Church who would deny it). Wright’s gripe with the orthodox camp is that “proofs” for Jesus’ divinity often abstract away from the broader biblical corpus in the Old Testament and thereby obscure rather than illuminate. For example, read in light of pivotal passages in the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7), references to Jesus as the “son of God” in the gospels are more apt to intend to point the reader to Jesus’ kingship rather than to his deity.
Similarly, understanding the way by which Yahweh became present with his people in tabernacle and in temple is critical to understand Jesus’ vocation during his life, where he identified himself as God’s temple. So, too, this theme then embellishes the Church’s self-understanding of her vocation after Pentecost, in which Christians collectively and individually bear God’s presence in and with them as his temples.
Third, Wright argues that the gospels launch God’s community of renewed individuals, a community centered around learning and receiving Jesus in Word and sacrament, and living that new life together. He counterpoises this with individualistic, deracinated notions that the Christian hope is living forever after death as a bodiless spirit in heaven. The latter draws more from Gnosticism than it does from Christian orthodoxy.
Finally, Wright argues that the gospels are about the “story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar.” As in earlier works, Wright points out that Caesar also claimed the title “son of God” and offered his own gospel of Roman peace. If Jesus is the Lord, then Caesar isn’t.
Although this last point has been the subject of extensive study among the last generation of scholars, it is probably the theme in Wright’s discussion least-recognized among lay Christians. Perhaps because of its relative novelty, Wright’s argument is at its clunkiest on this point. To be sure, the modern state has its share of messianic pretensions. These pretensions are not limited to ideologies with overt, secular eschatologies, like Marxism or Nazism. Democratic states can share these pretensions, witness Clinton’s invocation of a “New Covenant” or Reagan’s “City on a Hill.”
Nonetheless, Wright comes close to sounding like an Anabaptist at points in his discussion, ignoring that while the gospel is uniquely necessary to create true peace and justice, nonetheless there is an entirely legitimate and necessary role for civil government in providing the requisite order for the good of society, and for the proclamation and living out of the gospel.
Yet Wright is correct to complain that even when churches hear, preach, and discuss so many Bible texts, they often bleed the power out of them, turning Old Testament readings into little more than morality tales for children and turning gospel readings into little more than “principles for success.” This new work serves as a useful corrective, and an accessible introduction to major themes in his more-academic work. His invitation to Christians is to read large chunks of the Scriptures rather than simply focusing on isolated verses, and so to receive and participate in the power and excitement of God’s grand story.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
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