52 for 52: NT Wright's "How God Became King"

Up first on my quest to read and review 52 book in 52 weeks is a book by N.T. Wright, who has been described as the foremost biblical scholar today. Truth be told, I had to read and review this book for my course at Wheaton College (more on that in a future post). My first reaction was to resist this book, since so much of N.T. Wright’s style seems to be disruptive and for shock-value. How God Became King contains enough to upset the casual Christian, for sure, but Wright’s manner of communicating and developing his ideas allows for engagement in a really welcoming way.

The Short: 

When we think the purpose of the gospels is to show us just how Jesus was born and how he died, we misunderstand them completely… Instead, the gospels reveal the plan of God to take his throne through the life and mission of Jesus to become King.

The Longer (but not long): 

Wright suggests a by-and-large misunderstanding as to the purpose of the gospels. Having set out to address the topic of the Gospel in the gospels, he corrects the notion that the gospels are primarily about the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, thus neglecting the purpose of Jesus’ life between his birth and death. Most problematic for Wright is the absence of any mention of Jesus’s life within the orthodox creeds. The creeds miss the main thing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all trying to say, each in their own way, namely the evangelists were showing how through Jesus God became king.

Wright wants biblical thinkers to envision the whole of Scripture and the unity of the four gospels in concert with one another. His main point is that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all telling the same story of how Jesus is the climax of the story of Israel; he is the climax of the story of God, and by his life he inaugurates the Kingdom of heaven which is fully launched on the cross; and the story of Jesus’s kingdom is in direct conflict with the kingdoms of this world. Something I found totally helpful was his suggestion that true Christianity is lived out as Kingdom people and as Cross people. The Christian life is to be expecting and enduring the pain and suffering of the Messiah, albeit his suffering accomplished something very different than ours. 

Wright asserts the main problem with modern understanding of the gospels and the Gospel is that the creeds have informed the reading of the gospels, where it ought to be the other way around. If the creeds are the starting point of theology instead of the scriptures, then there is a “kingdom-shaped gap” in the heart of the story. Where I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly was his line, “It’s time to put back together what should never have been separated” (276). I think I agree because engaging this line of thinking revealed blind spots in my own theology that Wright drew attention to. Whether or not those blind spots are resolved or not is another story, but I'm grateful for the challenge.

The bottom line:

Wright’s assessment of the current context and culture is helpful, and his ability to draw attention to the misguided ideas of our day and the means by which Christian theology has wandered is very helpful. All in all, I find his arguments, particularly his analysis of the four speakers, rather convincing. I, for one, read How God Became King and thought it to be filling the cracks of my theological grid that I did not even know were void. 

But one cannot help but read How God Became King and ask the question, “What then of the rest of the New Testament?” If the gospels illumine the reality of Israel’s God becoming King through the life of Jesus as the inauguration of the Kingdom and death of Jesus as the victory of the Kingdom, how does his conclusions play themselves out in the canonical books that follow? Wright offers a valid option in how it changes our approach to the Creeds, and yet his answer to the canonical question leaves more to be desired. Particularly, the epistles do highlight a great deal of Jesus’s deity and humanity, moral perfection, suffering, his example to follow and his teaching to obey. The remainder of the New Testament does portray a future eschaton which will consummate a newer reality than the one that currently exists, seemingly indicating the Kingdom of Heaven will reach its fullest and complete expression at the return of Christ. To his credit, Wright does offer a concession here, saying, “Yes, Paul has plenty to say on the subject [of atonement], but when “biblical” theologies ignore the gospels, something is clearly very wrong” (177). It is this statement that I find most helpful and most bothersome. On the one hand, Wright is correct in his assessment that atonement theology has neglected serious understanding and consideration of the four gospels, which is a mistake. Yet in an effort to course-correct, I believe he overstates the case and in doing so diminishes the later writings of Peter, Paul, and John who give the church much help in ordering our worship of King Jesus. Moreover, the writers of the New Testament in their own way also contribute to the overall narrative of God becoming King through Jesus in his public career and in his death.

That being said, the strength of Wright’s argument and the biggest contribution this book has to offer is the refocusing of our attention back upon the purpose of the gospels, not as backstory of Jesus’s death to ensure my personal eternal security, but as the primary means by which God fulfills the promises he made to his people and brings about rescue and renewal through his inaugurated kingdom, which is penultimate to any other kingdom of the world.

Up Next: Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
On Deck: Engaging God's World by Cornelius Plantinga