How God Became King: The Launching of God’s Renewed People

We’re halfway through N.T. Wright’s assessment of the four harmonies under-girding the gospel narratives (review parts one and two).  We come to now to the third piece, the institution of the church, sort of.

According to Wright, this is, like yesterday’s section on Jesus acting as God, grossly distorted among Christians and skeptics alike.  Some will undoubtedly encounter this idea with the furrowed brow of a first hearing.  For others, this will sound all quite familiar – perhaps too familiar.

Major sections of the Western church, along with skeptical critical scholars, have assumed that the gospels say very little about Jesus, actually.  Instead, they suppose that the gospels were written by the early church in order to justify the church’s existence.  They then projected words and deeds onto Jesus in order to fabricate some kind of foundational documents.  Jesus really did exist, these skeptics would say, but he didn’t do or say what the gospel writers have him doing and saying.  The gospels, essentially, put words in Jesus’ mouth to justify the existence of their church communities in the latter half of the first century (or later still).  When we read the gospels, then, we are really reading about the early church.  Or so say the critical scholars.

Wright, however, brushes this off.  He does not question the notion that there are elements of the early church within the gospels, but this should not compel anyone to write off the gospels as avoiding the actual story of Jesus.  Rather, it would make perfect sense for the early church to have conceived of themselves as they were because of the real historical events they believed had taken place through Jesus of Nazareth.

But anyway, the four gospels ought to be read, in part, as foundational documents.  They are, in this sense, myths.  It’s not that they’re historically untrue, but that they do in fact provide the rationale for the church.  In Wright’s own words, “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” (118, emphasis original).

The authors of the gospels saw in Jesus a unique event.  God was up to something new in Jesus.  And they took as their own vision and mission statement the very work of Jesus, and believed it was their duty to continue to live that out.  More than that, they believed the whole world was fundamentally different as a result of the resurrection.  The new (or renewed) people of God were to embody that in their various communities.

How God Became King: The Story of Jesus as the Story of Israel’s God

We alluded to today’s issue yesterday (and, of course, there’s more back story here, here, and here).  And today’s issue is this: If we’re reading the gospels, we must be reading the story of God returning to His people, just as He had promised.

That is to say, that according to the gospel writers we should see in the words and actions of Jesus the very words and actions of the Creator.  “Fair enough,” says the Western Christian.  “It’s just as we always thought: Jesus is God.”

Well, yes, says NT Wright, but not the way you think.

In fact, the bishop insists that most of Western Christianity, particularly the more conservative elements, have read the gospels exclusively for proof that Jesus was God, the second person of the trinity.  That tendency, then, has deafened the church to hearing the other movements of the gospels and has actually distorted this tune itself.

In order to best understand just how it is that Jesus represents God, we must first understand the role that humanity was always supposed to play within the creation.  Most Christians will be familiar with the fact that Genesis regarded the first couple as having been made in the image of God (Gen 1:26).  Much has been made of this by the church over the centuries, but its primary connotation is this.  In the ancient world, each temple would contain a statue of its god.  That statue, then, was seen as physically representing the deity on the earth.  Humanity, according to the biblical tradition, was meant to represent Yahweh on the earth.

This connection is severed, though, at the fall, but a hint of the lost reality is maintained in God’s presence with Israel in the tabernacle and the temple.  But alas, God departed the temple as a result of Israel’s continued rebellion and had not returned, so it was felt, by Jesus’ day.

But the message of the gospels is, in part, that God is returning to Israel, and He’s doing so in the person of this one Jesus of Nazareth.  The distortion comes for Western Christians in that we regard it as a general impossibility (or, at least, absurdity) that God would have much connection at all with flesh and blood humanity.  We have for too long regarded God as a distant, ghost-like deity residing someplace among the clouds.  In other words, we are too Greek.

But the Hebrew concept that infuses the Bible is the notion that God and humanity were always meant to be intimately united.  The chasm between human and divine is not an ontological split.  No, God and human are naturally connected.  Rather, the split between the Creator and us is a distinct result of our actions.

In Wright’s words, “the gospels offer us not so much a different kind of human, but a different kind of God: a God who, having made humans in his own image, will most naturally express himself in and as that image-bearing creature; a God who, having made Israel to share and bear the pain and horror of the world, will most naturally express himself in and as that pain-bearing, horror-facing creature” (104).

So when Jesus walks about the earth doing everything in accordance with the will of his Father, he is simultaneously embodying the ideal of humanity and a perfect representation of humanity’s Creator.  And so the gospels then are telling that part of the story as well, that God is returning to His people Israel, and He’s doing it in the person of Jesus.

How God Became King: The Story of Israel

We’ve emerged from part one (1a, 1b, 1c) of N.T. Wright’s new book, in which he highlights the problem he perceives in Western Christianity, namely that we’re missing the true story of the gospels.  Now, we’re ready to dive into Wright’s reading of the gospel story.  We’ve been beaten down enough, it’s time get pulled out of our muddy pits.

To help us out and rediscover the true gospel story, Bishop Wright hints at four subplots running through each of the four gospels.  The first subplot, which Wright insists most Christians have muted completely, is the back story to Jesus’ story: the story of Israel.

Of course, if asked directly, we’d all give the right answer: Jesus was Jewish.  But do we really know the arc of the story of Israel, where it’s left off at the close of the Hebrew Scriptures, where Chronicles or Malachi conclude?  And, therefore, do we really know what Jesus is doing (or what the gospel writers say about what Jesus is doing) to bring that narrative to its dramatic and surprising climax?

To put it briefly, the Jews of Jesus’ day, did not truly believe they had yet been rescued from their long exile, which began in 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple and took most of the Israelites out of Palestine.  Though many of the Jews had returned in the late 500’s BC, and though a temple had been reconstructed by 516 BC, the Jews still felt the reality of being under foreign rule – first under Persia, then the Greeks, then the Egyptians and Syrians, and finally Rome.  The words of Nehemiah, uttered 500 years before Christ, still rang true in the first century AD: “But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces” (9:36, NIV).

The story of Israel had by Jesus’ day come to a standstill.  They had been the people through whom the Creator had promised to redeem the whole of creation.  It was through Abraham’s seed that the whole world would be blessed.  But here they were under the foot of the most powerful and treacherous empire the world had ever known.  They weren’t even in charge of their own affairs; how could they be the means of the world’s rescue?  Moreover, just where was this God who had promised to do all this?

This, says Wright, is one of the four key points to the gospel stories, that Jesus is bringing that long story to its climax and fulfillment.  Jesus is the resolution to Israel’s specific tale, and the ultimate resolution to that long story, the thing Israel’s prophets most hoped for, but which most of Israel effectively disdained, was that God would again become their true king.  “Unless we are constantly aware, in reading the gospels,” says Wright, “that they are telling the Jesus story in such a way as to bring out the Israel story, we will never hear their proper harmony” (80).

How God Became King: The Inadequate Answers

We continue our walk through How God Became King by Bishop Wright. Parts one and two begin to pinpoint the problem Wright seeks to address. And chapter three, “The Inadequate Answers,” seals the dilemma. Here Wright addresses the common answers Christian gives to the question Why were the gospels written?

I suspect that this would be a very troubling chapter for many (probably most) Christians from all sorts of traditions. The chapter outlines six basic and common responses to the question regarding the gospels’ purpose. We will recognize all six, and all six are deficient. Get ready to get uncomfortable!

What are the gospels trying to say?  Here are, according to Wright, the inadequate but common answers.

1. “Jesus came to teach people how to go to heaven” (42, emphasis original).  Perhaps you’ve heard this too.  Perhaps you’ve said it.  The gospels are all about how to get to heaven.  Well, frankly, no.  The gospels are not about how people can get to heaven, but just the opposite.  The gospels are about how heaven is coming to earth.  See Prayer, The Lord’s.

2. The gospels are all about “Jesus’s teaching, particularly about what we call ‘ethics,’ or how to behave” (46, emphasis original).  There’s no question Jesus did a good bit of teaching, but the gospels are not the story of a good itinerant teacher who happened to die before his time.  Rather, Jesus’ whole life was about inaugurating what we might call a new reality (namely, the realm of heaven breaking into the earth), and any ethical teaching he did was about how to conduct life on the basis of that reality.  We cannot separate his teaching from his actual life and work, his larger agenda.

3. The gospels give us Jesus as “an example of how to live” (48).  While it is true that Christians are called to continue that work that Jesus began (Paul certainly thought of himself as continuing Christ’s mission), it is critical that believers understand that Jesus’ work was unique and cannot be duplicated.  He was instituting a new state of affairs on the earth.  And although we work now at implementing that new reality, we cannot do just as Jesus did.  Not exactly.

4. The gospels set out to give us Jesus the perfect sacrifice.  Our Reformed friends should recognize this one.  The idea is that Jesus set out to live a perfect life and fulfill every element of the Law so that when we went to his death, he might serve as a perfect sacrifice for all people in all times and his perfect righteousness might be transferred to all believers.  True, Jesus did live a sinless life, but it doesn’t seem to be the main point of the gospels.  If the gospel writers had written the first halves of each of their gospels just to show that Jesus was sinless, well, it kind of takes away from the story.  Something bigger is going on.

5. “The gospels are written … so we can identify with the characters in the story and find our own way by seeing what happened to them” (52, emphasis original).  No doubt that happens, but that’s hardly why the gospels were written.  They are not simply fables from which to draw life lessons and aphorisms.

6a. “The gospels were written to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus” (53, emphasis original).  The gospel writers likely believed that Jesus was somehow fully human and mysteriously divine, but their goal is not to prove that point.  The need to prove that point comes a few hundred years later in Christian history.

6b. “The gospels, in telling the story of Jesus, show us who God really is” (54).  This concept, Wright agrees, has some weight to it, but he wants to drive farther.  The real point of the gospels is not just about what God looks like, but “what … God is now up to” (54, emphasis original).  The story of Jesus, according to Wright, is the story of how the Creator is acting in history in the first century and that those actions constitute the fulfillment of all the hopes the people of God had grappled for centuries.  To put a finer point on it, it is the story of God establishing His kingdom on the earth through Jesus of Nazareth.

That for N.T. Wright wraps up his effort to heighten the problem he seeks to address, that the Western church, from all sorts of traditions and backgrounds, has misread the gospels in any number of ways.

What do you think?  Do you find yourself in any of the six caricatures described above?  Do you want to push back?  Are you nodding your head or shaking it violently?  Are you anxious for Bishop Wright’s proposed solution?

How God Became King: The Opposite Problem

We’re working our way through N.T. Wright’s brand new book, How God Became King Yesterday, we reviewed chapter 1, in which Wright begins to lay out the problem as he sees it, that many Westerners miss the real meaning of the four gospels.

In chapter 2, Bishop Wright approaches a similar problem from the opposite direction.  If most conservative Christians have approached the gospels through the framework of the creeds, thereby emphasizing Jesus’ birth and resurrection at the expense of Jesus’ actual life, then liberal believers and non-believers in the West have tried to emphasize Jesus’ life at the expense of his birth and his resurrection.

I’m not sure how attuned to skeptical biblical scholarship we all are, but the general stream through the last couple hundred years has basically been this.  We all know miracles don’t happen, says the modern scholar, so let’s cut those pieces out of the gospels and then we’ll really know who Jesus was.  So what we’re left with is either an itinerant teacher who comes up with witty aphorisms and cute fables, or a sandwich board toting apocalyptic looking for the end of the world, or a failed insurrectionist who was looking to oust the Romans from the Promised Land, or some combination thereof.

These liberal streams believe that was the real Jesus on which the gospel writers hung all sorts of bizarre religious baggage to validate their own respective church communities several decades later.  They believe Jesus never could have conceived of anything like the church (of any era) and would have been horrified had anyone actually begun worshiping in his name.

But, says Wright, this perspective misses the point just as well as the conservative perspective.  Neither does justice to what the gospels have laid out for their readers.

Attacking the modernist approach Wright is somewhat less charitable than in chiding the conservatives one chapter earlier.  He writes,

At the heart of “the Enlightenment” was a resolute determination that “God” – whoever “God” might be – should no longer be allowed to interfere, either directly or through those who claimed to be his spokesmen, in the affairs of this world.  Once “man had come of age,” there was no room for theocracy. … But the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven.  They were written to stake the very specific claim toward which the eighteenth-century movements of philosophy and culture, and particularly politics, were reacting with such hostility. (33-34, emphasis original)

That word, “theocracy,” will undoubtedly raise the hairs on the backs of many a neck.  But Wright is clear he’s not referring to a state church or anything akin to Christendom.  He’s writing of theocracy in the most literal sense.  In and through Jesus, God has actually become king of creation.  This point the rest of the book will surely tease out.

Well there we are.  The good bishop has made it clear that no one in the West has been reading the gospels rightly in the last 300 years.  And perhaps we’re ready for his answer in some detail.  But it seems we’re in for a bit more crystalization of the problem before us, since chapter three is entitled “The Inadequate Answers,” which I hope to address tomorrow.

Addendum

Again, two quotes worth leaving you with.

An axiom: when the church leaves out bits of its core teaching, heretics will pick them up, turn them into something new, and use them to spread doubts and unbelief. … Another axiom … : when the church leaves out bits of its core teaching, it will inevitably overinflate other bits of its core teaching to fill the gap.  (32-33)

How God Became King: The Missing Middle

N.T. Wright’s How God Became King opens with an attempt to solidify the problem he seeks to address through the whole of the book.  In fact, that is his agenda for the first three chapters – to highlight the acute deficiency in Western Christianity.  And what is that problem?

The Western Church has forgotten what the canonical gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are all about.

In this opening chapter, Bishop Wright takes the approach of placing the ancient Christian creeds against these gospels.  In our treasured creeds, the formula regarding Christ typically address Jesus’ life in this manner: He was born of the virgin and then he died on the cross.  Take the Apostles’ Creed as an example:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Such statements have come to define contemporary Western Christian belief about Jesus, that his purpose was to die for our sins and little or nothing more.  Take another example from a popular Evangelical chorus of a few years back, Michael W. Smith’s Above All:

Crucified/Laid behind a stone/You lived to die/Rejected and alone/Like a rose/Trampled on the ground/You took the fall/And thought of me/Above all (italics mine)

We have, probably unintentionally, regarded half the gospels as secondary to what we believe the real gospel: that Christ died to save us from our sins and justify us before God.  And while that is true – Christ really did die to save all creation from the power of sin – it circumnavigates the story that Wright believes the gospel writers were actually trying to tell.  We’ve left out the life of Jesus, which is supposed to show us that God was becoming king in and through Jesus, his son.

Addendum

I just wanted to get this little quote out for all to chew on as well.  Check it:

To this day, whenever people take it upon themselves to explore the divinity of Jesus, there is at the very least a tendency for the theme of God’s kingdom, coming on earth as in heaven, to be quietly lost from view.  It is as though a young man spent all his time proving that he really was his father’s son and left no time or energy for working with his father in the family business – which would, actually, be one of the better ways of demonstrating the family likeness.  (20, italics mine)

Tough Choices

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These two little lovelies arrived in the mail not 30 minutes ago, and I’m eager to dive in. The question is which to tackle first. I expect to review them both here, perhaps chapter by chapter. And I expect to compare and contrast the two, as their themes are so similar. Ugh. The choices we must make.

Get them yourselves and read along with me.

Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited

N.T. Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels