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?