In How God Became King (4-stars) N.T. Wright takes up the problem he introduced in Simply Jesus and carries it to the next level. There Wright addresses the problem the Church has made of assuming ‘the gospel’ equals ‘justification by faith’ which seems to have little or nothing to do with the actual Gospels. He attempted to show us in Simply Jesus that the Gospels tell the gospel and that the gospel, proper, is the Story of Jesus. Now, in How God Became King, Wright goes a step further: the Story of Jesus is actually about another story, the story of how God became King (see here for how I think McKnight and Wright diverge on emphasis at precisely this point).
How Tradition Distorted The Gospel Message
The first two chapters play off each other in a way. The first shows how the gospel became distorted early on in the great Western Christian Tradition in large part do to the emphasis laid down in the Creeds and then later again by the Reformers. In both cases emphasis is laid upon the Birth, Death, Resurrection and (sometimes) Ascension of Jesus, leaving out complete everything in between; the life of Jesus, his mission in action and word and how the rest should be interpreted along through it’s lens.
The Liberal and Social Movement Did No Better
The second chapter then takes a look at how since the 18th century Jesus’ humanity, his actual life, was emphasized at the expense of what the Gospels actually had to say regarding those good things that the Creeds and Reformers did emphasize; the Birth, Death, Resurrection and (sometimes) Ascension of Jesus. Instead, Jesus became a social activist. His primary message, unrelated to all of that other stuff we find in the Gospels, is to care for the poor, the downtrodden, the prostitute, sinner and so on. Sliding along a bit from this Liberal Christian movement of the eighteenth century, but still keeping within this category are those Wright calls the “devout Christians” (as opposed to the Liberal’s he referred to as the “less devout Christians”). The social gospel movement that carries on today, that emphasizes what Jesus did and said in regards to the poor without necessarily rejecting the Creeds, but certainly downplaying them as if they weren’t really all that important. The problem with the social gospel movement, says Wright, is that while emphasizing many of Jesus’ apparent social concerns (such as “what you did it unto the least of these…”) and deemphasizing his more doctrinally laden ones (“the Son of Man came to… give his life as a ransom…”), the world since the birth of the social gospel movement has not really gotten any better. The social gospel, on it’s own, is not really the answer to the world’s problems.
Six Inadequate Christian Answers
In his third chapter Wright explores the six answers a devout Christian might give today to the question: what do you suppose all of that middle stuff – the stuff between Jesus’ birth and the cross – was written down for? They are: 1) to tell us how to get to heaven; 2) to teach us how to live an ethical life; 3) to give us Jesus’ example to follow; 4) to show us that Jesus was perfect, thus qualifying him as the ‘perfect sacrifice’; 5) to give us stories to identify with; and perhaps the most common answer would be, 6) to prove the divinity of Jesus. All – or most, at least – of these answers have a grain of truth to them, but they fall short of being what the Gospel’s are all about. The last point will make a good example: the early Creeds were written apologetically to defend the deity of Christ as were the apologetic writings of the eighteenth century to this day in many circles. Gnostics denied the union of the Father and the Son and eighteenth century modernists denied anything resembling miracles. In response Christians turned to the Gospels and sought to defend the miracles of Jesus so that, by default, his miraculous acts would bolster the Christian claim to his deity. That is, the Gospels have been routinely read as if their main point were to prove that Jesus is God. That’s all fine and dandy, but was that the message that the gospel writers themselves wanted to communicate? The flat out answer is no. The gospel writers didn’t seek to prove Jesus’ divinity at all, they assumed it and wanted to make other points.
Wright says that some people today say that the point of the middle stuff was to show us, through Jesus, what God is really like. He says “that is a bit more like it”, but it still falls short of the actual intent of the gospel message. The point of the middle stuff isn’t just to show us God (be it God’s character or otherwise), but more precisely, it was written to show us what God is up to. He says that people have come to the Gospels with the wrong questions, and they found answers to those questions, but that doesn’t help us understand what the actual message of the Gospels is, which should be our goal. We need to begin, he says, by admitting our misunderstanding and then seek a fresh reading.
For that, we’ll have to turn our attention to part two…