One of the most provocative and productive evangelical writers of our time is at it again. In this attractively written and, by all means, interesting book on the kingdom of God, Tom Wright sets forth his theological program for a popular audience. As usual for this remarkably gifted communicator, his thesis is to some extent visible in the title: the Gospels are all about how God became king over the world. This description of the message of the Gospels is entirely appropriate. Indeed, at first glance, it seems as if it offers only what Christians have long believed. But the second part of the title reveals that Wright's thesis has an edge to it. Christians and critics alike have largely and long forgotten or missed the real story of the Gospels. Wright seeks to restore us: post tenebras lux.
Wright goes about his task with typical clarity: (1) outlining the problem (or more properly, problems); (2) highlighting dimensions of the Gospels that he judges have been neglected; (3) presenting his interpretive program afresh; and (4) making recommendations as to how his proposal might enrich our reading of the Scriptures and the Apostles' Creed.
The problem, as it turns out, is that we have neglected the "middle" of the Gospels, the time and space between Jesus' birth and his crucifixion. We have forgotten to ask about how Jesus lived and that for which Jesus lived. As we hear already in the title of the book, Jesus's life is about God becoming king. It is not about simply "going to heaven." Nor did Jesus come merely to give ethical instruction or to be a moral example or merely to be a perfect sacrifice (although Wright certainly affirms that Jesus was this).None of these readings or others like them are adequate. What is missing from the equation, according to Wright, is the story of Israel, specifically, the story of God's indwelling his people in such a way that through them the world is redeemed. That divine purpose, once thwarted through Israel's rebellion, has been fulfilled in Jesus, in whom God first came to his own people in order to rescue them and then to send them forth into mission to the world. Jesus's cross plays a fundamental role in this drama. On the one hand, the cross is the means by which God deals with Israel's sin and guilt. On the other hand, Israel's sin and guilt are manifest in its continuing exile, which in Jesus's day is manifest in its subjugation to Rome. In Jesus, God has established his kingdom (which, of course, is still coming) over against the kingdom of Caesar and all those in collusion with it. All of these reflections bring our reading of the creed down to earth, where God wishes to meet us. We are thereby preserved from wrongly using the creed as a means of flight into heaven.
The first thing to be said is that Wright's insistence that we read the "middle" of the Gospels together with their beginning and end is entirely appropriate. The Gospel cannot be preached rightly as a mere formula, detached from the rest of Scripture. It is relatively easy to be a sinner in the abstract, theoretical sense. It is quite another matter to be confronted with one's real sins and to hear concretely that from which and for which Christ died for us. Here it is to be underscored that there is no "freedom from" sin that is not a "freedom for" service to God. The words and deeds of Jesus bring home God's claim upon us in a way that brings the whole weight of Scripture to bear. One thinks immediately of the Sermon on the Mount in this connection, of course. Wright's call to read and hear the whole Gospel is well worth hearing.
Wright's program, however, is less persuasive, not only in its details but also in the question of its newness. Even if Wright's call to the renewal of the church is well-intentioned, it is a bit off-putting to hear that the whole of Christianity has been wrong up to this point in time. I am not persuaded. I confess that I cannot discern what is so radically new about Wright's proposal. It appears to me to be a re-cooking of C. H. Dodd's "realized eschatology" with a measure of Barth, and perhaps a dash of Ritschl. I am not here seeking to make Wright guilty by association. There are valuable insights to be gained from all three of these scholars. I am more perplexed by Wright's claim to newness, not least because of the proximity of his thought to Barth's influential conception of Christian witness.
Wright makes his case for the newness of his proposal in part from the structure and content of the ecumenical creeds, especially the Apostles' Creed. As he rightly points out, the "middle" of the Gospels, the story of Jesus's life is missing there. Yet it is not clear that this absence is as great a loss as Wright makes it out to be. His case for the deficiency of the creeds would be better if it could be shown that they were intended to supplant the reading of the Gospels as a whole, rather than to supplement them. Admittedly, the ecumenical creeds were composed in the face of specific questions of Christology and trinitarian theology. Nevertheless, they commend themselves as summaries of biblical thought that serve as guides for properly reading the middle of the Gospels as well as the rest of Scripture in the light of those questions. Undoubtedly, they can be abused. But abusus non tollitusus. That is precisely what Wright wants to do by elaborating the Apostles' Creed in light of Jesus's, or rather Israel's, story. There is nothing wrong with the elaboration of the Apostles' Creed. But, of course, Wright was not the first to do so. I will confess that I much prefer (and commend) Luther's explanation of the Creed. But that is a question of the theological substance of the elaboration that I will touch upon in a moment.
Another hermeneutical issue that appears prominently in Wright's program of renewal is the weight given to Paul's letters in Christian doctrine and preaching in relationship to the Gospels. According to Wright, Christians tend to treat the Gospels as snacks and wait for the "red meat of Pauline theology" (p. 21). Perhaps that claim is true. If it is, it is a shame. At the same time, however, Paul's letters, and especially the main "culprits" Galatians and Romans, were written as guides for interpretation of the Jesus-tradition that was held in common in earliest Christianity, in the face of questions that were facing mid-first-century Christians. In this respect they were much like the creeds, even if they were much, much closer to the source. Obviously, the presence of Paul's letters did not prevent the writing and circulation of our four Gospels. It was not enough to have only Paul. To the extent that Christians (like Marcion) attempt to do so, Wright's complaint should be heeded. But just as Wright admits that no one comes to Scripture without a point of view (p. 109), so also no one interprets Scripture without taking their stance from a vantage point within Scripture, whether they consciously assume it or not. In this regard, the apostolic proclamation, including the letters of Paul should be recognized as providing keys to reading the Gospels. The Emmaus road was necessary, as were its results. That means, however, that Paul's letters are to be used as keys to reading the Gospels, and not reading Paul into them, let alone not reading them at all.
If one does so, one comes away with a very different reading of the Gospels than what Wright offers. In the first place, it is obviously the end of the story of the Gospels that bears the greatest weight in the letters of the NT. But that is true in the Gospels themselves. We don't really find a "life of Jesus" in them, but narratives of Jesus's public ministry, that are remarkably concentrated not on the middle, but on the very end of his life. Martin Kähler's description of Mark's Gospel as a passion narrative with an extended introduction may be an overstatement, but not by much. The story that the Gospels tell is that of the mission of proclamation, healing, and exorcisms in which Jesus engaged, the opposition to him that arose as a result, and the feeble faith and failure of his disciples. None of these exclude Wright's theological program. But the distance between the Gospels and the letters is not as great as he makes it out to be. It is not at all clear to me that the Gospels don't make "atonement" their main theme (p. 7), but that is probably because I regard that theme as much broader than Wright does, as extending into the whole of Jesus's ministry. The cross is merely the culmination of his sufferings "for us." That understanding appears at various points in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 6:4; 8:34; 9:19; and, programmatically, Matt 8:17).
It is not clear to me, either, that the "backstory" of the Gospels is the story of Israel. Wright has attempted at length elsewhere to make his case on this matter. I simply do not find it plausible historically or theologically. In the first place, within the Scriptures themselves, Israel's story appears as a recapitulation of the story of Adam, retold under the condition of the primal transgression. That is arguably true of both the OT and NT. Second, it is far from clear that one can draw a straight line from the Babylonian exile to first-century subjugation to Rome. For one thing, the Jewish people had enjoyed too many victories since that time, including the restoration of sovereignty and the extension of territory for that reading to be plausible. And while we cannot pursue the details here, it hardly appears from the Gospels that most Jewish people regarded the Babylonian exile continuing in their day.
These objections deserve theological comment. If it is finally not the story of Israel but the story of Adam that is being replayed in the Gospels, nearly the whole of Wright's program must be changed. It is the appeal to Israel that facilitates Wright's political reading of Jesus's mission and allows him to frame the fundamental conflict in the world as one between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar. But what if the real enemies are sin, death, and the devil? The church is a political reality. No doubt about that. But it is much, much more. It is the appeal to the story of Israel that allows Wright to relativize the Reformers, who were dealing with sixteenth-century concerns. Is that true? We may ask that question without in any way denying the particularities of the debates of that time. We have mentioned Luther's exposition of the creed. Try reading that exposition and then that of N. T. Wright. Then decide which exposition appears more time-bound.
Two final points remain rather fuzzy in Wright's program. First, it is not clear, at least to me, precisely how it is that "God's one-time action in Jesus the Messiah ushered in a new world order" (p. 118). Jesus is no mere moral teacher or moral example for Wright. Very good. I would think that forgiveness makes new people. But Wright does not regard the traditional understanding of the atonement as working the forgiveness of sins to satisfy this purpose. How then does God's work in Jesus function? Again I am reminded of Dodd's "realized eschatology" that left the same lacuna. The question is pressing since Wright regards the cross as the moment of renewal for the people of God, who as a royal priesthood "will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love." It is a wonderful ideal. But Christians generally operate from a love of power, rather than from the power of love. That is the hard truth about us: we cannot remove coveting from our hearts, try as we might. For this reason, among others, I am more than happy to affirm a teaching of "two reigns" (not "two kingdoms," which is twentieth-century nomenclature) and to embrace a proper separation of church and state.
Second, Wright leaves it quite unclear what he understands the nature of Jesus's coming to be. Indeed, in his restatement of the confession of the creed, "he shall come again in glory, to judge the quick and the dead," becomes "the dead summoned to face Jesus" (p. 263). Should we await Jesus's coming? The question is not an idle one of dispensational charts. It determines the nature of our calling as Christians. The cry of the earliest church, "Maranatha!" was an appeal for the judgment of all things, including the motives of human hearts. It set a limit and framework for all Christian endeavor. The kingdom must yet come, apart from all our works. We are here to witness to the coming kingdom, a witness that is to be borne not only by our lips, but also by our lives. According to Wright, however, we are to "work for the kingdom." Christ will have his victory through the (derivative) suffering and testimony of his people. That is how the darkest "powers" are to be overthrown (p. 208).God's justified people are the key agents in God's putting right the world (p. 244). Is there any limit to this task?