While some have critiqued N. T. Wright’s clarity and writing style in the past, How God Became King reads as a clear and articulate work. This is partly because he asks such intriguing and specific questions. For example, the central concern in How God Became King is to demonstrate the importance of Jesus’ life. For most believers, the stories of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection make up the fabric of our day to day lives. But sadly, we know little about that middle bit where Jesus goes around healing, casting out demons and teaching. It’s this portion of Jesus’ life that Wright wants to uncover for us. And this is precisely what makes How God Became King so interesting.
Wright argues that four speakers influence our reading of the Gospels. Each speaker has its volume controls set incorrectly. One speaker is too loud, while, perhaps, the others are too quiet. According to Wright, when we read the Gospels, we need to keep these four speakers in balance. These four speakers or influences on our reading the Gospels include the following: (1) The Gospels are an organic fulfillment of the story of Israel (The Old Testament), and not simply Genesis 1–3; (2) The story of Jesus is the story of Yahweh visiting his people, and this means that his deity is assumed; (3) Jesus comes to launch God’s renewed people into the kingdom or into kingdom life. This is what eternal life is all about; (4) The kingdom of God conflicts with the kingdom of this world, because it subverts the expectations of worldly kingdoms. It many ways, this means the Christians are called to live out this new life that Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension inaugurated.
The first speaker definitely needs turning up. The Old Testament is not a series of proof texts, needing a New Testament verification. The second speaker is a helpful way to understand Jesus’ ministry, since he is God visiting his people. The third speaker basically ensures that Jesus’ life launches his kingdom program for world conversion. At this point, I am little shaky on just what implications this might have for the church. Does Wright believe that part of Gospel proclamation is social transformation? The fourth speaker makes one think so, since Wright believes we have to keep the world accountable to the Gospel (as defined here).
Wright believes that pastors, believers, creeds, and all people of all time have missed the simple and clear point of the Gospels: that in Jesus, God has visited his people as king. That may sound like an overstatement on my part, but no more overstated than Wright’s own views. And that really is one of two critiques that I have with How God Became King.
Overstatements or Caricatures
N. T. Wright sets up his enemy, lines up his cross hairs, and fires a volley of scholarly shells across the field. The result is, of course, absolute victory. But let’s be honest. Every writer, preacher or communicator knows the power of overstatement. It can really help drive the point home. So my issue is not so much with Wright’s strong statements, but it has more to do with statements that make it seem like no Christian has ever thought like he has before
For example, when Wright discusses the storyline of the Gospels, he makes this jab: “Neither the preachers nor the scholars have bothered too much about what the story in question actually does within the longer and larger narrative the evangelist has constructed (p. 24).” Does Wright actually believe no preachers have bothered to understand the message or story of the Gospels?
Apparently he does not believe this, because he follows this comment up with a parenthetical comment to cover his tracks: “(This is of course an overstatement. Many have done and continue to do this. I am talking about the large generality of preachers and teachers in the church and a fair proportion of scholars as well)” (p. 24). Fair enough, this signals to me he is done with unfair caricatures of others. The problem is that Wright continues to make similar statements like this throughout the book, without parenthetical comments to taper off the force of his words.
For an example of an overstatement, Wright believes that “It isn’t just that we’ve all misread the gospels, though I think that’s broadly true. It is more that we haven’t really read them at all. We have fitted them into the framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources” (p. 10). Positively, Wright warns us against reading our presuppositions and learned interpretations into the text. I agree. But again, it almost seems like nobody but N. T. Wright and his colleagues have gotten it right.
Perhaps I’ve created caricature of Wright that is incorrect, and I would happy to receive correction. Still, this is what I observed as I read.
Wright’s View of the Gospels
My second critique is more theological than the last. While Wright tries to correct the volume of the four speakers (see above) of influences on the Gospels, he seems to be listening too keenly to his own subwoofer shaking the ground underneath him. Wright explains, “But the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven (p. 34).” He makes an adroit observation here — one that Dwight Pentecost might applaud. But I cannot help but wonder if he sets up his view in contrast with both creeds and traditional ideas simply to be provocative.
In opposition to the historic creeds, Wright notes that the Gospels “tell us about what we might call his kingdom-inaugurating work: the deeds and words that declared that God’s kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven. They tell us a great deal about that; but the great creeds don’t. (p. 11).” A primary distinction between the Gospels and creeds, explains Wright, is that “The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God (p. 20).” Thus, Wright believes his programmatic reading of the Gospels highlights the main themes of the Gospels (Kingdom inauguration), while the creeds oppose this meaning by propping Jesus as divine. My question here is: Couldn’t both be true? Why couldn’t the Gospels presentation of Jesus’ divinity be part of his kingdom work? Wright seems to have overstated the case here.
Another odd contrast Wright makes between his interpretation of the Gospels is between Jesus’ kingdom work and imputed righteousness. Here’s a lengthy quote:
A subpoint in this fourth answer has been developed by some branches of Reformed theology. There we find the notion that Jesus, in fulfilling the Mosaic law (see, e.g., Matt. 5:17, where Jesus says that he didn’t come to destroy the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them), acquired his own store of merit or “righteousness,” which he is then able to transfer (the technical term being “impute”) to those who believe in him. This has been a major theme in some expositions of Paul’s theology, particularly his teaching on justification. It has therefore been assumed that the life of Jesus contributes to this result: the “active obedience of Christ,” consisting of his sinless life and perfect keeping of the law, works in tandem with the “passive obedience of Christ,” that is, his suffering and death. Together these constitute the “obedience” of Christ that, it is assumed, Paul is referring to in such passages as Romans 5:19.
Again we have to say, if that’s what the gospels were trying to tell us, they didn’t do a very good job of it. (p. 51).
I’m not quite sure how to respond to this, since it seems like such a odd statement for Wright to make. This is because Wright has argued so well for reading the Gospels in light of the Old Testament story, and this story speaks of the need for righteousness and the idea of atonement. As fulfilling this story and pointing to the one who can forgive sin and provide righteousness, the Gospels make the point that simply to “believe” in Jesus makes one right before God rather than any sort of work.
I recently read Mark 5 for my devotions, and I noted clearly the emphasis on Jesus’ instruction to simply “believe.” Granted, he does not make the point that he will impute his righteousness to those who believe. But that works out through his death and resurrection. Could it be that reflection of the Gospel story showed Paul and later Christians that Jesus did indeed have to share his righteousness with us to be considered just? Wright likes to argue that Jesus completed the storyline of the Old Testament, but what if Christian reflection on the Old Testament storyline and the Gospels has shown the necessity of Christ’s righteousness being transferred to the unrighteous (cf. 1 Pet 3:18)?
While this is probably one of the least controversial N. T. Wright books I have read, I still come away with a feeling that everybody but him is wrong and that traditional views are silly. I am happy that he is trying to bring into focus the meaning of Jesus’ life in the Gospels and the significance of both the life and death of Jesus. But I wonder if this problem wouldn’t be so acute if pastors preached the Gospels more often.