N. T. Wright. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 304 pp. $25.99.
We know Jesus was born of a virgin and that he died on the cross and rose from the grave. But what about all that stuff in the middle? What does the life of Jesus have to do with anything? According to N. T. Wright, Christians have neglected all that stuff in the middle (the “missing middle” as he likes to call it). “I have had the increasing impression, over many years now, that most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the Gospels are all about” (vii). Who is to blame for such an oversight? According to Wright, the early church creeds and the early church fathers are to blame for having failed to say anything about the life of Jesus. Wright believes this oversight is “the reason why Christians to this day find it so hard to grasp what the Gospels are really trying to say” (12). The early church fathers were so consumed with proving that Jesus is God, and the Reformers were so consumed with Paul’s emphasis on the gospel consisting of what Jesus achieved in his death (atonement and justification), that the church has lost sight of the life of Jesus and what it is all about.
Therefore, a massive, fundamental rethinking about the Gospels is overdue. And here is his antidote: While the creeds were “focused on Jesus being God,” the “Gospels were all about God becoming king” (20). Stated otherwise, Wright’s central thesis is that the Gospels are all about “how God became king—in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death” (175).
There are several strengths to Wright’s book. First, Wright does us all a favor by taking us back to the Old Testament, demonstrating that the story of Israel has its fulfillment in the person and work of Christ. Wright spends the majority of his book comparing OT texts with NT texts in order to demonstrate how Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior and King of Israel, by whom God has reclaimed his sovereign reign over his enemies and the nations. However, the Gospels are so shocking because the King who inaugurates his kingdom does so by dying on a cross.
Second, Wright correctly resists some of the popular ways Christians have approached the Gospels. Christians have at times made the Gospels strictly about going to heaven, Jesus’ ethical teaching, Jesus as a moral exemplar, and so on. But Wright shows that such approaches miss the message of the Gospels completely. The Gospels are about Israel’s Messiah, the kingdom of God, the redemption and renewal of God’s people, and much, much more.
Third, Wright highlights an overlooked purpose of the incarnation, namely, God dwelling with his people in the person of his Son. While in the OT Yahweh dwelt in the temple and tabernacle, in the NT Yahweh now dwells with his people in his Son, who has taken on human flesh. Jesus is the “personal presence of Israel’s God, coming to be with his people and rescue them from the plight their sins have brought upon them” (96). In short, Jesus is God with us (Matt 1:23; 28:18-20).
Despite these strengths (and others), Wright’s book is tainted by several serious blemishes. And each of these weaknesses can be characterized in the way Wright tends to blame diverse aspects of orthodox theology for missing the message of the Gospels.
First, some of the claims that Wright makes regarding the history of the church are quite astounding. To begin with, Wright argues that “most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the Gospels are really about” (vii). This sort of comment makes for good journalism, but it is shoddy scholarship. It fails to take into consideration the significant reflection, for example, of the church fathers on the life and ministry of Christ—witness, for instance, the biblical commentaries of Origen or Cyril of Alexandria—or the detailed studies of the Puritans, which began as sermons, like those of Richard Sibbes or Thomas Goodwin, on various aspects of the Gospels.
Given such a misdirected slant on the reading of Christian history, it is not surprising that in chapters 1 and 2, for instance, Wright critiques the entire creedal tradition of the church. Wright’s central concern is that the “great creeds” of the Patristic era, which later generations such as the Reformers and Puritans heartily embraced, “pass directly from his [that is, Jesus’] virgin birth to his suffering and death.” The canonical Gospels, Wright correctly notes, do not (11; cf. 12, 19). While Wright appreciates the creeds for their remarkable “brevity, dense clarity, and evocative spiritual power” (12; cf. 257), he believes the creeds helped obfuscate the four biblical accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus by focusing on Jesus being God instead of God becoming king.
Now, the creeds do focus on the deity, death, and resurrection of Christ, yet not without some warrant from the Gospels and Paul (1 Cor 15:1-3). Is not the Gospel of John written against the background of a proto-Gnostic movement that denied the reality of the incarnation? Moreover, Wright writes as if the creeds were all the church fathers penned. Of course, they were not. Patristic preaching and exegesis were vitally focused on the life of Jesus, for the fathers believed that their salvation was deeply rooted in both the life/ministry and death/resurrection of Jesus. And if we think of the reformers and Puritans, to take only one other group of historical figures, again there is more to their witness than the great creedal statements of the Ancient Church. Their confessions and catechesis, as well as their public preaching, did grapple with what is recorded in the Gospels about Christ. Wright may not like what they said, but there is no gainsaying their concern to declare “the whole counsel of God.”
In sum, from a historical perspective, Wright’s writing off the long historical witness of the church to the Jesus of the Gospels is either sheer chronological snobbery of the type C. S. Lewis once condemned, or just plain ignorance.
Blame Bullets, Bombs, and Especially Democracy?
Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspects of Wright’s book is his prolonged rant on the use of violence in warfare by the government and especially his loathing of democracy, particularly American democracy. Fox News, the killing of Osama bin Laden, small government, the system of voting on government officials, the separation of church and state, etc.—all of these are unforgivable sins for Wright. Wright despises the wedge between religion and politics, faulting democracy, whereby society has ordered “itself according to its own internal wishes and whims, fears and fancies.” Wright goes on: “Instead of the ‘divine right’ of rulers, politics was now ordered the world—at least in France and America—on the strict basis of a separation between church and state” (35).
You might be wondering what this has to do with Wright’s reading of the Gospels. For Wright, if we follow the Gospel narratives consistently, we will recognize that Jesus has instituted a “new theocracy.” In Jesus, God’s kingdom is not only in heaven but on earth. Therefore, Christianity cannot be just a religion. At the climax of his argument is this simple truth: first-century Jews would have balked at the separation of church and state. Consequently, though this is a word many fear, Wright believes we need to resurrect the word theocracy if we are to make proper sense of the Gospels and the reign of King Jesus on earth. Wright says, “It is, of course, the absence of any equivalent to Temple or Torah in our contemporary culture that makes our own way of posing the political questions so very different from those of the Jews of Jesus’s day” (173). And again, “Theocracy, a genuine Israel-style theocracy, will occur only when the other ‘lords’ have been overthrown” (206). A “new empire,” a “new theocracy” has been inaugurated that trumps Caesar’s empire. Exactly what this theocracy should look like, however, is undefined. Wright is clear, however, that it has no barriers between church and state and no government that bears the sword. But the divine right of rulers is reinstated.
Kingdom and Politics
It is not our purpose here to address the politics of Wright (though we can say at the very least that Wright’s comments abound with political caricatures unworthy of any scholar). What we do want to address, however, is Wright’s assumptions in regard to the kingdom and politics, church and state. First, Wright assumes that Christ’s victory over his enemies through suffering (not bombs and bullets!) is the model for not only the church but the state as well. Simply put, such an assumption cannot make sense of Paul’s assertion in Romans 13:4, “for he (i.e., governing official) is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.”
Second, underneath Wright’s argument is a massive presupposition, namely, that we should never drive a wedge between religion and politics. But the separation of church and state is a biblical one. The authority of the church and the authority of the state belong to two distinct and separate spheres. If there was ever a moment for Jesus to remove the “wedge” between religion and politics it was when the Pharisees asked him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. But the response of Jesus (“render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”) actually preserves the separation of church and state. Jesus does the same in John 18:36, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews (a question that seeks to discover the political authority of Jesus and whether or not it is a threat to Rome). Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Everything Wright says turns the words of Jesus on their head. For Wright, the kingdom of Jesus is of this world, as becomes obvious in his promotion of a political theology. Finally, consider 2 Corinthians 10:3-4. There Paul affirms that though we “walk in the flesh,” we do not wage war “according to the flesh.” Keep in mind, Paul is addressing the church. He then states, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” Wright’s Anglican presuppositions never make sense of these texts, nor can they.
Third, Wright’s advocacy of some form of “new theocracy” (which he fails to define clearly) wrongly assumes that since separation of church and state would have been unthinkable to first-century Jews, so also should it be rejected today. But Wright fails to recognize the discontinuity between the old and new covenants. In the old covenant Israel is a theocracy, wielding the sword while regulating worship. But in the new covenant the types and shadows of the old covenant have been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Yes, we do have a king who reigns, who is sovereign over the nations, and who has defeated his enemies. But our king’s victory in the cross is a spiritual one. Only in the second coming will he come in judgment bearing the sword, executing justice on his enemies once for all. Wright misses this already-not-yet tension in Scripture. For Wright, the cross has brought the kingdom of God to earth, but the primary application of the cross is not “in abstract preaching about ‘how to have your sins forgiven’ or ‘how to go to heaven,’ but in an agenda in which forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory of Calvary” (244).
In other words, for Wright the cross is not so much about vicarious substitution for the forgiveness of sins but bringing to earth social justice and a new and improved political agenda. “Those who are put right with God through the cross are to be putting-right people for the world. . . . From this there flows both a new missiology, including an integrated political theology, and the new ecclesiology that will be needed to support it, a community whose very heart will be forgiveness” (244). However, the NT never advocates such an “integrated political theology” supported by the church. To the contrary, the primary application of the cross is about “how to have your sins forgiven” (Acts 2:38). The gospel Christians proclaim to the nations is not a political one, but a message of salvation for sinners (Mark 16:15).
To conclude, Wright does a lot of blaming. The early church fathers, the orthodox creeds, evangelicals, democracy, Western Christianity, and others all get blamed for messing up Jesus. But fear not, Wright has come to the rescue after 2,000 years of misunderstanding and butchering Jesus to show us the true meaning of the life of Jesus that we have all missed. One begins to get the feeling by the end of the book that in Wright’s mind, everyone else has got it wrong. However, as this review has briefly sought to demonstrate, Wright’s way of looking at Jesus and the kingdom is not so much a return to the biblical text but the agenda of an Anglican churchman seeking to apply a political theology to the Gospel narratives.
Michael A. G. Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has authored numerous books, including his latest, Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church.