How God Became King
By Tom Wright
–Review by Doug Balzer
My fascination with Tom (NT) Wright continues as I review another one of his books “How God Became King.” Reading the title, my thoughts went to the idea that it is common knowledge amongst followers of Christ that he is King, so why do we need this book? But the question raised by the title is “How.” So, it caused me to pause and ponder the thought, –and formulate some ideas where Wright might be going with this book. After reading the book, it was evident to me that the assumptions I formulated in my mind were wrong. The old phrase, “don’t judge a book by it cover” haunted me, at least for a short period. Wright’s book was a breath of life that reminded me to push against being overly familiar with God’s story. It was a warning that I can become too confident about my theology and reading of the gospels that I mis what is right in front of my eyes.
In this book, Wright challenges us with what he sees is a problem in Christianity, that is, we do not know the difference between the “gospel” and the “gospels,” as well as the ‘gospel in the gospels.’ He believes we do not know, but we should. To address this situation, he challenges the prevailing ideologies about the facts of Jesus’ life. He argues, we have become too familiar with these events, such as his birth, his years of ministry, the disciples, and of course his resurrection, but we do not adequately know the “bits in between.” We do not know, but we should. Wright views that the Creeds do not fill in the “bits in between” either. The heretics even agreed with the middle bits of the Creeds, but the Creeds included only arguable points that people would disagree with. What are these “bits in between” Wright references? Here is where he hooked me, and I pursued the path he laid out and engaged this story.
Wright proposes the argument that the church tends toward the use of the lens of Pauline theology to read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Therefore, backing up Pauline theology in the gospels. The four gospels are not about Pauline theology, but as Wright puts it, about “How God Became King.” Wright also notes, the Creeds do not tell this story, while at the same time recognizing the gospels leave out elements of the Creeds. The gospels are therefore about how God became King, while the Creeds are about how Jesus became God.
Okay, Wright makes a clarification about the purposes of these central texts of our faith. Is this important? Yes, many of us do have a habit of blending these various materials in formulating our theology. Recognizing the differences between the purpose of the gospels, Pauline theology, and the Creeds brings clarity to the story of Jesus, the Anointed One.
Why have we misread some of the gospels? Wright states the issue stems from the influences of liberalism upon the church. What he indicates is liberalism is occupied with the middle without the ends having a greater relationship with the heretics than with Orthodoxy. The liberal teaching is that Jesus is just a good teacher, a social reformer, not divine, but the problem with this view is the social gospel has not solved the world’s simplest problems let alone its great ones. The influence to move to the middle without the ends came out of the Enlightenment that taught a Deistic theology of a God who is distant, who made the world, and then disengaged from it. Liberalism dismisses the miracles of the Bible while Orthodox Christianity focuses on the miracles in the Bible. Yet, both of these are some of the misreadings of the Bible according to Wright because it is about “God as King – the fulfillment of Jewish hopes.” Israel’s God had returned. This truth is missing in Liberalism, as well as from orthodox theology. For Wright, it is evident that this one central truth, this dogma, is somehow overlooked.
At this point, I continue to ask myself more questions wondering about the development of Wright’s thoughts in this text. Are there more misreadings of the gospels? Wright would say yes. In fact, he indicates there is an inadequate explanation of the gospels. Inadequate as we tend to explain them as about going to heaven, as ethical teachings, Jesus as a model for morality, the characters in the gospels, and the divinity of Jesus. Wright emphasizes this represents a gross negligence through the inadequate representation of the gospels. It is all too commonplace in Wright’s estimations in the church’s teaching today.
Here is where Wright returns to the story to clarify his arguments. The gospels are the culmination of the Old Testament story. A biography with a bigger story that has a back-story. It is Jesus’ biography, because he is the climax of Israel’s story. For the story of the Old Testament to be complete, it needs Jesus. No Jesus and the Old Testament is incomplete. Wright points to the Creeds momentarily to indicate they do not mention the Old Testament.
What I found as I continued to read the book is an unfolding of the necessity to remember the Jewish roots of Christianity. Wright demonstrates this by beginning the argument is we need to look at Israel’s story. The genealogies of Jesus in Matthew are part of the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Mark’s, “The time is fulfilled.” Luke brings forward the fulfillment of purpose and promise. While John connects with Genesis through “In the beginning . . .” Jesus is the climax of Israel’s story.
In the next several sections Wright takes us as the readers through a process of understanding the self-revealing God in the history of Israel. He culminates the journey of Israel by showing how Jesus’ actions fulfill the history if Israel –how the people are looking at Jesus and seeing the return of God into the midst of Israel. YHWH has come and is dwelling or tabernacled amongst the people as in the wilderness. God is here, now in bodily form. Now for many, we grasp this but still the audience Wright is addressing has little or no theological training or experience of Christianity. Even, young in the faith Christians have never heard these statements as clear and decisive as Wright brings them together in this book.
Probably one of the most profound statements Wright put into the book is the importance of seeing the gospels as launching the Way – “The gospels are foundational documents for a New Movement” – the new beginning or phase of the story of God’s people. Wright insists the gospels “are about commissioning for beyond Jesus’s story.” He sees the continuation of the story lived out in the Church. Now, Wright points out that any revolution or movement like Christianity is a challenge to the Kingdoms of this World, the clash.
I don’t want to give too many spoilers because Wright does an excellent effort bringing out the “bits in between.” The storytelling he does beautiful and elegant. He is concerned with our misreading of the gospels, how we have made them ordinary when in reality they are filled with the greatest action and drama unfolding in the history of humanity. His push back is against the Enlightenment who sought to trash Jesus because they wanted a paradigm shift, a world turning point. Much or most of what I found of the greatest value from Wright is his focus on Christian responses to the Enlightenment.
Wright advocates Christians to re-read the New Testament with a first-century Jewish view, something that is not fundamentally a part of our world today. I also observe that Wright has a way of engaging the narrative, a narrative focus, in his writing, not only in his writing, but in his style of theologizing. The narrative is critical for Wright when examining the Scriptures. In fact, is appears to be what fills in the “bits in between.” The book is built in a narrative prose drawing out or teasing out the things we should have noticed when reading. It is with the larger narrative in mind Wright encourages the reader to engage reading the Scripture. What Wright does is draw the larger metanarrative out and sets it in view. Then he proceeds to weave into place throughout the tapestry of the metanarrative the subnarratives and enlivens the story to the reader.
Here I would usually sum up final points and delineate some critical spoilers. Well, I want to whet your appetite for an excellent book that will broaden your skills when reading the scripture. So, what I will say is this book is actually about – how to celebrate God’s story. It is a book that will reconfigure your reading of Scripture. In conclusion, Wright says, “…we need to see the drama of the gospels in their joint OT – NT setting: One big story.”