How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
N. T. Wright
304 pp., $25.99
How God Became King
Wright's gift for clarity rests in his ability to make crucial distinctions, and the one most central to this book's argument is the historical difference between the creeds and the canon. The creeds, Wright observes, are doctrinal statements that Christians developed to answer the particular challenges of the 4th- and 5th-century church. In their context, they make perfect sense. But because they are a response to particular heresies, they necessarily do not say everything that must be said about who God is, why Jesus came, and what the Spirit is doing in the world today. This, Wright says, is why we have a canon—four gospels that have their own story to tell. And most of what they have to say is about the gap that comes between Jesus being "born of the virgin Mary" and "suffering under Pontius Pilate." That is, the gospels, by and large, cover ground that the creeds skip over with a comma.
In the great storehouse of Christian tradition, we have both creed and canon. But in the midst of the particular challenges that the Western church faced at the dawn of the modern era, creed trumped canon and doctrinal claims seemed more important than the story that the gospels tell. Wright masterfully demonstrates how this tendency is common to those groups that have most vehemently disagreed with one another in the church and the academy—conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and progressives. We all seem to have agreed that creed and canon are separable, some clinging to doctrine whatever the cost, others saying that Jesus is an interesting historical figure, even if he wasn't God.
At the core of this book is an invitation to re-read the gospels—to hear them as the story of how God became King by paying attention to the ways they make claims about four themes that were central to the hopes and longings of 1st-century Israel. Those themes are the story of Israel, the story of Israel's God, the hope of God's renewed people, and the conflict between God's rule and the kingdoms of this world. For all of its value as a clear and concise argument about the meaning of Christian faith itself, this book is at its best highlighting Wright as a Bible teacher. The gospels come alive in these central chapters, singing the song that all of creation longs for, flowing like living waters in a dry and weary land. I wanted to stand on the corner and read several passages aloud.
But for all of his gifts as one of our best contemporary Bible teachers, Wright is not content to end this exploration with applause from guys like me who love the Bible anyway: "Part of the tragedy of the modern church, I have been arguing, is that the 'orthodox' have preferred creed to kingdom, and the 'unorthodox' have tried to get a kingdom without a creed. It's time," Wright says, "to put back together what should have never been separated." This work of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is the work of communities that read the gospels and recite the creeds, living God's mission as the body of Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Wright concludes by saying that the answer to this riddle isn't in the power of "all the king's horses and all the king's men." It's in little communities who try to live by the power of the Spirit in a place like Walltown.
This, I fear, is where Wright is most likely to be misunderstood: after so many years of Christendom, the news that the gospels are really about "how God became King" may come to some—especially those who worry that the Western church is in decline—as an invitation to rebuild our institutions, renegotiate our relationship with the power structures, and reclaim a sort of theocracy. I live in the Christ-haunted South. We're always susceptible to the promises of a Jerry Fallwell. But this is not the hope that the guys on our corner ache for, nor is it the good news Wright is proclaiming. "The implicit ecclesiology of all four gospels is a picture of the complex vocation of Jesus himself," Wright says. It is "to be kingdom-bringers … first because of Jesus' own suffering and second by means of their own." The Revelation is right: we will, one day, rule the nations. But we'll only get there the way Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father—by suffering with those who've been pushed to the margins until we learn to see together, through creed and canon alike, that another world is possible. Indeed, it's beginning to appear right now in our conversations on the corner and around the dinner table.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is an associate minister at St. Johns Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina. The Rutba House, where Jonathan lives with his family and friends, is a new monastic community that prays, eats, and lives together, welcoming neighbors and the homeless. He is the author most recently of The Awakening of Hope: Why We Preach a Common Faith, just published by Zondervan.
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