Does the King Jesus gospel breed historical complacency?

I have downloaded Tom Wright’s new book How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels and plan to read it as we travel through northern Iraq and eastern Turkey on our way home from Dubai. I am not expecting any great surprises—not in the book, at least; the journey home may be another matter. I assume that Wright will argue—much as Scot McKnight has done recently—that various strands of contemporary Christianity, whatever limited insights they may have achieved, have failed to grasp the overarching story that is being told in the Gospels, which has to do with how Israel’s God became king. By bringing Israel’s story to completion in the way that he does Jesus accomplishes the extension of God’s reign from the small world of Israel to the whole earth. Something along those lines.

The argument, it seems to me, is half-baked. Here is my half-baked pre-judgment.

First, it appears that Wright is chiefly interested in the Gospels. I don’t think that the story of how God became king can really be told without reference to Paul, whose “gospel” was not simply that the kingdom of God was at hand but that God had made Jesus his “Son”, by his resurrection from the dead, and given him authority to judge and rule over the nations. Jesus has very little to say about the nations; his focus is on the impending eschatological moment of the judgment and restoration of Israel . It is principally Paul who translates this into something that has empire-wide significance.

Secondly, I am curious to see how Wright will deal with the relationship between the kingship of God and the kingship of Jesus. I disagree with him that Jesus intended his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to be interpreted as a claim to divine kingship. I’m not sure the two can be so easily merged. At least, it seems to me that when God becomes king, he does so by giving authority—to forgive sins, to calm storms, to cast out demons, to deliver the righteous, to judge and rule over the nations—to Jesus.

Thirdly, perhaps the biggest problem I have with the King Jesus argument in its popular forms is that the Jesus of Wright and McKnight does not merely bring Israel’s story to an end; he brings story to an end. From Abraham to Jesus major “political” events have considerable theological significance—the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the land, military invasion, the exile, the return from exile, the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes, the Roman occupation. This is the basic stuff, the framework, of Jewish belief. But if in Jesus everything has been brought to completion, it rather appears as though the God of history has become merely the God of universal abstractions—sin, gospel, grace, salvation, faith, justification, sovereignty, etc.

I think this leads to historical complacency, not helped at all by the lingering modern preference for absolutes. The post-Christendom church has lost the ability to evaluate, theologically and prophetically, its historical condition. We don’t take history seriously, and we don’t take the future seriously.

Neither the abstractions of our systematic theologies nor the reductionist narrative of personal salvation that dominates modern evangelicalism provides us with the resources to make sense of the crushing defeat that secular rationalism has inflicted upon the Christian worldview. Nor do they help us to shape a new future in which our God continues to engage dynamically and sovereignly with the vicissitudes of history.

So we complacently suppose that everything just carries on as it has done since Pentecost: people are saved, they join churches, they learn about sanctification and personal evangelism, they help the poor, and in the end they die and go to heaven. That’s all we need to worry about.

That is not how the New Testament story works. It is not what it means to proclaim that Jesus (or God) is king.

Part of my general thesis is that the death and vindication of Jesus are understood in the New Testament, largely, to anticipate and underwrite the suffering and eventual vindication of the early churches as they sought to annex the Greek-Roman oikoumenē in the name of YHWH’s anointed king. Jesus brings Israel’s story to a climax, but he also gives impetus to a continuing narrative, in which the destruction of Jerusalem and the conversion of the empire constitute the dominant historical horizons.

The early churches could not afford to be historically complacent. They had a critical mission to fulfil—to bear faithful consistent corporate witness, in the face of sometimes intense opposition, to the fact that Jesus had been given the name which is above every name, right through to the moment when he would be confessed as Lord by the nations.

And then what? “Storied theology” does not stop there. Just as a series of events led up to the eschatological crisis related in the New Testament, so a series of events follows on from it: the destruction of Jerusalem, the conversion of the empire, the assimilation of the scriptures into an alien conceptuality, schism, the rise of rationalism, imperial missionary expansion, the collapse of western empire, the fundamentalist defence of the gospel, charismatic revivalism, the great apostasy which is modern consumerist evangelicalism, and so on.

This is the narrative that a biblical people ought now to be grappling with—not the niceties of justification theory, not the endless refinement of outmoded systems of thought, not even the overrated narrative of personal redemption. I think that the church desperately needs to recover a sense of being a historically constructed and prophetically interpreted people of God.

Image of How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels

On Amazon:

Tom Wright
SPCK Publishing (2012), Paperback, 304 pages, $25.98

Comments

I love your eschewing of abstraction. Bravo. It has occured to me that the kingship of God predates the NT by some centuries. It is so clear in the Psalms, particularly those of Book 4. Also the carrying of the Gospel to the Gentiles is strongly fed by the LXX if not already accomplished in principle. Again the universality of praise from Psalms 104 to 150 underlines this against the backdrop of course of the election of Israel.

Given this mild knowledge that I have from immersion in the Psalms, and recognizing that I simply do not have time to read the rest of the Bible with such a close reading - 6 years for 150 chapters means 60 more required to really (hah!) figure it out! No figuring needed of course since I am the one who is figured out, and who only figures in response to what is already in me…. Given this mild knowledge, what can I make of Jesus - both my start and my end? Your reporting of your own close reading I find helpful - because you let me think about the questions raised rather than supplying an abstract answer to questions poorly formed.

Certainly, there is a job to do, not a truth to be ignored, and even if the psalmist (and I also) can invoke the futility of Qohelet (Psalm 39), still the reality of hope in that same Psalm and illustrated fully by Jesus drives us on.

Good travels to you.

The New Testament era was apocalyptic. What if the post-apocalyptic church is to be governed by King Jesus directly and not through intermediaries?

I would have thought leadership in some form is unavoidable. It would be an interesting question though: what conditions would have to prevail for the church to be successfully non-hierarchical, subject only to the kingship of Jesus?

Excellent!

I look forward to your reflections in future blog posts as you keep this question in mind.

I find your question interesting here Andrew because for me that is the very form it’s suppose to be in post AD 70.

Having read the book (and it’s a great read), its whole point is that the tendency is to manufacture a ‘gospel’ from Paul, which then excludes the relevance of ‘the missing middle’ of the gospels. The book is a study of the gospels as supplying the climax and fufilment of Israel’s story in and through Jesus, in which ‘the missing middle’ is the demonstration of the kingship of Jesus, as the gospel itself.

The link between the kingship of Jesus and the kingship of God is supplied in the book, as far as I can see, in the echoes of the OT, where the reference is to YHWH, recapitulated in the person of Jesus alone. This is evident throughout the gospels, according to Wright. Most importantly, the book shows how the kingdom and the cross are brought together, whereas typical accounts of the gospel omit the kingdom.

This is the narrative that a biblical people ought now to be grappling with—not the niceties of justification theory, not the endless refinement of outmoded systems of thought, not even the overrated narrative of personal redemption.

I think that Wright would thoroughly agree with this, though is conclusions are not the same as yours.

Having read the book (and it’s a great read), its whole point is that the tendency is to manufacture a ‘gospel’ from Paul, which then excludes the relevance of ‘the missing middle’ of the gospels.

That seems a rather out-dated issue these days. I’m a bit surprised. I rather think the more interesting question now is how to read Paul in the light of the King Jesus narrative. I don’t think Wright’s Paul is sufficiently apocalyptic.

I rather think the more interesting question now is how to read Paul in the light of the King Jesus narrative.

Yes, that is an interesting question, but not more interesting than the gospels question, I don’t think. It’s part of the same process of re-reading Paul in the light of the gospels, rather than the other way round.

Anyway, you won’t agree with Wright, because you won’t agree that in Jesus, YHWH comes in person. But I think you will agree that the narrative drives the interpretation, rather than a predetermined position about Jesus as human/divine. So you are on the same map.

‘Apocalyptic’ depends on what you see the focus of apocalyptic as being. For Wright, clearly, the cross and resurrection are the big events in all four gospels, but that’s also how the gospels present things. Then it’s how the rest of the gospel story integrates with this focus. “Some … will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom” - Matthew 16:28 etc is related by Wright to the death and resurrection of Jesus in particular.

Happy reading! (I hope you won’t be reading and driving at the same time).

Let me assure you, Andrew, that it is nowhere near an outdated issue in the States, particularly among the “average persons in the pew”. I agree with Peter insofar as he is saying that both issues are part of the same package, at least in these parts.

Dana