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.