Yesterday we made it all the way from Dubai to Duhok, in what used to be Assyria, via Abu Dhabi and Erbil. All in all a rather uneventful journey. I got a good 80 pages into Wright’s How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels, and so far I think my main prejudgment stands. He does his usual excellent job of putting the cat of Israel’s story among the pigeons of traditional theology, but for all his objections to dehistoricized readings of the Gospels (Gnostic, Chalcedonian, Reformed, modern Evangelical), he does not do justice to the historical contingency of the continuing New Testament narrative. I hesitate to say it, but I think Wright overstates the argument about Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s story. Here’s a case in point.
When you place the four emerging “canonical” gospels alongside the Jesus documents that others had written, again and again it appears that the canonical four are telling the story of the rescue of creation, not its abolition or abandonment—again, in other words, the essentially Jewish story. (17)
Now I agree with the general argument that he is making here, that the early church rightly resisted the Gnostic understanding of salvation as the “rescue of saved souls from the created order”—though I would add that a lot of what passes for orthodoxy today still has more in common with this sort of world-denying Gnosticism than with biblical notions of salvation.
But I am not persuaded that the “essentially Jewish faith” expressed in the scriptures had in view “God’s rescue of the created order itself”. This agenda does not appear to have been part of the Abraham story. Abraham was called to be an alternative to a creation that had broken down at all levels, from the personal to the social. He was not told that he or his descendants would save the world. New creation themes emerge in the course of the Old Testament (eg. Is. 65:17), but they always have to do with the renewal of Israel. While a restored Israel would dramatically alter the international landscape, I’m not sure that this really amounts to a rescue of creation in the sense that Wright intends it.
But in any case, how exactly do the Gospels affirm the “rescue of creation”?
The Jewish story that comes to fulfilment in the Gospels is one not of the redemption of the world, as far as I can tell, but of the transformation of Israel’s condition and status among the nations. This transformation entailed the making new of the people of God and the establishment of “kingdom”, but kingdom is not itself “new creation”. It has to do with the integrity and standing of God’s new creation people in relation to the nations, which is just as much an issue after Jesus as before him.
This, I think, is the political and historical dynamic that goes missing in Wright’s eagerness to bring Israel’s story to a climax. What changes in the New Testament, fundamentally, are the conditions of Israel’s existence in the world, in the midst of the nations, and not least in relation to empire. The people of God has been forgiven for its sins, has received the Holy Spirit as its new modus vivendi, has opened up to include Gentiles, and has been given Christ as head over all things. But the problematic of its political and historical existence does not go away.
Paul certainly affirms that creation will eventually be set free from its bondage to decay (Rom. 8:21), and John imagines a new heavens and new earth, but this is well beyond the horizon of the Gospels. Perhaps I have overlooked something. I will keep reading as we travel to Mardin in Turkey tomorrow.