A four hour ferry journey across Lake Van gives me the opportunity to write up some reflections on chapter seven of Tom Wright’s How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels , in which he describes how the clash between God and Caesar plays out in the story of Jesus. These rusting boats have for a long time carried trains and their passengers travelling between Istanbul and Tehran. Today’s cargo consists of several freight wagons, a couple of Kurds, ourselves, and an emaciated German cyclist heading for Tashkent, whom we fed with the leftovers from our bread and cheese lunch.
Chapter 6 of Tom Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels is entitled “The Launching of God’s Renewed People”. I read it on a rather scary bus ride through the mountains from Diyarbakir to Tatvan on the western edge of Lake Van, in eastern Turkey. It was such a rough ride I had a hard time highlighting the text and making notes on my iPad.
In this chapter Wright makes the point that the Jewish story continues beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection, that the Christian movement is not something completely new, that it is the fulfilment, not the replacement of Israel. I have complained before that in Wright’s reconstruction story and history tend to stop when we get to Jesus, so this chapter goes some way towards correcting that impression. The next chapter on God and Caesar will go even further, though still not far enough in my view. In the end, I still think that he overstates the fulfilment in the cross and resurrection of Jesus—or at least understates the significance of what happens in the three centuries that follow.
In order to distinguish his own approach from well-meaning but misguided attempts to prove that Jesus was divine, Wright argues in How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels that the Gospels do not aim to prove Jesus’ divinity; rather they presuppose it.
The point… is not whether Jesus is God, but what God is doing in and through Jesus. What is this embodied God up to? (55)
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.
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.
I will be speaking at a church in one of the labour camps Friday afternoon. My plan is to explain what Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is all about and why it is worth taking the trouble to read it. I will stress the fact that Ephesians is a straightforward “letter”, written for a straightforward purpose, with a straightforward story to tell, not a timeless treatise on Christian theology or a compendium of proof texts for the benefit of preachers.
But what is the argument or “story” of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians? Of course, since the Protestant Reformation rashly put scripture in the hands of ordinary lay believers, everyone has been entitled to make of the text what he or she wills; and everyone has an opinion on whether that’s a good thing or not. For what it’s worth, here’s my narrative-historical reading of it.
Brian LePort, who regularly takes the trouble to highlight posts on this blog, for which I am very grateful, has posted a great list of the “ten most difficult doctrinal/theological subjects that contemporary Christians must address”. I don’t agree with everything on the list, probably because I am not American. The question of whether Adam and Eve were historical figures is topical but seems a non-issue to me, unless perhaps it is reckoned to stand for a much broader debate about the relation between scripture and science; and the two items addressing political allegiance and ethnicity in relation to ecclesiastical unity clearly reflect an American perspective. I’m also a bit surprised that “gospel” and “kingdom” don’t get a mention until a long way into the comments. Have a look. See what you think.
While we’re on the subject of what people in the New Testament had to do to be saved, I notice that Larry Hurtado whose blog I highly recommend, disagrees with Tom Wright over the question of the ultimate salvation of national Israel.
Wright—according to Hurtado’s reconstruction of his argument—thinks that the “Israel” upon whom a “partial hardening has come” in Romans 11:25 refers to the Jews, whereas “all Israel” that will be saved in verse 26 is the church. So there is no exegetical basis for the American obsession with the state of Israel today. Hurtado thinks that such a shift in meaning in so small a space is unlikely, and argues that “in Romans 9–11 Paul’s protracted and repeated concern is the fate of his people, fellow Jews, in light of his firm conviction that Jesus has been made now the one source of salvation, and the large-scale rejection of the Gospel by his people”. I think that Hurtado is right so far, but wrong in his conclusions about the future of national Israel from Paul’s perspective.
What did people in the New Testament have to do to be “saved”? I was prompted to ask this question by this assertion in a comment in the discussion about the sinlessness of Jesus:
Many within the orthodox evangelical world go so far as to say that one can not deny Christ’s deity and experience the personal salvation that He offers.
What I have done here is simply look at occurrences of the words “save”, “saved” or “salvation” in the New Testament and highlight what appears to be required of people in order for them to be saved. It is a limited exercise. There will be passages that have a bearing on this question where the salvation terminology is not found—for example, passages that use different word groups, or which speak of people perishing or being destroyed because they have not done something. But I think it will give us a pretty clear idea of what people were expected to do or believe in response to the saving action of God—and more importantly, as I will suggest at the end, of the narrative contexts in which this theme emerged.
One of the issues raised by the lengthy discussion about the designation of Jesus as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek is that of Jesus’ “sinlessness”. Traditionally we have understood this in what I suppose are general existential or ontological terms: Jesus was sinless because he was by nature both God and man. But the New Testament, for the most part, frames the matter differently, situating the motif in a narrative and eschatological context that puts the emphasis not on his nature but on his obedience under particular conditions. This is not an isolated correction, of course. It is part of a wholesale shift in how we make sense of the New Testament and therefore of Christian origins—from a dogmatic-theological reading to a narrative-historical reading.