Thursday, April 26, 2012

N. T. Wright, How God Became King: A Review (Part 1 - Introduction)

N. T. Wright at the annual Conference of the Evangelical Theological Society,
Atlanta, November 2010 (photo courtesy of the author)

N. T. (Tom) Wright has done it again.  This master at stepping on toes, this consummate paradigm buster, has just written a book on the four Gospels in which he argues that Western Christians—be they Catholic or Protestant, liberal or conservative, Reformed, Lutheran, or Anabaptist (he doesn't mention the bĂȘtes noires of American evangelicalism, the dispensationalists)—have largely failed to understand the very books that constitute the core of the Christian canon.

The response to How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels has been predictable.  Some, like Scot McKnight and Tim Gombis, have been very positive in their assessment.  Others, like Calvin College's James Smith, have mixed their praise with circumspect criticisms.  Still others, not surprisingly, exemplified by the head-scratching review by Matthew Barrett and Michael A. G. Haykin at the Gospel Coalition, have responded with harsh dismissals of Professor Wright's thesis. [Regarding the GC review, McKnight correctly observes: "it was a review that was so far out of touch with the book ... that at one spot in reading the review I wondered if I had confused that review’s book with the manuscript (of Tom’s book) I had read. Well, no, as it turns out, I had read that very book ..."].

A little word of personal biography.  I first came into contact with Wright's work while pursuing doctoral studies in New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary.  My mentor, the late Harold Hoehner, pointed me to an article Wright published in 1986 on Philippians 2:5-11 in the Journal of Theological Studies (reprinted and expanded in The Climax of the Covenant, 56-98), extolling it as the best article he had read in years.  Upon reading the article, I quickly concurred, being amazed at how Wright could cut through the morass of 17 (!) competing interpretations to locate the essential exegetical considerations and come to an indisputable conclusion.  While researching for my dissertation on Paul's theology of justification in Galatians, I quickly and gratefully discovered his early Tyndale Lecture, "The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith" (Tyndale Bulletin 29 [1978] 61-88), and his books, The Climax of the Covenant (1991) and the massive, programmatic The New Testament and the People of God (1992).  Indeed, Professor Wright's work was instrumental in the formation of my major thesis, which I continue to espouse to this day, namely, that the so-called "New Perspective on Paul," far from being a danger to orthodox Christianity, is in fact correct in many of its emphases and not incompatible with nuanced forms of the traditional "Lutheran" and "Reformed" views of Paul.  Indeed, in all his work on both Jesus and Paul, I have found Wright to be both refreshingly original and compatible with generously orthodox readings of Scripture.  Moreover, as my brother Dan once said, Wright has functioned somewhat as a prophetic voice to an Evangelicalism smug in its assumed readings of the Bible.

Alas, not all feel this way.  As Wright's fame has spread over the past decade from the academy to the pulpit and the pew—I can't bring myself to say "stage" and "theater seat"—he has become increasingly controversial.  To some, the former Anglican Bishop of Durham is too "high church" ever to be embraced wholeheartedly.  To others, his view of Jesus, though ultimately Chalcedonian, is too fraught with human limitations to allow the Savior to ambulate, as it were, six inches off the ground.

Wright's most vocal critics, however, have been so-called "Confessional" Evangelicals associated with such groups as the newly reimagined Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).  This is hardly surprising, given his penchant for utilizing historical exegesis to refine and/or replace, rather than reaffirm, traditional interpretations and confessional shibboleths.  A former colleague of mine, a member of a PCA church and frequent collaborator with the Gospel Coalition, told me a couple of years ago that "he couldn't understand why so many thought so highly" of Wright.  As a New Testament scholar, I charitably attributed that apparent lapse of judgment to his status as a church historian.  Ensuing events, including the somewhat unsophisticated response of "Confessional Evangelicals" to Wright's presentation on justification at the 2010 ETS Conference in Atlanta, and my subsequent banishment from teaching responsibilities at my former college for defense of said presentation, have taught me the issue lies deeper, in the very blinding capacity of presuppositions and preunderstandings—especially preunderstandings with hoary creedal or confessional precedent.  [BTW, this is exemplified as clear as a desert sky by the GC review, the authors of which are, respectively, a graduate and professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary at Louisville, and whose antipathy to Wright stem from both theological and political commitments.]  I understand the force of such preunderstandings, given the fact that I had to work through them in my doctoral studies.  But I remain thankful to the Lord that I attended a seminary that still values the languages and teaches historical-critical exegesis.

How God Became King is vintage Wright: penetrating, original, pugnacious, fearless, yet easy to read, written in an engaging, conversational manner.  I believe it is among the most important of his nontechnical—I hesitate to say "popular"—works, whetting the appetite for a fuller, more scholarly presentation of the subject at a later date.  In a number of posts to follow, I will summarize and critique his major argument and individual proposals.  I invite you to follow along.  Better yet:  buy and read the book along with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  You'll be glad you did.


  1. I think I've put my finger on a dimension of the resistance to the historical recovery he's doing. I the Easter Sermon I attended there was not a single mention, either in songs or the message, to the bodily resurrection of Christians in a restored and married heaven and earth. Same for Driscoll, Piper, Keller, MacArthur (and others). (Both Driscoll and Keller have highly praised "The Resurrection of the Son of God"!). Its on the cover of TIME magazine but not in the Easter messages of top preachers.

  2. You are on to something. The resurrection of believers is something we give creedal assent to, but we haven't integrated it well into our theology as a whole. Wright deals with this issue in the book, as we will see.