Friday, April 27, 2012

Understanding the Gospels as an "Empty Cloak": N. T. Wright, How God Became King, Part 2

In his new book, How God Became King, Tom Wright makes an astounding, throw-down-the-gauntlet claim:
... I have had the increasing impression, over many years now, that most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the gospels are really all about.  Despite centuries of intense and heavy industry expended on the study of all sorts of features of the gospels, we have often managed to miss the main thing that they, all four of them, are most eager to tell us.  I have therefore come to the conclusion that what we need is not just a bit of fine-tuning, an adjustment here and there.  We need a fundamental rethink about what the gospels are trying to say, and hence about how best we should read them, together and individually.  Andnot leastabout how we then might order our life and work in accordance with them (ix).
Wright argues that Christians, for various reasons and in different ways, have neglected the main story-line the original writers intended to convey, namely, the story of how God became king in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, Israel's Messiah.  Not only has this neglect distorted how we have understood the Gospels' message.  It has also had the effect of limiting our vision of God's ongoing mission in the world through his followers.

"Evangelical" Christians, in particular, are resolute in their affirmation of Jesus' miraculous birth, divine identity, and—especially—his atoning death.  Few, if any, would hesitate to provide a definitive answer to the question, Why did Jesus die?  The reason for this is clear: as heirs of the Reformation, Evangelicals have assimilated Paul's theology of the cross and justification by faith—as interpreted by Martin Luther and John Calvin—as the core of their theological worldview.

But the Gospels, apart from the obvious fact that the "passion" narratives take up a disproportionate amount space in the various tellings of the story, have little to say propositionally in this regard.  Indeed, certain texts—one thinks, for example, of Mark 10:45, with its clear allusion to Isaiah 53:5, and the multiple calls in John to "belief" in Jesus—can be made to fit this paradigm.  Even so, however, the bulk of the Gospels—the "bits" in between Jesus' miraculous birth and atoning death, as Wright says—simply do not deal substantially with those issues.  Thus, like California tumbling into the sea,
[T]he four gospels, had, as it were, fallen off the front of the canon of the New Testament as far as many Christians were concerned.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were used to support points you might get out of Paul, but their actual message had not been glimpsed (9).
As a result, most Christians have experienced the Gospels as an "empty cloak." "The outer wrapping is there—Jesus's birth, death, and resurrection.  But who is in the cloak? ... Does it matter?" (4-5).  Why, in other words, did Jesus live?  It is this question that Evangelicals have had a much more difficult time answering adequately.

Complicating matters has been the influence of the church's great ancient creeds (10-20).  Take, for instance, the so-called "Apostles' Creed":
I believe ... in Jesus Christ, [God's] only Son, our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

Note—and this is of the utmost importance—that the creed passes directly from Jesus' virginal conception to his suffering and death under Pontius Pilate.  An empty cloak indeed!  Not a word about what constituted the bulk of the gospel traditions, in particular, the notion that the kingdom of God had become a present reality in the ministry of Jesus.  And when we come to the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the problem is exacerbated:
I believe ... in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
Note that not only does the creed pass over the bulk of Jesus' life and ministry, it also emphasizes what the canonical Gospels do not, namely, ontology.  As Wright notes, what the creeds affirm goes beyond even the divine identity Christology articulated in John's Gospel (19).  The problem may be summarized thus: "[The creeds] manage not to mention the main thing the gospels are trying to tell us, and they talk about something else instead" (16).

James Smith has forcefully criticised Wright on this point:
There's another layer here that adds to my frustration: Wright regularly faults the catholic creedal tradition as the villain that tempted us to miss this "forgotten story." Nicea and Chalcedon are blinders and screens that prevent us from seeing what Wright, "the historian," has uncovered. The creedal tradition, on Wright's account, was fixated on ontological questions about divinity and humanity and thus missed the backstory of Israel's covenant which really makes sense of the Gospels. And so when he frames his argument, even if he doesn't reject "Nicene Christianity," he certainly dismisses it and sees little if any value in it. For those of us who have been struggling to get evangelical and Reformed folk to remember they are catholic, it is disconcerting to have yet another teacher come along and promise a new "secret key" to unlock the Bible.
As one who has been a tireless defender of the creeds in the life of the church, I can sympathize somewhat with Smith's frustration.  Nevertheless, he is being unfair to Wright on at least two counts.  First, Wright doesn't propose a "secret" key to understanding the Gospels.  As a historian, he is simply doing what all Evangelicals claim is their first interpretative task: understanding the text historically.  Who indeed seriously doubts that the ontological Christology of Nicea and Chalcedon—true and important though I affirm it to be—has had a deleterious influence on how many Christians read the Gospels?  My own experience of trying to convince students that the Gospels' portrayals of Jesus' physical and intellectual limitations are to be taken at face value has proven to me that Wright's concerns at this point are spot-on.

Second, Wright certainly doesn't "see little of any value" in the creeds.  He explicitly sees them as full of "solemn truth and supple wisdom" (16).  The problem lies in how they are used.  After all, the creeds developed as responses to heresies such as docetism, Arianism, and Nestorianism.  As such, they serve as "boundary markers" serving a definitional function for authentic Christian belief.  The problem lies when they are turned into an implicit or even explicit teaching syllabus to define what it is that Christians need to know about God, Christ, the Spirit, etc. (18-19).  It is when this transformation takes place that the creeds often do serve as blinders to what the texts of the Gospels are actually saying.  Better that the creeds be understood in conjunction with that other liturgical stalwart, the Lord's Prayer, which petitions, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  By doing so, the balance can be redressed significantly.

Wright's major diagnosis, I believe, is absolutely correct.  I know, as a lifelong theological student, that the Gospels have, in my circles at least, been subordinated to the supposed "propositional" theology of the Apostle Paul.  Paul, it is commonly thought, presents the definitive "gospel" of Christ's atoning death and resurrection, with the result that the bulk of the (apparently ironically-named) "Gospels" are often relegated to the subordinate concerns of history, ethics, and illustration of truth delineated elsewhere.  Even my seminary education unwittingly contributed to this perception by using Ephesians, 1 Corinthians, and Romans as the foundation for the school's required Greek exegesis courses (they have since thankfully changed).  In today's post-modern climate, things are changing because of the now-fashionable prioritization of "stories."  But the residual effects of the Gospels' prior marginalization remain in many circles.

As an Anglican who confesses the creeds daily, Wright may be right to see them having the somewhat mixed influence on Christian understanding of the Gospels.  Nevertheless, we must realize that there is New Testament precedent for the type of summaries found in the creeds in the confessional or liturgical fragments found in such texts as 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Philippians 2:6-11, and 1 Timothy 3:16. The solution is not to abandon or marginalize the creeds—indeed, Wright himself would not do so—but to do a better job teaching the biblical significance of such creedally-affirmed titles as "Christ," "Son of God," and "Lord."  Worse is the situation many American Evangelicals find themselves in, namely, the situation of being creedally-uninformed.  Such Christians—and these include the majority of the students I have taught—believe with all their hearts that Jesus is "God," but they have no clue as to how this works its way out in their reading of the Gospels.  Indeed, many if not most of my students have had to be corrected of such errors as tritheism, docetism, Nestorianism, and even Apollinarianism.  It is safe to say that with such understandings of Jesus, the Gospels are going to be difficult indeed to understand correctly.

Wright goes on to list six different ways that Christians in the West have tried—unsuccessfully—to understand the "middle bits" of the Gospels.  It is to these that we will turn in our next post.

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