Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Gospels as the Climax of Israel's Story: Review of N. T. Wright, How God Became King, Part 4

Tom Wright's diagnosis of how the Western Churches have understood the Gospels is not a pretty one.  In our last post we discussed six common misunderstandings identified by Wright, as well as a seventh I have experienced in my own background context.  By contrast, he quite rightly suggests that all four Gospels are chiefly concerned with telling the story of, as his book title suggests, how God became king.

In order to plumb the depths of this theme, Professor Wright provides the illustration of a quadraphonic stereo system—well-remembered by many of us of a certain age—whose various speakers must be adjusted properly for the music to be heard in its intended balance.  In his words:
Now, one of the reasons the gospels are such a challenge to read is that there are four strands, four dimensions, that contribute to what they are saying, which in much modern reading have become distorted in something like the same way.  Some of them have been turned way down or even silenced altogether.  Others have been turned up too loud, so that they are shrill and crackly.  One way or another, the music is out of balance ... (61)
The first of these four "speakers" has, unfortunately, been turned off, or at least down to an almost inaudible level, for many people.  It must, consequently, be turned up considerably.  It is a truism, but the point is often neglected nonetheless: the "story" of Jesus is a part—we Christians would claim the climactic part— of the larger story narrated in the Bible.  And to understand the point of the Jesus story, we must correctly grasp how this story "fits" into the larger narrative of which it is a part.  This means that all depends on properly identifying the "prequel" or "back story" of the Gospels.  And this "prequel" is, on any perspicacious reading of Scripture, the story of Israel.  The point Wright intends to argue is clear: "the four gospels present themselves as the climax of the story of Israel" (65).  This story is, in a sense, well-known, but its implications are often ignored.  For, you see, the Old Testament narrative of Israel is an unfinished narrative, and God's stated agenda in "electing" Israel is, as the Old Testament closes, an unfinished agenda.  As the 4th-century BCE commences, Israel remained in exile in all the ways that really mattered.  The Maccabean revolt didn't really change the situation—even the seventy "weeks" prophecy given to Daniel (Dan 9:24-27) looks almost two centuries further in the future "to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness. ..."  During Jesus' life, Israel was indeed still in the throes of exile, living as they were under the thumb of Caesar and Pilate, his representative.  The Gospels, so argues Wright, describe how this situation was rectified in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Wright proceeds to demonstrate how this theme is developed in each of the four Gospels (67-79).  In Matthew, for instance, this theme is immediately and artfully conveyed right away in its oft-skimmed over genealogy (1:1-17).  After identifying Jesus as "the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (1:1), the Evangelist presents a family tree of three divisions, with 14 generations in each (or, as Wright suggests, six sevens).  The focal points are Abraham, David "the king," and the Babylonian exile.  Jesus, the text transparently  is saying, is the one who fulfills God's covenantal promises to Abraham and David, and hence is the one who delivers his people from their long, extended exile.  His is, in a very real sense, the Jubilee come in person.  Indeed, the theme of Jesus' "fulfilling" Old Testament "prophecies" is also prominent in Matthew—not indeed in the dessicated, problematic sense many Christians continue to maintain, i.e., that the Old Testament "predicted" a number of isolated events that "came to pass" in Jesus, and that any "objective" person could see; but rather in the sense that "the events concerning Jesus, particularly his kingdom-inaugurating life, death, and resurrection ... [brought] the long story of Israel to its proper goal ..." (73).

This chapter is vintage Wright.  Indeed, in it he says nothing surprising to any who have read his numerous previous works.  Consistency, in this case, is a good thing, for what he says needs to be heard by the majority of modern Christians whose understanding of Jesus and the faith are skewed by an inadequate understanding of the biblical story.  I dare say that most Christians today operate with an individualistic, implicitly "nonethnic" version of the Bible's plot line that has four main points: creation, fall, redemption, consummation.  Such a version coheres, as one might expect, with the predominant "soterian" understanding of the Gospel which Scot McKnight argues against so persuasively in his The King Jesus GospelChrist, on this understanding, came to solve the problem of (undifferentiated) human sin.  Hence, a straight line is implicitly drawn from Genesis 3 to Mark 10:45 and John 3:16.  Wright described such thinking years ago in his major work, Jesus and the Victory of God:
It would not, then, be much of a caricature to say that orthodoxy, as represented by much popular preaching and writing, has had no clear idea of the purpose of Jesus' ministry.  For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin (at any time in human history, and perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later.  (In some instances the main significance of this would be the conclusion: the Bible is all true.) ... Jesus becomes a composite figure, a cross between Socrates defeating the Sophists and Luther standing up against the Papists.  His ministry and his death are thus loosely connected.  The force of this is lost, though, when the matter is thought through.  If the main purpose of Jesus' ministry was to die on the cross, as the outworking of an abstracted atonement-theology, it starts to look as though he simply took on the establishment in order to get himself crucified, so that the abstracted sacrificial theology could be put into effect.  This makes both ministry and death look like sheer contrivance (14).
Ouch!  It is no wonder that some have taken offense.  But Wright is 100% correct.  Failure to interpret the Gospels as explicit presentations of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection specifically as the climax to Israel's story has led to many of the distortions discussed in our last post.  If the point of the Bible is, as contemporary narcissistic Christians suppose, my own individual "salvation," then the Gospels must be written to teach how I can indeed "get saved" (hence the gnashing of teeth over stubbornly intractable texts in the Gospels).  If this "salvation" must be demonstrated by a certain evangelical "piety," then the stories and ethical teachings must be designed primarily to cultivate such piety.  On this paradigm Jesus' "mighty acts" must be—despite precedents in the Old Testament—demonstrations "that he was God."  Even the classic dispensationalists among whom I was raised, who on one level avoided this error by their emphasis on Jesus' announcement and offer of the Kingdom to the Jews, ultimately failed because their notion of the "postponement" of the Kingdom projected the Israel dimension of the story entirely into the future.  Do not misunderstand me.  I am not claiming the Gospels do not teach how one inherits the Kingdom, how God expects Jesus' followers to behave, or even the deity of Christ (more on this anon).  What I am saying is that all such teachings must find their theological "location" in the story about how Jesus brought Israel's history to its divinely-designed telos.

It is here that we must remember the one fundamental point about God's election of Abraham.  God chose Abraham and his seed to be the means of rectifying the consequences of the sin of Adam for the whole world.  Genesis 12, in other words, is God's response to Genesis 3, and hence is the means to deal with the problem of human sin and bring his plans for creation (Genesis 1) to fruition. Likewise, God's choice of David and his seed (2 Sam 7:12-16) was designed to be the means by which the Abrahamic promise of Genesis 12 was to be fulfilled (Psalm 72:17).  As we all know, however, the story of salvation-history did not proceed on a smooth, straight path.  Israel, the designed means of delivering the world, failed in their priestly commission and were sent into exile as the climactic covenantal curse consequent upon their disobedience.  In other words, Jesus is the fulfillment of 2 Samuel 7 and Genesis 3, and hence the answer to the problem of Genesis 3, because he is the solution to the problem of Deuteronomy 30.  Jesus is the climax of Israel's story because, through his life, death, and resurrection, he delivered Israel from their exile in fulfillment of the promises of "salvation" and second exodus articulated in such passages as Isaiah 40-55.  If you do not get this, you do not get the Gospels.

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