Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Understanding the Gospels: Seven Inadequate Paradigms


In his spanking new book, How God Became King, the always-controversial Tom Wright argues that Western Christians of all stripes have utterly failed to understand the Gospels.  We have, claims Wright, understood the Gospels as an "empty cloak," focusing our attention on Jesus' miraculous birth and atoning death (and resurrection) while getting all muddled up on the "bits" in between.  This apparently scandalous claim would be scandalous indeed were the truth not so genuinely scandalous (at least with respect to the understandings of Christian laypeople—more on this anon).  In chapter 3 of his work, Professor Wright describes six inadequate answers to the question, What is the point of "all that stuff in the middle" (41) between Jesus' birth and death/resurrection?

The first inadequate answer is that the Gospels teach people how to go to heaven when they die (42-46).  Wright here focuses on popular misunderstandings of two prominent expressions found in the Gospels, the "kingdom of heaven" (Matthew) and "eternal life" (John).  Indeed, the former expression means precisely the opposite of what many Christians assume.  Rather than speaking of a kingdom located in heaven to which people go when they die, it rather refers to the rule ("kingdom") of heaven (a circumlocution for God) coming to earth, as in the petition of the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  "It is as though," Wright shrewdly illustrates, "you were to get a letter from the president of the United States inviting himself to stay at your home, and in your excitement you misread it and assumed that he was inviting you to stay at the White House" (44).

Similarly, the "eternal life" referred to in such famous texts as John 3:16 has little to do with such notions as an "everlasting life" that lies outside space, time, and matter.  Indeed, as Wright correctly argues, the term must be understood against the background of the Hebrew expression ha-olam ha-ba (Daniel 12:2) and thus refers to the "life of the age (to come)" which is set in contrast with the "present evil age" (Gal 1:4).  "Eternal life," therefore, is the life of the new world promised by God through the prophets, the new era of justice and peace that would ensue on the earth when God effected the promised deliverance of his people from exile (45).

It is, of course, true that those who follow Jesus in discipleship and who thus "believe in" him will find themselves mysteriously "with Christ" (Phil 1:23) when they die and are ultimately destined for an eternal existence "with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:17).  Nevertheless, Wright is correct in his insistence (which he has been consistent in arguing in earlier tomes such as The Resurrection of the Son of God and Surprised by Hope) that the ultimate destiny of the people of God is a bodily existence to be lived on a renewed earth

Moreover, the vast majority of the content of the Gospels can hardly be shoved into the Procrustean bed of individualist soteriology.  It seems to me that this common misperception about the Gospels is symptomatic of the larger problem endemic to post-revivalist Evangelicalism, namely, that of reducing the "gospel" to the issue of the salvation of the individual by faith through the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ.  This theological reduction explains the prioritizing of John over the Synoptic Gospels to which I readily attest from the Christianity of my youth, though it fails even to do justice to the larger contours of Johannine thought in which his call to faith must be located.  And it ultimately leads to head-scratching, to which I can also attest, over such Synoptic accounts as Jesus' encounter with the "rich young ruler" which appear, on the face of it, to offer different answers thatn those provided by Paul and John.

The second inadequate answer is that the Gospels provide us with Jesus' ethical teaching (46-48).  Well, yes, of course they do, at least in part.  Jesus, after all, is repeatedly addressed as "Teacher," and his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) is, if nothing else, concerned at least partly with what may be termed "ethics."  But, while true in part, this answer is inadequate in that it ignores the theological context of Jesus' "ethics." "Jesus was announcing that a whole new world was being born and he was 'teaching' people how to live within that whole new world" (47).  In other words, Jesus cannot simply be compared to Muhammad or Buddha as a teacher of timeless ethical "truths."  On the contrary, his ethical teaching is inextricably entwined with his assertion that God was inaugurating his promised kingdom through him—i.e., Christology and ethics are inseparable.  Hence any attempt to "rescue" Jesus as a mere teacher is disingenuous and bound for failure.

Third, some argue that the Gospels were written to present Jesus as a moral exemplar (48-50).  Once again, this view contains a grain of truth in view of such Pauline exhortations as Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Corinthians 11:1.  Any comfort one might take from this suggestion quickly evaporates upon further reflection, however.  For, as Wright says, "I might as well take encouragement from watching a great athlete run a four-minute mile" (49).  Like the previous suggestion, this smacks of the liberal moralism popular more than a century ago.  More to the point: the cross Jesus' followers are exhorted to carry, though patterned after Jesus' cross, is emphatically not to be identified with it.  As Wright puts it, "His task is unique.  It cannot be reduced to that of the great man showing his followers how it's done" (50).

The fourth inadequate suggestion is that the Gospels tell Jesus' story to portray him as the perfect sacrifice (50-52).  Once again, Jesus is presented as entirely innocent of the charges that led to his execution (Luke 23:14-15, 22, 31, 41, 47).  But this can hardly explain the vast majority of the Gospels' contents, and stems once again from reading them through the grid of Paul and Hebrews.  As might be expected, Wright takes aim in particular at those strands of Reformed theology that argue that Christ "fulfilled" the Law (Matt 5:17) vicariously—his so-called "active obedience"—which obedience can thus be transferred ("imputed") to believers to provide them with a "righteousness" acceptable to God.  This way of understanding Paul, let alone the Gospels, is liable to serious criticism (and I will have much to say at a later time), but Wright simply points to Jesus' multiple and deliberate floutings of the Sabbath and his implicit declaration that "all foods are clean" (Mark 7:19) as evidence that should give one pause before accepting such a notion.  Indeed, one of the things I find most frustrating about this type of Reformed theology is its too-easy fusion of the Mosaic Law, which Jesus clearly is dealing with, and the theological concept of an abstracted "Law of God."  This, of course, is rooted in their understanding of the Torah as a republication, in part, of the hypothetical covenant of works, which must—so it goes— be satisfied for justification to occur.  The point I am making is that, no matter how theologically coherent such a scheme is, it is transparently foreign to any historical interpretation of the Gospels.

Fifth, it is sometimes suggested that the Gospels were written "so we can identify with the characters in the story and find our own way by seeing what happened to them" (52).  This, I dare say, is common enough in popular preaching about some incidents in the Gospels, particularly in passages where there appears to be a deliberate "translucency" between the portrayal of the disciples and the intended Christian readers (to be distinguished, of course, from the notion of "transparency" proffered by the form critics of a couple of generations ago).  But such is transparently inadequate to provide a comprehensive explanation of texts whose transparent foci lies in the realm of Christological eschatology.

Finally, many suggest that the Gospels were written to prove Jesus' divinity (53-57).  Wright, as will become clear later in the book (even if one hasn't read his brilliant articles in The Climax of the Covenant) certainly believes in the "deity" of Christ, and believes both John and the Synoptics teach that in Jesus we see the "living human embodiment of the God of Israel, returning at last to visit and redeem his people" (54) (this latter idea is familiar to anyone who has digested Wright's magisterial Jesus and the Victory of God).  Wright's point nevertheless stands: "[M]y point here is not that the gospels don't think of Jesus as divine, but that this isn't the primary thing, the point they are most eager to get across.  They presuppose it.  It is the key in which they write their music, rather than the main tune itself" (55).  The common confusion of tune and key has had the unfortunate side effect of contributing to a detached theology disconnected from the main story, that of God's kingdom coming to earth as it is in heaven (56).

I have one more inadequate answer that Wright leaves unmentioned.  This is the notion that the Gospels were written to tell the story of Jesus' offer of the kingdom—on this understanding, the political kingdom to be later realized in the Millennium—to the Jews, the rejection of which was God's designed means to bring about Jesus' death on the cross for human (i.e., ethnically-undifferentiated) sin.   Many will recognize this as the old-fashioned dispensationalism that dominated popular Evangelicalism for much of the 20th century.  It is the Evangelicalism in which I was raised and cut my theological teeth at Philadelphia College of Bible back in the 1970s.  Yet it is a way of understanding the Gospels that has little, if anything, good to be said about it.  For one, it "dispensationalizes" away much of what the Gospels teach as irrelevant for Christians of "this age" (I once heard a very respected teacher say that Jesus' teaching to "turn the other cheek" was not applicable today, and that he certainly wouldn't back down if confronted in that way).  That, in itself, is counterintuitive, and a notion with which I was never comfortable.  More seriously, it misreads the Gospels as narrative.  What I mean is this:  the Gospels, as Wright clearly argues, tell the story of Jesus as the "good news" which fulfills Israel's covenant hopes, namely, that in the events of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, God was becoming King at last.  The Kingdom of God was inaugurated paradoxically through these Gospel events (for my discussion of how this works out in Mark, look here).  This, as Wright says, is the "forgotten story of the Gospels."

Now I know that Wright has been criticized for making this claim.  Surely, they say, he is overstating the case.  New Testament scholars have been saying this for some time.  Well, yes and no.  Certainly there have been fine commentators, such as Dick France on Matthew and Mark, and Darrell Bock on Luke, who have done yeoman's work in this regard.  "Salvation-history" has likewise been the major thrust of such Biblical theologians as Geerhardus Vos, Herman Ridderbos, and Greg Beale.  But not only have many persisted in an overly "spiritual" take on the kingdom; more importantly, this work has not yet penetrated deeply enough into the pulpit and the pew.  For far too many Christians, "getting in" or "getting 'saved'" via faith in Christ is the be-all and end-all of their concern with the Bible, and they read the entirety of Scripture through that lens.  The effects have been enormous.  Not only have such people too often retreated into a privatized spirituality, they imagine that this is what Christianity is indeed all about.  And the effects of such for Christian witness and mission have, to put it mildly, been deleterious for the outworking of the Kingdom of God.

How, then, should we read the Gospels?  Wright answers this question in Part 2 of his book, which we will consider in our next post.

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