Sunday, June 3, 2012

Kingdom and Cross: Review of N. T. Wright, How God Became King, Part 7

A few months back I wandered into the local Christian "bookstore" — tellingly, there was more sappy Christian merchandise for sale than there were actual books — to look for the book I am now reviewing.  Boy, was I in for a shock!  About ten rows of largely worthless popular books on Christianity, most of them about supposedly "practical" concerns, by authors with little or no academic training to qualify them to write on biblical or theological subjects.  Apart from a few books by the great Ulsterman C. S. Lewis, I could find nothing of serious value.

In that moment — in the twinkling of an eye, as St. Paul would have put it (1 Cor 15:52) — I realized some of what seriously ails modern Christian "evangelicalism."  For starters, a pietism bordering on mysticism.  As I have often said, like a good English ale or porter, pietism can be good and healthy in small-to-moderate doses, but it can be deadly if abused, as it often is when it veers off on mystical or legalistic tangents.  Christianity, as Wright has argued here and elsewhere, is not just about "me and my relationship to God."  Indeed, part of the story of the Gospels, as I reviewed last time, is to narrate the launching of God's renewed people, who are to carry out their mission and realize their identity by means of the same cruciform existence that defined the mission of their Lord.

Just as significant, in my reckoning, is popular "evangelicalism's" startling lack of concern over the meaning and theological significance of the biblical text.  For years I was frustrated by the seeming disinterest of my undergraduate Bible students in serious study of the text.  As one raised by a theology professor and "churched" in a congregation who had a pastor with a Th.D., I simply could not understand it.  The older I get, however, I realize that this lack of interest is par for the course.  What the Bible actually means is, for better or worse (usually the latter), simply assumed to have already been figured out.  Hence, so it is assumed, we can simply get on with the business of "applying" the text in unexamined, culturally "relevant" ways.  This way of thinking has infected the priorities and curricula both Christian colleges and seminaries over the past generation as well, with deleterious results.

This is why Wright's new How God Became King is so vitally important for the church here in the early 21st century.  His main point, which he develops thoroughly in Part Three of the book (pp. 155-249), concerns the relationship between the Kingdom and the cross.  Through painstaking analysis of the narratives of the four Gospels and the Old Testament texts that inform them, not least Daniel 7 and Isaiah 40-55, Wright argues that God became king, as he had promised, precisely through the death of Messiah Jesus on a Roman cross.  This is the true "theocracy" with which Jesus' followers are called to get involved, as they implement the kingdom through Spirit-empowered cruciform existence until that time when Jesus "returns" to consummate what was begun in the events of 33CE.

Such an understanding necessarily affects how one understand both the kingdom and the cross.  Much classic Christianity, not least its "Reformed" branch, resolutely interprets the kingdom in "spiritual" terms, often in misunderstanding of Jesus' words to Pilate in John 18:36 ("My kingdom is not of [ek, "from," indicating origin] this world").  As Wright correctly notes, such a dualistic, Platonic notion runs counter to the New Testament witness that over and over again emphasizes that the kingdom is for and in the world in a way that transcends the categories of either individual or ecclesial redemption.  To be sure, Christ rules as king at the right hand of the Father over the church, but — as Wright never tires of saying — the people of God serve as agents of that kingdom to mediate the healing, saving rule of God to the world.  And that can't be limited to the preaching of a "soterian" gospel, though of course such is included.

I was raised in an old-fashioned dispensationalism that Wright never tires of dismissing.  As a self-conscious reaction and attempted corrective to Reformed, "covenant" theology, such dispensationalism stressed the this-worldly and political dimensions of the kingdom, which I would maintain are at least partially correct.  Yet older dispensationalists ran into insurmountable difficulties in their complete separation of the kingdom and the cross.  Jesus "offered" the kingdom, understood as a political kingdom with himself reigning as king from Jerusalem, to the Jews.  But the Jews squandered their window of opportunity, and hence the offer was rescinded, their rejection serving as the ironic means to get Christ to the cross, where the sins of all of humanity could be dealt with.  This simply will not do, as Wright ably demonstrates.  Indeed, this should have been clear from the baptismal account (Mark 1:11 et par.), where the divine voice identifies Jesus in words that allude transparently to Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42.  The point, as anyone steeped in the Old Testament should have known, is that Jesus was indeed marked out as the promised king, but he would attain that kingship through performing the role of the Isaianic suffering servant.  Indeed, what gives Christianity its distinct shape is the paradoxical and scandalous notion that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was installed as universal king though being ostensibly a "loser," and that his apparent defeat at the hands of the Romans at the behest of the Jewish authorities was in reality his defeat of the kingdoms of the world and the shadowy powers those kingdoms embody.

Such an understanding will also, of necessity, influence one's understanding of the significance of the cross.  As Scot McKnight has pointed out, how one interprets the "atonement" depends, in part, on the plight from which the atonement delivers people.  Here I will quote Wright at length:
All this, I submit, generates a vision of the cross and its achievement so large and all-embracing that we really ought to stand back and simply gaze at it.  All the "theories" of "atonement" can be found comfortably within it, but it goes far, far beyond them all, into the wild, untamed reaches of history and theology, of politics and imagination.  We have, alas, belittled the cross, imagining it merely as a mechanism for getting us off the hook of our own petty naughtiness or as an example of some general benevolent truth.  It is much, much more.  It is the moment when the story of Israel reaches its climax; the moment when, at last, the watchmen on Jerusalem's walls see their God coming in his kingdom; the moment when the people of God are renewed so as to be, at last, the royal priesthood who will take over the world not with the love of power but with the power of love; the moment when the kingdom of God overcomes the kingdoms of the world.  It is the moment when a great old door, locked and barred since our first disobedience, swings open suddenly to reveal not just the garden, opened once more to our delight, but the coming city, the garden city that God had always planned and is now inviting us to go through the door and build with him.  The dark power that stood in the way of the kingdom vision has been defeated, overthrown, rendered null and void.  Its legions will still make a lot of noise and cause a lot of grief, but the ultimate victory is mow assured.  This is the vision the evangelists offer us as they bring together the kingdom and the cross.
Reading this book whets my appetite for the further, more scholastically academic approach to this material Wright plans to embark upon once his large book on Paul is completed in the next year or two.  Until that time, I will remain thankful I have had the opportunity to ingest what he has written here, and hope that regular, non-academic Christians will likewise find the time to read it as well.  This is indeed the kind of book the doctor ordered for the American church in the second decade of the 21st century.


  1. Doc,

    I, too, shudder at the lack of books that are written/edited by learned theologians and currently available for purchase in retail outlets. Our local Christian bookstore drives me to distraction--there is next to nothing there worth reading among the stacks and stacks of volumes by Christian "authors"!

    Reading your posts is like being in your class again. You know we didn't always agree, but you made me investigate the Scripture from a number of viewpoints. I learned quite a lot in your classroom. For this, I am grateful. I also read a lot more N.T. Wright in your class than I would have elsewhere. (Though the last time I read Wright was for one of your classes about a decade ago.) :-)

    So glad you've made good use of this forum. God bless.


    1. Thanks, Elisabeth. It has been a long time. I trust all is going well with you. One further thing: I don't always agre with myself, either. :)

  2. Are you a son of John McGahey, my beloved teacher at PCB?