Friday, January 18, 2019

NT Wright's How God Became King. Book Review by Frederick Blonigen

The final Sunday of each liturgical year is the great feast of Christ the King. This universal solemnity of the Church was instituted by Pope Pius XI on December 11, 1925, in his encyclical Quas Primas. The date of this papal document is significant. It was a time of growing materialism and secularism. Soviets had decimated their orthodox clergy and Mexico was killing its priests. The Spanish republicans would join the bloodletting in a decade. A time of ideological fervor and the rise of Communist and Nazi dictatorships in Europe. A time when many were losing hope for humanity as Christianity was bypassed in the exercise of public authority. Pope Pius XI saw the need to reaffirm the absolute sovereignty of God over the affairs of men. Christ and His Church, the pope declared, is the one and only source of salvation. Christ alone is King and Ruler. “It is Christ whom the Father ‘hath appointed as heir of all things: for he must reign until at the end of the world he hath put all his enemies under the feet of God and the Father.’ “It is most fitting and necessary, continues the pope, for the Church to salute the Lord as King of Kings and to remind mankind at the end of the liturgical year that when Christ returns at the Parousia, the Second Coming, He will come in triumph and glory as King of the universe and Judge of all nations.

The role of Christ as King and Ruler is not simply a liturgical celebration commemorated once a year. It is at the very heart of the New Testament. It is the central, and forgotten, message of the four gospels. This is the thesis of N.T.Wright’s fascinating book, How God Became King : The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Wright, an Anglican bishop, a prolific writer and one of the foremost New Testament scholars in the world, argues there has been a deep seated and persistent misunderstanding. In the opening paragraph of How God Became King, the author explains: “It has been slowly dawning on me over many years that there is a fundamental problem deep at the heart of the Christian faith and practice as I have known them. This problem can be summarized quite easily: we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about. Yes, they are about Jesus, but what exactly are they saying about Jesus? Yes, they are about God, but what precisely are they saying about God? Yes, they are about the beginnings about what later became known as Christianity, but what are they saying about that strange movement, and how do they resource it for its life and work.” Despite centuries of intense and extensive study of the gospels most of the Western Christian tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, has simply missed the main message the four books were trying to convey. The story the four evangelists are telling is the story of how God became king on earth as in heaven.
The problem N.T. Wright is attempting to address in this book is captured memorably in a personal story he tells about an incident that occurred almost fifty years before when the author was still in high school. At the time Wright belonged to a Christian studies group and the members decided to do a series of reports on some aspect of Christ, each report beginning with “Why”. For example, Why was Jesus born , Why did Jesus live? Why did Jesus die? Why did Jesus rise from the dead? For some reason the author ended up with the task of having to do a report on the middle topic: Why did Jesus live? And even at that young age he realized he had been given the most difficult topic to research.
What about that question in the middle—his question? Why did Jesus live ? Did anything worth knowing take place between Jesus’ birth in a stable and His death on Calvary? Why did the four evangelists provide all that information about Christ’s three year long public life? What difference does it make that while we know precious little about Christ‘s first thirty years of life, we know a great deal about His last three? What truths can we learn from Our Lord’s public life? Since Christ was the man who came to earth to die for us and redeem us and atone for our sins what is the point of spending thirty three years on earth, the first thirty in obscurity and the last three living an intensely active public life?
Over a lifetime of studying and teaching the New Testament, N. T. Wright was surprised to discover that these very questions about “Why Christ lived” are seldom raised by many Christians who read the gospels. “Adapting a phrase from a well-known book on management, The Empty Raincoat , such readers experience the four gospels as an empty cloak. The outer wrapping is there—Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. But who is inside the cloak? What did Jesus do in between? Is there anybody there? Does it matter?” According to Wright, when most Protestants refer to the “gospel” they are not referring to the four gospels but to the gospel message: the good news that Jesus Christ has died for mankind’s sins ( atonement) and all we have to do is believe ( justification by faith alone). This gospel message isn’t even found in the gospels but in the letters of St.Paul, especially in Romans and Galatians.

This peculiar relationship between the “gospel” and the gospels is also found in the relationship between the “gospel” and the great Christian creeds. The great creeds when they refer to Jesus go from His virgin birth to His suffering and death. The gospels, on the other hand, tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between His birth and His death, especially what might be called His “kingdom-inaugurating” works: “the deeds and words that declared that God’s kingdom was coming then and there, in some sense or other, on earth as in heaven. They tell us a great deal about that; but the great creeds don’t.”
The creeds do not mention anything that occurs in the life of Jesus between His birth and death. To quote Wright: “ What I see is a great gulf opening up between the canon and the creeds. The canonical gospels give us a Jesus whose public career radically mattered as part of his overall accomplishment, which had to do with the kingdom of God. The creeds give us a Jesus whose miraculous birth and saving death, resurrection, and ascension are all we need to know....We have assumed some sort of creedal framework, and the gospels don’t fit it. Have we , then, all misunderstood the gospels? Is there an emptiness at the heart of the great cloak of the creedal gospel? I fear the answer has to be yes....The  gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God. It would be truly remarkable if one great truth of early Christian faith and life were actually to displace another, to displace it indeed so thoroughly that people forgot it even existed. But that’s what I think has happened. This book is written in the hope of correcting that distortion.”
If the focus of the Christian creeds gives us, to use Wright’s metaphor, a cloak without a body ,the opposite problem, all body and no cloak, has been a persistent issue ever since the eighteenth century when Biblical rationalists have come to the gospels with the historical question: Did it really happen? And many of the skeptical scholars answered in the following manner. Yes, Jesus really did exist but all that stuff about His miraculous birth, His miracles, and His death and resurrection: in short, anything supernatural about Jesus never actually happened. But when we take away the creedal framework—the body without the cloak, as it were—the story of the gospels we have left is very different than the one told by the Church. The “liberal” picture of Jesus, says Wright, reduces Our Lord to one of three things. He is either a Jewish revolutionary seeking the violent overthrow of the Roman state. Or He is a fanatical visionary predicting the end of the world. Or He is a mild mannered teacher preaching the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. Or He is some combination of all of the above. Many Christians have grown up with this liberal, reductionistic view of Jesus. The idea that Jesus came to teach a new ethic of being “nice” to other people without any dogmatic or supernatural claims is deeply embedded in Western culture. That Jesus actually is God, that He was born to die for mankind’s sins and make it possible for us to be saved and that He established a Church to carry on His salvific work seems just too fantastic to believe. Instead of leaving out the middle of the gospels in order to focus on the creeds, the liberal reductionist does just the opposite : he focuses on the middle material in the gospels and ignores or even denies the supernatural claims about Jesus found in the creeds.
The truly orthodox response to this misreading of the gospels is to see them from the perspective of God’s kingdom. “ What I miss, right across the Western tradition “, {says Wright}, “at least the way it has come through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is the devastating and challenging message I find in the four gospels: God really has become king—in and through Jesus. A new state of affairs has been brought into existence. A door has been opened that nobody can shut. Jesus is now the world’s rightful Lord, and all other lords are to fall at his feet. This is an eschatological message, not in the trivial sense that it heralds the ‘end of the world’ (whatever that might mean), but in the sense that it is about something that was suppose to happen when Israel’s hopes were fulfilled; and Israel’s hopes were not for the demise of the space-time universe, but for the earth to be full of God’s glory. It is , however, an inaugurated eschatological message, claiming that this ‘something’ has indeed happened in and through Jesus and does not yet look what people might have imagined. That is the story the gospels are telling.”
The argument N.T. Wright makes throughout How God Became King is that the four canonical gospels tell us that the story of Jesus is the story of how Israel’s God became king. That Jesus of Nazareth, the God of Israel, has become the king of the world: this is the forgotten story of the gospels. And in missing this central message we have misread the gospels.

Having established the problem of how the gospels have been misread, Wright then sets out to debunk various inadequate answers to the question of how the reader should understand what happens in the gospels between the birth and death of Jesus, or as he puts it, what’s the purpose of the “body” inside the “cloak”? What is the point of Christ’s healings, the conflicts with the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Sermon on the Mount, the calming of the storm, and all the other rich material found in the “middle “ of the gospels? The first inadequate answer, according to Wright, and the most serious misreading of the gospels, is that Jesus came to teach people how to go to heaven. Wright is not in any way denying that the whole New Testament assumes that God has a wonderful reward prepared for those who do His will in this world, a plan that includes the resurrection from the dead and a new heaven and earth. But, Wright insists, this is not the point of the four gospels. Rather the kingdom of heaven or God’s kingdom is not about people going to heaven but about heaven coming to earth. When St. Mathew has Jesus talking about “the kingdom of heaven” he means that heaven, in other words God’s kingdom and His sovereign rule is being established not just in heaven but also on earth.
A second major misreading of the story in the middle of the gospels, according to Wright, is to reduce Jesus to a teacher of a new ethical theory. In this understanding, Jesus is primarily concerned that people behave well and that His moral teachings, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, are a guide to living a morally upright life. Jesus was , of course , announcing a whole new world and He was “teaching “ His followers how to live good lives within this new world. But Jesus’ teaching must be understood within a larger picture of what He was doing. Without this larger picture, Jesus can easily be reduced to just another great religious teacher, like Buddha or Confucius, who provides His followers with a collection of teachings to live by.
Wright discusses several other false readings of the gospels, concluding with the standard argument that the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote their respective gospels to prove the divinity of Christ and also His humanity. Most readers of the gospels in fact assume that the purpose of the gospels is to demonstrate that Jesus is fully God and fully human. After all, did not the early Church spend a lot of effort in its first few centuries dealing with various heresies, like Arianism and Docetism, heresies that challenged the true identity of Jesus?
The point is not that the four evangelists do not think Jesus is divine but that is not the primary thing they are trying to convey. They presuppose Christ’s divinity. The issue for the evangelists is not whether Jesus is God but what God is doing in and through Jesus. In other words, for the evangelists Jesus is indeed the Messiah. In this man,  and in him alone, we see how God is establishing his kingdom in this world. And if Jesus is the Messiah then his public life is how Israel’s God is establishing his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. If Jesus is the Messiah, then it is through this greatest anointed king of Israel that God himself is revealing who he is.
For N.T.Wright the misreading of the New Testament, and specifically the gospels, begins with the Old Testament. Unless we understand correctly the story of Israel we can make no sense of the gospels. The problem is that too often we have read the gospels as simply God’s answer to the fallen state of humanity. The back story of the gospels is not the story of Abraham, Moses, and David but Adam and Eve (representing all mankind) sinning and in need of a Redeemer. For many modern readers of the Bible the story of the Chosen People seems to be a kind of side show. But that is not the way Matthew, Mark, Luke and John see it. They believe that it is critically important to retell the history of Israel and to show how the story of Jesus is the story in which the long and painful history of Israel reaches its climax. The Old Testament story of the Israelites is the story of the people God had chosen from all eternity to be the means through which he would create his kingdom on earth. To again quote the beautiful words of Wright, “The call of Abraham is the answer to the sin of Adam. Israel’s story is thus the microcosm and the beating heart of the world’s story, but also its ultimate saving energy. What God does for Israel is what God is doing in relation to the whole world. That is what it meant to be Israel, to be the people who, for better and worse, carried the destiny of the world on their shoulders. Grasp that and you have a pathway into the heart of the New Testament.”
It is Wright’s argument that unless we read the gospels and the story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the story of Israel, we will miss their central message. Especially since the skepticism of the 18th century Enlightenment, Western Christians have reacted by reading the gospels as a story of Jesus the God Incarnate but have not listened carefully to what the evangelists are saying regarding which God they are talking about and what exactly this God is doing. For too long Christians have seen the story of Jesus as primarily hooked up to human sin in Genesis and not with the story of Israel. On that reading, after the Israelites failed to keep their covenant with God and rejected his Son as the Messiah, God had a second plan through which Jesus would be born, suffer, die and rise from the dead and all those who would believe in him would be saved. But the story of Jesus is the story of Israel’s God , the Creator and the Savior, who has come to earth to dwell among his people and to establish his kingdom. The fulfillment of Israel’s story is the story of Jesus and the founding of God’s renewed people. In establishing his Church, Jesus does not so much replace the Chosen People as renew and fulfill them. The Church then is the launching of God ‘s renewed people.
The entire story of Israel , on one level, is how Israel’s God takes on and defeats the arrogant tyrants of the world and destroys their pagan idols. At Babel God confused the tongues of those who in their pride were attempting to build a kingdom without God. The call of Abraham is God’s response to the arrogance of man. God allows the Israelites to be enslaved in Egypt but he sends Moses to rescue them and lead them to freedom. Through David’s defeat of Goliath, God again rescues his people from the Philistines . Over and over the God of Israel defeats Israel’s enemies, the kingdoms of the world are no match for the kingdom of God. It’s the same story throughout the Old Testament and it is the same story the gospels writers are telling in the story of Jesus himself.
The early Christian writers believed that they were setting forth an eschatology that had been inaugurated but not fulfilled. They believed that they were living between the accomplishment of God’s reign on earth in Jesus and its full implementation in the future. But the eschatology they believed and preached was not just personal or spiritual; it was social, political, cultural, even cosmic in its dimensions. For the New Testament writers the new creation has already begun and will be completed. Jesus is even now ruling over the new creation in and through his Church. The ruler of this world has been defeated and God is king on earth as he is in heaven. That is the truth the gospels are so eager to tell.
The difficulty understanding this reading of the gospels is in large part the result of separating the kingdom from the cross. The story Matthew, Mark, Luke , and John tell is how God became king in and through Jesus both in his public life and in his death. To again quote Wright,” ‘To suffer and then come into his glory’—in other words, cross and kingdom. The very word ‘Messiah’ already implies kingdom; now it is clear how that kingdom is attained. This is how the story of Israel comes to its climax. The suffering of Israel’s representative has drawn the sting of the world’s evil; Luke made it clear that Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and death were the point where at which the powers of darkness were doing their worst (22:53). Now the original vision of Israel can at last get back on track. The other three evangelists have their own way of getting at the same point, but we have every reason to believe that they would have agreed. The first reason we can be sure that kingdom and cross belong tightly together in mutual interpretation is that this is the way gospel writers saw the story of Israel reaching its climax in the story of Jesus.”
God‘s worldwide sovereignty on earth as in heaven: the central goal of Jesus’ mission and the reason for his life, death and resurrection. How can we understand this? God called Israel to be the means to rescue the world specifically in the person of Jesus the Messiah. The purpose of the gospels is to tell the story of how God‘s kingdom is established through the obedient suffering of Jesus. This task can only be accomplished by God himself. This is not only the heart of the gospels, but of the entire Bible.
The gospel story of Jesus inaugurating a new people of God, the Church, includes the amazing transformation of the apostles after they became witnesses to the Risen Christ and after they are enlightened by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. For the early disciples the kingdom and the cross were not mere theological abstractions but the consistent pattern of their lives. Therefore, we should not be surprised to learn that for the early Christians being a follower of Jesus necessarily included their own suffering and often death. It was not just that as followers of a misunderstood Jesus the early Christians could also expect to be misunderstood and persecuted. But that in God’s providence, like the suffering of Jesus, their own suffering would be the means God would use to fulfill his divine purpose.
The suffering and death of Jesus ’people, in other words, is not simply the negative side of following someone whose person and message were rejected with great hostility and hatred. But it has the positive effect of advancing the redemptive work of Jesus not by adding to it but by sharing in it. Jesus called his followers to inaugurate his kingdom; that is the point of sending out the Twelve during his lifetime and after His death and resurrection. But if his disciples are to bring His kingdom to the world according to the Master’s way, they will be people who share in His suffering. That is the mysterious and paradoxical way, the divine way, the kingdom of God will be fulfilled.
This is the correct way to understand the entire New Testament vision of the Church. The renewed people of God are sent on the great mission of suffering kingdom-bringers.

This inseparable relationship between the cross and the kingdom, for Christ and his followers, is captured beautifully in the book of Revelation:
Glory to the one who loved us, and freed us from
our sins by his blood, and made us a kingdom, priests to his
God and father. ( 1:5-6)
You are worthy to take the scroll;
You are worthy to open its seals;
For you were slaughtered and with your own blood
You purchased a people for God, From every tribe and tongue, From every people and nation,
And made them a kingdom and priests to our God
And they will reign on the earth ( 5: 9-10)
This vision of a people rescued by the cross of Christ and transformed into kingdom-bringers is the story the four evangelists are telling: it is the message of the gospels that so many have missed. “The implicit ecclesiology of all four gospels is a picture of a community sharing the complex vocation of Jesus himself: to be kingdom-bringers, yes, but to do this first because of Jesus’ own suffering and second by means of their own. The slaughtered and enthroned lamb of Revelation 5 is not only the shepherd of his people; he is also their template. Sharing his suffering is the way in which they are to extend his kingdom in the world.”
In the Old Testament, the Temple in Jerusalem is the most sacred place on earth for it is where God is uniquely present to his people. In the New Testament, Jesus is now the living Temple of God, he is now the person in whom earth and heaven meet. The event which accomplishes this meeting is His crucifixion on Calvary. The cross is Christ ‘s victory over sin, Satan, death itself. The cross is the victory of God ‘s kingdom over all the world’s kingdoms . The cross is the victory of God himself over all the powers and evil, both human and demonic, of this world. True theocracy or the rule of God can now be established because the false rulers of this world have been defeated.
Without the cross, the rule of Satan remains in this world. That is why for all the evangelists the cross is the final and ultimate task of theMessiah. His death on the cross is the defeat of the Evil One. Sin  has been conquered. The great Accuser has lost his kingdom. And now the Creator and Redeemer of the world can launch his new creation. The crucifixion of Jesus was the long prophesized way in which the Messiah would come to be king of all the world. The purpose of Jesus’ dying on the cross –the gospels are telling us—is to establish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven. In all four gospels the message is clear: the coming of God’s kingdom, the sovereign rule of Israel’s God, has arrived in the person of Jesus, David’s true heir and royal son. The kingdom comes in a way unexpected and deeply mysterious. When Jesus stretches out His arms on the cross to embrace all mankind and to suffer the most ignominious death for all the sin and evil in the world, it was God ‘s definitive statement that divine love is stronger than evil and death. Christ’s suffering and death on the cross was his glorification, his enthronement.

To quote the magnificent words of Wright, “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 take the world over 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 a moment when a great 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.”
It is Wright’s argument throughout this book that the tragedy of modern Christianity is that while the “orthodox” have preferred the creed to the kingdom and the “unorthodox” have tried to have a kingdom without a creed, it is time to unite what never should have been separated. The gospels tell the story of how in Jesus the living God has become the king of the whole world. Reading, praying, and living these gospels is  how Christians build God’s kingdom in our world, a world whose meaning and purpose can only be found in the humble and loving worship of Christ the King.
The thesis that N.T.Wright so convincingly sets forth in How God Became King, is not without its flaws, especially for a Catholic reader. There is no Eucharist, no Apostolic priesthood and thus no  living structural Ecclesiology. For all the talk of kingship there is no harrowing of hell and Apostolic thrust to baptize the nations.  From a Catholic perspective, since we see the Eucharist as the source and summit of the faith, this is a major flaw, indeed. For the Eucharist not only draws us into the suffering of the cross but reconstitutes humanity as the Risen Body. Without the Eucharist there is no Church; there is no Mystical Body of Christ; there is no judgement of the nations; there is no kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. But still this is a  riveting book.
One way of showing how Wright’s thesis could be strengthened and completed is to look at the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary, mysteries added to the Rosary by St. Pope John Paul II in his beautiful and moving 2002 Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae (On the Most Holy Rosary). It seems Pope John Paul II like Wright saw the mysteries of the rosary(like the Creed) recounting the childhood of Christ(the Fifth Joyful Mystery ends with the Finding in the Temple ) and  resumes on the night before He died (First Sorrowful Mystery -The Agony in Garden). Maybe John Paul saw what Wright saw.  The Gospels in between seem missing.

As Pope John Paul explains in his letter, if the Rosary is to be prayed as a true “compendium of the gospel” then key events in Christ’s public life need to meditated upon as well. When we move from Our Lord’s infancy and hidden life in Nazareth, our contemplation then should bring us to those mysteries which in a special way can be called “luminous” or “mysteries of light”. Of course, the whole mystery of Christ is a mystery of light for he is the “Light of the world”. But this truth becomes especially clear during Christ’s public life when he proclaims the Gospel of the Kingdom. The five mysteries of light John Paul gives to the Church for its meditation are : 1.The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan 2.His self manifestation at the wedding of Cana 3.His proclamation of God’s kingdom and call to conversion 4. His Transfiguration and 5. His institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Each of these mysteries is a revelation of God’s kingdom in the very person of Jesus.
The Eucharist, however, is the sacrament of sacraments for it not only gives us grace, it gives us the author of grace, God himself. From the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the cross and her communion with the body and blood of Christ the Church in her members is renewed and given the spiritual strength to carry out her divine mission in the world: the communion of all mankind with Christ and in him with the Father and the Spirit. The Eucharist builds the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist. One reality makes no sense without the other.


N.T. Wright’s thesis in How God Became King is persuasive and compelling. Let his Catholic elder brother St.John Paul II complete his argument.  In 2003 in what was to be his last encyclical letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia ( On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church) , John Paul said, “Every commitment to holiness, every activity aimed at carrying out the Church’s mission, every work of pastoral planning, must draw the strength it needs from the Eucharistic mystery and in turn be directed to that mystery as its culmination. In the Eucharist we have Jesus, we have his redemptive sacrifice, we have his resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience and love of the Father.” And, yes, we have the Son who was born to be the King of the Jews, the Savior of mankind, the Head of His Mystical Body, the King of Kings and the ruler of all nations and the Universe.

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