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The Gospel in the Gospels

For years I have been getting in trouble for saying,

The idea that Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins so that when I die I can go to heaven is often called, ʻthe gospel.ʼ But that is not the gospel we find in the gospels; that is not the gospel.

I have said and written repeatedly,

The gospel/glad tidings/good news of the kingdom is that because Jesus died and was raised to the right hand of his father, King Jesus has become lord of the whole world so that those who claim him as their lord are empowered to disciple all nations, baptizing multitudes in Jesusʼ name.

These statements comprise the positive and the negative sides of my number one heresy. Although I have sometimes been asked to speak on this specific issue and many of my students have been intrigued by my thesis, I have usually felt like a lone wolf, howling at the moon with no one to hear me.

Where, I have been asked, did I get this crazy theory?

Answer: from the story of God in the Old Testament and from the gospels in the New Testament.

What Are “the Middles” of the Gospels For?

And now Tom Wright has written a book which zeroes in on what he defines as an ancient and central failure at the heart of all the Christian communities, the failure of liberal, conservative, charismatic, liturgical, and even social gospel Christianity to understand the middles of gospels. Writing about the gospel in the gospels, Wright declares”[1]

…we have forgotten what the four gospels are about… …Despite centuries of intense and heavy industry expended on the study of all sorts of features of the gospels, we have managed to miss the main thing that they, all four of them, are most eager to tell us. …the story that the four evangelists tell is the story, as in my title, of “how God became king.”

This, I discover, comes as a surprise to most people, and an unwelcome shock to some.

Six Inadequate Answers to the Gospel Question

After laying out some of the obvious problems which everyone and especially Christians have with this observation – “then why are there still tsunamis and cancer” as well as, “but doesn’t that lead to theocracy?” – Wright lays out the results of an informal survey he has been conducting for a decade – he has been asking clergy and laity alike – on the message of the gospels. Wright lays out the six basic messages which he has heard consistently from Christians of every walk and stripe. He calls these “The Inadequate Answers” to the question, “What is all that stuff” – between the birth narratives and passion week – for?

1) Going to Heaven This is the big evangelical answer, that Jesus spends Matthew 3-26, etc., telling us, his followers, to get ready for heaven. Except that it is not. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is not about leaving the earth; it is about what to do right here. It even contains that amazing prayer in which Jesus asks us all not to pray to leave for heaven but to pray that heaven and all its good, wholesome ways might come to the earth.

In answer to this view, Wright takes on two phrases which have tripped Christians up repeatedly on whether we are going up or God is coming down: the kingdom of heaven and eternal life (the odd way the translation of the Greek phrase, ζωὴ αἰώνιος [zoe aionios] is usually translated). Wright correctly points out that at the time and within that culture no one heard the phrase, “kingdom of heaven” and thought it meant any humans were going to heaven, nor would anyone hearing zoe aionios, “life in the age to come” suppose it was a reference to life in heaven. Israelʼs story was all about God making life new and abundant and full of justice/righteousness in the age to come, on the earth. Wright correctly points out that one must go to the pagan philosopher Plato and his disciples to find discussions about a perfect, eternal world in heaven.

2) Jesusʼs [sic] Ethical Teaching If the first mime is the favorite conservative “inadequate description of the message of the gospels,” then the idea that the middle of the gospels is all about moral teachings on how to live a good and ethical life is the favorite liberal answer. It will not do, however, to say that Jesus was teaching morality, a system of behavior for how to be good in the world. No, Jesus was proclaiming an entirely new reality, a new society which would come into being in the “age to come” after the destruction of the old age, “the present age.” At best, Jesus was “cluing in” his disciples on how to hang on, on how to survive until that new day arrived (after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem). Sure, Jesus was a rabbi. The problem with this “inadequate description” is with the actual, detailed content of his teaching! Jesus was not a great “religious teacher.” He was all about transforming the world!

3) Jesus the Moral Exemplar This view suggests it was not so much for what Jesus said as for what he did that the evangelists used the middles of their books; that more than telling how to live, the amazing Jesus was showing how. Beyond the critique above that Jesus was announcing a world beyond what he or others could then imagine, Wright argues that if it was Jesusʼ intention to change the world by his example, his campaign was a striking failure. Wright writes that more than an example, Jesus claims to be acting in new and unique ways that will open up possibilities that did not exist for anyone prior to these faithful actions, including him! Like the second, this “inadequate description of the message of the gospels” has an element of truth but misses main point.

4) Jesus the Perfect Sacrifice Wright notes the dependence of this “inadequate answer” on answers one and three: the purpose of Jesusʼ ministry is to get his followers to heaven through his perfect life. Central to this framing is the doctrine of justification by faith, especially as expressed by the apostle Paul. It would be a vast overstatement to say that the central purpose of the stories and teachings of Jesus was to lay a foundation for justification. However much it may be true that the righteousness of Jesus is imputed to us by faith through his atoning work on the cross, Luke 3-21, etc., is about much more than that very good news.

5) Stories We Can Identify With No one who has read the gospels would (or at least should) fail to notice that the stories in the gospels are “real” narratives, stories with which we can identify as humans with all our worries, warts and pimples. As Wright suggests when describing this “inadequate” explanation, the gospels are simply so much more than a vehicle for connecting with the humanity of the characters whose stories they tell.

6) Proving Jesusʼs [sic] Divinity (And, writes Wright, proving Jesusʼ full humanity. After all, in the second and third centuries the assumption by many was that Jesus was God but was not truly a human being.) While there is plenty of evidence for both Jesusʼ divinity and humanity – although groups differ on exactly what proves what – this emphasis also proves to be an inadequate explanation for the central purpose for the writing of the middles of the gospels.

Wright’s Conclusion: God Has Become the King!

Wright believes we have all sometimes intentionally and sometimes “accidentally” set aside the central claim of the four gospel writers. Wright claims they all wrote to proclaim that God had become the king of the whole world through the work of his son, Jesus.

So, you have it: a two-page summary of Part One of Wright’s new book, called “The Missing Middle.” There is more, of course:

Part Two is called, “Adjusting the Volume.”

Part Three is “The Kingdom and the Cross;”

Part Four: “Creed, Canon, and Gospel.”

Any thoughts on where Wright will take the rest of this book?

Want me to summarize the other three parts?

Want to discuss this book together?

A Pause to Celebrate!

I for one would be glad to do all of the above. Just now, though, I want to celebrate this book.

  • Because I have been talking and writing about these same things for forty years
  • Because I have often found myself alone in this conversation
  • Because unless you have worked alone and talked about things like this for a long time you cannot know how good it feels to have someone else write these things; you cannot know unless you have been alone how good it is to finally find community!

Thank you, Jesus. I am glad for your servant, Nicholas Thomas Wright.

~~~~~     ~~~~~     ~~~~~

Endnotes

1 Back to Post Wright, N. T., How God Became King, The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (Harper Collins, New York, N.Y., 2012) pages IX, X-XI in the author’s Preface to the book.

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