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How God Became King – A Review by Michael Borg

Category Book Reviews
Date August 23, 2013

How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
By N.T.Wright
New York: Harper Collins, 2012
304 pages, paperback
ISBN: 978 0 06173 057 3

Wright has carved out a name for himself in his studies of the historical Jesus and Paul’s theology. He has consistently and convincingly challenged the liberal view of the historical Jesus in favour of a more orthodox and biblical understanding of who Jesus was and of the reality of his resurrection; and he has contentiously challenged the historic (and Reformed) orthodox view of justification by faith alone. In this his newest book, Wright has produced yet another provocative challenge to the evangelical world, questioning the way that many people, both liberal and conservative, scholars and lay-people, have typically understood the Gospels. Wright’s previous scholarship is not absent in his newest challenge, though he arguably takes his former conclusions to greater conclusions — namely, that we have failed to understand the gospel.

Wright argues throughout How God Became King that we too often revert to a flattened or one-dimensional view of the gospel: we have become off-balanced in our understanding of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In response, he constructs his book to argue that the central message of the gospel is that God, in Christ, has become the covenantal King. This is the warp and woof of the collaborative message of the Gospels, and this is the good news that the church is commissioned to proclaim.

Wright’s book is born out of a serious concern for the evangelical church. He has correctly observed several popular ways in which most Christians misread the message of the gospel. First, Wright argues that too many people understand the gospel merely in terms of Paul’s systematic categories and expositions, especially as seen through Romans and Galatians. This is a formidable concern on Wright’s part, and the evangelical world would do well to understand that though Paul may have the most straightforward synthesis of the gospel, the gospel did not begin and end with Paul’s writings.

Second, Wright helpfully endeavours to highlight the individual theologies of each of the four Gospels. While it is good and necessary to maintain a unity of the canonical books, particularly the Gospels, it is important to remember that each writer contributes a unique perspective. Like a good film-maker, the four Gospels are composed in such a way that, through the voice of each respective author, we see the same scene from different angles. Studying the Gospels in this manner can yield a greater depth of understanding.

Third, Wright correctly defends the fact that Jesus’ life is important to the message of the gospel. He rightly diagnoses the issue that many have failed to understand – why Jesus’ life is important. Wright stresses that the historical life of Jesus is more than a biography of what Jesus did between his birth and death; these historical events reveal who Jesus is and how he is inaugurating his eschatological kingdom.

Notwithstanding these important concerns, Wright does not offer a proper response (biblically or historically). Rather, he attempts in this relatively short book to turn up the volume on several points of the gospel message while simultaneously turning it down on other points. We are left with a clashing and dissonant conclusion. Not only does Wright argue that the church has forgotten the message of Paul, but he is now touting this all too familiar theme in regards to the gospel. Accordingly, our understanding of the gospel is so out of balance that the church has never appeared to have gotten it right — from the earliest creeds to our most contemporary understanding, all have fallen short. This reader fears that we ought not to be thankful for a biblical revolutionary like Wright who claims to see things so clearly where so many have failed, but that we should be suspicious of yet another assault, especially on a confessionally Reformed understanding of the gospel.

While Wright helpfully notes that each book of the Bible contributes a unique theology to the whole picture of God’s revelation, we must balance distinction with unity. While many in the church can be faulted for reading a Pauline soteriology into the pages of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, this is not altogether unwarranted. In his attempt to respond to this concern within the contemporary church, Wright risks swinging too far in the other direction, stressing distinction over unity. But Paul’s great theological treatises may not have been written as he pored over the Gospels — some of his letters likely being written prior to them – rather, the message Paul received was revealed to him by the same God who revealed and inspired the evangelists to write their Gospels. In turning up the volume of the individual books in the way Wright has done, we run the risk of losing the unified message of Scripture.

While Wright strays from identifying his antagonists with much clarity, he does appear to dismiss five hundred years of Reformed theology — although this perhaps is not his intention. The contention that arises out of Wright’s dismissal of orthodox Reformed theology, however, is not that he adequately critiques a historical understanding, but that he seems unfamiliar with Reformed theology altogether, especially as taught in its catechisms and confessions. For example, Wright would have you believe that no one has done justice to the life of Christ as most skip from his birth to his death. Yet our confessions deal precisely with the question: ‘Why did Christ have to live?’ Reformed orthodoxy has long defended the necessity of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, and his threefold office as they relate to each estate. Either Wright is ignorant concerning the developed theology of Christ’s life that the Reformed have consistently maintained, or he is hoodwinking his readers into thinking he has stumbled on something novel.

Throughout the main part of Wright’s book, he would have us believe that we have misunderstood the gospel, especially in regards to Christ’s substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone. Two pressing issues continually resurface regarding the broad strokes of Wright’s claims and dealing with the gospel.

First, Paul clearly tells the Corinthians that he handed down to them that which was of first importance, namely, that Christ died for sinners (see 1 Cor. 15:3). In contemporary theological writings, it is becoming increasingly popular to assail penal substitution for other theories of Christ’s atonement in an attempt to level the theological playing field. While there is merit in understanding the multi-dimensional nature of Christ’s death, Reformed theology has always given precedence to Christ’s substitutionary death as the central meaning of the gospel — and rightly so. Wright’s zealousness to show us other facets of Christ’s death risks losing this central work of Christ for sinners. The theological playing-field is anything but level in some matters of faith.

Second, Wright has not dealt sufficiently with those in the past who have argued that Christ being King is not good news in and of itself. Wright appears to mitigate the seriousness of sin and thus deemphasizes the reality of judgment. Biblically speaking, Christ is King and did ascend on high to manifest his kingship. But that alone is not sufficient to save sinners. What sinners need is a God-man who is both King and Priest. Wright’s emphases risk losing the very good news he is attempting to promote.

Wright’s book certainly offers evangelical readers an ample opportunity to rethink their view of the gospel, and helps to diagnose some of the ailments running rampant in the life of the church. Coming from an Anglican background, we can charitably assume that much of Wright’s work will present a good and necessary challenge to the liberal tendencies within European Anglicanism. But Wright does not give a satisfactory antidote. Perhaps the best remedy to Wright’s book is to be driven back to the confessional roots of Christianity and to the Reformed standards. It is here that you will find the volume and harmony of faith and practice rightly tuned.

Notes

Reprinted with permission from the Puritan Reformed Journal, Volume 5, Number 2 (July 2013).

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