Recovering the Gospel Behind the Creeds? A Review of How God Became King
N. T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2012).
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N. T. Wright describes his most recent book as a solution to a problem. The problem is that “we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about,” namely a revolutionary new vision of God’s mission in the world (ix, Wright’s emphasis). The Gospels share this vision, Wright contends, despite their many differences and despite the various critical approaches that might overlook it. In a nutshell, it is the vision of God becoming king over Israel and, therefore, king over all creation. To help us recover this vision, Wright elucidates the nature of the problem (part 1; chapters 1–3), uncovers four dimensions of the Gospels that Western readers have misunderstood (part 2; chapters 4–7), and then shows how our tending properly to those dimensions brings the significance of God’s kingship back into view (part 3; chapters 8–10). The concluding chapter (part 4; chapter 11) attempts to recover a proper reading of the Gospels vis-à-vis the historic creeds of Christianity.
In what follows, I will summarize the main exegetical chapters (parts 1–3) and then present a brief appraisal before offering a more substantial critique of Wright’s concluding arguments about the creeds. Within the framework of this book, the issue of the creeds is hardly minor, given that their misuse is, according to Wright, one of the main reasons we have lost sight of the gospel vision.
In elucidating the problem of our misreading (part 1), Wright targets the Christian propensity toward concise theological formulas, on the one hand, and the scholarly propensity toward historical and literary minutia, on the other. The Gospels, in other words, are victims of a kind of interpretive reductionism that fails to account for the big picture. Too often “the gospel” is defined in the strictly Pauline language of justification and atonement, language not found in the Gospels themselves (6–7). The historic creedal formulations of the faith (e.g., the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed) essentially skip from Jesus’s birth to his death, with little to no mention of his public ministry—the very thing the Gospels go to such great lengths to narrate (10–20). Meanwhile, in the scholarly arena, the legacy of form criticism has led to a focus on discrete pericopae, with little regard for the larger Gospel narratives much less any kind of shared vision between them (21–24).1
Yet just as problematic as skipping the middle (the public ministry) is focusing only on the middle at the expense of the beginning (birth) and ending (death), given that the beginning and ending inform our understanding of the middle (just as the middle informs our understanding of the beginning and the ending). One finds this exclusive emphasis on the middle among numerous Jesus historians who reduce Jesus to a political revolutionary, an apocalypticist unconcerned with worldly affairs, a teacher of timeless morals, or some combination thereof (26, 46–50). Blinded by the Enlightenment’s misguided attempt to keep God “out of real life” (34), and therefore to separate theology from politics, these historians refuse to concede that Jesus, despite the dominant Gospel perspective, could actually have explained himself with reference to God and God’s salvific actions (32). A popular Christian reaction to this skepticism (which Wright wrongly labels “orthodoxy”) has been to read the Gospels in order to prove Jesus’s “divinity” (36–39). But although the Gospels “do indeed exhibit belief in Jesus’s full divinity and humanity . . . that is not the primary story they were written to tell” (56). Nor will it do to read Jesus’s public career as instructing us on how to get to “heaven” (42–46). All of these approaches miss the basic, shared vision of God becoming king—on earth as in heaven—in the person of Jesus; and they misconstrue the very thing they want to emphasize (moral teachings, divinity, heaven, etc.) by neglecting this vision.
Such is the problem as Wright sees it. In setting things right, he begins by explaining four dimensions of the Gospel stories that these approaches generally neglect, overemphasize, or misunderstand (part 2). Wright likens these to four different speakers, each requiring a perfectly adjusted volume in order for the music to be heard correctly (61–62):
1. The Gospels give every indication that they intend to depict the sequel, even the very climax, of the story of Israel (61–81). Wright demonstrates how the beginning of each Gospel, through various forms of scriptural allusion, expresses this point in its own way, shaping us to see this climax in the subsequent narrative as well.
2. The Gospels insist that the story of Jesus is the story of Israel’s God (83–104). This is quite different, of course, from the aforementioned attempt to read the Gospels for proofs of Jesus’s divinity. As Wright notes, “we are quite happy to hear that ‘Jesus is God,’ in some sense. . . . We are less ready to hear that the God of Israel had promised to do certain specific things, in particular to establish his sovereign rule over Israel and the world, and that Jesus was embodying this intention” (84). According to Wright, this sovereign rule is the conclusive outworking of God’s original and persistent intention, evidenced especially in the tabernacle/temple traditions, “to live among his people” (despite their repeated rebellion). Moving beyond the tired scholarly distinction between the Synoptics and John, Wright insists that all four Gospels in fact convey their own “high” Christology aimed at locating the implementation of God’s kingdom in the historical figure of Jesus—again, on earth as in heaven.
3. The Gospels depict Jesus’s kingdom ministry as the launching of God’s renewed people (105–25). Wright examines selected discipleship passages such as the mission of the twelve and the Great Commission, as well as teachings on service and forgiveness, to show how the kingdom, while launched in Jesus’s public ministry, extends into the world through the work of his followers. More than mere historical records, the Gospels are “foundational documents” for the church in which all subsequent disciples find their collective raison d’être. The Jesus of the Gospels does not address isolated individuals with abstract, timeless truth; he shapes his followers into the renewed people of God, grounded in, and in direct continuity with, the story of Israel and Israel’s God.
4. The Gospels show how the kingdom of God clashes with the kingdom of Caesar (127–54). Although Jesus identifies his real enemy as Satan, thereby relativizing human opponents as representatives of demonic influence, this hardly makes Caesar a secondary opponent. The power of Caesar’s opposition is just as real as the threat God’s kingdom poses to Caesar. Wright highlights the scriptural pattern of Israel’s oppression by, and divine deliverance from, pagan nations (Pharaoh, Canaanites, Babylon). Moreover, what for Wright is the most formative exilic literature—Second Isaiah and Daniel—emphasizes this clash of kingdoms, promising a divine deliverance so definitive and so conclusive that it will usher in a new creation. Thus, the clash is not a strict dualism. Acknowledging that the Gospels refer only occasionally (at best) to “Caesar,” Wright is able to tackle selected texts to bring out the implied political clash. He insightfully notes that we must “reread the gospels as what we can only call political theology—not because they are not after all about God and spirituality and new birth and holiness and all the rest, but precisely because they are” (140).
Having brought these four themes to our attention, Wright sets out to demonstrate the difference they make in our reading, particularly insofar as they help us see the Gospels as political theology in narrative form (part 3). Instead of an interpretation predicated on misleading modern dichotomies between heaven and earth, spirit and matter, and theology and politics, Wright prefers an interpretation that, in tending to these themes, remains true to the first-century Jewish perspective in which the Gospels originate. Far from a modern interventionist “supernaturalism,” ancient Judaism insisted on the convergence of heaven and earth by way of God’s tabernacling presence. It “always assumed that the creator God wanted the world to be ordered and ruled by his image-bearing humans. The world, heaven and earth, was created as God’s temple, and his image-bearers were the key elements in that temple” (173). The story of Jesus is the story of God making this happen, that is, the story of God becoming king, vanquishing humanity’s (and ultimately Satan’s) rebellion so as to establish the long-awaited theocracy.
And so Wright arrives at his central claim: “All four gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through this story of Jesus of Nazareth. This central theme is stated in a thoroughly integrated way . . . with the kingdom and cross as the main coordinates” (175). The operative word is integrated, as we do not understand Jesus’s kingdom ministry apart from his death on the cross, just as we do not understand his death on the cross apart from his kingdom ministry. Modern liberal approaches tend to emphasize the kingdom ministry and its outreach to the marginalized or its ethical teachings in isolation from all the rest. Modern conservative approaches, by contrast, tend to overlook the kingdom ministry in order to emphasize any combination of cross (as evidence of Pauline atonement theology) and the supernatural (overreacting to hyperskeptical historians).
It is precisely in retrieving these four dimensions of the Gospels that such an integrated reading becomes possible:
1. When we understand the story of Jesus as the climax of Israel’s story, then we are more attuned to the scriptural emphasis on suffering for the divine cause (e.g., Jeremiah, Elijah, and Daniel) and to the hope for a representative figure who will undergo redemptive suffering on Israel’s behalf (e.g., Isaiah’s suffering servant, as well as various Psalms): “When we see the story of Jesus as the climax of the story of Israel, we should not be surprised to discover that the suffering of Israel and of Israel’s representative is to be understood as part of the longer and larger purposes of Israel’s God, in other words, the establishment of his worldwide healing sovereignty” (178–184, particularly 183). According to Wright, the Gospels understand Jesus’s own passion in these scriptural terms.
2. When we understand the story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God, then we are more attuned to the scriptural emphasis on Israel’s (and the world’s) redemption as a truly divine act, as the convergence of heaven and earth by way of God’s own presence within creation itself and as God’s own sharing in the sufferings of Israel (184–96). Of course no single passage really captures this all at once. In Isaiah 63 and Ezekiel 34, Wright finds the promise of Israel’s deliverance by means of God’s renewed presence. In Isaiah’s suffering servant (drawing on portions of Isa. 51–53) he finds a figure who, mysteriously, represents both Israel and God, so that God achieves redemption not only by working “through” the servant’s suffering but by sharing in that suffering, which is Israel’s suffering. Finally, in Daniel 7 Wright finds the representative “son of Man,” whose heavenly enthronement symbolizes God’s vindication of the covenant faithful of Israel and the final establishment of proper human dominion over creation. Thus, Jewish incarnational theology grounds Israel’s hope for God becoming king, and it explains the high Christology of the Gospels.
3. When we understand Jesus’s kingdom ministry as the launching of God’s restored people, we are prohibited from seeing the church in terms of God’s abandonment or replacement of Israel. Rather, Jesus’s followers constitute the transformation of Israel (196–204). The Gospels depict the vocation of the disciples as none other than the vocation of Jesus, that is, the implementing of God’s kingdom, and this not only through a ministry of outreach but through suffering with him. “The themes of kingdom and cross are not simply theological themes that the disciples have to learn. . . . They are the pattern of their life,” explains Wright, and their suffering, “like Jesus’s own suffering . . . [is] not just the inevitable accompaniment to the accomplishing of the divine purpose, but actually itself part of the means by which that purpose is to be fulfilled” (198–99).
4. When we understand the kingdom of God in its earthly opposition to, and authority over, the kingdom of Caesar, we are more attuned to the political implications of Jesus’s entire ministry. And, most importantly, we are equipped to interpret the crucifixion, properly, as God’s victory over evil—evil in the form of human powers and, more fundamentally, Satan.2 Through the death of the Messiah the dark forces of violence, destruction, and death—forces unleashed and sustained by human rebellion—are replaced by a kingdom of love. At Golgotha, evil converges upon Jesus from all sides, in the form of condemning temple authorities, self-aggrandizing Roman governors, and fleeing, self-preserving disciples. Yet this is the promised climax of God’s story, recognized by the early Christians only in hindsight, that God “would draw [evil] onto one place, allowing it to do its worst at that point. And [God] himself . . . would go to that place, would become Israel-in-person, in order that evil might do its worst to him and so spend its forces once and for all” (207).
More to the point, it is precisely in God’s defeat of evil on the cross that God’s kingship is irrevocably established. And so the significance of the crucifixion bears directly upon the state of creation itself:
In all four gospels, there is no drawing back. This is the coming of the kingdom, the sovereign rule of Israel’s God arriving on earth as in heaven, exercised through David’s true son and heir. It comes through his death. The fact that the kingdom is redefined by the cross doesn’t mean that it isn’t still the kingdom. The fact that the cross is the kingdom-bringing event doesn’t mean that it isn’t still an act of horrible and brutal injustice, on the one hand, and powerful, rescuing divine love, on the other. The two meanings are brought into dramatic and shocking but permanent relation. (220)
Such is the integration that Wright sets out to achieve: cross elucidates kingdom, just as kingdom elucidates cross. God’s kingdom takes root within creation and for creation, yet, as a kingdom of love, it is quite unlike all earthly kingdoms, predicated as they are on power and violence. Participants in this kingdom, therefore, engage the world (rather than escaping it) and advocate for its continued healing. The cross, rather than engendering abstract theories of individual forgiveness and access to heaven, sets “a kingdom agenda in which forgiven people are put to work, addressing the evils of the world in the light of the victory of Calvary” (244).
Readers familiar with Wright’s previous work will not be surprised by these arguments. They derive largely from his 1996 tome, Jesus and the Victory of God,3 but have been condensed here for less academic readers and somewhat recast for the purpose of addressing the problem of “the missing middle” (i.e., the neglect of Jesus’s public ministry). It is in this recasting that the book makes its real contribution, because it allows Wright to present a unified scriptural story that is both theologically rich and politically relevant, overcoming popular reductions of the Christian gospel.
As a seminary professor, I encounter these reductions in my own teaching, especially with first-year students. And I know my situation is not unique. There are students who rely on oversimplified theological formulas or vague notions of outreach and justice but who have very little knowledge of the Gospel narratives. There are also students who view salvation in strictly private and spiritual terms, often with the lone anticipation of leaving this world and going to heaven. And in all of this, there is very little appreciation for, much less understanding of, the relationship between the story of Jesus and the story of Israel and Israel’s God.
The reintegration of these stories—reading them as a unified narrative—is the key to Wright’s project. It is what allows him to avoid the formulaic reductions and false dichotomies that too often plague popular Christianity on the one hand and modern historical scholarship on the other hand. One senses that Wright is trying to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. For if we are at all interested in hearing the Gospels as they were meant to be heard, then theology and politics must be seen as inextricably related and mutually informing. God does not decree from on high our engagement with the world. Nor does God enter the fray only to deliver us from the world. Rather, God enters the fray precisely to engage the world, restore creation, and draw human creatures into that healing, restorative enterprise. For Wright, this is what it means to say that God has become king.
At the heart of this integration is Wright’s understanding of what he now calls Jewish incarnation theology, which is an outworking of his previous work in the Second Temple Jewish worldview, particularly the convergence of heaven and earth as applied to the temple and as anticipated in the messianic kingdom. And although it is not very tightly argued here (the nature of the book does not lend itself to real arguments of a scholarly nature), it nonetheless proves crucial to achieving unity between the stories of Israel, Israel’s God, and Jesus. Moreover, it accentuates just how different the Gospels are from a modern deist conception of divinity (predicated on the false distinction between the natural and supernatural) and how wrong it is, therefore, to read the deist perspective back into Scripture in order to conclude—quite self-servingly—that the Scriptures implausibly present a supernatural interventionist God. Although Wright has perhaps overstated the prevalence of this incarnation theology within Scripture, it is a tradition within Scripture that cannot be ignored.
As far as ancient Jewish theology and eschatology are concerned, God’s transcendence need not preclude God’s presence—even God’s presence in human form (as Isaiah’s servant and Daniel’s Son of Man suggest, albeit quite vaguely). Nor does that presence-in-human-form need to be (in fact must not be) limited to an isolated, “miraculous” case. If God’s intention as creator is to reign over creation through human creatures, then “the” incarnation is prototypical of all humans. Jesus realizes the human vocation by realizing Israel’s vocation (213).
I remain unconvinced, however, of Wright’s account of the means of realizing this vocation. He forwards what is essentially a penal-substitutionary theory of atonement that has, in my view, insufficient support from the Gospels themselves.4 This is not to say that the Gospels do not understand Jesus’s death as a redemptive sacrifice. However, with regard to the penal dimension of Jesus’s suffering, Wright’s argument falls short. The argument is based on Wright’s own reconstruction of a Jewish atonement expectation that draws together two Old Testament threads: (1) the pattern of divine punishment for Israel’s transgressions, and (2) the less prominent (but nonetheless actual) idea of substitutionary, redemptive suffering, most notably in the form of Isaiah’s servant. Wright combines these threads and then reads the Gospels through this reconstructed messianic trajectory so that the suggested parallels do all the work, replacing a more substantial exegetical engagement with Gospel texts.5 There is the added theological problem that penal-substitution renders God a reactionary being among other beings—very much in keeping with a non-christological reading of the Old Testament but seriously compromising Christianity’s historic emphasis on divine apatheia (immutability).6 Of course, the compromising of a postbiblical patristic argument probably does not concern Wright, which leads me to a more substantial critique.
As I have already noted, the final chapter of How God Became King attempts to recover a proper reading of the Gospels vis-à-vis the historic creeds of Christianity. This picks up a thread from chapter 1 in which Wright makes clear his opposition to anyone who would identify the “canonical Jesus” with the “creedal Jesus.” At first blush this seems only to mean that the creeds are not the same as the biblical canon. That is, the creeds are limited insofar as they “pass directly from [Jesus’s] virgin birth to his suffering and death” (11). Because the life lived between birth and death is vitally important to our understanding of Jesus, including the meaning of both his birth and death, it would be dangerous to rely solely on the creeds. Indeed, the book is aimed at filling this “enormous gap” in the creedal tradition (15). Wright does not want Christian catechesis relying on creeds at the expense of the scriptural witness (16–19). He believes, evidently based on his own experiences, that this has happened.
Fair enough. But as it turns out, there is more to it than clarifying for readers the limitations of the creeds, on the one hand, while reintroducing them to the kingdom-substance of the Gospels, on the other hand. As much as Wright insists on the truth of the creeds, it is clear that he finds them secondary, if not peripheral, to the church’s task of defining the nature of God’s work in Christ. For Wright, this task is essentially a matter of historical-critical exegesis, reading the biblical canon as a more-or-less coherent, linear narrative. Scripture, when properly interpreted within its historical context, apparently captures the identity of Christ sufficiently, on its own terms, as the climax of this narrative. The creeds, by contrast, were “a unique post-biblical innovation to meet a fresh need” (256)—the need to settle specific, subsequent christological debates. As such, they function as “key markers in areas where there had been serious controversy” (256), but they were never intended to serve as a kind of interpretive framework for reading Scripture. Even if some of the church fathers did intend them that way, Wright contends that it has not worked out. In catechetical practice, Wright (vaguely) contends, the creeds compete with the Gospels—and they are winning (18–19).
No wonder, then, that Wright disparages recent scholarly attempts to read Scripture within a creedal framework. This “creedal hermeneutic” is, in his view, “a fairly new move” in the history of interpretation, plagued by the misguided assumption that the creeds are—quoting Christopher Seitz—“letting Scripture come to its natural, two-testament expression” (255).7
As a corrective, Wright forwards the simple prioritizing of Scripture over “tradition”:
If we start with the creeds, granted the way our Western Christianity is now more or less bound to read them, we will never understand the gospels, and hence the whole canon itself. If, however, we start with the gospels, which form the heart and balance point of the whole Christian canon, and if we understand them to be telling the story of how God, the creator God, Israel’s God, became in and through Jesus the king of all the world, then we can return to the creeds and say them in a very different spirit. Put tradition first, and scripture will be muzzled and faded. Put scripture first, and tradition will come to new life. Better yet, put Jesus first . . . and all these things will be added to you.(274)
There is indeed a sense in which, methodologically speaking, Wright himself has “started with Scripture” (conceding this oversimplification for the moment), and there is no doubting that this approach has yielded some insights into the Jesus of the Gospels. I would contend, however, that the severing of Scripture from creedal tradition, for the purposes of setting Scripture above (or “before”) that tradition—as a normative hermeneutical hierarchy—is the more recent move in the history of scriptural exegesis. It establishes a kind of unidirectional approach that is, despite its great popularity in much of modern Christianity, simply untrue, both in intention and practice, to the ancient church that formulated the creeds. Irenaeus of Lyons exemplifies the ancient logic in his insistence that we read Scripture in accordance with the “Rule of Faith,” the Rule being a scripturally-derived “deposit” of the apostolic tradition, on the one hand, but the necessary hypothesis for the unveiling of Scripture’s overall unity, on the other.8 This sounds very much like the “creedal hermeneutic” that Wright disparages as altogether innovative. In reality, however, the ancient church followed this kind of logic as the Rule evolved into more linguistically-fixed creeds.9
Of course, there is no denying that key formulas in the major creeds express the outcomes of postbiblical christological debates, and this is often through the introduction of language and ideas that are not mentioned in scripture. One could even concede Wright’s claim that the creedal tradition itself is entirely postbiblical. In these ways, we might say that the church “started with” Scripture. However, the key question is not which comes first in strict historical sequence; it is whether the Christ of the creeds really is the Christ of Scripture, not merely on the level of linguistic description (obviously they are different in that sense, with the Gospels saying much more) but on the level of actual identity. Does the Chalcedonian definition, for example, faithfully describe the same Christ that Scripture describes? Is the definition consistent with and faithful to the scriptural witness, even as it moves beyond strictly scriptural language?
This brings us—as these discussions so often do—to the question of exegetical method. For Wright, historical criticism is the absolutely normative method for understanding scripture.10 In How God Became King, he attempts to fill in the creedal “gap” with a historical reconstruction of the meaning of Jesus’s kingdom message and sacrificial messianic vocation.11 In many respects the book accomplishes this quite admirably—again, particularly in the integration of theology and politics. It is easy to see how someone who presupposes the absolute normativity of historical criticism would regard the creeds as altogether secondary on the question of Jesus’s identity. When Wright insists that we “start with” Scripture, he means going back in time to recover first-century authorial intentions, or more to the point, going back to recover a first-century Nazarene’s intentions. The very language of “starting with” suggests an either/or choice given that, strictly historically speaking, you can only start something once.
But where Wright sees an either/or, the ancient church saw a both/and. This was not because it refused to “start with” Scripture. It is impossible to read the patristic literature and conclude that the writers did not view Scripture as the normative witness to God’s work in Christ or that they disregarded Scripture in formulating the church’s understanding of God’s work. I would even venture to say that the church fathers prioritized the truthful understanding of Scripture just as much as Wright. The insistence on putting Scripture before tradition does not mean one has placed greater emphasis on Scripture, much less that one is now in a better position to understand it. It simply means one has set particular hermeneutical parameters—in Wright’s case, modern historical-critical parameters—on what the interpretive enterprise should look like, and therefore on what its results will be.
The ancient church also set hermeneutical parameters (as we all must do). But it was a different set of parameters, which is to say that the ancient church’s interpretive enterprise was guided by a different set of presuppositions. To begin, it did not conceive of Jesus primarily as a past figure but as the living, present Lord. The high Christology that Wright highlights in the Gospels helped pave the way for “the extraordinary notion that the Creator of the universe is at work without interruption in the life and work of Jesus—that it is God who is doing what Jesus is doing.”12 And because this living Lord is the very revelation of God to which Scripture bears witness, that is, the Truth itself (John 14:6), the main task of the church fathers, as John Behr has demonstrated, was the expounding of Christ “through the medium of scripture,” not the expounding of texts per se, even less the reconstruction of a strictly past identity.13
Not that the past of Jesus was unimportant. Interestingly, the church fathers would have shared Wright’s conviction that the Gospels preserved Jesus’s past accurately, just as Wright shares the church fathers’ conviction that Jesus is a living, present Lord.14 But the church fathers were not bound by a strictly linear-historical approach to Scripture. If Jesus, as risen Lord, was in fact identifiable with God, then he could not be merely the climax of a sequential narrative. As the enfleshed Logos, he was somehow already in the beginning (John 1:1). And if being identifiable with God meant real union, a true oneness of “person”—otherwise God is not truly incarnate, or God is not incarnate as truly human—then the ancient church found itself with a profoundly definitive revelation of divinity and humanity, all at once. It was and is a revelation to which Scripture is the primary, normative witness, but with soteriological implications requiring non-scriptural categories to appropriately capture. It was natural for these categories to come into play in moments of disagreement, when the scriptural witness was seemingly equivocal, but that did not make the resolution of those debates secondary or peripheral. They were, rather, the extension of a single journey of Christological discernment in which everything was at stake, not a bit of fine-tuning in the realm of second-order theological grammar.
Of course, given Wright’s arguments in How God Became King, he would disagree with the claim that “everything was at stake.” And a book review, unfortunately, is not the place to lay out a centuries-long journey of discernment in order to clarify those stakes.15 I would be interested to know, for instance, whether Wright believes that Maximus the Confessor died a true martyr, whether it was worth having his right hand cut off and his tongue ripped out, dying in exile because he insisted on the unity of two wills in one hypostasis (a scriptural claim only by way of postbiblical philosophical theology). But that discussion will have to wait. For now, I simply note—and this seems to me irrefutable—that if Scripture and the creeds refer to the same Christ, and if the creeds describe Christ truthfully, then there is nothing wrong, in principle, with reading Scripture in light of the creeds. That is hardly to say that a creedal framework simply guarantees right interpretation. But if Wright is willing to concede that the creeds are true, then it is illogical for him to protest a creedal framework, even granting him the (I believe ill-founded) point that the creeds are peripheral to the discernment of Jesus’s identity. In that sense there is no “starting with” Scripture “before” tradition or “starting with” tradition “before” Scripture, but rather a constant, mutually informing relationship between the two.
As a way of summing this up, I contend that there are three interpretive possibilities swimming around this book, but they have not all been sufficiently distinguished:
1. Understanding Jesus by reading Scripture through a creedal framework.
2. Understanding Jesus by relying solely on the creeds.
3. Understanding Jesus by reading Scripture with the tools of historical criticism.
I am not disputing the helpfulness of the third possibility, although I do not grant it the normative status that Wright does. The main problem I want to point out is that Wright assumes that the first possibility is, in practice at least, no different than the second possibility. Yet however much he claims to have encountered this phenomenon, the only evidence he can muster is the obvious “gap” whereby the creeds jump from Jesus’s birth to his death, emphasizing Jesus’s “divinity” with little regard for the sociopolitical implications of God becoming king (259–73). Again, I am not disputing the gap. But if I commit to reading, say, the Gospel of Matthew through the lens of the creedal tradition, does the tradition itself demand that I skip from chapters 1 and 2 (Jesus’s birth) to chapters 27 and 28 (his crucifixion), thereby skipping chapters 3 through 26 (his public ministry)? Of course not. It means that I read all of Matthew in light of the creedal tradition, bringing to his first-century story the results of later christological discernment. If one were to protest that Matthew (or even the historical Jesus) did not “intend” for me to read the story in light of that tradition (something I cannot dispute), then we are faced once again with the question of whether the creeds are true. Wright’s dismissal of the creeds would logically follow if he had claimed not to believe them or if he qualified his belief in the manner of Marcus Borg, who insists on a largely nonliteral reading as a way of foreclosing all discussion of metaphysical coherence.16 Without further nuance on Wright’s part, we are left with an unconvincing argument.
Note, finally, that this creedal framework in no way precludes the insights of historical criticism, although, again, it does preclude its absolute methodological normativity. On this point I am fond of quoting the 1993 publication of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” which states that “Holy Scripture, inasmuch as it is the ‘word of God in human language,’ has been composed by human authors in all its various parts and in all the sources that lie behind them. Because of this, its proper understanding not only admits the use of this method but actually requires it.”17 Historical criticism is not only a methodological option but a responsibility, and Wright’s career is a testament to what faithfully and diligently meeting that responsibility looks like. This includes not only the helpful integration of theology and politics that constitute the main chapters of this book but also his pointing out the very real differences between the Gospels and the creeds, as well as the danger of reading the latter at the expense of the former. Although I do not think one solves the problem of the creedal gap by relegating the creeds to the hermeneutical margins, or that such a solution even follows from the sum of Wright’s claims, I do appreciate his raising the question. At the end of the day, How God Became King enriches our experience of the Gospels, even as they are read within a creedal framework. And that is no small matter.18
1. Strictly speaking, form criticism is the analysis of the literary forms of isolated pericopes or stories (e.g., miracle stories, pronouncement stories, etc.). It also commonly involves the reconstruction of the various “settings-in-life” that those stories sought to address in early Christian contexts. Form criticism therefore lends itself to the dissection of Gospel narratives, analyzing the pieces rather than the whole.
2. Ibid., 204-209.
3. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God 2 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1996).
4. “Jesus . . . is dying a penal death in place of the guilty, of guilty Israel, of guilty humankind” (Wright, How God Became King, 243). See also Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 185.
5. I think the same could be said for Wright’s much lengthier scholarly discussion in Jesus and the Victory of God (540–611), namely that a masterfully predetermined messianic script—based partly on some real echoes in the Gospels—has been laid over the Gospels in order to achieve a single vocational self-awareness at the level of the historical Jesus. Given Wright’s interest in the integration of theology and politics in How God Became King, one wonders why he did not explore more deeply the theological dimensions of Jesus’s so-called clash with Caesar—in terms of kenosis, for instance—which could just as easily be read in terms of atonement, provided we expand our definition beyond the conventional theories. See Driggers, “Jesus’ Atoning Life in the Gospel of Mark,” The Lutheran 44, no. 4 (2010): 11–14.
6. See the cogent arguments against redemptive violence by Daniel M. Bell Jr., “God Does Not Demand Blood: Beyond Redemptive Violence,” in God Does Not…: Entertain, Play Matchmaker, Hurry, Demand Blood, Cure Every Illness, ed. Brent Laytham (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2009), 39–61. On the patristic emphasis on divine apatheia, see David Bentley Hart, “No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility,” Pro Ecclesia 11, no. 2 (2002): 184–206; and J. Warren Smith, “Suffering Impassibly: Christ’s Passion in Cyril of Alexandria’s Soteriology,” Pro Ecclesia 11, no. 4 (2002): 463–83. The clearest sign of Wright’s awareness of this problem (that I have found) comes in Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2006), 65–67, where he warns against the construal of God as a being among other beings. But there is no attempt to reconcile this warning with his penal-substitutionary view of the crucifixion.
7. Seitz, “Our Help Is in the Name of the Lord,” in Nicene Christianity: The Future of a New Ecumenism, ed. Seitz (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2001), 20.
8. Against Heresies, 2.25.1–2
9. See John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005); John Behr, The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006); and Robert W. Jenson, Canon and Creed (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
10. This is perhaps most clear in Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999).
11. In fairness to Wright, How God Became King does not adopt a strictly historical-critical mode of argument but rather a kind of “composition criticism” (xiii-xv). However, anyone familiar with Wright’s previous work (mainly in the Christian Origins and the Question of God series) knows that his interpretation of these literary compositions derives from that strictly historical-critical enterprise. Given that Wright believes that the Gospels essentially preserve the historical Jesus, there is really little difference.
12. Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 62–63.
13. Behr, The Mystery of Christ, 55.
14. I would argue that the extent and exactitude of this historicity is more vital to Wright than it is to the church fathers. In other words, the patristic interpretive project does not depend on virtually everything in the Gospels coming from the historical Jesus, as seems to be the case for Wright (if not in theory, then at least in practice). It depends rather on the Gospels’ basic historicity—these are the kinds of things Jesus said and did—and on the ultimate theological truth of the Gospel claims, regardless of whether they come directly from the “historical Jesus.”
15. Returning to the question of divine apetheia, however, the stakes are summarized well in Hart, “No Shadow of Turning,” passim.
16. See Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—And How They Can Be Restored (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 203–15. Of course, certain parts of the creedal tradition should be taken nonliterally, as in the language of Jesus “coming down from heaven” (ibid., 208). But Borg uses this as a license to shift the discussion to the “external meaning” of creedal language, namely its practical, sociopolitical relevance, without regard for any underlying metaphysics (ibid., 215).
17. “The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church,” Pontifical Biblical Commission, 1993, I.A. See also the 1943 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu.
18. To his credit, Wright does concede that the Apostles’ Creed can “illuminate” scripture (How God Became King, 264), but what he means by this, and how it coheres with his overarching resistance to a “creedal hermeneutic,” is not altogether clear. If, at the end of the day, Wright means only to say that a creedal framework should not short-circuit the historical-critical enterprise, then I wonder why he could not have simply said this, without the oversimplified distinctions between “scripture” and “tradition” and the dismissing of Christopher Seitz. My guess is that the methodological hegemony of historical-criticism is the underlying concern, but that is only a guess.
Ira Brent Driggers is an associate professor of New Testament at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina. He is the author of Following God Through Mark: Theological Tension in the Second Gospel (Westminster John Knox).