In 2012 the well-known Anglican theologian NT (Tom) Wright wrote a book titled How God became King with as subtitle ‘The core of the gospel rediscovered.’
This title make us frown: what does it mean?
We would not be in a hurry to pay much attention to it if this author were not currently one of the world’s most influential theologians.
Also at the Theological University in Kampen, where last year he presented a lecture to a large audience, he has his enthusiastic admirers. His books are in great demand, also in the Netherlands.
His influence is not only partly due to his accessible style of writing, but he also gained a good name among ‘orthodox’ Christians because of his defence of the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection. Yet, it has not gone unnoticed that Wright takes a deviating approach to a number of doctrinal truths.
In his introduction Wright says: ’At the core of the Christian faith and religious practice lies a fundamental problem: Everyone has forgotten what the four Gospels are about. Yes, they write about Jesus, but what exactly are they saying about Him?’
This sounds rather provocative. Wright suggests that we have actually always read the Gospels wrongly, or at least explained or understood them wrongly. We have failed to take important things about Jesus into account. Consequently, even the core of the gospel has escaped us! The ‘we’ and ‘us’ are then in particular those Christians who abide by confessional documents! We would, through these Confessions, not only have overlooked things in the Bible but also have read things ‘into’ the Bible that are not there.
Let’s have a look at it.
Wright compares the Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles ‘Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed) with the four Gospels.
He then comes to the conclusion that these Creeds do not really deal with Jesus’ life on earth. They make, according to Wright, a direct jump from Jesus’ birth to the suffering on the cross and his resurrection. This, says Wright, can be explained by the rejection of errors during the early years of the Christian church. That’s why there would be far too much emphasis placed on the fact that Jesus is God, while the Gospels primarily speak more about the Kingdom of God on earth. Nicea would only mention the kingdom of Christ after His return.
In the Reformed Confessions, according to Wright, the gospel is shown through the eyes of Paul, with too much attention given to the cross as the place where sins were reconciled.
Wright says that if there would have been more careful listening to the Gospels themselves, there would be much more attention given to Jesus’ exaltation, to his Kingdom that came with his coming to earth with the cross of Calvary as climax. That cross and the kingdom belong together.
A kingdom not-of-this-world
According to Wright the issue at the cross is the war between the kingdom of this world ruled by the emperor, and a not-of-this-world kingdom with Jesus. The latter ‘stands entirely separate from the empire or a simple, old-fashioned violent revolution. That Kingdom is universal, omnipresent and omnipotent.’ (161).
Wright opposes the general idea about reconciliation, which is no more than ‘the forgiveness of sins’ which allows ‘people to go to heaven.’ As a result, according to him, the problem of evil is not being dealt with.
According to Wright all four Gospels regard the history of Jesus not only as a confrontation between God’s realm and the empire, but as the victory of the first over the latter. We find this theme throughout the New Testament, he says. The violent death of the Lamb meant that the monsters and their terrible kingdoms are finally defeated, and that the old dragon, Satan himself, has been conquered (210). ‘The cross in the gospel of John on which, as we know, God’s love and Jesus’ love become completely visible (Jn. 13: 1), is the moment when God seizes the power and rules over the emperor. From now on the ruler of the world will be judged.” (157).
Wright explains Col. 2:15: Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it [NKJV] like this: ‘When Jesus died on the cross he overcame the ‘principalities and powers’ who had divided up the world in their own violent and destructive way. The coming of God’s Kingdom means that the earthly kingdoms are dethroned, not for the purpose of replacing them by a similar regime (that imposes its will with superior weapons), but by a realm in which power is the power of the servant and strength is the strength of love.’ (211).
Wright assigns the church and its testimony a place in the building up of the Kingdom. That testimony ought to bear witness through suffering and serving in this world. It ought to express itself in a way different from just throwing bombs on Muslim countries in retaliation for 11 September 2001. (p. 169).
As examples of good Christian action he mentions William Wilberforce (the abolition of slavery), Desmond Tutu (the warrior against apartheid) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the church is there for the world).
Cross and Kingdom
Wright asks himself the question: How can the suffering and death of Israel’s Messiah contribute to the establishment of his worldwide government? This he calls the main theme of his book.
First he relates this to the people of Israel. The gospel writers all saw in Jesus the embodiment of Israel’s God, who came back after the exile to live with his people and save them from the curse. And what happens then through the suffering and death on the cross? God becomes king!
Wright mentions various texts relating to the atoning death of Christ, but explains them such that the most important thing is that his suffering leads to the kingship.
Thus he connects the suffering of Jesus with the suffering of Israel. In the cross Israel’s history reaches its climax: the kingdom of God is established. According to him Isaiah 40-55 about the suffering servant of the Lord must be read so that ‘the servant is the one through whose representative work Israel’s God will accomplish his gaol with Israel and the whole world.’ (196).
Wright again and again establishes a direct connection between suffering and kingship. But there is no place in this for atonement through satisfaction! Wright pays no attention to Jesus’ substitutionary suffering as bearing the wrath of God, but for a people-representing suffering as the way to become king. It was suffering by which the evil of wicked forces was overcome.
This is therefore really something quite different from what our Confessions teach in echoing the Bible.
Wright seeks to justify this by referring to Luke 24:25-27, ‘Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into his glory? …’. Wright says: ‘The suffering of Israel’s representative takes the sting out of the evil of the world; Luke makes clear that the betrayal, the arrest and the death of Jesus formed the climax of the evil of the wicked powers.’ (191).
Church and suffering
Wright wants to abolish the idea that Jesus came ‘to save us out of the world.’ No, he says, God has come in Jesus ‘to claim his dominion over the world.’ In this process Jesus has transformed Israel into a new community. This new community will, like the Israel of old, have to endure suffering. But that suffering of Jesus’ followers is, like Jesus’ own suffering, not only inseparably connected with the divine goal, but partly also the means to achieve that goal (205).
Wright does not see the suffering of the church as suffering for Christ’s sake. According to him, it also has ‘a positive result whereby the redemptive effect of Jesus’ death is passed on, not by adding anything to it but by sharing in it.’ (207). They [the members of the church] must be messengers of the Kingdom, first on the basis of Jesus’ suffering, and thereafter by means of their own suffering (209).
The slain and glorified Lamb of Revelation 5 is not only the shepherd of his people, he is also their example (209). The cross puts the church into motion [with] a new missiology embracing a political theology (247). In other words, the church must show service and love to the world, and thereby provide substance to the Kingdom of Christ.
Kingdom without reconciliation through satisfaction?
This claim of a completely new explanation of the gospel must make us wary. Wright’s reasoning contains many quotations from Scripture, as well as ideas that are familiar to us. But apart from that there is also much that we find strange.
Let us say first what we find ‘appealing’. It is the thought that the kingdom of God in Christ is actually being exercised on earth. That Christ through His death and resurrection has received the name above all names, specifically to exercise His power on this earth. The Kingdom of God is indeed not something that manifests itself only after the Second Coming, although it will by then be perfectly established. Here it is incorrect to blame the Confessions for having no eye for this. The words: ‘and sits at the right hand of God the Father’ follow immediately after Christ’s Ascension, showing an active government also prior to the Second Coming. Wright completely overlooks that the Heidelberg Catechism develops this further in Lord’s Days 18 and 19!
While we recognise something in the theme, it strikes us that a picture is being presented of Christ’s work that is completely different from what we know from Scripture. We see Christ [in Wright’s work] not as the Priest-King who offered Himself for his people on the cross; who each day pleads for them. We also do not see Him as the one who preserves his church in the world and protects it in all dangers. In other words, [Wright] has also not taken the content of HC Lord’s Days 18 and 19 into account.
Wright’s defence is that he wanted to listen only to the Gospel writers, not to Paul. But is that allowed? Should we not take all of Scripture into account when it comes to the gospel? There is after all only the one Author, God Himself! There are moreover plenty of texts in the Gospels themselves that identify Jesus as the one who suffered for the sins of his people (Matthew 20: 28; Mark 10: 45; 14: 24; John 1: 29; John 3: 16). I am thinking also of the references in the Gospels to the Servant of the Lord (Matthew 8: 17; 12: 17; Luke 4: 18). Why does Wright make extensive references to Daniel 7 and parts of Isaiah to strengthen his argumentation, and why does he reject the atoning sacrifice as something that belongs to Paul and not to the cross?
Wright presents us in this way with a distorted picture of the work of Christ—a picture that is not in accordance with the whole of Scripture, but also not in accordance with the Gospels themselves.
The question is: how is this possible? Does Wright not impose here his own view on Scripture? If he does all he can to explain away Christ’s sacrifice of atonement through satisfaction and Christ bearing God’s wrath on the cross, the question arises whether he perhaps does not believe it. How does he see sin, God’s wrath and the final judgment? What is his view on the atonement and justification through faith?
Wright has written about the justification through faith in several books. We hope to write about this in another article.
Evil and suffering
What Wright regards as the most important work of Christ on the cross is the victory over ‘evil.’ He associates that ‘evil’ in particular with the rulers of the world – such as the Roman emperor. Now God’s Word does say that Jesus disarmed principalities and powers (Col. 2: 15). But there we will have to think of the powers of darkness (Luke 22: 53; Col. 1: 13, Eph. 6: 12), of the rulers of the realm of sin and death, of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2). It is true that these powers can also influence earthly kings. But that is here not the first point at issue. The denial of Christ’s bearing God’s wrath against sin by which Satan was cast out of heaven (Rev 12: 10) results also in a wrong interpretation of the effect of Christ’s victory. Wright focuses primarily on the evil government of earthly kings. But Eph. 6: 12 says: For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the world rulers of this darkness.
Wright also fills the suffering of the church with a content we do not know from Scripture. In Romans 8:18 we read: The sufferings of this present time do not outweigh the glory that will be revealed in us; and in 1 Peter 4:13, The suffering which [believers] must undergo may give joy if it is a suffering for Christ’s sake. But it sounds strange when we read in Wrights writings that the exalted Lamb that stands as though it had been slain is [our] example to now suffer as church and in that way propagate his Kingdom in the world.
In this Wright misunderstands on the one hand the High-priestly function of the Lamb, while on the other hand the suffering itself does not represent propagating the Kingdom. It is true that our obedience to Christ goes with his Kingdom, also when it leads to suffering. The question is whether Wright means to say this.
Moreover, the suffering of the church does invoke the curse of God’s judgments upon the world (Rev 6: 10; 16: 5-7).
We do not find these elements of Christ’s kingship with Wright.
The Kingdom and we
We missed in Wright’s book a lot of scriptural content about the Kingdom of God and our task in that Kingdom. Scripture teaches us to seek the Kingdom of God (Matt 6: 33), to acknowledge God and Christ as king, to love Him with all our heart. And therefore sacrifice everything for the service to the Lord, serve God and honour Him according to His Word, repent from evil ways, fight against sin, and maintain the antithesis in our life.
In the service of his Kingdom we will pray for the coming of His Kingdom in perfection and look longingly for his return. We will build his church and participate in the meeting of the church as the people of the Kingdom.
Entering into the Kingdom of God means to us a spiritual war. And in this struggle we shall have to firmly uphold God’s Word in a lawless world. We shall, furthermore, have to bear witness of the Lord Jesus to this world in our conduct and talk, as the only name by which there is salvation. And also call people back from sinful ways. This includes warning against the approaching judgment (Acts 17; Rev 11).
Do we then have no other task with regard to the world without God than to witness? Yes, we have. We still have a task under Christ the King to live and work in this world to God’s honour.
But that does not mean that our main task here is to transform this world into the Kingdom of God. We expect according to his promise new heavens and a new earth.
If we consider all this, the conclusion is that this book of N.T. Wright clashes with Scripture and Confession. Does he not teach a different gospel and a different Christ?
This book takes the reader away from God’s Word. It has lost the heart of the gospel.
This article appeared in Dutch as “De kern van het evangelie herondekt of kwijt?” in De Bazuin, Vol 9/18, 9 September 2015, and was translated by J Eikelboom.
The writer of this article, S de Marie, is a minister in De Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands.
N T Wright’s book How God became King has, in English, also been published with different subtitles, e.g. “The forgotten Story of the Gospels”, “Getting to the Heart of the Gospels” and “Why we’ve all misunderstood the Gospels”.