Thursday, November 30, 2017

Is Wright Right?

N.T. Wright is an eminent British New Testament scholar whom I have respected for many years. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (2012) is one his many books. It is mainly about the central message of the four gospels in the New Testament.
What Are the Gospels About?
As Wright (b. 12/1/1948) explains in the Preface, “the story that the four evangelists tell is the story, as in my title, of ‘how God became king’.”
Early in the book, he notes that Protestant Christianity has assumed atonement and justification “to be at the heart of ‘the gospel.’ But,” he insists, the gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—“appear to have almost nothing to say about those subjects” (p. 6).
Further, the classic Christian creeds say little about the bulk of the four gospels: They “were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God” (p. 20).
So, again, Wright clearly asserts that “the whole point of the gospels is to tell the story of how God became king, on earth as in heaven” (p. 34).
I think that basically Wright is right in what he writes here. 
Where is the Kingdom of God?
Conservative/evangelical Christians have long emphasized that the Kingdom of God (KoG) will come into fruition at the end of the present world. It is seen primarily as being in Heaven following the end times.
Partly because the KoG is always called “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s gospel (beginning with Mt. 3:2), it has commonly been viewed as “other-worldly” and primarily about the future rather than the present.
However, there has been a growing recognition among liberal, moderate, and even left-wing evangelical Christians that the KoG is about the here and now as well as about “the sweet by and by.” This new understanding is based partly on the Lord’s Prayer for God’s will to be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”
As I wrote in my Feb. 28 blog article, through the years I have come to understand that the KoG is as much about, or even more about, God’s reign on earth now than after the “end of the world.”
Indeed, if God became King in and through Jesus’ death and resurrection, as Wright writes, then the KoG is here and the KoG is now.
This basic understanding is also found in the recent writings of popular Christian authors such as Brian McLaren as well as in the books of Brian Zahnd, such as Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (2017), which I wrote about on Sept. 5 (see here). (Both McLaren and Zahnd hold Wright in high regard.)
Why Doesn’t It Look Like God is King?
The perplexing question, of course, is why, if God is King, doesn’t the world look more like what we would expect God’s Kingdom to look like? Please consider these brief suggestions:
1) There was no promise that the full realization of the KoG would come quickly—and considering the age of the universe or the history of Homo sapiens, what is a mere 2,000 years?
2) The KoG is being established, slowly, only by peaceful means and without coercion. Every use of coercion by Christians, and there have been a multitude of attempts to expand the KoG by force—has caused a setback.
3) There has been progress—although the struggle continues. As Wright acknowledges, “the story of Jesus” is seen in the New Testament “as the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world” (p. 138).
So we continue to pray, “Your Kingdom come”—while both working and waiting for that to happen.


  1. Thank you, Leroy, for this informative piece on Wright's book. It appears to me that evangelical theologians are coming around to dealing with the biblical texts in a more "empirical" way; i.e., what do the texts actually say/don't say? I suspect this reflects the decreasing defensive posture vis-a-vis higher criticism. Of course, they typically still try to hold onto core "orthodox" beliefs (as you write, "However, there has been a growing recognition among liberal, moderate, and even left-wing evangelical Christians that the KoG is about the here and now as well as about “the sweet by and by”), although some are even beginning to question core beliefs; of recent, God changes (Pinnock?) and love wins (Rob Bell). I would suggest -- and maybe I'm being cantankerous; I hope note -- this kind of insight Wright has "discovered" is not new at all among liberal theologians; witness the Social Gospel movement and their writings of the 19th century. I think, too, of Harvey Cox's fluffy little 1965 book, God's Revolution and Man's Responsibility.

    Thank you, again, as always for sharing your readings/research with the rest of us. It is a great gift, and your friends appreciate it.

    By the way, while trying to find a piece of information online for my response, I came across this interesting piece by Gerald McDermott, titled, "The Emerging Divide in Evangelical Theology." I don't have time to read it thoroughly right now, but it looks interesting as a backdrop for some of the work you do.

    1. Thanks much for reading this new blog article and for sharing significant comments.

      I especially appreciate your reference to the Social Gospel movement and Harvey Cox's book. I have long been an admirer of Walter Rauschenbusch and I often made reference to Cox's book in the late 1960s and early '70s. So that is one reason, I guess, I resonated with Wright's book--which he has also written about in other books.

      I didn't mean to imply that Wright had "discovered" something new--but he has written as a New Testament scholar with an outstanding reputation. He has also emphasized his main viewpoint in greater detail and at greater lengths that others.

      It is interesting to note that both Rauschenbusch and Cox were Baptists--as you and I used to be.

      Thanks for the link to the piece by McDermott. I did not know about him or about VirtueOnLine. I was interested to see that since 2015 he has been on the faculty of Beeson Divinity School. (Here is a link to him: .) The article is 12.5 pages long, but I decided to read it all--and I found it interesting, but obviously written from a conservative (as opposed to liberal) position.

      I was also interested to find that McDermott has co-authored a book on the Trinity with Harold Netland, who was a missionary in Japan with whom I have had some interesting dialogue--with him as the more conservative of the two.

  2. Fellow "Thinking Friends", I highly recommend taking the links back to read the blogs and comments on "IntRAfaith", and "Growing in Faith".

  3. Here are very thoughtful comments from local Thinking Friend (and Roman Catholic Sister) Marilyn Peot:

    "This is a great topic--and one I'd like to pursue with a group. I think you are inviting us to make a distinction between Myth and Truth.

    "Since Darwin, Einstein, and Hubble we have come into Truth in a way that makes us ask 'How big is our God?". Also, so much of Joseph Campbell comes to mind--and let's not forget personal experience.

    "I believe the Spirit is unfolding Deep Truth that causes us to pause and realize that our myths elucidate Truth in ever new ways. We are indeed living through a paradigm shift. As new awakenings occur in us we are faced with an unfolding of a deeper recognition/experience of the Here-ness of God Spirit.

    "I believe we are being called to admit to the 'Something New' that is happening and we must return to Scripture to discover what we are learning now through science, evolution and cosmology. Through Jesus, the Incarnate One, we discover that deeper truths have been there all the time.

    "We are definitely discovering that heaven/kingdom is a state of mind (not a place) and the New Creation is unfolding in each of us! This surely opens us to the Season of Advent with the yearning and waking up of the new consciousness."

    1. I was intrigued by this post, and searched for "Deep Truth," the results of which seemed to all lead to David Brandt Berg, such as this site by a missionary in Japan, James Arendt:

      I do not know anything more than what my cursory reading told me, so I will not judge Berg or Arendt. If this was indeed what Peot referenced, it might be an interesting subject for further review. If, on the other hand, she simply meant it as an open metaphor, I think that makes great sense. For instance, the science she mentions of Darwin, Einstein and Hubble has helped shed a great light on the tension between Genesis 1 and Psalm 90. Genesis 1 gives us a God's eye view of creation. Psalm 90 teaches us that a thousand years are like an evening gone in God's eyes. The great hymn writer Isaac Watts took Psalm 90 as the basis for his majestic "Oh God Our Help in Ages Past." Watts even took the poetic license to expand the thousand years of Psalms to "a thousand ages." Of note, he published this hymn in 1719, and it was no doubt in the hymnals in all churches in town during the Scopes trial. Of course, the 90th Psalm is even older than that! I wonder what would have happened if Clarence Darrow had asked William Jennings Bryan about Psalm 90?

      Many of us had another deep truth moment after the great recession as we shifted through the wreckage trying to make sense of it all, and found a new and powerful resonance in what Jesus had said about the Kingdom of God. Some rather dense and odd-seeming statements suddenly sprung to life with new relevance. It is humbling to experience the discovery that the very words we sought to explain the new had been waiting for us in the Bible for thousands of years. Sometimes this process changes old understandings in painful ways, but that is just the way growth happens. Deep truth is going to damage a lot of metaphysical theorizing, but for those who seek to know the truth, this can set them free. What could be more Christian than that?

  4. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "Jesus’ analogies for the kingdom of God--mustard seed, yeast, thief in the night, seed growing secretly—-emphasize God’s mysterious presence rather than some idyllic kingdom, however much we may long for that. At any rate it doesn’t look like God has become king in the world we live in. God is here as our fellow sufferer."

    1. Certainly it doesn't look like God has become king now, but the analogies Jesus used for the kingdom of God are about growth and influence.

      I reject the old "liberal" idea that the Kingdom of God is something that we humans can establish on earth if we just work at it hard enough, but I still see it as more than just an "idyllic" concept. That is why I ended, echoing Georgia Harkness, that we both work for and wait for the Kingdom of God to be realized.

      Again, I think it is important to see this from the perspective of growth over many millennium. As Craig mentioned above, the Psalmist says to God, "To you, a thousand years is like the passing of a day, or like a few hours in the night" (90:4, NCV).

  5. And here is Thinking Friend Charles Kiker's succinct comment:

    "Wright is right! The creeds are about theology. The Gospels, especially the synoptics, are about the Kingdom."

  6. In a subsequent email, Charles sent these important comments:

    "Almost every Sunday we recite some version of the Apostles' Creed, and jump from the Virgin Birth to 'crucified under Pontius Pilate.' The Creeds devolving from the Nicene Creed are a thorough sell out to Constantine and his global successors. Cognitive assent to the Virgin Birth, Crucifixion, and Resurrection is no threat to the governing powers. The Kingdom on earth is!

    "The Statement of Faith of the Korean Methodist Church is in the Methodist Hymnal #884. It contains the paragraph, 'We believe in the reign of God as the divine will realized in human history, and in the family of God where we are all brothers and sisters.'

    "The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Canada (#883 in The Methodist Hymnal) contains the paragraph, "We are called to be the church; / to celebrate God's presence, / to love and serve others, / to seek justice and resist evil, / to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, / our judge and our hope."

    1. Thanks, again, Charles. Those are good statements by the Korean Methodist Church and the UCC.

  7. I am enjoying the read of this book. It has a better "feel" of creation and redemption history. Evangelicals have some inkling of this, but can't seem to articulate it. That may be true of the western Church in general. I am not yet finished, but it does seem to miss the plan outside of Israeli history, such as those under Noah's covenant with God which many are still under. Although Christ comes from the line of Shem, God seems to love His entire creation. Without too much creativity one can find the praises of the Most High sung by inanimate creation as well.