In his new book, How God Became King, N. T. Wright argues that the Christian tradition and various strands of the modern church have neglected the Gospels.
This may sound like an outrageous claim, but Wright cites the church’s historic creeds as evidence. When “they refer to Jesus, [they] pass directly from his virgin birth to his suffering and death” (p. 11).
About the Apostles’ Creed, Wright says this:
So much detail, and yet nothing at all about what Jesus did in between being conceived and born, on the one hand, and being crucified under Pontius Pilate, on the other. Why not? If the aim were to summarize the key focal points of Christian faith, did that imply that that faith didn’t really need, shall we say, Matthew 3-26? Would chapters 1-2 (Jesus’ birth) and 27-28 (his death and resurrection) have done just as well? Was Matthew, and were Mark, Luke, and John for that matter, wasting time telling us all that stuff in the middle? Were they just giving us the “backstory” to satisfy any lingering curiosity the church might have about the earlier life of the one Christians now worshipped as Lord (p. 13)?
Christians do much the same today. Evangelical Christians, for example, have an “atonement” theology that captures the transaction whereby people are reconciled to God (or, one version of it), and their understanding of Jesus begins and ends with whatever is relevant to informing that transaction.
He reports the following conversation:
In 2003 I attended a conference where a well-known Christian leader from another continent requested some time with me. He had been reading my book Jesus and the Victory of God in the weeks before the conference and was intrigued by it. He wanted to know how it all made sense in terms of “the gospel” that he believed and taught. We had a cup of tea (some British and Anglican stereotypes don’t change) and talked for an hour or so. I tried to explain what I thought I was seeing: that the four gospels had, as it were, fallen off the front of the canon of the New Testament as far as many Christians were concerned. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were used to support points you might get out of Paul, but their actual message had not been glimpsed, let alone integrated into the larger biblical theology in which they claimed to belong. This, I remember saying, was heavily ironic in a tradition (to which he and I both belonged) that prided itself on being “biblical.” As far as I could see, that word was being used, in an entire Christian tradition, to mean “Pauline.” And even there I had questioned whether Paul was really being allowed to speak (p. 9).
I have found that this dynamic pervades evangelical theology and culture. I remember hearing a major evangelical preacher say precisely this—that there was no reason for Jesus to live an entire life except that he needed to earn a store of righteousness that could be imputed to believers.
John Piper’s recent address, “Did Jesus Preach the Gospel of Evangelicalism,” is another example of how the Gospels aren’t so much ignored as not taken seriously on their own terms.
We use the gospels. We read them aloud in worship. We often preach from them. But have we even begun to hear what they are saying, the whole message, which is so much greater than the sum of the small parts with which we are, on one level, so familiar? I don’t think so. This is the lifetime puzzle. It isn’t just that we’ve all misread the gospels, though I think that’s broadly true. It is more that we haven’t really read them at all. We have fitted them into the framework of ideas and beliefs that we have acquired from other sources. I want in this book to allow them, as far as I can, to speak for themselves. Not everyone will like the result (p. 10).
I think there are some reasons for this and I’ll discuss those in subsequent posts. For now, though, do you think Wright is onto something here?