N. T. Wright on Evangelicals & the Gospels

N. T. Wright claims that various branches of the church have misread or ignored the Gospels.  In speaking of conservative evangelicals, he notes that they have spent much time defending the Bible’s historicity, but haven’t done so well at getting into the Bible itself, understanding its texts, reckoning with the canonical logic.

Evangelicals run the risk of flying the flag of biblical authority but saying what they expect the Bible to say, rather than what it actually does say.

Such “conservatives,” then, have stressed the historicity of the gospels as part of their insistence that “the Bible is true.”  But when it comes to interpretation and meaning, those same “conservatives” are regularly to be found on exactly the same page as Bultmann, reading most of the stories in the gospels as signposts toward the cross and the faith of the early church.  I recall one colleague proudly telling me that his Christmas sermon was going to be on Matthew 1:21: “you are to give him the name Jesus; he is the one who will save his people from their sins.”  In other words, neither incarnation nor kingdom were going to be mentioned; Christmas was simply another occasion to preach the (supposedly Pauline) message of the cross.  When such people claim to be “Bible Christians,” I find myself saying (at least in my imagination): “If you’re a ‘Bible Christian,’ how come you don’t know what the gospels are there for?  How is it that you simply treat them as somewhat random illustrative material for the thing you obviously want to focus on, the saving death and resurrection of the divine Savior?”

What I observe is this.  Faced with a choice between the creed (some version of it) and the canon of scripture, in which the four gospels occupy such a central position, the church has unhesitatingly privileged the creed and let the canon fend for itself—which it hasn’t always managed to do very successfully.  The same is true when, in Protestantism, the great early creeds are implicitly replaced as the “rule of faith” by the various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century formulas that highlight the Reformers’ message of “justification by faith.”  This too, in its turn, becomes the central thing, and the four gospels are valued insofar as they illustrate it and not much beyond (pp. 23-24).


5 responses to “N. T. Wright on Evangelicals & the Gospels

  • Dan Jr.

    “How is it that you simply treat them as somewhat random illustrative material for the thing you obviously want to focus on, the saving death and resurrection of the divine Savior?”

    This statement is soooo true but so contested right now in Calvinist Theology which has gradually taken over Big Ten Evangelicalism. It comes across like heresy to most folks to say “not every passage can be morphed into a cross/substitution sermon”. Just last week at the TG4G conference a presenter said “every passage is about the bloody cross.” It comes across like that’s all Jesus is good for?

    • timgombis

      It’s the tendency of each and every “camp” / “tribe” within the Christian tradition to say that every text is about this or that (liberation, atonement, community, etc.). But all these claims are demands that the Bible be what we want it to be. They are all (inadvertent) efforts to make the voice of God sound how we want it to sound. The danger is, of course, that we cut ourselves off from the life-giving word that devastates and transforms. We don’t want it to devastate and confront, but only to confirm and approve. But then it also doesn’t transform.

      . . . and we wonder why so many of our church experiences are lifeless . . .

      • pdavis

        This is so right on. It even shows up in how we self identify. We are Reformed, Calvinist, Baptist or Wesleyan… I never hear people call them selves, “strongly Lukan” or “a converted Johannine.”

        We self-describe in systematic ways as apposed to using the text that created the systems.

        Overheard at the next conference N.T Wright speaks at?

        “I am strongly John 17 balanced with a little Matthew 5…”

  • S Wu

    So true, Tim. Every “camp”/”tribe” finds themselves having to defend something (and/or attack others). It’s human tendency. And they do genuinely believe that they are right and are serving God. But when people get aggressive it becomes very distressing for me.

    In my circles there are two tendencies. (In fact, more than two.) One is the “kingdom of God” type (a particular emphasis on the kingdom of God), where the Gospels are more important than Paul’s letters. The other is the atonement type (a particular form of atonement theology, to be precise) where certain (interpretations of certain) passages in Paul are most important. But as I read the biblical narratives, I find a much more dynamic life-giving message than any of these by itself.

    What I find difficult personally is that every time I say anything that is slightly against either camp, they treat me as their opponents in the opposite camp. This has depressed me greatly.

    • timgombis

      I’ve seen much the same dynamic, S., and that’s the reason these passages in Wright’s book resonated with me. I’ve wanted to write about this for some time but haven’t yet been able to fully capture the dynamics that are at work in such tribalism.

      It is, however, very sad–not at all how the Body of Christ should be operating.

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