25 April 2012

how god became king 4

N. T. Wright, How God Became King (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

Part Two of the Bishop's latest book on the Gospels is titled, "Adjusting the Volume," for it seeks to place four messages found in each of the gospel narratives into proper balance.  His contention is that some themes have been underplayed, while others have been overplayed in the life of the (primarily modern) church.  The four 'speakers' that need their volume adjusted are: The Story of Israel, The Story of Jesus as Israel's God, God's Renewed People, and the Clash of the Kingdoms.  This post will focus on the latter two.

Chapter Six takes up "The Launching of God's Renewed People," and Wright contends that this speaker, like the second one, has been turned up far too loud.  He begins with the result of having this volume out of proportion, especially in the world of modern biblical scholarship, "Here the gospels are read simply as reflections of the life of the early church, with no real connection to the narrative of Israel and (except in conservative circles) no real thought that the story of Jesus might be the story of God in person" (105).  He develops some of the history of this further, by sketching out some of the Christian movements which stem from such approach.

Thus he proposes instead, "One good way to get this third speaker adjusted to its proper volume is to think of the four gospels as deliberately composed foundational documents for the new movement" (111).  The word he uses for the Gospels is Signpost - these narrative are signposts for the church community, where the mission of Jesus (especially in the commissioning passages proper) are given to the church.  Thus, Jesus is inaugurating the work of the eschatological kingdom and the Gospels tell the story of how that kingdom is given over to the community of God's people.  Further, there is a "new world order" which has come to make life possible and mandatory for Jesus's followers (cf. 118).

One interesting point that stands out is found in Wright's statement, "Because the gospels are the foundational character for the church's life, they must be stories primarily about Jesus; otherwise the church would be rooted in itself" (119-120).

Chapter Seven ("The Clash of the Kingdoms") then looks to the fourth speaker, which the Bishop asserts needs to have its volume increased: "The fourth element in the music to which we must pay proper attention, along with everything else, is the story of Jesus told as the story of the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of Caesar" (127).  This is a theme which those of us well acquainted with Wright's work will readily recognize, for the relationship of God and Caesar are constant themes which emerge in his perspective on the New Testament.  (McK has an excellent commentary and survey of this chapter.)

For Wright, the story begins with Abraham: "The call of Abraham is God's answer to the arrogance of human power" (130).  Thus, the entire story is a rewriting of that which we thought was power and control, now being shown in the path of covenant and righteousness, now through Jesus, as the way of the cross.  Specifically in the Gospels, Wright brings into focus the events of Luke 2 which demonstrate the kingdoms coming into clash.  Also, he includes John's Gospel (chs. 12, 14, 16 specifically) as the church is given an understanding of Jesus's imminent death.

How will this new world order, this new understanding, this righting of the world happen?  "Through the work of the Spirit, whom Jesus is promising to send to his disciples.  In other words, it will happen through the Spirit-led work of Jesus's followers" (143).  The mandate of the church to carry on the inaugurated kingdom work of Jesus is defined and fueled by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community of faith.  Thus, the fulfillment of God's kingdom and salvation and covenant.

One of the primary (and most talked about) examples of the kingdoms clashing is Jesus's statement of rendering to Caesar and rendering to God (Mark 12:13-17).  Rather than being a separation of heavenly and earthly work (or a separation of church and state), it was Jesus pointing to the higher aim of the kingdom - namely, the work of joining together heaven and earth as God intended them to be.  Thus, the Bishop concludes on Jesus's one-liner: "Perhaps it's time for God - whose image is on every human being and whose 'inscription' is written across the pages of creation and the story of israel - to receive his due" (150).

The final section of Chapter Seven brings "The Four Speakers Together" and adds a few perspectives that weren't necessarily spelled out previously.  One such notion is, "The New Testament is full of echoes of the exodus, either as a whole or in this or that feature" (151).  Thus, he briefly reviews the four speakers in light of the exodus event, to the conclusion: "The four gospel writers, each in his own way, tell the story of Jesus as the story of a new and ultimate exodus" (153).  Having these four speakers in proper balance, contends Wright, will allow the Gospels to convey their full message - namely, The Kingdom and the Cross, which is Part III of the book.

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