How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
by N.T. Wright
HarperCollins. New York. 256 pages
reviewed by JOSEPH DELAHUNT
Those of us who are following N.T. Wright’s massive scholarly project, “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” are eagerly awaiting his projected fourth volume in the series, which will be on Paul. So we are somewhat frustrated by the seemingly never-ending stream of popular and semipopular books that flow from his pen. This is not to say that these are bad books; far from it. It’s just that we would like to see the major project brought to its completion, which seems more and more unlikely as time goes on. We are compensated for that disappointment, however, by getting some sense of where he is going through these other publications.
In this latest book, Wright gives us a semipopular overview of his considered thoughts on the four canonical Gospels, focusing on what they have in common, but also showing how each individually develops their common themes. Each in its own way, he says, tells the story of Jesus as the unique human embodiment of God, inaugurating God’s kingdom. They share four themes in their telling: 1) the climax of the story of Israel; 2) the nature of the God revealed in the story; 3) Jesus as the one who launches God’s renewed people; and 4) the clash that ensues between the coming of God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of this world. These themes find their proper place and balance when we attend to the way the kingdom and the cross of Jesus shed light on one another.
Along the way, Wright has a running argument with what he sees as the misreading of the story by most Western Christians. This misreading results in part from treating the historic creeds as outlines of the content of the scriptural canon. The positive role of the creeds is to mark the way through particular areas of controversy that arose out of interpreting the texts. But used as outlines, the silence in the gap between “born of the Virgin Mary” and “suffered under Pontius Pilate” leads to the neglect and the misreading of the Gospels. Similar distortions ensue when the” divinity” and “humanity” of Christ are used as templates for reading the Gospels. Wright doesn’t disagree with those doctrines, but he finds it unhelpful when they are searched for and found in a way that abstracts them from the story of the coming of Israel’s Messiah.
The book is full of insight into all four Gospels and sheds new light on many familiar texts. It’s unfortunate that it has only come out in mid-March, which doesn’t allow much time to benefit those preaching through Gospel material as we approach Easter. And make no mistake, there is a lot of help here.
There is also plenty with which one might take issue. One major example would be Wright’s assessment of Jesus’ conflict with “the powers,” where he curiously ignores the emphasis on confrontation with demons found in the synoptic gospels. There is also his tendency to set up “traditional” interpretations using “straw men.” Some suggestions for further reading would have been useful. All in all, though, the book is well worth the investment of time and money.
JOSEPH DELAHUNT is pastor of First Baptist Church in New Haven, Conn.