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I’m something of a Tom Wright enthusiast. As someone who is convinced that Christian scholars across the disciplines should be responsible and informed biblical interpreters, I have been a student of N.T. Wright for a while now. His “five-act-drama” approach to the biblical narrative is both accessible and illuminating, and his account of Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s vocation gives me all sorts of new ways to re-appreciate the central Reformed theme of “covenant.” This is just to scratch the surface of some of my debts to his scholarship. (Keep this in mind when you get to the end of this post, OK? Promise?)
Which is why it’s odd to find myself rather frustrated with some of his most recent work, particularly as articulated in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. (If you’ve not yet read the book, you might watch Wright’s presentation of the core argument of the book in his “January Series” lecture at Calvin College this past January.)
Actually, let me rephrase that: it’s not the substance of the argument itself that frustrates me, it’s the attendant tone and asides by which Wright frames his project. The thesis of the book, to simplify in extremis, is that the core message of the Gospel is “political” in the sense that the Gospel announces the kingship of God over all of creation–that the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” is both the culmination of Israel’s expectation AND a direct affront to the gospel of the empire (“Caesar is Lord”). This means that the Gospel is not the announcement of an escape pod from the world to a disembodied heaven but rather the reassertion of God’s authority over heaven AND earth–the announcement that God is reclaiming the whole of his creation. Jesus, we might say, comes to “occupy” creation.
So far so good. Indeed, I think this quickly and easily resonates with those of us in the Kuyperian stream of the Reformed tradition because, in some ways, this holistic, “kingdom-oriented” reading of Scripture is sort of old hat. Granted, it didn’t come with all of the backstory of Second Temple Judaism and such; nonetheless, with the resources of the canon and a theological frame for interpretation, the Reformed tradition of my teachers was sort of “Wrightian” before Wright. When I hear Wright explain the Gospel as the announcement of “how God became king,” I’m immediately reminded of everything I learned from Rich Mouw’s When the Kings Come Marching In.
This probably explains my frustration with how Wright pitches his argument and interpretation. For example, notice the subtitle: Wright is offering us the “forgotten story of the Gospels.” This may be a publishers’ ploy, but having heard Wright talk about this argument in several different contexts, he clearly affirms the claim: for hundreds and hundreds of years, we have not been able to properly read the Gospels. And now Tom Wright has come along to give us what we lacked: the backstory of Second Temple Judaism, the historian’s read of Israel’s expectations, the secret keys we need to finally read the Gospels. (This reminds me way too much of Brian McLaren’s title, The Secret Message of Jesus–wherein the “secret” was that Jesus cared about poverty and oppression and injustice, which was only a “secret” if you were an a-political pietist or a right-wing fundamentalist.)
There’s another layer here that adds to my frustration: Wright regularly faults the catholic creedal tradition as the villain that tempted us to miss this “forgotten story.” Nicea and Chalcedon are blinders and screens that prevent us from seeing what Wright, “the historian,” has uncovered. The creedal tradition, on Wright’s account, was fixated on ontological questions about divinity and humanity and thus missed the backstory of Israel’s covenant which really makes sense of the Gospels. And so when he frames his argument, even if he doesn’t reject “Nicene Christianity,” he certainly dismisses it and sees little if any value in it. For those of us who have been struggling to get evangelical and Reformed folk to remember they are catholic, it is disconcerting to have yet another teacher come along and promise a new “secret key” to unlock the Bible. Indeed, there is an odd kind of primitivism at work in Wright’s framing of this account.
This leads to one last layer of my frustration: Wright’s dismissal of “canonical” readings of Scripture. There is much more that needs to be said here, and I hope to unpack this further elsewhere, but let me just note: Wright is very dismissive of discussions about the “theological interpretation of Scripture” or “canonical” readings of Scripture or invocations of “the rule of faith” (per, say, Todd Billing’s marvelous book, The Word of God for the People of God—or as I’ve tried to suggest in the new chapters of the new, revised edition of my book, The Fall of Interpretation). This is because Wright has already functionally dismissed “the tradition” as more of an obfuscating “blinder” than illuminating light; more specifically, Wright’s account hinges on the supposed illuminations of “history” as finally providing the extra-canonical resources we needed to be able to read the Gospels aright. (This latter stance is fraught with issues; for a taste, consider Richard Hays’ engaging contribution to a recent collection devoted to Wright’s thought.)
But do we need this extra-canonical resource (a canon without the canon) to be able to read the Gospel as the announcement of God’s kingship? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think there’s a Reformed tradition of biblical interpretation that found the resources for just such a reading right within the canon itself–and in concert with Nicene faith. I’m not persuaded that the fruits of historical science have suddenly put us in a position superior to pre-modern interpreters. Indeed, Reformed bliblical interpreters such as Vos and Ridderbos–though certainly with limitations–seemed to already be onto this sort of reading of the canon, without hooking it to extra-canonical evidences. Rich Mouw taught me to read the sweep of the biblical narrative as the announcement of Christ’s kingship with little more than an attuned theological sensibility that broke open the overarching narrative of the Bible. That’s not to say that many haven’t “missed” it; but it does mean that the “secret” has perhaps been there within the canon all along.