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Kings, Creeds, and the Canon: Musing on N.T. Wright

By March 27, 2012 35 Comments

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 Godor 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.  


  • Isaiah says:

    Although I appreciate your comments here on Wright's marginalizing of tradition I do not agree with your distaste for his subtitle "The forgotten story of the gospels". You talk here about Catholic creedal tradition and the reformed tradition etc etc as being resources where this part of the gospel, Jesus as Lord, is not forgotten.

    But how many people in our churches actually even know about these traditions, let alone this forgotten story of the gospel that they carry? How familiar are they with writers like Mouw or folks like John Howard Yoder (from the reformed side of the things and my anabaptist side respectively)?

    The story of the gospels remains forgotten in the same way these other traditions, which have apparently not forgotten the gospel, have been forgotten. The reason being is that tradition is not primarily passed down threw tenured positions, academic conferences or a published magnum opus or two. These things have their place in the economy of tradition but tradition, especially a tradition of faith, is passed down primarily through things like bed-time stories, prayers, celebrations of Christmas and Easter, sunday school lessons, felt boards, veggie tales, personal devotions,preaching, hymns, worship songs, denominational youth events, television programs, music, popular literature and sometimes wonderful conversations over warms cups of coffee.

    The tradition of the church carries this powerful good news, I agree with you on this. We do not necessarily need to exalt historical studies as the thing that will unleash this powerful story that God is king. The church is sitting on dynamite, but like Peter Maurin, we need to learn how to make it explode.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Dear Prof. Smith: I am very grateful for your post. I have long been an N T Wright fan, though not an unqualified one. I like best his three big academic volumes much more than his "popular" writings. And I have always felt, yes, that Ridderbos and Vos were the Philip and Peter to his Paul. So thank you.

  • brett says:

    Perhaps more of an engagement with Wright's arguments and less of the polemic mode would've helped me. It seems pretty uncharitable to say that Wright imagines himself the deliverer of what we've been waiting for for hundreds of years (what page of the book does he say anything like that?).

    No part of the book is cited, save the subtitle. The piece just seems to argue against the idea of "history" as an extra-canonical resource that can illuminate Scripture. But are we really no better for understanding something of Second Temple Judaism, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the rich, complex strands of Judaism in the time of Christ? And is there any reading of the bible that doesn't rely on some history or tradition, even tacitly?

  • James K.A. Smith says:

    @brett: (1) I nowhere claimed to be writing a book review. (2) I never suggested historical knowledge was not irrelevant; I only emphasized that this doesn't entail that post-critical exegesis is superior (I'm thinking of David Steinmetz's classic article, "The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis"); and (3) absolutely, every reading of the Bible is "traditioned." That's kind of my point.

  • Derek Rishmawy says:

    Dr. Smith,

    Thanks so much for this post. This about summed up my frustrations with an otherwise great book. I'm a huge Wright fan and have recently come to the Reformed fold. Actually, it was Wright's stuff that pointed me to the Reformed tradition. Still, every time he writes a sentence implying that he's just finding something that some dead Reformed guy found 80 years ago, it's kind of annoying. This is particularly so when he uses it to beat on Reformed guys. I get the sore nerves from Piper, Carson, etc. Still, it could be so much better without the polemical edge against a tradition that could be an ally, not a foe.

    Thanks, again.

  • J. Cameron Fraser says:

    I wouldn't describe myself as a Wright fan, although I do try to keep up with his writings and have benefited from them. I haven't read the book you review, though I likely will now. I'm surprised you just seem to have noticed his "nobody knew this before" approach. It seems to me to pervade most of his books and is decidedly irritating…one reason I wouldn't describe myself as a fan.

  • I think you have charitably understated the magnitude of the problem with N. Wright's project. My first encounter with his "kingdom now" framework left me wondering if he was simply another variant of dominion theology. On further reading he seems to be charting his own course and doesn't fit neatly into any known framework. His often repeated hyperbolic theme that everyone has read the gospels and Paul wrong up until he came along and with the "true gen" are more than frustrating.

    I think the next generation of NT scholars will look back on Wright's work as just another dead end project like Karl Barth.

  • Bobby Grow says:

    C. Stirling wrote:

    I think the next generation of NT scholars will look back on Wright's work as just another dead end project like Karl Barth.

    This is surely overstated; Barth a dead end project? I guess that might work with the choir, but even critical antagonists of Barth recognize the weightiness of his project and theologizing. Give me a break …

  • Brian MacArevey says:

    I'm not at all sure that Reformed theologians developed their theologies from "within the canon itself" as if critical biblical scholarship and/or extra canonical works had absolutely no impact on their understanding (whether this happened directly or indirectly). I don't think that you would disagree that their is no such thing as a purely objective interpretation of scripture?

    I am also not convinced that N.T. Wright is claiming that he is the one who has come to finally deliver the correct understanding of scripture which has been misunderstood for centuries. This is a charicature of his argument. Assuredly, as a Reformed person, you would not disagree that the church can get "off track" and that God is always shedding more light upon our understanding? Why criticize Wright and not Luther?

    I would probably agree that it has always been possible to learn much of what Wright says from the canon without his insights, but lets be clear that there are many people (within the Reformed tradition) who refuse to acknowledge this. Extra-canonical works and critical biblical scholarship can help to eliminate implausible interpretations of scripture such as the typical Reformed viewpoint, specifically the way it understands the beliefs of Pharisaic Judaism and its consequent understandings of Paul. The scripture alone is insufficient if we are seeking to settle these disputes; correct?

  • Tom Wright says:

    As always I’m grateful to Jamie Smith, from whom I in turn have learnt a great deal. I’m sorry that we didn’t have time, when we were briefly together at a meeting in New York a few weeks ago, to do more than say ‘Hi’; I felt there were some misunderstandings sliding around between things we were both saying. So since he’s ‘gone public’ on the book – thanks for the plug, by the way – let me use the hospitality of his blog to respond.
    First, the core message of the book isn’t exactly ‘that the gospel is political’. The core message is that in churches across the western world (and I am writing from quite a lot of experience of Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and a few other traditions over the last 40 years, not least but not only within the evangelical traditions) I have discovered a near-total silence on the question of what the ‘inner parts’ of the four gospels are actually about. Already, in the short time since the book came out, I have had messages from people in several of these traditions to say, ‘Right on! My church never dealt with any of that stuff – we just learnt that Jesus was divine, that he died for our sins, and then we went straight for Paul’s theology.’ The most you get from the ‘inner parts’ of the gospels, in most churches, is small-scale moral lessons or the use of a parable or a miracle as an illustration of a bit of Pauline theology.
    Now of course it’s true to say that much of my ministry has not come into contact with the Kuyperian tradition (though I have learned a great deal, mostly at second hand, from the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto). I have often said, in another context, that if the Reformed Pauline scholars had been in the ascendancy rather than the Lutherans, the ‘new perspective’ would never have been necessary – since a positive view of Israel and the Law would have been part of the DNA of the discipline in a way that simply wasn’t the case. And of course in addition to the classic reformed traditions, there have been many, many people, from Irenaeus to Martin Bucer and beyond, who have, more or less, seen the point that the four gospels were making. OK, maybe the rhetoric of the subtitle is too extravagant. (We came and went on that; frankly, I lost track of which publisher was using which subtitle.) But I have to say that the response I have had, again and again, is that, yes, I nailed it: the churches in which most of my readers grew up and are at home simply haven’t taught, AT ALL, that Jesus’ ‘teaching’ and ‘deeds’ were not about ‘proving he was divine’ or ‘showing us how to go to heaven’, but rather that they were the living proclamation that now, in this way, Israel’s God was becoming king – and that this inaugurated kingship reaches its climax on the cross. (Kingdom and cross have routinely got separated in most traditions I know, but in all our gospels they are tied tightly together.) I would love to be told that there are some western Christian traditions that have said all this, just in this way, but after many years knocking around in church and theological circles I don’t expect to find it (except, of course, at Calvin College). And when a late-middle-aged theologian begins to find that he’s seeing something in the text which seems central but which none of the churches he knows (apart from the Kuyperian ones, of course) seem to be ‘getting’, what’s he supposed to do? Keep it quiet to avoid the sneer that he seems to be making grandiose claims?
    Second, I take care precisely NOT to ‘fault’ the great creedal tradition. I use the two classic creeds in my regular prayers and worship – in the Anglican manner: the Apostles’ Creed every day, and the Nicene Creed at the Sunday Eucharist. (Just as they do at Calvin, of course.) The creeds are not the ‘villains’. They were not written to provide a teaching syllabus. They are the symbol, the badge, the list of things that were controversial early on which the church had to hammer out. The problem comes – and at what point in church history this occurred I couldn’t say, that not being my period – when the creeds are used as teaching outlines; because of course they skip precisely over the ‘middle bits’ of the gospels, and thereby, quite accidentally and non-villainously, collude with a quite different movement, with which many of my readers tell me they are all too familiar: a form of Christianity in which it would be quite sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth had been born of a virgin, died on a cross and never done anything in between. The rise of such a truncated form of Christianity is not at all (I suggest) the fault of the wonderful and beloved Creeds, but of quite different movements which have then (ab)used them as a teaching outline which has reinforced (quite accidentally in terms of the Creeds’ original purpose) the omission of the kingdom of God as a present reality. In other words, I not only don’t reject Nicene Christianity, I embrace it, affirm it, love it, live it, and pray it. But the best sort of Nicene Christianity has always insisted that you read the gospels themselves, and indeed pray the Lord’s Prayer, and that these are just as important for shaping who we are in Christ as the formulaic creeds themselves. They weren’t intended to ‘cover all the bases’, and to use them as though they were is, however subtly, to misuse them. And what then happens is a form of ‘Christianity’ from which the main thing Jesus himself was doing and talking about has quietly been removed or hushed up. Very convenient, of course, especially after the Enlightenment.
    And, excuse me, what’s this about me being dismissive of ‘canonical’ readings? The whole book is precisely a plea to let the canon be the canon! The canon of scripture is gloriously focussed on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and my problem is that often people who say ‘the canon, the canon’ don’t actually mean what they are saying; they mean, rather, ‘the sort of traditional Christianity which my church has taught me is “canonical”,’ – which sadly sometimes turns out to be significantly different. Except, of course, once more, in a certain well-known college near the south-east corner of Lake Michigan.
    So what’s this about ‘extra-canonical resources’? This is often said but it’s (frankly) nonsense. Without extra-canonical resources – e.g. lexicography – I would not be able to read the New Testament at all. Without knowing a bit about who the Pharisees were – and what the Sabbath meant to a second-Temple Jew – I wouldn’t understand Mark 2. And so on. The church has always recognised this; when I was young, many clergy would have Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah on their shelves, and it showed up in their expositions. The fact is that we now know a whole lot more than Edersheim did, and if we can draw on that (with proper and wise historical and exegetical controls) we should do so. This is not to elevate non-canonical material to pseudo-‘canonical’ status. It is not to elevate ‘the fruits of historical science’ to a position above either canon or church (I do get tired of the way in which some theologians – not Jamie himself, of course – sneer at ‘history’; the Rule of Faith, after all, insists that Jesus was fully human, which legitimates right there the question of who he actually was). It is to make sure we really are reading the canon itself – which was written by first-century second-Temple Jews (OK, and perhaps the odd converted Gentile, depending on who you think Luke was). There is, within some postliberal opinion, a kind of shadow-version of fundamentalism in which ‘The Canon’ (scare-quotes and capitals important) somehow floated down from the sky meaning exactly what, and only what, people took it to mean four or five centuries later. I can well understand the reaction to a negative, destructive ‘liberalism’, and the desire to rediscover some form of ‘orthodoxy’. I have, actually, spent the last 40 years trying to undermine
    the former and reaffirm the latter. But all serious readers of the Canon have always recognised that the gospels refer to things which actually happened in first-century Palestine and that if we are to understand them it really will help to understand that world, that place and that time.
    So my problem is not with ‘canonical’ readings – far from it; the whole book is precisely a plea for a ‘canonical’ reading of the canon itself! The entire book is saying, not that ‘the secret’ is found outside the canon, but that ‘the secret’ is precisely what the canon itself has all along been saying but which most western traditions (except of course for that represented by Vos, Ridderbos and Rich Mouw) have managed to ignore. My problem, rather, is, yes, with the assumption that either ‘the tradition’ or ‘the rule of faith’ can tell us what the canon is saying. Actually, sadly, they don’t. ‘The tradition’ has been perfectly happy to accrue all sorts of bits and pieces – Marian dogmas on one side of the western divide, scholastic versions of the ‘ordo salutis’ on the other, and so on – which need to be critiqued in the light of the canon itself, but if we insist that ‘the canon’ will mean exactly and only what ‘the tradition’ or our contemporary ‘theological interpretation’ says it means then we will ignore the canon itself. It’s happened again and again. And ‘the rule of faith’ is great for some purposes. But not as the Procrustean Bed which can then be used to tell the canon what it can and can’t say. Rules of faith have tended to focus, like the creeds, on the ‘divinity’ of Jesus. But, as I say in the book, ‘the divinity of Jesus’ is the key in which the music is written, but it isn’t the tune that’s being played. The tune that’s being played is How God became King. And, yes, far too many people in western Christianity have never even heard that central, ‘canonical’ tune. Except, of course . . . oh well, you get the point. Thanks again for the plug.
    Tom Wright

  • Just can't help myself, its not everyday that one gets a chance to respond, albeit tritely to Dr. Wright. How did you manage to get your writing to simulate your way of talking to a real audience. When I read the comment above I could just hear your saying it live. Hope the book sells well

  • Mike Nichols says:

    I am an ardent fan of Wright, ranking him just below the trinity. However, I still don't understand a key aspect of his thesis, as the following hypothetical illustration will illustrate:

    Sir Winston Churchill, talking on the phone: "Cosmo? Is this Archbishop Cosmo Lang?"
    Cosmo (answering the other end of the call): "Yes, who is this?"
    Winston: "This is Churchill. I need some help."
    Cosmo: "Yes, Mr. Prime Minister, what can I do for you?
    Winston: "You see, there's this fellow named Adolf. There's a gathering storm, you see."
    Cosmo: "Yes, I've heard of him."
    Winston: "Well, I was in church this week and one of your vicar's told me that God was in charge, now. Do you concur?"
    Cosmo: "Yes, it is true. I'm glad you understand that."
    Winston: "Very well. I need you to gather 50,000 of your meekest vicars and parishioners for immediate deployment. No more bombs for me. Your vicar said that I would be held accountable to God for my actions as PM, so I'm looking to the Church of England for support, here. Can you do it?"

    Or how about a modern day example of a similar dilemma I feel:

    First Speaker picks up the phone and answers: "Hello, Scotland Yard."
    Second speaker (female voice): "Help, there's a burglar stealing my flat screen T.V. and he looks real mean."
    First Speaker: "It's alright, miss. Nothing to worry about. God's in charge, now."
    Second speaker: "He is? Can he come over right away and help?"
    First Speaker: "No, miss. He's given that task to you. Did you give the burglar your silver, yet?"
    Second speaker: "My silver? Heavens NO! Why would I do that?"
    First Speaker: "Ah, if someone takes your robe, give him your cloak, too. And offer to help him load it in his car. The second mile sorta thing…"

    Jesus is in charge, and according to Wright, it is political… a theocracy. Caesar's and Pilate's authority is only so because God has allowed it. And they will be held accountable for the way they run things. And so Obama and Putin and Cameron need to figure out how Jesus would do things? I know Wright is NOT for anarchy, and he IS for good government, but when he says things like "Jesus doesn't send in the tanks, he sends in the meek" or "The West's response to 9/11 is to go drop bombs" or such, I don't understand how this is supposed to play out.

  • Michael Fox says:

    I confess the same respectful curiosity as Mike Nichols.

    When God's kingdom was a civil government, didn't he reserve the right to war?

    I'm not a hawk; I have no agenda.

    Just curious how the civil government of ancient Israel might inform the conduct of nations today.

    "I stand on my watch to be reproved." But be sweet. :< )

  • Diyan Kantardzhiev says:

    Dear James K.A. Smith, I found this read quite interesting and informative, thank you. I do need to stress though that perhaps you need/ought to read the book again as I don't think you've grasped the message as it was meant by the author. I know you are young but perhaps this time you should make an effort and read without your 'Reformed spectacles' as clearly they blur your understanding. I mean this most sincerely and not in any disrespectful way. It struck me how a serious theologian like you found it necessary to voice 'frustrations' that are simply based on superficiality. I think you simply got annoyed, to critique the author with such mediocre arguments not having read the book properly, I didn't expect that from a man of your calibre. I agree with one of the comments above, you should've instead talked about the essences of the message in the book and engage with it. I agree with N.T. Wright in his well argumented response, the overwhelming majority of Western churches, I would also include schools and seminaries, are way to dismissive of the part of the Biblical narrative (not only the Gospel) that doesn't talk about atonement, justification, redemption, voyage to the other life, so little about interacting with life and society on all of its dimensions. And I don't think Wright is only just discovering the message 'in-between', he has been speaking about it for a long time. I am glad I can have it now all in one book, written in a way that makes sense to any reader.
    I'm quite disappointed with the poor review you gave and also your tone.
    And for one last time, read the book again.

  • Simon says:

    I just don't get the Reformed crowd. It should have been clear Tom Wright was not knocking the creeds themselves, but abuses of them. Fancy trying to assert that a cheerfully high church Anglican is denigrating the creeds. Sometimes I think these Reformed guys just like to argue for the sake of it.

    This conversation just highlights how the Reformed just don't get tradition and the creeds. St Ireaneus said that the Bible is like pieces of a mosaic that, when interpreted correctly, forms the picture of a king. The heretic takes the same Bible and ends up with a picture of a dog. I think the same sort of thing is happening with the Reformed and orthodox doctrine. They believe in the Trinity, the resurrection and so on. But they just don't get the meaning. The fact that Calvinism is an innovation (as decisively declared by both Orthodox and Catholics, and repudiated by most Anglicans today despite their flirtation with Reformed doctrine at the time of the Reformation) testifies to this. It's truly ironic that the Reformed seem to see themselves as the doctrinal policemen of the Christian world today – throwing around excommunications willy nilly. Let's be clear about it: Calvinism is a heresy. The Christian world may just pass Calvinsim by in the near future. The renewed interest in patristic material and in liturgy and ancient Christian spirituality may well place Reformed theology and piety outside the bounds of orthodoxy… and soon.

  • don sands says:

    "…Jesus’ ‘teaching’ and ‘deeds’ were not about ‘proving he was divine’ or ‘showing us how to go to heaven’, but rather that they were the living proclamation that now, in this way, Israel’s God was becoming king – and that this inaugurated kingship reaches its climax on the cross.'"-Tom

    So, is this what you teach as the Holy Writ's doctrine? I'm a bit confused.

    I would say Christ, the Savior of the world is certainly King of kings. And Jesus is God the Son, and the Son of man.
    I don't understand why there has to be this either or doctrine.

    I'm not very bright, and so if you could help me understand with a bit less words, and share with me in a down to earth sort of way, I'd be grateful.
    I do esteem you as a fine leader of our Lord's beloved people.

  • Igor Miguel says:

    Great discussion! We're following it from here in Brazil.

  • Matt Meadows says:

    I speak here only as a sapling amidst a forest of sequoia trees, but regarding the whole issue of "Canonical" interpretation, I find people such as Dr. Wright saying many of the exact same things and coming to many of the exact same conclusions as those who are hardcore proponents of "Canonical" interpretation.

    Setting aside, perhaps unfairly, some of the important nuances of both corners, I think the issue I'm seeing boils down to the necessity of using historical knowledge in the interpretation of Scripture. Dr. Wright leans heavily on his knowledge of Second Temple Judaism, for example. Above, he cited the issue of knowing just who the Pharisees were, but you can quite easily extract from the Gospels the spirit of the Pharisees without opening a history book aside from the Gospels themselves. Thus I believe in this case, the historian's offerings are not as useful (although, certainly not useless).

    But Wright is correct in noting that you are using history the moment you pick up a lexicon. Language and linguistics is a critical component to much of the work done by historians, and thus I think it is unnecessary to dismiss historical information completely. In this case, it's vital. Just ask anyone who has labored as a Wycliffe translator, who has their feet immersed in at least four to five languages at any given time (his native tongue, the biblical languages, and the receptor languages).

    Both the "Canonical" corner, and Dr. Wright, are urging churches to teach the grand story of the Scriptures, from Creation to Consummation, where Christ is King and the gates of hell never prevail against the Kingdom. They get there in somewhat different (and sometimes oppositional) ways, which is what makes this whole blog page so priceless. Thanks to both Smith and Wright!

    The one thing I hope not to ever see happen, is for the church member to go home from a sermon thinking he needed to be able to read a history book on Second Temple Judaism before he could understand the Gospels. I would like to ask Dr. Wright how he himself would encourage the average, high-school educated factory worker, sales rep, or housewife how they should seek to understand the Gospels in their own self-feeding as they read their Bible.

    And yes indeed, when I read Dr. Wright's comment above, I did hear him enunciate every word just as if it were an audio file.

  • James K.A. Smith says:

    Well it's certainly an honor that Tom would take the time to engage our little ol' blog over here at The Twelve. I'm glad for the clarifications, which reiterate and contextualize claims in the book. (Let me be clear: I never pretended to offer a "review" of the book.) I'm happy to let readers adjudicate: by all means read the book, consider my thoughts from the hip, and then weigh against Tom's clarifications here. (Sometimes I think Tom ramps up the rhetoric in oral presentations more than in published works.)

    I've no doubt Tom has receive the sorts of appreciations he notes here–to be clear, we actually AGREE on almost all the matters of substance. If we were swapping "people-have-told-me" stories, I'd just note that I received not a few emails which said my initial post "nailed it." Again, we can leave it to readers to judge.

    One of the lessons I'm taking away from the exchange is this: so much depends on a red wheelbarrow–er, no: so much depends on the context in which one reads this. Or, to put it otherwise: a lot depends on what demons one is exorcising. If you're trying to exorcise the demons of biblicism and primitivism, Tom's critical comments will look like fuel to the fire. In contrast, if you're trying to exorcise the demon of a pie-in-the-sky "gospel" which has been all too comfortable within "creedal" Christianity, then romantic claims about "the canon" and the creeds will sound like "same old, same old."

    Just one last point: of course I don't think the former Bishop is dismissing the creeds. Indeed, I think participation in the catholic heritage of Anglican spirituality has "primed" him as a biblical interpreter in important ways. I think it is precisely because the creeds and catholic heritage are so taken for granted that Tom can afford be a bit, well, not flippant, but sort of reverently irreverent in a way. (And I do think that they way Tom speaks about them in his January Series lecture comes close to "blaming" them for centuries of mis-reading.) When the anchor of this orthodox, catholic tradition is so taken for granted, one actually has more license to be critical. For those of us who are trying to get primitivist evangelicals to remember they are catholic, we sometimes worry that Tom's approach–like hermeneutical WMD–could fall into the wrong hands and actually seem to underwrite an un- and anti-catholic hermeneutic.

    No doubt that means that someone like me is prone to a kind of romanticism about the creeds and "canon" and such. I don't want to be blithely unaware of that. And thus I welcome Tom's work, and his interventions here.

  • Simon says:

    Don, I don't think Tom means that it's either King or God. He's trying to get the balance right from centuries of Western theology that has given the "Jesus is divine" notion precedence in our understanding of the gospel narratives. We lose a lot if we don't take the kingdom stuff seriously.

  • Simon says:

    Mike Nichols,

    The way it plays out in reality looks like Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Violence begets violence. What ever happened to suffering oppression for the sake of Christ and taking up your cross?

    If someone has broken into your home and is attempting to steal your TV, the answer is not to get your gun out and take the guy out (or even threaten him with it). This is absolutely antithetical to everything we are taught in the Gospel accounts and the rest of the NT. Yes perpetrators should be brought to justice – turning the other cheek doesn't mean that society can't justly punish criminals or carry out law enforcement. But violent reactions, whether at the personal or societal levels, are explicitly ruled out by the Christian faith. Why is it that you (implicitly) assume that enforcing law must entail violence? Of course it doesn't.

    I can fully understand the mindset that has allowed rapture theology to take hold in mainstream evangelical America. The thinking seems to be that we never have to endure oppression and violence (the way the early martyrs of the church did). Rather we have the right to inflict violence on others whenever our comfort is stake. Is this the teaching of the gospel?

  • Joshua Lenon says:

    Having grown up in a Southern Baptist tradition, I think Wright nailed the tension many of us who grew up in the church have felt for a long time. We would all agree that Yes! Yes! this is all true but I am not sure how this is true. And isn't this because we were raised on creeds and anecdotes of the Gospels rather than the raw materials themselves? And when I did interact with the raw materials they were nothing more than the prooftext that Jesus really was super powerful – and therefore God himself. It never occurred to me that there was something more going on with these stories until later.

    I didn't realize just how shallow my reading of the Canon was, and thereby my faith, until I got into college and watched as my faith could come undone by the simplest of questions…. I could answer the "what" questions because I was raised on the propositions and I was secure in the truth I had been raised with. I could even answer the "why" questions to some degree (although these seemed to become increasingly difficult as I got older, but then again "the glory of God" was always an easy answer out of any bind if I do say so myself!)

    The first word in the title of this book is what actually captivated me… How. This is not a book of "what". We have more of those than we know what to do with. The creeds are the "what". This is not even a book of "why". Simply Jesus (or JVG) and Surprised by Hope (or RSG) really get at the "why" questions. This is a book of "how". How God Became King… And it is the "how" questions that always got me…

    Why did Jesus die on the cross? I had that answer down cold – "to save us from our sins" And what a glorious truth that is! But the how questions are the ones that really haunt. Right? How does he save us from our sins? "He gives us his righteousness in exchange for our unrighteousness." My early days in AWANA and Sunday School gave me that first one. But should the questions go one step further and begin to ask "How does that work?"… "How does Jesus 'give' us his righteousness?"… "How will he actually save me?"… I would crumble. My creeds, my truths, didn't carry my any further into the how.

    And I would probably have been okay if no one ever asked those questions. I could probably have been content just resting in the glorious truth that God sent His son to save me from my sins and justify me because of His son's righteousness. (Note: I realize I am being overly basic here… but isn't this what Wright is trying to rescue us from – being too basic?). But the truth is that I had friends who asked these "deeper" "how" questions the minute I began sharing my faith. And the answer "because it just works that way" doesn't travel very far once you grow up. Somewhere along the way we want to know how babies get in the world… or how our computers actually work.

    I personally don't think Wright is writing this book for people who are content sitting behind desks, operating in the abstract, in the mere theological, perfecting their personal theology. He is writing for the normals who just want to know their faith better so they can share this beautiful Gospel with those in their world.

    It's for those of us who are like the kids who finally get up the nerve to crack open the our computer to see whats inside – to see "how" it works. It is for those of us who are discontent with stock answers and oversimplifications or the answer that its "just the way it is". We want our creeds to be filled out – to take on flesh and to breathe – to breathe life into our dry bones and to breathe life into this fallen world.

    Just a few thoughts.
    Thanks for posting Jamie.
    Thanks for your thoughts Tom.

  • Bill Richardson says:


    Not having read this book, or even all the posts above, I can't comment specifically. Hopefully with appropriate respect to all, I can suggest that thousands of hours meditating on the meanings of the gospels has provided Tom with insight that we presumably cannot intellectualise in a few short hours of reading. I concentrate on the trilogy of six thus far published and find that the concentrated format of those titles helps to bring about understanding on this topic that is not immediately apparent i.e. the grace lies in the "meditation", or God time, itself.


  • Tom Wright says:

    Just a quick couple of comments (this from someone who NEVER comments on blogsites; this is a high compliment to Jamie and his friends for the great tone of this blog in contrast to some I've had the misfortune to see).
    First, I'm not sure I understand the difference between what I'm doing and something people call 'canonical'. My whole and entire plea is for a fully canonical reading as opposed to one which truncates the actual canon in favour of what some later traditions said by way of (incomplete) summary.
    Second, the fact that God's in charge in a whole new way doesn't mean there isn't a place for human authorities. Quite the reverse: the way God made the world (Gen 1) was that it would work THROUGH human beings. Check out Colossians 1.15-20 and indeed Romans 13.1-7. But these authorities have a smaller role than they are given when people forget God himself and elevate the state into his place (totalitarianism) and also a smaller role than they are given when people forget that God wants to work in healing, creative, society-building ways in the world through the church and elevate the state into the place of the church in eg medicine, education, etc (modern post-enlightenment liberalism with the church retreating into its 'spiritual' corner). And there is a lot of difference between there being a police force I can call on when someone breaks into my home (the alternative to which would be vigilantism — check out the end of Romans 12 balancing the start of Romans 13) and this or that country appointing itself as the global police force . . .
    Actually a lot of these issues come within the discussion in the last chapter of Simply Jesus . . .
    Greetings and good wishes to one and all
    Tom Wright

  • Tom Wright says:

    Oh, just one other thing. In response to the person who said we don't need to know about second-Temple Judaism because the passages in the Gospels will tell us all we need to know about the Pharisees . . . This is precisely the point. The whole history of western Christianity demonstrates just how wrong that approach is; because the church, exegetes, preachers, ordinary readers have radically misunderstood precisely who the Pharisees were and have made them in the image of quite different figures from our own culture ('religious hypocrites', 'legalists', etc.). Similarly with the Sadducees; many today assume that because they denied the resurrection they were the 'liberals', whereas in fact they were the arch-conservatives. And so on. Seminaries and the like on the one hand, and commentaries on the other, are there precisely to help us avoid anachronisms by being sure that we really are rooted in what the text said and the meanings the authors wanted to convey, rather than projecting often quite misleading assumptions back on to the text and then merely having those prejudices 'confirmed'. Don't be afraid of history. When properly done, it liberates the church from the Babylonian captivity of our own little traditions . . .
    Tom Wright

  • Igor Miguel says:

    I'm a Brazilian and I'm not a English native speaker/writer, mistakes will come 🙂 But I'd like to share my opinion and impression. This discussion is echoing here in our country.

    "Don't be afraid of history. When properly done, it liberates the church from the Babylonian captivity of our own little traditions." (Tom Wright)

    C.S. Lewis probably would say:

    "Barfield never made me an Anthroposophist, but his counterattacks destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my 'chronological snobbery', the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also 'a period,' and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them." (Surprised by Joy).

    Sorry, but last Tom's sentence sounds me so primitivist and restorationist? I came from a "Jewish Roots or First Century Church Movement" in Brazil (headed by a man called Joseph Shulam) and I found rest for my soul in a Christian Reformed (under reformational blend) Church. Movements like that are transforming Christian Churches in something like "synagogues" based in misuse of Wright, Dunn and Hays writings. Frequent sentences found on restourationists/primitivists lips are "Christianity is pagan" or "Church should left 'Rome' and go back to 'Jerusalem'" and something else. Sure, there are serious Messianic Jews like Daniel Juster and other fighting to legitimate the the Christianity to non-Jews under identity crisis from uprooted evangelical churches that migrated themselves to Messianic-Jewish synagogues in America: I think the Second Temple theology is useful to understand many things in the NT theology spectrum, but may it be use to enrich and promote our own tradition as Christians and not to promote more identity crises. Obviously, I understand that is not Tom intention, but we should be careful here.

    It's my simple opinion.

  • Laura9 says:

    Quoting Wright's reply here "But I have to say that the response I have had, again and again, is that, yes, I nailed it: the churches in which most of my readers grew up and are at home simply haven’t taught, AT ALL, that Jesus’ ‘teaching’ and ‘deeds’ were not about ‘proving he was divine’ or ‘showing us how to go to heaven’, but rather that they were the living proclamation that now, in this way, Israel’s God was becoming king – and that this inaugurated kingship reaches its climax on the cross…… I would love to be told that there are some western Christian traditions that have said all this, just in this way, but after many years knocking around in church and theological circles I don’t expect to find it (except, of course, at Calvin College)"

    First of all, glad to see Calvin has improved since I attended some number of years ago 🙂 .

    What you state above is what I have found in 45 yrs. of knocking about in all manner of Western Protestant churches, in more than ten different denominations from Church of Christ to Church of God in Christ, from Missouri Synod Lutheran to Fundamental Baptist, and whatever there may be inbetween (in four different countries tho always in English), as merely a member of various congregations listening to the preacher in the pulpit. And it left me as an adult, having been raised in the church by wonderful parents who love the Lord, thinking (like Churchill said regards democracy) that Christianity was the worst religion there was, except for all the others.

    That is not hopeful. The layman needs to hear what Wright is saying. It's nice to have some hope again. Life saving, actually.

    Bishop Wright, I'd love to see more materials for young children. We love your short youtube video about the sheet music, and my four teens (wonder if your four were close enough in age to be teens all at the same time, lol) are going through the Simply Christian DVD program now.

  • Tom Wright says:

    To Laura G: yes, there was a four-month period when all four kids were teens simultaneously. Maggie and I threatened to go off to New Zealand and leave them to it but the thought of the mess we would find on our return deterred us. (They are all now in their 30s.) But sorry, I am not good at doing things for young children. Even if I had the time. If I have to give a children's talk I am more nervous, and prepare far more thoroughly, than I would for an address to an assembly of archbishops.

  • J. Cameron Fraser says:

    This blog seems to have turned into an "Ask Tom Wright" session. My question is about the Pharisees. Jesus clearly called them hypocrites (Mat 23) and the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Luke 18 portrays the Pharisee as trusting in his own righteousness. I can understand those who say this reflects the later tradition of the early church, but if we are to take Scripture seriously and believe that Jesus actually said what is recorded, how does this relate to the idea that we've misunderstood the Pharisees and they were really about national and ritual purity rather than legalism?

  • Tom Wright says:

    First, if people really want to ask me questions I suggest they don't abuse the hospitality of Jamie Smith's blog but email me direct (lots of people do so clearly the St Andrews website gives contact details!).
    Second, on the Pharisees see New Testament and the People of God, relevant section. We today read those passages in the gospels in the light of our experience of 'religious legalists', with little understanding of WHY they were 'legalists' in the C1, what 'the law' in question was, why it mattered to them etc. Yes, I do think Jesus called them hypocrites — and some Rabbis (later Pharisees) agreed with that analysis of some of their colleagues. And 'trusting in his own righteousness' means something rather different in first-century Judaism to what it meant in sixteenth-century Europe and hence our traditions today.
    I was at a conference recently where John Ortberg coined an epigram: we must read scripture with old eyes so that we can see our own world with fresh eyes. In other words, we MUST understand what was going on in the first century otherwise we will simply impose standard ecclesial shrunken readings on our hearers today…

  • Glenn Paauw says:

    A wonderful discussion, so thanks to all. I grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, went through their Christian school system K-12, then to Calvin College, then to Calvin Seminary. I was captured by the big kingdom vision, and have enthusiastically tried to incorporate it into my living out the Christ-following life. I was taught Kuyper; I had Mouw in college; Tony Hoekema first introduced me to the idea that a new heavens and a new earth is so much more than the typical "hope for heaven when I die." So its true, Jamie, that encountering Tom Wright was not an entirely new vision for me. And yet. In all those Reformed years, I never heard the Gospels explained quite like THAT. I never was taught the implications of the resurrection quite like THAT. I never understood the historical setting quite like THAT. My Reformed thinking was naturally welcoming of Tom's perspective, but it didn't have everything. I can't feel too smug about my Reformed heritage, because again and again and again I found new insights, deeper thinking, and a clearer, more consistent biblical story to back up all that kingdom vision that I already had.

    Further, I've worked 24 years now in one of those evangelical Christian Bible ministries. I can tell you for sure that what Tom Wright unpacks from the New Testament has indeed been forgotten in these places. The difference is striking and profound and produces a major reorientation in the understanding of the Christian faith. Call it primitivism if you want (though I don't think it is). I think it's merely a clear case of the need for all of Christianity, for the catholic faith, for creedal faith, to all be subject to a continual reformation. It is simply true that important things can be lost, be forgotten, be confused, be overshadowed. Things need to be recovered. Wright is doing this for the church in what seems to me to be very healthy ways. And it's not extra-cannonical. It's taking on board all the tools we need to understand the canon in the first place. It's taking the canon on its own terms, and allowing it to be the test for any later expressions of the faith, of how the story is told. I rejoice in it, because I can see the fruit of Wright's work in transforming the lives of many, many Christians I know personally, and also those who are touched by the work my organization is doing differently. Tom's longterm immersion in the study of the New Testament is a gift to the church.
    Glenn Paauw

  • Luke Dubbelman says:

    I have a question for all, regarding the nature of the kingdom in the world today. Consider it a tag along to the previous comments about OT use of war and Jesus' use of sacrifice and meekness.

    Here are some of my questions on the issue:

    Did Joshua and the people of Israel conquer over physical powers, and Jesus in the church today conquer over spiritual powers? How much of the kingdom is material? Was it physical in the OT and spiritual in the NT? How much can I read into the book of Hebrews which talks of the OT being a shadow of the good things to come? How have I come to a kingdom that can not be touched (Heb.12:18) and a king who cannot be seen (1 Tim.6:15-16)? What does the heavenly Jerusalem look like on this earth now?

    Any help or guidance on these questions would be appreciated!

  • Ben Irwin says:

    I'll echo what Glenn (who’s a friend of mine) wrote. I spent most of my formative years up in a nondenominational, borderline fundamentalist setting; and I can assure you that Tom Wright’s assessment is accurate, as applied here. There was almost never any serious discussion of what he calls the “inner parts” of the four gospels. Only the occasional moralizing about some parable or another, as if they were divinely blessed versions of Aesop’s Fables. (As a child, I was told once that Matthew’s parable of the talents was an example of why I shouldn’t give up piano lessons and thus squander my “talents.” I wish I were making this up.)

    I briefly transferred my allegiance to the Reformed tradition during my undergraduate and graduate years. I didn’t read Kuyper (yet – he’s in the queue now), but I did read Albert Wolters. And as Glenn put it above, I was “captured by the big kingdom vision” offered by the Reformed worldview. I was inspired by the revolutionary (for me, anyway) idea that this world is not just a temporary holding cell, but that there’s a “new heavens and a new earth” to look forward to. This was genuinely new information for me at the time.

    But still, I heard next to nothing about the “inner parts” of the gospel until I became part of the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition – where, if nothing else, we allow ourselves to hear significant chunks of the gospels each Sunday. Not that we’ve got all it figured out by any means; our problem seems to be that too few of us do much else with the gospels (or the rest of the Bible, for that matter) outside the Eucharist.

    I believe Wright’s constructive criticism can be aimed squarely at the American evangelical and fundamentalist traditions. Having spent much of my life in these traditions, I think his critique hits the mark squarely. But I also think that a need to recover the heart of the gospels exists within the Reformed and Anglican traditions as well (and probably many others besides that).

  • Aaron Kunce says:

    Just a quick word of thanks for Jamie and his heart. I've considered myself a non-traditional Calvinist and Neo-Calvinist for years now. Wright saved my faith after coming out of Christian fundamentalism. And the Kuyperian Neo-Calvinists saved my sanity and helped me synthesize and apply all I was learning from Wright. Jamie has a rare gift of clarifying through critique. He did it for me with James Davison Hunter's book, and is helping again here to bring clarity to ways Mouw et al have been saying some similar things as our beloved historian-theologian Tom Wright albeit with some nuances in language and from differing angles. No single modern author has impacted my faith like Wright. That said, I think this kind of engagement with Wright's thought, writing, and presentations is a very healthy dialogue. Bring it on.

  • Evan Bassett says:

    As I read through this dialogue, which is great by the way, I am surprised that so many readers here are agreeing with the original post where Dr. Wright is criticized for writing the book in a tone of "no one has ever said this before." Anyone who is familiar with the rest of Dr. Wright's works (and I realize familiarity even with a great percentage of them is a larger than average commitment of time) will know that the last thing he believes himself to be is the bearer of some glowing key that will totally unlock the four gospels for the rest of time. It is actually this very idea that he fights against, believing that when the church, or anyone in it, believes themselves to finally be the possessor of all the "right answers," it is then that they ought to be most feared.*

    However, there is a way in which he is indeed saying things that have never been said before, but that is because they have never needed to be said before. The story he is telling is hundreds of years old, but perhaps there has never been a day in which it was appropriate to tell it the way he is attempting to. Retelling stories in fresh, imaginative ways is not recreating them or claiming responsibility for their origin. Dr. Wright is not claiming to be the first one to tell this story, but as the world changes, so does the way in which the story of the gospels must be communicated, and in this book he is grappling with our changing world (and fundamentalist Christianity in particular) in order to communicate a story in the gospels which has indeed been "forgotten." In fact, I would think that that particular word as opposed to others (McLaren's "secret") implies that everything within has been told before, but needs remembering.

    Finally, it struck me as odd that those who seemed so irritated with Dr. Wright for taking on a tone of "new discovery", or whatever we're calling it, are the Reformed ones, as Reformed theology itself is the result of a few men, and one in particular, in the 16th century who most definitely thought they were saying things which had never been said before. It seems to me that if anyone would be open to a breakthrough idea (even though, as I have just stated, I don't believe that to be what HGBK is about), it would be those whose entire theological interpretive framework is the result of one.

    *See his lecture 'God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil' at the President's Symposia, Seattle Pacific University, 2005

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