IN HOLY Week, by a nice irony, I both read Tom Wright’s latest book and listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lectures on St Paul and his world of thought. Paul says very little about the narrative of Jesus’s life, while his thought initiates much of Christian doctrine. The classical creeds jump in their affirmation between incarnation and crucifixion, with their theological implications. In contrast, this book is concerned with the Gospel narratives as lives of Jesus — material that seems to be missing in Paul and the creeds — and asks what the Evangelists meant by their writings.
Wright warns us of a widespread failure to grasp the full meaning provided in the four canonical Gospels, a failure to see the intrinsic relationship between incarnation and atonement in the way they tell their story. On page 175 we read that “All four Gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through this story of Jesus of Nazareth.”
This page indicates how the “central claim” of the book is set out, and its title is explained, more than halfway through. Before this point, alternative arguments are confronted, and the extensive background to these ideas has been thoroughly explored. In fact, this background is not incidental, but represents the fundamental ideas from which the Evangelists were working. Wright is passionate in his concern that these ideas should be given full force, and any playing down or distortion of their importance be resisted at all costs.
Readers of Wright’s earlier books will recognise the arguments in, for example, The New Testament and the People of God (SPCK, 1992).
Four strands in this background are repeatedly emphasised. The story of Israel must not be sidelined; for the story of Jesus is the climax for Israel. The story of Israel’s God, represented in the Temple, the Shekinah, and the promised return of Malachi 3.1-2, is vital for the question of Jesus’s identity. The story of Exodus tells “how God became king”, and Jesus’s story is the ultimate Exodus. God’s renewed people, a transformed community, represent a new world order. The political contest between God and Caesar, the opposition of the powers, is to be taken literally.
“All four Gospel-writers believed that with his crucifixion Jesus of Nazareth had been enthroned, however paradoxically, as Israel’s Messiah, and that, with that event, Israel’s God had established his kingdom on earth as in heaven.” Kingdom and cross are bound inextricably together: there cannot be the separation into the social-gospel agenda of the Kingdom Christians and the “souls for heaven” agenda of the Cross Christians.
As always, Wright’s exposition is rich with vivid ideas and intriguing illustrations. I could wish he were not so antagonistic to the Enlightenment, Bultmann, and existentialist Lutherans, or to the definition of a Gospel as “a Passion narrative with extended introduction”. He knows that his arguments will not convince everyone, as in his reading of Luke 8.39 as an explicit identification of Jesus as God.
But he does great service in rescuing the theological significance of many a Gospel and Old Testament text, and in seeing how much the Evangelists agree in their emphases. It is vital, however, to credit both the theological power and the essential variety of the whole New Testament. There is a complementarity here that offers no excuse for fighting the battles of Christian history all over again.
Dr John Court is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Biblical Studies at the University of Kent at Canterbury.