Recently, I finished reading Professor N.T. Wright’s book, “How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.”
This book is a needed return to the focus of the four gospels: the inauguration of the Kingdom of God here on earth. On the final page the Biblical scholar writes: “Part of the tragedy of the modern church, I have been arguing, is that the “orthodox” have preferred creed to kingdom, and the unorthodox” have tried to get a kingdom without a creed. It’s time to put back together what should never have been separated. In Jesus, the living God has become King of the whole world.”
Being raised and ‘churched’ in an evangelical setting for most of my life my understanding of the Gospel (generally a misapplied Pauline bias) from out of all of the sermons and education (Moody Bible Institute) and Christian radio programs was that Jesus came to earth to die, to be resurrected and to save me from my sins, thereby giving me hellfire insurance and access to heaven ~ the Reader’s Digest of the Four Spiritual Laws.
“How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels” opened my eyes to a Kingdom of God understanding that I have been searching for over many, many years.
Here is the third section (read the whole) of a lecture, “‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’ by
N. T. Wright
Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity
‘Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in Early Christianity’
3. Early Christian Mission and Theology
All this leads to my concluding remarks on early Christian mission and theology. For over a century now it has been commonplace within the discipline called New Testament Studies to assume that the early church had to jettison its Jewishness in order to be relevant to the Gentile world into which it quickly went. Thus it has been assumed, again, that Paul had to downplay the idea of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and to switch, instead, to the more readily available category of the kuvrio~, the ‘Lord’. But this proposal, hugely influential though it has been, simply fails to imagine what ‘the kingdom of God’ meant to the early Christians, Paul included (he doesn’t use the phrase that often, but when he does we can see that it remains at the centre of his worldview). Paul, in fact, held firmly to the ancient Jewish belief, rooted in the Psalms, in Isaiah and in Daniel, that a world ruler would indeed arise from Judaea, that Israel’s God would thereby return to dwell amongst and within his people, and that through this means the long-awaited new creation of peace and justice would be inaugurated for the whole world. All of that standard Jewish expectation came to fresh flowering in Paul’s work. Of course, the communities which Paul founded were determinedly non-ethnic in their basis. But this was not because Paul had as it were gone soft on the essential Jewishness of his mission, or because there was something wrong (as Epicureans imagine) with Judaism, but because he believed that it was precisely part of the age-old divine plan that when God did for Israel what he was going to do for Israel then the nations would be brought under the healing, saving rule of this one God. Paul’s ‘gospel’, his eujaggevlion, was thus much closer in meaning to the various eujaggevlia of Caesar than most of modern scholarship has imagined. It was, as Acts 17 (already quoted) indicates, the royal announcement, right under Caesar’s nose, that there was ‘another king, namely Jesus’. And Paul believed that this royal announcement, like that of Caesar, was not a take-it-or-leave-it affair. It was a powerful summons through which the living God worked by his Spirit in hearts and minds, to transform human character and motivation, producing the tell-tale signs of faith, hope and love which Paul regarded as the biblically prophesied marks of God’s true people.
The communities which sprang into surprised existence as Paul went around making this royal announcement were remarkably devoid of an obvious symbolic world. They were precisely not defined by the worldview-symbols of Judaism – Temple, Torah observance and so on. They certainly didn’t adopt the symbols of the surrounding pagan culture. How could this new community, this new sort of community, retain what for Paul was its vital centre, namely its strong unity across traditional social divisions, and its strong holiness in matters of our old friends, money, sex and power? For Paul the answer was simple. The community needed to understand what it was that had happened in Jesus the Messiah, and in particular who the God was into whose new world they had been brought. What we see in Paul is thus properly characterized as the birth of the discipline which later came to be called Christian theology, by which I mean the prayerful and scripture-based reflection, from within the common life of the otherwise disparate body called the church, on who exactly the one God was and what his action in Jesus and by the Spirit was to mean. Early Christian theology was not an exercise undertaken for the sake of speculative system-building. It was load-bearing. If the unity and holiness of the early church were the central symbols of the movement, they could only be held in place if a vigorous theology was there to stabilize them in the winds and storms of the first century. Theology, in this sense, serves ecclesiology and thus the kingdom-based mission. Actually, I have come to worry about a post-Enlightenment theology that doesn’t do this, that thinks the point is simply to ‘prove’ the divinity of Jesus, or his resurrection, or the saving nature of his death in themselves, thereby demonstrating fidelity to the Creeds or some other regula fidei. In the gospels themselves it isn’t like this. All these things matter, but they matter because this is how God is becoming king. To prove the great Creeds true, and to affirm them as such, can sadly be a diversionary exercise, designed to avoid the real challenge of the first-century gospel, the challenge of God’s becoming king in and through Jesus.
This challenge, of course, required imagination: not the undisciplined fantasy of which left-brain thinking often accuses right-brain thinking, but the imaginative leap from the worldviews of paganism, with their many gods who might either be far removed, as in Epicureanism, or rolled into one and close at hand, as in Stoicism – or indeed from the worldviews of ancient Judaism, with their fierce concentration on the symbols of land, nation, temple and Torah. But the leap was not made into the unknown. The imaginative leap required was made on the basis of Jesus, Jesus the crucified and risen Jewish Messiah, Jesus the one in and through whom Israel’s God had at last returned in person to rescue his people and the world. And to sustain precisely that leap, the early Christians told and retold, and eventually wrote down, the story of Jesus.
The four gospels, then, to return to our starting point, are thus appropriately named ‘gospel’, in line both with Isaiah 40 and 52 and with the contemporary pagan usage. They themselves, in telling the story of how God became king in and through Jesus, invite their readers to the imaginative leap of saying, ‘Suppose this is how God has done it? Suppose the world’s way of empire is all wrong? Suppose there’s a different way, and suppose that Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, has brought it about?’ And the gospels themselves, of course, contain stories at a second level, stories purportedly told by Jesus himself, which were themselves, in their day, designed to break open the worldview of their hearers and to initiate a massive imaginative leap to which Jesus gave the name ‘faith’. The gospels invite their readers, in other words, to a multiple exercise, both of imagining what it might have been like to make that leap in the first century (both for Jesus’ hearers and then, at a second stage, for their own readers) and, as a further stage again, of imagining what it might be like to do so today. For too long gospel study has been dominated by the attempt to make the gospels reflect, simply, the faith-world of the early church. Why, after all, the radical critics used to say, would the early Christians have been particularly interested in miscellaneous stories of what Jesus actually said or did, when all that really mattered was his saving death, making the gospels simply ‘passion narratives with extended introductions’? The conservative response has been that early converts would naturally want to know more about this Jesus in whom they had come to place their faith. But this stand-off, on both sides, has usually failed to reflect the larger question: that the gospels tell the story of Jesus not out of mere historical anecdotage or faith-projection, but because this is how Jesus launched the kingdom of God, which he then accomplished in his death and resurrection. Even to hold this possibility in one’s head requires, in today’s western church, whether radical or conservative, no less than in the non-Christian world, a huge effort of the imagination.
This imagination, like all good right-brain activity, must then be firmly and thoroughly worked through the left brain, disciplined by the rigorous historical and textual analysis for which the discipline of biblical studies has rightly become famous. But, by itself, the left brain will produce, and has often produced, a discipline full of facts but without meaning, high on analysis and low on reconstruction, good at categories and weak on the kingdom. One of the reasons I was excited to be invited to come to St Andrews is because this is already one of the very few places in the world where the imagination is taken seriously as part of the whole theological discipline. I hope and trust and pray that we will be able to work together at the challenging but richly rewarding tasks of imagining the kingdom in such a way that will simultaneously advance the academic understanding of our extraordinary primary texts and enrich the mission and theology of tomorrow’s church. It is just as difficult today as it was in the first century to imagine what the kingdom of God might look like. Rigorous historical study of the gospels and the other early Christian writings has a proper role to play in fuelling, sustaining and directing that imagination, and in helping to translate it into reality.