Review of How God became King

Tom Wright’s latest book, How God became King is his “surprising and radical” reassessment of the gospels. Whilst well-written and clearly argued, I was less surprised by the content of a book which promises to “revolutionize much Christian thinking”…

In How God became King (2012) Wright says that his “central claim” is that (p175):

All four gospels are telling the story of how God became king in and through this story of Jesus of Nazareth. This central theme is stated in a thoroughly integrated way, again in all four gospels.
… The story Matthew, Mark Luke and John tell is the story of how God became king – in and through Jesus both in his public career and in his death.

Wright argues that the true message of the gospels have frequently been ignored; they have been read as introductions to the crucifixion and resurrection, not as narratives with something important to say in their own right. He argues that this has been reinforced by the Creeds, which skip from the incarnation to the crucifixion. Because, Wright argues, the writers of the Creeds thought there was no disagreement on what the rest of the gospels were saying.

However, this has been forgotten, leading to what Wright identifies as six inadequate answers:

  1. Jesus was teaching people how to get to heaven.
  2. Jesus was teaching people how to live (ethics).
  3. Jesus was showing people how to live (moral example).
  4. Jesus’ perfect life means that he can be the perfect sacrifice.
  5. The stories are there so that we can identify with the characters and so be challenged.
  6. The gospels were written to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus.

Instead, Wright argues, that all four of the gospels have four ‘speakers’ that are operating throughout each of the gospels. It is only when we get the ‘volume’ right that we can hear what the proper message of the gospels actually is:

  1. The history of Israel, particularly God’s liberation of his chosen people in the exodus.
  2. The revelation of Israel’s God Yahweh, the living God who reveals himself in a new way to his people and journeys with them.
  3. The gospel story as the story of the renewed people of God – royal priesthood and the gift of the Torah.
  4. God’s victory over Pharaoh, showing the clash of God’s kingdom with the dark powers of this world, and of his victory over them.

In summary Wright argues (p153):

The four gospel writers, each in his own way, tell the story of Jesus as the story of the new and ultimate exodus. What our present fourfold exercise has done is to draw out the various dimensions of that new exodus and to highlight their significance.

In the last section of the book Wright then looks again at how the gospels bring out the four themes he has identified, explores the interpretation of particular parts of the gospels in the light of his arguments, and suggests how to read the creeds in a more comprehensive and integrated manner.

Wright argues that (p175):

This integrated theme, with the kingdom and the cross as the main coordinates, flanked by the question of Jesus’ divine identity, on the one hand, and the resurrection and Ascension, on the other, is one that most Christians, right across the Western tradition, have failed even to glimpse, let alone to preach.

This is my main disagreement with Wright in this book. I think that his exploration of the “integrated theme” is helpful, his interpretation of parts of the gospels are engaging and thought-provoking, and his attempts to bring together the ‘social gospel’ and traditional ‘evangelisation’ are good and useful. But, I did not find all this quite as radical as Wright seems to think it should be! I’d like to think that my sermon last year on Christ the King picks up on most of Wright’s main points. Perhaps that is because of my interest in the Old Testament, perhaps because I’ve read a lot of Wright’s previous works, perhaps because more people have grasped more of the message of the gospels than he fears? Nonetheless, this is a book that is worth reading and reflecting upon.

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