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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Deconstructing N. T. Wright and His Kingdom (3)


Before proceeding to an examination of Wright's presentation of the gospels, this may be a good point at which to take stock of where we are. By examining the relationship of early Christian writings (excluding the gospels for now) and creedal formulations, we have seen that Wright has misrepresented, or certainly misunderstood, the nature and purpose of creedal confesssions—and this in spite of his own previous work regarding Paul's reformulation of the Shema for Christian purposes. We have also seen that Wright has misrepresented the way in which the creeds developed from those early Christian affirmations of faith that can be traced back to the earliest days of the Church (Wright prefers the low case “church,” but I have my own preferences). The historical fact is that early Christian thought—including what is reflected in formulations that obviously point toward the creeds—reflects the later development of the creeds in two important respects: 1) these early formulations and reflections are focused on the identity of Jesus and his relationship with the Father, and 2) they pay little if any attention to the actual events of Jesus' life between his birth and crucifixion. Specifically, they say nothing about Jesus' teaching and nothing about “kingdom inauguration,” which Wright sees as the “central point” of the gospels.


Now that last statement brings us to an important point. Wright makes much of a fundamental contrast that he wishes to establish--that between “the creed … and the canon of scripture, in which the four gospels occupy such a central position.” In reality, Wright deals only with what he sees as a contrast between the creeds and the gospels—not with the New Testament writings as a whole, the “canon of scripture.” This would be quite understandable if the non-gospel NT writings never mentioned “the kingdom,” but that is not the case. Moreover, given the fact that the other NT writings 1) often date to a period before at least some of the gospels achieved written form, and 2) were written by authors with as close a relation to the events of Jesus' life as the evangelists themselves (or with access to comparable sources), it is remarkable that as acute an historian as Wright should choose to ignore the testimony of the non-gospel writings. Wright's focus on the gospels as “central” to scripture, while in one sense perfectly understandable, is for our present purposes a highly artificial distinction, and certainly one that cannot be relied upon without explicit justification. In fact, it's difficult to avoid a certain degree of suspicion regarding Wright's motives in this regard, since he does indicate early on that he believes Paul's thought has been misinterpreted—surely that alone would demand that Wright address the issue of “the kingdom” in the non-gospel writings! (As an aside, I note that Wright does nothing to make critical analysis of this book easy for the reader. A frustrating, not to say annoying, feature of the book is its total lack of indices—whether of subjects, authors, or scriptural citations. This lack is all the more inexplicable given the ease with which such indices can be generated using modern publishing software and the fact that Wright chose to publish this book under his scholarly/academic brand of “N. T. Wright” rather than his popular oriented “Tom Wright” brand. Those considerations aside, the fundamental importance alone of the issues that Wright attempts to address would, one would have thought, have dictated the inclusion of appropriate indices as a matter of professionalism.)

All this being so, we must consider what Wright has preferred to leave unmentioned before we proceed further. First, we provide examples of Wright's misleading contrast between “creed and canon,” and of his choice to focus on the gospels alone:

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all seem to think it's hugely important that they tell us a great deal about what Jesus did between the time of his birth and the time of his death. … but the great creeds don't. (11)
The gospels speak a good deal … about the “kingdom of God” as, in some sense or other, a present reality in the ministry of Jesus. [but the Nicene creed implies that his kingdom will only be set up when Jesus “comes again in glory”]

We have, as a result, understood the ascension in vague terms of supernatural glory, rather than in the precise terms of Jesus's authority over the world. In fact, the ascension, for many people, implies Jesus's absence, not his universal presence and sovereign rule. (16)
The church provided a “rule of faith” by which, supposedly, to understand the scriptures. … At some point, perhaps not long after the creeds were written, [they] turned into a teaching aid. … “These,” the church declared, “are the things you need to know about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and so on.” ... the one thing you miss, when you use the creeds in that way, is the central point that Matthew, Mark, and Luke in their way and John in his own different way all say was central to the work of Jesus himself. This, they would say, is the story of how God became king of the world. (18-19)
these great statements of faith, which the church has treated as foundational for its life ever since, manage not to talk about what the gospels primarily talk about and to talk about something else instead. (19)
The creeds give us a Jesus whose miraculous birth and saving death, resurrection, and ascension are all we need to know. …The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God. It would be truly remarkable if one great truth of early Christian faith and life were actually to displace another, to displace it indeed so thoroughly that people forgot it even existed. But that's what I think has happened. (20)
[Treating the gospels as somehow optional preludes to the “red meat of Pauline theology”] has been the case for much of the past millennium in the West, during the Middle Ages and then during and after the Reformation. That historical story … must wait for another occasion, and probably another writer. (21)
Faced with a choice between the creed … and the canon of scripture, in which the four gospels occupy such a central position, the church has unhesitatingly privileged the creed and let the canon fend for itself—which it hasn't always managed to do very successfully. (23)

In what follows we will continue to exclude the gospels from our consideration for the time being.  Instead, having already examined what we could learn about the development of the creeds in early Christian writings, we will narrow our focus to a consideration of the treatment of "the kingdom of God" in those writings.  In particular, as we read the excerpts from these writings we will want to keep in mind two of Wright's central contentions: 

"The gospels were all about God becoming king, but the creeds are focused on Jesus being God."  (20)
Questions have been asked of the gospels that they were not written to answer; and the questions the gospels were addressing—questions as much political as theological—have been ignored. It is time for a fresh look. (33-36)

We will get to the matter of the gospels later, but for now we will consider where the non-gospel writings stand on these issues--do they focus more on God becoming king or on Jesus' identity; do they consider the kingdom to be as much political as theological--and whether they conform to Wright's portrayal of the nature of Christian faith.  When we have completed that part of our analysis we will be in a better position to determine whether Wright's treatment of the gospels themselves is accurate or not.

"The Kingdom of God" in Non-Gospel Early Christian Writings


Before proceeding to an analysis of the non-gospel texts themselves, we will simply note that the letters of Paul make it very clear that knowledge about Jesus—beyond the embryo creed that Paul himself recites—was imparted to all the new believers in oral form. And, at a relatively early date, this oral instruction was supplemented by written accounts: the four Gospels, as well as relevant early documents written by Church leaders, i.e., the letters of Paul and others. The either/or choice of canon or creed that Wright implies is a false dichotomy: the early creedal formulae existed side by side with the gospels, even predating them, in harmony. Further, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to suppose, as Wright facilely does, that the early “rule of faith” was intended to be a guide to understanding the scriptures. The typical text of the rule of faith (which we examined in Part 2) makes this abundantly clear: like all early creedal formulae the rule of faith has essentially nothing to say about scripture. What is apparent from the historical evidence is that the early creedal formulae must presuppose knowledge about Jesus and his life.

There is no fully systematic way to approach the various references to the kingdom in the non-gospel writings. However, there are several leading points that emerge. One, that cannot be stressed enough, is that the kingdom is seen as both a present reality as well as a reality that will only reach complete fulfillment in the future—as the climax of history. This must be the vantage point from which we view the diverse passages. Thus, the kingdom often appears in these passages to be a way of life (especially in contrast with ways of life that are inconsistent with the kingdom way of life) and a state of being—of being in Christ, as Paul so often expresses it. These factors--so unlike the usual understanding of what “kingdom” is all about, so different from the associations that the word itself carries--may offer an explanation for why the expression “kingdom” fell out of use as a primary designation for the Christian life and why leaders like Paul sought new ways to express the reality of that life in Christ. And, even though we may not be able to glean a complete theology of the kingdom from these references, we may at least get a good feel for the early Church's view of the matter.  That said, we may proceed to the texts themselves.

Only in the first chapter of Acts do we find reference to “the kingdom” as a worldly power, a “theocratic” reality, as Wright will later assert. But in this instance, the reference is to the “kingdom of Israel.” From the context there is little doubt that Luke is portraying the continuing obtuseness of the disciples—their failure to understand the nature of the kingdom—rather than expounding the nature of the kingdom itself. The initial reference to “the kingdom of God” at the beginning of the passage appears to refer to the total situation of the new Church—between Heaven and Earth:

He also provided them with many proofs that he was still alive after his sufferings; for a period of forty days he appeared to them and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God.

6 So when they were gathered together they asked him, "Lord, is this when you'll reestablish the Kingdom of Israel?" 7 But he told them, "It's not for you to know the dates and times my Father has decided upon from His own authority. 8 When the Holy Spirit comes upon you you'll receive power and you'll be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, all the way to the end of the earth." (Acts 1)

Most of the remaining kingdom references in Acts are similar. The kingdom appears to be a present reality, but one that will reach fulfillment in the future. Further, an integral part of the kingdom life that is being proclaimed is the good news about Jesus. What this means is that reference to “the name of Jesus” should almost certainly be taken as a reference to the identity of Jesus, especially as revealed by his resurrection. Thus, the good news about the kingdom is integrally related to the revelation of Jesus' identity:

2 Now when they believed Philip's proclamation of the good news about the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ both men and women were baptized. (Acts 8)

Note, too,that reference to the kingdom as reaching fulfillment in the future, or reference to individuals gaining entry to the kingdom in the future, should not be taken to deny the current reality of the kingdom:

21 They proclaimed the good news in that city and gained a considerable number of converts, then they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the believers, encouraging them to persevere in the faith, and reminding them that we must pass through many tribulations in order to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14)

8 Paul then entered the synagogue and for three months he preached boldly, speaking about the kingdom of God and trying to win them over, 9 but some of them were stubborn and refused to believe. (Acts 19)

25 "I went about among you proclaiming the kingdom, and now, behold, I know you'll never see my face again. (Acts 20)

23 When they had set a day for him they came to him at his lodgings in large numbers. From morning till night he explained everything to them, bearing witness to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and the prophets. 24 Some were convinced by what he said but others refused to believe, …

30 Paul stayed for two whole years in his own lodgings and received all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ, openly and unhindered. (Acts 28)

The one kingdom reference in Romans is of particular interest. In it Paul provides what could be considered a definition of “the kingdom,” or of the kingdom life. The important point is that the kingdom is a way of life and a state of being and, as such, is a present reality for those who are “in Christ.” There is no reason that I can see that the kingdom references in Acts should not also be taken in this sense:

13 Therefore, let's not condemn each other any longer; instead, resolve that you'll do nothing that would cause a brother to stumble or fall. 14 I know and am certain in the Lord Jesus that nothing is in itself unclean, but if someone thinks that it is unclean, then it's unclean for him. 15 If your brother is distressed by what you eat, then your conduct is no longer based on love. Don't allow what you eat to cause the downfall of someone for whom Christ died. 16 So don't let our good be blasphemed. 17 After all, the kingdom of God doesn't consist of eating and drinking--it consists of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever serves God in this way will be acceptable to God and respected by men. (Romans 14)

The early church in Corinth was subject to divisions, both theological and moral. Nor surprisingly, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians raises the subject of the kingdom in sharp, contrastive terms. As in the letter to the Romans, the contrast in moral behavior between those within the kingdom and those without is raised. Several other aspects of the kingdom and its life are also raised. First, Paul states that the kingdom is a spiritual reality that inspires its true members with spirits appropriate to all situations. Second, Paul describes the kingdom as a present reality, but one which “Christ” will present to the Father at the end. It is at the end that “every ruler, authority, and power” will be done away with. Christ's reign is ongoing but only at the end will Christ's enemies be vanquished. Importantly, Christ's enemies will endure until the end, although Christ's ultimate victory is not in doubt. But these are spiritual matters—the “power” of the kingdom is a spiritual power. This theme is continued in the third point, that “flesh and blood,” earthly realities, cannot “inherit” the kingdom. The kingdom is a power of the spirit, and not the political reality that Wright would like it to be:

18 Some of you have become arrogant, as if I weren't coming to you, 19 but I'll come to you quickly if the Lord wills and I'll find out what sort of power these arrogant people have, not just how well they speak. 20 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of words but of power! 21 What do you want? Should I come to you with the rod, or in a spirit of love and gentleness? (1 Corinthians 4)

9 Don't you know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Make no mistake, neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor 'fairies,' nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor those who slander others, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6)

20 As it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a man, resurrection from the dead also came through a man, 22 for just as in Adam all men die, so too in Christ they'll also come to life again. 23 Each will be raised in the proper order--Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ will rise. 24 Then the end will come, when he'll deliver the kingdom to his God and Father, when he'll do away with every ruler, authority, and power. 25 For Christ must reign until he's put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be done away with will be death,

50 This is what I mean, brothers--it's impossible for flesh and blood to inherit the kingdom of God, nor can what's perishable inherit what's imperishable. (1 Corinthians 15)

Paul's letters to the Galatians, the Ephesians and his first letter to the Thessalonians can be conveniently grouped together. Their common theme, as regards the kingdom, is the necessity of living a life in accordance with the spirit of the kingdom--“righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit”--as Paul expressed it in Romans. The passage from Galatians stresses the difference, the opposition, between spirit and flesh and, since that contrast leads directly to the kingdom reference, we can see once more that Paul sees the kingdom to be a spiritual reality which is reflected in each member's life. It is a reality in which we share in the present, but which will come to full fruition in some indefinite future:

16 But I tell you, walk according to the Spirit, and don't carry out the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh's desires are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit is opposed to the flesh. They're opposed to each other so you won't just do whatever you want. 18 If you're led by the Spirit, you're not subject to the Torah. 19 Now it's evident what the works of the flesh are--fornication, impurity, and indecent acts, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, factionalism, 21 drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I warn you now as I warned you before, that those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5)

5 For you should know that no fornicator, or impure or greedy person--that is, no idolater--will have any share in the kingdom of Christ and God. (Ephesians 5)

10 You and God are witnesses to how devoutly, uprightly, and blamelessly we behaved toward you believers, 11 and you also know how, like a father with his own children, 12 we exhorted you, encouraged you, and urged you to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of God, Who calls you to the glory of His kingdom. (1 Thessalonians 2)

Colossians presents the kingdom as a full, complete reality for “the saints in light,” presumably those saints who are with the Father in “heaven” (that word is not used in this passage, but “heaven” is referred to explicitly as a future hope in v. 5). Importantly, however, this reality that is fully possessed by “the saints in light” has been made available by the Father for “us” to “share.” We share in the kingdom life, now and rejoice that we will join “the saints in light.” Paul's thought is difficult and not always explicitly presented, but this appears to be the purport:

11 We pray that you will be strengthened with all the power of His glorious might so that your steadfastness and patience will be perfected and you may joyfully 12 give thanks to the Father Who made you worthy to share in the portion of the saints in light. 13 He has rescued us from the power of darkness and has brought us into the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14 by whom we are redeemed and our sins are forgiven. (Colossians 1)

10 My fellow prisoner Aristarchus greets you, as well as Barnabas' cousin Mark (concerning whom you've received instructions--if he comes to you, receive him), 11 and Jesus who is called Justus. Of those who are Jewish these are the only ones who are co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they've been a comfort to me. (Colossians 4)

Our final Pauline passage is from the second letter to Timothy. In it the kingdom appears as a reality that will be realized in the future, apparently at the end time when “Christ Jesus” will “judge the living and the dead.” To suppose that “his appearance and his kingdom” refers to the past doesn't work with the overall context. Whether “the word” that Paul insists must be proclaimed, whether that proclamation be “convenient or inconvenient,” concerns the kingdom is not specified, but it seems likely:

I charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearance and his kingdom--2 proclaim the word, insist upon it whether it's convenient or inconvenient, show error for what it is, reprove and encourage through patience in teaching. (2 Timothy 4)

The kingdom references in the letter to the Hebrews and in the letter of James and Peter's second letter appear to describe the kingdom in a way that is similar to 2 Timothy. James, in particular, makes it clear that final entry to the “everlasting kingdom” will occur in the future and will be the result of a virtuous life rather than of political activism:

28 Therefore, we who are to receive an unshakable kingdom should be grateful and should worship God in an acceptable manner with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12)

5 Listen, my beloved brothers! Didn't God choose the poor of the earth to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom He promised to those who love Him? (James 2)

5 For this very reason you should make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, your virtue with knowledge, 6 your knowledge with self control, your self control with steadfastness, your steadfastness with godliness, 7 your godliness with mutual affection, and your mutual affection with love. 8 If you have these things and they increase they'll keep you from being idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, 9 for whoever lacks these things is blind and shortsighted, forgetting that he was cleansed from his past sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, you must spare no effort to make your call and election certain, for if you do this you'll never stumble. 11 In this way your entry into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for. (2 Peter 1)

As might be expected, kingdom references in The Revelation to John are sui generis and are conditioned by the literary genre, apocalyptic vision. In general, it can be said that the concern of the author is to strengthen the resolve of the believers in the face of present persecution by his visions of the future. The kingdom, thus, is seen as coming in the future, but the glorious victory that will mark the advent of the kingdom is stressed as a foregone conclusion, although the need for endurance is acknowledged. Interestingly, those who are in the kingdom are twice referred to as priests, rather than princes:

To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins with his blood--6 made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father--to him be glory and power forever, amen!

7 Behold, he's coming on the clouds!
Every eye will see him,
including those who pierced him;
all the tribes of the earth will mourn him.

Yes! Amen!

9 I, John, your brother and partner in the suffering, the kingdom, and the steadfast endurance which we have in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos for proclaiming the word of God and for witnessing to Jesus. (The Revelation to John 1)

21 Whoever is victorious I'll allow to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat with my Father on His throne. (The Revelation to John 3)

10 You have made them a kingdom, priests for our God,
and they shall rule over the earth." (The Revelation to John 5)

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and loud voices in heaven could be heard saying,

"The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom
of our Lord, and of His Messiah;
He shall reign for ever and ever." (The Revelation to John 11)

I heard a loud voice in heaven saying,

"Now salvation and power have come,
the kingdom of our God
and the authority of His Messiah,
For the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down,
who accused them night and day before our God.
11 They conquered him through the blood of the Lamb
and through the word of their testimony, (The Revelation to John 12)


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