Does Being ‘Biblical’= Being Pauline?
I’ve started reading NT Wright’s book, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. In some ways it’s a continuation of his work in Simply Jesus.
Wright’s overarching premise is how Christianity in the West has largely forgotten what the Gospels are about. Christians of all traditions and across the theological spectrum tend to read the Gospels episodically or we read them to buttress theological perspectives we bring to the texts. We do not- and haven’t since the ancient church, Wright contends- read the Gospels, asking the question: ‘What overall story does this Gospel think its telling?’
Wright argues that Christians, especially since the Reformation, have construed the ‘gospel’ in terms of atonement and justification; meanwhile, the story the Gospels attempt to tell is how God in Christ is King of the Earth as in Heaven. The extent to which Jesus’ ascension has become a neglected text and holy day supports Wright’s assertions, and just on a literary level it’s a good charge to level. There are no other narratives we could read where how the authors constructed the beginning, middle and end are incidental to the authorial ‘point.’ It’s not a trivial detail that the Gospels conclude with Jesus’ enthronement nor is it of little consequence that Luke ends the Gospel with Jesus’ ascension and then Luke’s Acts picks up with the disciples living in the form of this new Kingdom, on earth as in heaven.
Whatever one’s theology, Wright thinks it problematic that most Christians can articulate a definition of the gospel that need not make any reference to the actual Gospels. Our definitions of the Gospel center on terms like atonement and justification, terms that feature prominently in Paul but are not in the Gospels themselves and are certainly not their main theme. In the same way, Wright notes a commonly observed problem with the creeds; namely, that they skip from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection and leave out the bulk of the Gospel story.
Instead of shaping our definition of ‘gospel’ by asking what story the Gospels are attempting to tell, we use the Gospels, Wright says, to illustrate arguments derived from Paul. By doing so, Christians have lost the plot…of the Gospels. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Wright doesn’t ask the question but it’s there in his argument: Shouldn’t our reading of Paul be in submission to and in service of the Gospels rather than vice versa?
Is it the case, Wright wonders, that when we claim to be biblical we’re really being Pauline instead? And by neglecting the narrative arc of the Gospels are we actually being something profoundly less than biblical?