Tom Wright on How (not) to Read the Gospels

Tom Wright’s new book, How God Became King, complains that too many Christians have developed bad habits in how to read the Gospels. The essential complaint is this one: what we need to get from the Gospels we can often find; if that is how we use the Gospels then that is also why they were written.

Question for the day: How would most folks in your congregation answer this question: Why do we have the Gospels? Or, What is the intent of the Gospels? What do they do? What do you think of Tom’s six strategies? Anything to add?

Do you think the church has wandered away from a good, accurate reading of the Gospels? Do you think Tom’s overdoing the misreading?

Wright captures these in six general reading strategies. I will add a seventh.

1. They teach how to go to heaven. Wright, who has famously argued against this whole idea in his Resurrection of the Son of God and then more accessibly in Surprised by Hope, argues that neither “kingdom of heaven” nor “eternal life” are about going to heaven when we die but about God’s rule being established on earth. I agree with what he’s arguing but I want to press this point again: the kingdom that comes to earth is eternal, and if we can now say “heaven” is “kingdom come to earth” or “God’s establishing of his kingdom on earth,” then this whole idea of going to heaven is not as wacky as it sometimes is made out to be. In other words, I ask this: if the kingdom is eternal in the sense of our final destiny, and if that is what many people mean by heaven, and even if we are now seriously adjusting heaven to much more earthy, is there that big of a difference?

But, Tom’s got this right: many do get going to heaven out the gospels because that is what they think the Bible is on about. Tom’s got a zinger in this section: “It is as though you were to get a letter from the president of the United States inviting himself to stay at your home, and in your excitement you misread it and assumed that he was inviting you to stay at the White House” (44). Clever.

2. They teach us about Jesus’ ethical teachings. Again, this is partly right; we do get his moral vision. But this is a thin veneer of what the Gospels are doing: they are announcing far more than that Jesus was a great teacher.

3. They teach us about Jesus as the great moral exemplar: once again, there’s something true here, but it simply is too thin. “What a man” is not the proper response to the Gospels; and thinking this way doesn’t make it any easier to follow Jesus.

4. They teach us that Jesus is the perfect sacrifice: here atonement theology reshapes what the Gospels are about. He had to be sinless and actively obedient, so he took on the Law and beat the thing by doing it all perfectly. Reformed theology, and Tom picks on it here, has emphasized the active obedience (and the passive obedience) and that theology sometimes works its way into how folks read the Gospels — again, not good enough Tom says.

5. They teach us how to live by giving us characters with whom we can identify: we “use” the stories by placing ourselves in them so we can hear a word from the Lord and be transformed. Again, not enough.

6. They teach us that Jesus is divine. Tom weighs in on later creeds, which set christology into the divine-human union. Good enough, but the Gospels are read improperly is this is all we are getting from them. There’s so much more.

I add a 7th, and perhaps you’ve got some to add yourself:

7. The Gospels don’t matter (because nothing happened until Romans or Paul). I tell a story in The King Jesus Gospel of a pastor who said almost this to me, but I have over the years met many who have told me they grew up in a church that preached Paul and never preached the Gospels — except at Christmas and Easter. Otherwise, it was all theology of Paul and Paul’s letters, with some wandering into Hebrews and Peter and the Johannines.

Do I think Tom’s overdoing this? In part, but only because of this: Theologians have read the Gospels well in church history, or at least some of them have. They have not figured as prominently from some as they have for others. For instance, why was Calvin’s last commentary — I may be mistaken — his commentary on the Synoptics? But, I would want to reframe this a bit: it seems to me that pastors need to do a better job at teaching people how to read the Gospels. I’m confident many of them can read them well, but is that being passed on well? I think not. Augustine read the Gospels well; Calvin did too; I was a bit surprised at the fewness of sermons preached by Edwards on the Gospels when I checked out the database site. But the emphasis on Paul, with Paul’s theology shaping so much of evangelicalism and Protestantism, the Gospels often get shut out and if not shut out their categories get transformed into theological categories drawn from elsewhere.

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  • DRT

    Scot, I’m confused.

    Are you saying that these are 7 ways to not? Or that some are? Is there another set coming?

  • scotmcknight

    DRT, Wright is exploring six (I added the seventh) ways Christians read the Gospels that are inadequate.

  • Scott Gay

    To me the good news is in contrast to any exhorting of any kind. I believe the graciousness of the former is what has made possible a reformable, faithful, and there but by the grace of God me. Approaching me with anything smelling of the imperative mood( do something and therefore you will be thus) would never have been a new birth experience. I’m naturally capable of doing lots of things for myself. I love the facts of the Gospels, that Jesus had a natural rather than urbane ethos, that He spoke in analogies, the point of which many times grow on one. His way of interpreting the meaning of the scriptures to the hearer. His one main sermon was on blessings rather than complaining(what is the language of the kingdom?). His ministry gives so many hints of the possibility that there is more to this life than I can imagine. And a devotional life of the most inspiring type, which must have been the key to His extraodinariness. Who can understand the cross and the resurrection except that that is love? Pure love in the form of a life, death, and its conquering. Successfully overcoming the obstacles of sin and death, who won’t bend a knee? The King Jesus Gospel indeed.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    Add me to the list of Reformed people who grew up hearing only Paul, and not the gospels. In fact, for a while I quit reading Paul altogether, until Wright led me to a way of reading Paul in historical context that made sense with the gospels. (I have always been a narrative tending person.)

    I have met walking talking examples of each of the seven approaches mentioned. The getting to heaven, proving Jesus is divine, Jesus as ethical teacher, and Jesus as sacrifice have been the most common.


  • Jerry

    Scot, I agree that Tom is overstating this a bit. Plenty of people emphasize the Lordship of Christ in their own lives and in the world. Still I do think he has a point. I love the creeds. I recite them personally and use them in worship but it has always been troubling that they skip Jesus’ life.

  • I’m excited that Wright (and you, Scot) are bringing the gospels back into focus, refuting the idea that they are second tier books under the epistles when it comes to formulating our doctrines and praxis. Growing up and even in college, the gospels seemed like they were in a kind of funny in between stage, not quite Old Testament, but not quite New Testament either, since most of the writing therein occurs prior to the death, burial, and resurrection. Are these the effects of hard line dispensationalism or something? I don’t know.

  • Point 1) Does this change anything?

    Well, speaking for myself – yes. In my genre of Christianity, this life, this earthly existence is counted as nothing, as unimportant. (That’s what we SAY, that’s not how we LIVE….we live very tied to this earth and our things….) Frankly, I think that along with shifting our view of *where* heaven is, Wright is addressing the preceding dispensational eschatology. “This world is gonna burn, so heaven can’t be “here.”

    To shift the concept to heaven coming here, changes everything. What I do here, and now, has purpose. Wright is saying that maybe we don’t understand the how and why right now – but someday we will see how vocation and even everyday actions, how holy living (and yeah, there’s some adherence to moral teaching involved there, but holy living is more than that – it’s wanting to model our life after Jesus not follow rules because we’ll go to hell if we don’t.)

    You all know this, too, but it doesn’t allow the laissez faire approach to earth and creation. If heaven is here and not ethereally “out there, somewhere, a spiritual place,” it reminds us of the physicality of heaven. That’s something that a lot of your fundamentalist churches don’t teach well. If heaven will be here, and is inaugurated “now,” then we can’t disregard this place under the misunderstanding that it is temporal and bound to extinction, anyway.

    I get the sense that much of Wright’s writing is directed toward the American church, toward the “low church” specifically in this slice, at least. (He directs some of his “holiness talk” such as in “After You Believe” toward more of the high church, the mainline, or the more liberal church. I cringe to use the labels….but they do help categorize…) If you’ve grown up fundamentalist or dispensationalist, or if you don’t have a clue theologically and have inadvertently fallen into the cliches which abound in common religious lore – you understand the difference that Wright’s shift makes. You recognize yourself…. :)…and really, this view has the potential to change everything.

  • Rodney

    I’ll poke a little at Wright: We read the gospels as a compendium of fulfilled prophecies about the Messiah (a narrowly Matthean reading).

  • TJJ

    That is a very insightful list, and one of the strongest parts of the book. Another could be: The Gospel’s purpose is to tell us biography/history about Jesus. I think that is how many in the “pew” view/approach the Gospels, they tell us what happened, they tell us about Jesus’ earthly life.

  • Jon G

    Scot said: “if the kingdom is eternal in the sense of our final destiny, and if that is what many people mean by heaven, and even if we are now seriously adjusting heaven to much more earthy, is there that big of a difference?”

    I would say the difference is in how we see the World now. That is, Heaven is not a place we go LATER, so we have little justification for tending to this world NOW, but a place that we take a part in shaping everyday – We are CREATING Heaven. We are restoring shalom. Properly imaging God into this world creates the heavenly status.

    So, Heaven being a far off place or right here and now has huge implications for me as to how I live today.

  • Jon G

    Also, in dealing with this Heaven question, I’ve found a great analogy via Matt Chandler. I don’t agree with him nearly as much as I used to but I think he nails this one. He says that making Heaven our goal instead of God is like marrying a woman for her money. How glorifying to the woman can that be? No, we follow God to get God, and Heaven is just icing on the cake.

    I would add, Heaven is not what we get from God…it is GETTING God, and therefore we can enjoy Heaven now. The location is of little importance other than it’s implications for how we live life on this Earth.

  • Rick

    I have the same question as Rodney #7 does. Why the focus on just “king” (not that that is not important), but not on the more overarching term “messiah”, which includes king, high priest, etc…?

  • Scott, I really appreciate your addition of point seven. I grew up in such a church that over-focused on Pauline theology. I have found personally that an anabaptist reading of scripture which puts Christ at the centre is a great corrective to such an overemphasis on Paul.

  • Cliff

    I understand how the “heaven will be on earth” and God is coming to stay with us, we’re not going to be with God mentality can make us more engaged in taking care of the earth, working for justice and peace with greater energy, etc. So how does this approach interpret apocalyptic passages like 2 Peter 3:10 – “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.”?

  • Jesus didn’t even need a pocket to carry his basic message in: The Kingdom of God is At Hand! But he spent probably three and a half years unpacking those few words and didn’t begin to get to the bottom.

    We can find pretty much whatever we want in the Gospels. In a way they are like studying mathematics: you start with simple addition and can end up in theoretical physics or beyond if you haven’t bailed out at long division or algebra along the way. Most people bail. The only problem is if they insist there is nothing further of value or correctness to know.

    I would say Wright’s major participation himself in the list concerns Jesus’ revelation that the Kingdom of God is within you, which of course can also be translated “amongst you”. Wright translates it as “within your grasp” and continuously emphasizes the physical aspect of following Jesus. He tends to dismiss anything noting the mystical aspect of the message as Gnosticism, certainly not the first or only one to do so. Wright’s pendulum does need swinging as we are badly out of joint in other matters.

    Scot, concerning your point #7, there are some who I suspect picture Paul rising up to heaven and approaching the throne. He walks up to Jesus sitting at the right hand of God and says, “Excuse me, I believe you’re sitting in my seat.” Highly unlikely.

  • Dana Ames

    I agree with Holly @7.

    Cliff, there is some debate about the best translation of that 2Pet passage. Lately people are thinking it is not a picture of destruction, but rather of everything being opened up to the “fire” of God’s scrutiny and judgment at his presence; that is the sense of being “laid bare”, not the sense of being destroyed.

    Scot, to answer the question you posed at #1: YES, there is that big of a difference. I first encountered the idea that “heaven” is not some “place” far away, totally unconnected to this terrestrial ball, in Willard. It blew the roof off my theological house. If creation is so spoiled that God has to destroy it, then the devil wins, plain and simple. But if the “Christ Event” of manifesting the Kingdom truly reaches to everything, then the plan for renewal rather than destruction of creation makes God far *greater* than any sort of plan to whisk us away to a destination beyond the stars.

    It was this dawning on me that gave me hope that there was actually some sort of good news to “the Gospel.”

    I see where you are going with your line of thought here. It’s very nuanced. Most either can’t or won’t consider things that way; for them, “going to Heaven (as a separate place) when you die” is much easier to deal with than considering all that “Kingdom” carries with it.


  • janiea

    Overall, I like N.T. Wright but I have always felt he overstates, especially when it comes to American Christianity. Either he doesn’t really quite understand us or I (and the people I know) are not very typical because his strong characterizations never seem to apply. I was raised American Baptist, spent years in charismatic churches, then Bible, then Anglican and now Evangelical Covenant. I never went to the gospels expecting only one of the things on this list. And I have always known that I wasn’t going to live eternally in heaven. So although I think NT Wright has many good things to say, when he starts characterizing evangelicals, I tend to just roll my eyes and read fast.

  • Amos Paul


    >Either he doesn’t really quite understand us or I (and the people I know) are not very typical because his strong characterizations never seem to apply.

    Whether or not I always agree with Wright, his characterizations always resonate near perfectly with my experience.

  • “[I]t seems to me that pastors need to do a better job at teaching people how to read the Gospels.”

    Scot, I agree. But I would add that seminaries that style themselves Bible teaching seminaries (for instance, DTS, where I trained) need to do a better job training their students to read the Gospels.

    I was enrolled in an elective class, “Exegisis of Gospel Narratives,” but had to drop it in order to go to work full-time. I’ve told the administration in follow-up evalutions that the course should be required. All of my Greek courses were on Pauline epistles. They were great, but I quickly found that I had remedial work to do in the Gospels.

    I am blessed (and challenged) to have been called to ministry in the Anglican world. So for about five years I made myself preach from the Gospels (no Paul, no catholic epistles). In this project I was helped greatly, if not even required, by my ministry context.

    This leads me to wonder: How many evangelical churches (and elder boards) would allow their pastors to preach and teach the Gospels as the Gospel and not squeeze it into their favorite reduction?

    Yes, “pastors need to do a better job at teaching people how to read the Gospels,” but the challenges in doing so may be pretty deep and surprising.

    Just sharing an “Amen” with some unsolicited input. So glad you are sounding this theme (along with Wright, Willard, and others).


  • Steve Burger

    The gospel, and in fact all of God’s Word is more than a story, more than a teaching, more than a plan. It is first and foremost a relationship with God. If we truly believe that the word is God breathed then we must dwell in the breath; the Spirit, since it is God who gives life to the word.
    As difficult as it is, I go to the word to dwell with God. When I do otherwise, the word is shaped by my character. Jesus spoke often to the Pharisee’s about this very thing. All the points above appear to have this common thread; a word shaped by self and culture.
    I have found the gospels to be a wonderful place to dwell with God. Often I am left with more questions than answers, but seldom do I leave without the joy of having rested and wrestled with God.
    How great is God that God should provide such accessibility through Son and Spirit.How gracious is God that God should provide us with each other to wrestle with our understanding of the Word. Could it be that God designed the word to create struggle thereby compelling us into community? A relationship with God and each other as we journey though the word? May the Spirit who is present in the gospel and the church guide and direct our deliberations.

  • Jamie

    @ Cliff, comment #14 – I wonder if the key interpretative element here is found in 2 Pet 3:6: The earth of Noah’s day was “deluged and destroyed” by water. Peter follows this with: “the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire” (v.7) and then concludes with “everything will be destroyed in this way” (v.11) i.e. the heavens will disappear with a roar etc. (v.10). My take is that the earth in Noah’s day underwent a form of purification or cleansing (the world of Noah’s day was not obliterated), leaving Noah, a righteous man, to inherit the earth. Given this use of Noah by Peter, I wonder whether fire is used in a similar sense here.

    It reminds me of a constant refrain from an eschatology lecturer I had. He would continually remind us that the Bible is a book about earth, not heaven. The end of the story (both the narrative “end” and the telos) makes sense only in light of the seeds sown in the beginning. After all, the meek shall inherit the earth….

  • I think that Wright does not overstate his case for the majority of people. The problem is that, as you point out, many people exposed to the history of the Church and Biblical Scholarship are exposed to good reading of the Gospels. In general, laity are not, and they approach the Gospels in one of the seven manners you describe. Wright is writing for laity, not academia. We need to place writings in their context (as we learn in Hermeneutics). As C.S. Lewis said in argument with a Bishop in the Church of England, “If you were doing your job properly, I wouldn’t have to write the books I’m writing.” We should praise God that we now have a Bishop (unfortunately and fortunately lost to academia) taking his job seriously and doing it well.