Tom Wright on How (not) to Read the Gospels

Tom Wright on How (not) to Read the Gospels April 11, 2012

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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