N.T. Wright on Kingdom, Atonement, and Cruciformity

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says,

“I am perfectly comfortable with what people normally mean when they say ‘the gospel’. I just don’t think it is what Paul means. In other words, I am not saying that usual meanings are things that people ought to say, to preach about, to believe. I simply wouldn’t use the word ‘gospel’ to denote those things.” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 41)

Wright here speaks to the stark reality one will find as they peruse the shelves at the local evangelical book store. At the store where I work there are plethoras of books and curriculums that talk about ‘the gospel’. There is even somewhat of a cottage industry on books about ‘the gospel’. The only problem is they are almost all subject to Wright’s critique above. They speak of good things, and some really good things, but the vast majority have the effect of minimizing the gospel to various elaborations on the ‘plan of salvation’. This results in what Scot McKnight has called the ‘soterian gospel’ (from the greek word for salvation, soteria – from which we get our word, soteriology, or what is referred to as the ‘doctrine of salvation’) which places emphasis on individualist salvation – which functions as a reduction of the biblical gospel. The effect here is that ‘evangel-icals’ don’t really live up to their name and should properly be called ‘soterians’ – or the ‘saved’ ones. Some features of this reduction of the gospel to the plan of salvation is the misplacement of the story of Israel, the separation of kingdom and cross, a lack of a proper emphasis on cruciformity, and an overly individualized atonement.

Wright most recent work addressing these concerns is How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels. Below is a video of a lecture Wright gave at Fuller Seminary called Kingdom and Cross: The Forgotten Message of the Gospels which covers much of the same ground as the book. Among the things that Wright covers is the essentiality of the story of Israel to the gospel and the (re)connection of kingdom and cross for the gospel. Additionally, in this video, Wright covers the relationship of atonement to kingdom in which atonement enables us to embody the cruciform nature of the kingdom and describes an alternative, cruciform way of manifesting God’s power in the world.

At the Next Reformation blog, Len Hjalmarson discusses and summarizes Wright’s lecture. He says,

Connecting Kingdom and Cross, NT Wright. This is possibly the best summary of kingdom theology I have ever seen, and Wright makes the connection to the cross explicit at a number of points. (I wish he had also made the connection to shalom, but he does mention the jubilee..) But this video is SO MUCH MORE.

Wright begins by talking about the meaning of the Gospel. To the early church, the Gospel was made clear in the life, words and work of Jesus. But this early Gospel had virtually no concept of the much later Reformers version – “justification by faith.” That word occurs only a single time in the gospels. The early church had only the Old Testament, and preserved the oral traditions that would eventually become the four gospels.

The four gospels preserve the life and words of Jesus, and so we hear Jesus’ declaration of the Gospel: no reference to justification, but rather the declaration that “the kingdom of God” has arrived. But this little phrase is absolutely meaningless apart from the story of Israel – apart from the Old Testament, and in particular Daniel, Isaiah and the Psalms.

It becomes crystal clear, as in nearly all Wright’s work, that the Gospel cannot be understood apart from the story of Israel. Implications?

“Jesus died for my sins” — a phrase that sits at the heart of the telling of the Gospel in the west, indeed in some circles has become all that the Gospel is — is a reductionist statement that does at least two things: it abstracts the meaning of Jesus life and sacrifice from history, and it de-politicizes the Lordship of Christ by isolating Jesus from the kingdom.

Other things to note: at the one hour mark, Wright summarizes the relationship of the atonement to the coming kingdom. In evangelicalism we have made atonement all about a personal relationship and a future other-world destiny. Wright argues — and the only conclusion possible in relation to a theology of the kingdom — that in restoring us to right relationship with God the king, the atonement enables us to embody an alternative kingdom – an alternative way of bringing God’s power into the world. (At the cross God himself becomes our deliverer: in God’s kingdom power is used to serve others. Of course there is MORE to say but Wright is hitting at the themes we ignore).

Atonement – from the earliest stories, like Abraham’s almost sacrifice of his only son – demonstrates an alternative to power. It is not meant to take us out of this world but is an entry point into God’s kingdom now.

[At the] 1.00 hour mark – Jesus atonement enables us to embody an alternative kingdom – an alternative way of bringing God’s power into the world. (emphasis in bold mine)

The individualist soterian ‘gospel’ of evangelicalism effectively undercuts the cruciform nature of the atonement and deconstructs the church. Cross … kingdom … cruciformity. The cruciform gospel of the cross necessarily produces a cruciform people or ekklesia who embody and give witness to the cruciform kingdom of Jesus the Liberating King.

Scot McKnight on the Radical Message of Jesus

Note: We are up on the fourth week of Pentecost and I’m still a week behind on the weekly lectionary reflections. I’m still working on the third week and should have the fourth week done midweek (if all goes well). Meanwhile, below is a video of Scot McKnight on the radical message of Jesus – which I think relates not only to a Christian subculture that subverts this message despite claims to the otherwise, but also ties in well with the current series of lectionary readings from Mark.

One of the things that frustrates and grieves me about the current Evangelical subculture is the incessant push to ‘do great, wonderful, extraordinary, spectacular, amazing, blow out, BIG things for God.’ I call this the ‘go big or go home’ mentality – and I believe with all my heart it is hurting people.

Working in Christian retail currently and having a chance to browse through the popular evangelical reading material two things strike me: one, much of it could just as easily be described as Dr. Phil or Oprah type self-help inspiration with a little Jesus thrown in. Second, such literature I have come to believe feeds on commonplace Evangelical insecurities of insignificance and (even if perhaps with good motives and unintentionally) actually reinforces these self same insecurities. This is the very same tactic used by those in the general market to sell us stuff. This is simply the Christian bubble’s version of the consumer cycle and the liturgy of consumption. All this is part of what might be most accurately called ‘the Evangelical Industrial Complex’ and is driven largely by elitism and the dominance of celebrity pastors.

One of my current jobs is to help people find the books and curriculums they feel they ‘need’ to study and do church. But from the conversations I have with person after person, good people who I believe want to serve God; the majority of the curriculums currently available will do them little good. They will complete the current study, the one that promised them they could really be ‘radical’ or ‘crazy’ for God, or move them from being a ‘fan’ to a true follower – if only they can go BIG enough (and endure lots of poor Scriptural exegesis)! The consistent thing that gets missed here is incarnating the gospel (the King Jesus gospel, not merely the ‘get my individual sins forgiven’ gospel) in the normal, ordinary, mundane, and perhaps even forgotten or marginalized spaces in life (listen all the way to end of the video below for the importance of this).

The sad truth is that almost all the current curriculums really end up deconstructing themselves. They usually begin with a dire analysis of the state of the church and Evangelicalism but in the end amount to doing ‘the same ole thing’, only now with a new vocabulary (this is commonplace within Evangelicalism). The ‘same ole thing’ is now called ‘radical’ and in the process actually subverts the truly radical nature the gospel. (Another example that comes to mind is the trend for ‘traditional’ churches to begin calling themselves ‘missional’; yet change nothing of their church structures, still do missions the same, and have the same ‘come to us’ mentality towards the community at large as always).

One question I think needs to be asked is: do these curriculums and literature actually end up reinforcing various harmful ideologies to the church (nationalism, militarism, politics, consumerism, etc). The reason for this is that if these competing visions of the ‘kingdom’ are not properly critiqued or deconstructed, the end result is that the ideology in question itself becomes associated with being, let’s say … (to choose from one of the current buzz words) ‘radical’. This makes it far too easy “to identify ourselves and our kings and our kingdoms with the reign of God, and the other guy over there with the reign Jesus opposes.” In the process, not only is the church divided but the gospel and true Kingdom are themselves subverted.

However, the gospel of King Jesus is truly more radical in nature than anything we can find in most of the ‘popular’ Christian literature, calling into question all of our ideologies, idolatries and false kingdoms, and calling us to orient all that we are around Jesus. In the video below Scot McKnight takes us on a tour of the radical message of Jesus. In it McKnight brings out our need to ask the right questions which enable us to orient ourselves with a gospel, kingdom imagination.

The first is the ‘how’ question – how can we get in on the kingdom and what Jesus is doing?

The second is the ‘what’ question – what does the Kingdom of God require? What is the substance of the kingdom life?

The third is the ‘who’ question – which also involves the ‘why’ question (why does Jesus say such ‘hard’ things). The ‘who’ question of course points straight to Jesus.

In the end, these questions are all interrelated. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ point to the ‘who’ – while the ‘who’ (Jesus) gives us the proper lense through which to see the kingdom, that we need to be able to answer the ‘how’ and ‘what’ correctly.

Scot McKnight – The Radical Message of Jesus

Misunderstandings, Gospel, and Identity: (Late) Reflections on the Second Week of Pentecost

Note: Due to what Eugene Peterson calls ‘life, life, and more life’ (which can sometimes be a pain and a blessing at the same time) I’m still playing catch up on weekly lectionary reflections. These are from the second week of Pentecost. Hopefully the third weeks will be up Monday afternoon – depending of course upon on what ‘life’ throws at me.

The Gospel Text for Second Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 3:20-35 (CEB)

20 Jesus entered a house. A crowd gathered again so that it was impossible for him and his followers even to eat. 21 When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, “He’s out of his mind!”

22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”

23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24  A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25  And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26  If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27  No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28  I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29  But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”

31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”

33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”

Gospel: Starting at the Beginning (of Mark)

To understand what’s going on in Mark 3, we need to go back to Mark 1:1, ‘The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son.’ Good news … gospel! But this isn’t gospel as most of us have probably learned about it – gospel reduced to individual forgiveness of sins and a ‘personal relationship with Jesus.’ No, this is the gospel of the kingdom and the reign of the Messiah, God’s Son, our liberating King Jesus. Working in Christian retail I can attest that the bulk of materials advertized as ‘gospel’ should more accurately be called the ‘plan of salvation’ (I’m with Scot McKnight on this!). In fact, there is even a book called The Explicit Gospel that is currently very popular. I want to root for it for no other reason that the author has local ties (not that I share his particular Calvinist bent). I won’t offer a full review of the whole book here except to say that the more I have read of it, the more I have felt it’s simply an extended treatment of the typical evangelical plan of salvation (not the gospel) with a Calvinist twist (See McKnight’s reviews here and here.)

But in Mark we don’t begin with individual, personal ‘salvation’ or benefit. Instead Mark starts with Kingdom and the fulfillment of scripture and the story of Israel in the reign of God’s Son, the Messiah. We find John the Baptist leading the way and saying that one ‘stronger than him’ would come and baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit (ie, Petecost). We then find that this Messiah, Jesus himself, is forced (or ‘pushed’ as the force of the Greek indicates) into the wilderness immediately following his own baptism. After his wilderness experience, in Mark 1:14, Jesus began his public ministry declaring that the Kingdom itself was at hand. Those wishing to defend the gospel merely as individual forgiveness of sin may object and point to the call to repentance in Mark 1:15 and the express forgiveness of the personal sin of the paralyzed man in Mark 2:5.  In reference to 1:15 we can note that while personal repentance is necessary for entrance into the Kingdom, nowhere is the gospel itself reduced down to repentance or individual forgiveness. In fact, the verse explicitly tells us to ‘repent’ and then ‘believe the good news (or gospel)’. Repentance here indicates how we stand in relation to the gospel – how we stand in relation to the Kingdom of God’s Son. And in reference to 2:5, we do indeed find that Jesus forgave the paralyzed man his sins. But Jesus can forgive sins because he is the ‘Son of Man’ (or ‘Human One’ in the CEB), a clear Messianic reference to Daniel 7. And the proof he had this authority and that the paralyzed man was forgiven was he got up and walked – he was healed! As always, the point of the passage here is about who Jesus is as Messiah. The liberating Kingship of Jesus is always the starting point of the gospel, not the individual forgiveness of sins. To be sure, forgiveness of sins is included, but only within the wider context of the Kingdom and reign of Christ.

(And as an aside: we should note that Jesus is able to forgive sins here even though he has not yet died on the cross. I am not here questioning the importance of atonement theories, even substitutionary ones. I do think however we need to recognize that Jesus forgives sins because he is Messiah or King. We do well not to separate cross from Kingdom and not to reduce the cross down to individual salvation as happens far too often.)

Satan is Strong … Jesus is Stronger

This gospel of the kingdom forms the context for where we find Jesus in this passage. There seems to be a familiar pattern: 1) Jesus does something he’s not supposed to do like forgiving sins, healing on the Sabbath day, driving out demons, etc. 2) The religious leaders murmur amongst themselves and/or charge Jesus with all sorts of wrongdoing and chicanery. 3) Then Jesus and the religious leaders have a confrontation further revealing his Messianic, kingly status and which in the end gets him in even more trouble. And this is where we find ourselves now in Mark 3. One of the main things that Jesus has been doing up until now, along with healing people and calling his disciples, is casting out demons (as he is doing here). It is striking that over and over the forces of evil get the identity of Jesus but those most studied in Israel’s laws and scriptures don’t – either that or they get exactly who Jesus is and feel their power and control threatened.

And it is also striking that Jesus tells those he heals, and he tells the demonic spirits, not to tell anyone who he is – not to reveal what he has done or that he is the Messiah. This is what scholars have called the ‘Messianic Secret’. This it seems is more like an ‘open secret’, but one that is easily misunderstood by the masses (perhaps one reason why Jesus exhorted silence from those he healed and the demons) who craved celebrity and one that seemed to frighten and threaten those ‘in charge.’ This is striking to me because in my experience in Christian retail I have seen how the Christian publishing ‘market’ is driven by celebrity and ‘developing a platform.’ I’m not saying its wrong or sinful to be a popular author, it just strikes me that most of the attempts to ‘promote’ the kingdom actually end up making a commodity of the kingdom. (And the celebrity driven nature of the Christian retail market has done nothing to raise the depth of material available. If what sells is an indicator of what our church leaders are reading then I am sad for the state of the church today (just being honest here!). Those items that truly deserve our attention (ie, Eugene Peterson, et al) languish on the shelf where I work.) We must contend with the fact that our Lord, the Messiah of Israel, the King of the universe actively resisted building himself a ‘platform’.

Yet, despite his resistance, he still attracted huge crowds interested in seeing what he would do next. And it seems that his family was not quite on board with what he was doing at this stage if his ministry since they thought he was mad. This leads us to the second thing in the pattern mentioned above. The religious leaders and legal experts sent down some representatives from Jerusalem to see if they could nip this Jesus thing in the bud. Jesus, they said, could drive out demons because he was in league with Satan himself! Jesus responds with a parable that makes two main points.

The first is to illustrate how ridiculous it was to say that Jesus cast out demons with the power of demons. A kingdom divided can’t stand. And no one can break into the house of a strong man without first tying up the strong man. The point here is simple: Satan is strong, but Jesus is the Stronger One. This draws on the wilderness experience of Jesus where he was ‘tempted’ by Satan and the subsequent casting out of demons, all which implicitly indicate the defeat of Satan by Jesus and the arrival of the Kingdom in the person of Jesus (ie, Christus Victor).

The second point is that the sin that can’t be forgiven is the sin against the Holy Spirit. Remember here that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit by which Jesus was moved along in his ministry. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Kingdom. To sin against the Spirit is to label a work of the Spirit a work of the devil. To do this is to cut oneself out of the Kingdom, since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Kingdom of God’s Son. As usual there is a double meaning in Jesus’ words here: 1) those who ought to understand Jesus and the Kingdom the most oftentimes don’t (or are simply the most threatened by it), and 2) those who set themselves up as self appointed guardians of the ways of God should be careful lest they actually side themselves against God’s Kingdom. We do well to heed these warnings ourselves.

What (or Who) Defines You?

Then Jesus gets word that his mother, brothers, and sisters were looking for him. The setting is crucial here. In the context of these three audiences – the crowds looking for another miracle, the religious leaders looking to undermine him, and his own blood family who thinks he’s nuts – he cuts through another one of the traditional Jewish identity markers. And so, the statement that whoever does the will of the Father is the true family of Jesus, while not spectacular to Western ears, would have been downright disturbing to Jewish ones. Family bonds were right up there with Sabbath observance in terms of Jewish identity (and we see how that went for Jesus). These identity markers were supposed to be among the things that made the Jews a ‘light to the nations.’ These markers themselves were not bad, but had become over time barriers that cut the Jews off from the nations, and overall sources of legalism and pride.

Jesus has a way of slicing through the tradition, legalism, and pride in one clean cut. There is again a double message here: many, if not most, of those who think they are in on the Kingdom because of heritage or tradition really aren’t and those just along for the show won’t make the cut in the long run. Unless we read his statement in verses 33-35 as deeply shocking we haven’t gotten the message. I hesitate to use the word ‘radical’ since the word gets overused and domesticated so much these days, but what Jesus has to say here is in fact deeply radical in its context. Jesus is not simply a mildly interesting figure or merely a good teacher of morally therapeutic platitudes to help people live better lives. Following Jesus is an ‘all in’ sort of thing – one that can engender resistance, one that marks out the people of the King as rather peculiar, one that binds us to the paradigmatic cruciform Christ narrative. The radical thrust here is that in a world with endless ‘kingdoms’ bidding for our allegiances (and even more so since its an election year), in order to get in on Jesus’ Kingdom, to be a part of what Jesus is doing, one’s identity must be completely defined and centered around the liberating King himself. What, or who, defines you?

Prayer for the Second Sunday of Pentecost (Book of Common Prayer):

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.