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.