Impressions of “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” by N.T. Wright

Impressions of “How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels,” by N.T. Wright

N.T Wright’s How God Became King is the best biblical commentary I have read since Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm. This book complements that one. Heiser focuses on the enthronement of God as lord of the world. Wright focuses on the same events, culminating in the enthronement of Christ. Heiser look at God’s defeat of supernatural antagonists; Wright at Christ’s defeat of Casesar and his ilk. And while Heiser discusses God’s organization of his re-made domain, Wright explains Christ’s new-formed Kingdom.

You never thought of “Render under Caesar what is Caesar’s” as a call to divine revenge before, did you?

The King of Israel, the King of the Jews

Wright argues the Old and New Testaments a parts of one story: the triumph of the Jewish Messiah against the so-called rulers in the world. Wright argues that the combination of the personal name “Jesus” (a variation of Joshua) with title “Christ” (the Annointed One) is not an accident of history: following the life of Christ, the most relevant fact about God is that He is the King of the world.

Wright says this may be surprising to Credal Christians whose churches focus their education on the three great creeds, The Creeds, Greco-Roman works written in response to heresies, addressed controversial or not immediately clear aspects of Christianity. Indeed, there is nothing of the ministry of Christ in the Creeds at all! The the Athanasian Creed focuses on the nature or essence, and not the actions, of Christ. And what Christ did in his earthly life in skipped over, in both the Nicene Creed:

who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate
,
and suffered, and was buried, and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;

And the Apostle’s Creed:

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified
,
died, and was buried. suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;

Wright (and Heiser) argue the scriptures place as much emphasis on Christ’s teachings his ministry, as the Creeds do His nature. The Scriptures refers to a political story, of the Ancient of Days and the One Like the Son of Man:

“I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,

And they brought Him near before Him.

Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.

His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13-14

N.T. Wright also shows this vision is echoed (prophesied?) by Mary, as recorded by the Evangelist who most attended to the voices of women, Luke:

And Mary said:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,

And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.”
Luke 1:46-55

Catholic marionology builds a lot of meaning on the word “magnifies.” But relevant for N.T. Wright is that the Messiah is given dominion, re-organizes the political world, and is Himself enthroned.

A fiery stream issued
And came forth from before Him.
A thousand thousands ministered to Him;
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him.
The court was seated,
And the books were opened.
Daniel 7:10

Mary’s words describing revolutionary strength and “thrones” echo the the verses before the Son of Man passage in Daniel. Wright, like Heiser, sees in this the re-organization (that is, creation) of a Kingdom into one that places the Lord in direct control of the Earth. The Court of the Ancient of Days ruled against the former rulers, and granted dominion to the One like a Son of Man.

Paying Back to Caesar

But if Christ is a worldy ruler, what of “Render under Caesar”? What of “My Kingdom is not of this world”? What of the claims that Christianity, unlike Judaism or Islam, recognizes a separation of church and state as a founding claim?

Wright argues there is no contradiction, because the first quote is a threat, and the second indicates origin, and not maximum extent, of the Heavenly Kingdom.

Take first the “render under Caesar” line, which is more literally translated as “give back to Caesar.” The point is that the word used for “render,” apodote, is cognate with antapodote, pay back, which is also used for revenge.

But having perceived their craftiness, He said to them, “Show Me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?”

And they said, “Caesar’s.”

And He said to them, “Therefore give back to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God.”
Luke 20:23-25

Pay-back will come to our world too. Judas Maccabeus lead the Jewish revolt against another foreign invader, and promised pay them back for their atrocities:

“Now behold, I know that Simeon your brother is wise in counsel; always listen to him; he shall be your father. Judas Maccabeus has been a mighty warrior from his youth; he shall command the army for you and fight the battle against the peoples. You shall rally about you all who observe the law, and

avenge the wrong done to your people.
Pay back the Gentiles in full,

and heed what the law commands.”
1 Maccabees 2:68

What form shall this divine retributive justice, taken by men on behalf of God, take?

Matthew, the most Jewish of the evangelists, provides an extended midrash on paying back:

Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt..So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.

“So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Matthew 18:23-35

The mercy we show to sinners is pay back God’s enemies. It is through love given to sinners we grind the head of the Serpent into the dirt, as Paul said in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians:

since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1:6-8

Similarly, Wright argues that Christ’s statement that his kingdom is not of (or, in Greek, ek) this world refers to the His kingdom being from (ek) a victorious realm Heaven, and not the soon-to-be-conquered Earth. In this reading, Christ’s speech recorded by the philosophical John is more an indictment of the weakness of earthly forces than submission to them:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world; if My kingdom were of this world, My attendants would fight that I might not be betrayed to the Jews. But now My kingdom is not from here.”
John 18:36

Likewise, the Greek-English Interlinear Bible provides uses of ek which clearly mean “out of” or “from”. N.T. Wright rejects the idea the Christian scriptures encourage the separation of church and state. Atheists from Razib Khan to Sam Harris laud “render under Caesar” as implying a necessary distinction between government and religion in Christianity. Wright argues there reading is wrong, and is a reflection not of Biblical teaching but of Enlightenment error.

Creating His Kingdom

Wright’s logic is in keeping with the Canaanite view of creation as proper Ordering or Organizing. Ba’al crafted, or literally contracted out, the crafting of his home when he “made” his Temple — and he made mistakes while doing so. The shocking part of the Genesis narrative is not the mere existence of a creator god — most near eastern cultures had that — but that He is also a competent craftsman. The Jewish Bible subsequently records God organizing Earth as His holy temple and Canaan as His holy land in the same way: by taking existing parts and putting them in a new order, he created them.

As creation is ordering, un-creation is disordering: being placed under the ban or made herem. Pre-Israel Canaan was uncreated to be later remade for Israel. The corrupt Kingdom of Israel itself would be uncreated — the prophet Elijah actually tried to hurry this process along. Ordering-as-Creation occurs in each human life. God’s servants who let themselves be un-created by God’s enemies will find themselves re-created by God Himself:

The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their ancestors. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.”
2 Maccabees 7:20-23

Yet, if Christ is a King, how can we serve him? The traditional Reformed view is not through own work: Some Reformed theologians even claim that “Davidic kingship was not in fact restored after the exile, nor was such a restoration ever seriously contemplated” and that the promises of a King of the Jews was subverted by “transferal of the Davidic promises to the entire people.”

The polar opposite of this is the Catholic view, arguing that Christ is King, Mary is Queen-Mother, and Peter the first Pope was Prime Minister. Like Judaism, Catholocism provides a ladder of allegiance to God, with an earthly apparatus to guild the follower along.

In keeping with his position as a former Bishop in the Anglican Church, Wright also finds a middle ground between the Reformed and Catholic traditions in how Christ’s Kingship should be manifest in the world. Specifically, Wright adopts Reformed terminology and Catholic practice. His use of “theocracy” to refer to the state of existing under Christ’s kingship and explicit recognition of God as King (without explicitly stating the existence of any intermediaries) recalls the Reformed tradition. But Wright’s attacks on the Enlightenment concept of a separation of the political and theological spheres, not to mention the recall the universal nature of the Catholic faith.

But this creates a difference with Heiser’s Unseen World that is not addressed in the text. Who are the thrones seized from that are given to God, who controlled the separate sphere that was abolished by Christ? Heiser argues that these are supernatural entities, “gods,” who may literally include Ba’al, Ashtarte, and the Canaanite pantheon. That is, the supernatural hierarchy envisioned for man in Genesis, Hebrews, and The Psalms

What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels,
And You have crowned him with glory and honor.

You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
Psalms 8:4-6

… is not merely poetic, but refers to Christ’s literal overthrow of supernatural overlords. But here Wright seems to hew to a Reformed — or at least post-Enlightenment — line. While a few brief words about possible supernatural entities are shared, the focus seems to be on men like Caesar who are cast down. (Allegorical or “hyper-real” readings, such as Jordan Peterson’s view that the defeated gods are disorganized aspects of personal psychology, are not addressed at all.)

Final Thoughts

How God Became King by N.T. Wright is an excellent work, focused on the New Testament, arguing that Christ is the real and true King of our world, and that this story is told through the Gospels. Wright looks beyond the Creeds to the enthronement of God on Earth, His command to pay back His enemies, and instructions as to how we should proceed. Became King relies less on the literary and theological background of Second Temple Judaism than Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm, but perhaps because of that, is more accessible.

For those interested, a conversation between Heiser and Wright is available online as audio and in transcript.

I read How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels in the Audible edition.