This recent book by N.T. Wright, retired Anglican Bishop of Durham and well-known Scripture scholar, invites Christians to a re-reading of the whole message of the Gospels. Though the basic premise and Wright’s conclusions will challenge most readers, the book is written in an engaging style, not at all limited to an academic audience. This tone is also set by the New Testament translation which Wright uses, namely his own (The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation, 2011). Wright’s basic concern addressed in this book is that Christians across denominations and back in history have forgotten the core of the four Gospels (p. ix) which shares the good news that God is king on earth as in heaven (p. x). Some of this problem he perceives to be rooted in a misunderstanding and misuse of the creeds. In the author’s explanation, the creeds were largely summaries of orthodox teaching put forth in response to prevalent heresies about Christ’s incarnation and resurrection. Thus the creeds did not need to include many key aspects of Jesus’ life, ministry and teaching (pp. 11-12); especially since these were already recounted in the Gospels. However, if the creeds are taken as a full measure of all that Christians need to know about God, this is a serious misunderstanding that leaves out essential aspects of the Good News. Wright sees this misunderstanding (though not the creeds themselves) as undermining the reception of the full message of the Gospels.
The suggestion that Christians have long missed the meaning of the Gospels is challenging; it seems a bit overstated, perhaps intentionally so. Nonetheless, the argument does garner attention and the reader who sticks with the book will benefit from working through it. Certainly, no Christian can ever take understanding the Gospel in full for granted, so that alone makes this book by a serious Scripture scholar worth reading.
Part I of the book describes the problem as seen by Wright. Part II looks in detail at four fundamental aspects of the Good News that, if recovered, would from Wright’s perspective help Christians to better read the Gospels. In this section, the author uses the metaphor of adjusting the volume from four speakers set in the corners of a room to get the correct sound (pp. 61-62). Part III brings these four dimensions together to examine how the Good News unites the kingdom and the cross, the ‘political’ and the ‘religious.’ Part IV of the text comes back to look again at the creeds in the teaching and practice of the church; how these might be prayed, said or sung in a richer, fuller way. Wright includes a brief appendix of helpful suggestions for further reading, and the index includes a list of Scripture references.
Although Wright makes reference to questions of hermeneutics as well as areas of fundamental theology (e.g., the question of atonement), these are tangentially considered against the backdrop of the problem and his proposed solution, as outlined above. He makes at least two references to Anabaptism, which jumped out at me since much of this text brought to mind the writings of the Mennonite theologian and writer John Howard Yoder, especially his The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972, 1994). For example, Yoder’s writing style was largely conversational; he drew heavily on his reading of Scripture; Yoder emphasized that following Jesus means to take up the Cross in imitation of Christ, which brings one into conflict, suffering and even likely death; he focused on the inherent conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar; and he dedicated his life’s work to drawing the attention of Christians to the fundamental political nature of the Christian life of faith, especially in the Christian community (i.e., the community of the people of God in the world).
Keeping in mind the potential challenges mentioned above, I do recommend this book. Prayerfully reading Wright’s book as part of a Bible study focused on the four Gospels, together with other Christians, and reflecting on the material in light of Christian tradition and liturgy, would offer a great way to read it.