The Christ-Shaped Hole in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology

I want to draw attention to a serious gap in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.  I take it that a systematic theology is supposed to be reasonably comprehensive.  Yet, in this 1200-or-so page long volume, I have found no discussion of Jesus’ role as Israel’s Messiah, or, to use the Greek term, the Christ.

I have not read all 1200 pages, but I have twice scoured the index, reading all the passages I thought could be relevant to Jesus’ Messiahship, and read through the chapters on Jesus.

The Christ-Shaped Hole

In his chapter, “The Person of Christ,” there are a few references to Jesus being the Messiah (536, 43, 44).  However, these references are always used by Grudem to make a point about his primary preoccupation, which is Jesus’ divine-human metaphysical status.   What it means for Jesus to be the Messiah is always assumed and never discussed.

In the chapter, “The Offices of Christ,” Grudem discusses what it means for Jesus to be a prophet, priest and king.  This should have been where Grudem discusses what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah.  For, as Donald Juel points out, “For the NT as for the later rabbis, ‘the Messiah’ refers to the expected king in the line of David” (11).  Yet, Grudem’s discussion of Jesus as king does not make an explicit connection to his being the Messiah.

The Resulting Theological Distortion

This is not a small omission.  As N.T. Wright points out, Jesus’ Messiahship is a prevalent theme in Paul’s letters, the synoptic Gospels and Acts, and John (554, 555).

Moreover, I believe Christology is the heart of theology, and, therefore, that an omission of something so essential to the New Testament witness about Jesus will lead to further theological omissions and distortions.

I have one example.

Grudem’s Account of Jesus as King

In his discussion of Jesus’ kingship, Grudem is unclear about what it means for Jesus to be king in his earthly ministry.  In general outline, Grudem thinks that Jesus is a king only in a partial and spiritual sense during his ministry, that he was given kingly authority over the earth at his resurrection and ascension, and that he will only exercise this authority fully when he returns (628, 29).

In his podcast, Grudem clarifies his position about Jesus’ kingship during his earthly ministry.  His kingship at this time amounts to “God ruling in people’s hearts, leading to personal transformation where they come to look like him and do His will.”  This is a thorough spiritualization of the concept.

Grudem’s Account Fails Because Jesus is the Messiah

I believe this understanding of Jesus’ kingship is only possible because Grudem does not acknowledge that Jesus coming as Israel’s Messiah is relevant to his kingship.  Donald Juel notes that, apart from Acts 3, Jesus is never called Messiah in the New Testament in anticipation of his coming reign, but with reference to his earthly ministry, his death and resurrection (26). 

So Grudem cannot deny that Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore the king in the sense that “Messiah” entails, during his earthly ministry.

Grudem might respond that acknowledging Jesus as Messiah during his earthly ministry would not require him to make any major changes to his account of kingship.  “Messiah” might be fit into Grudem’s account where previously he had only used the more general term “king.”  Perhaps Jesus was the Messiah in a spiritual sense, as people allowed him to rule over their hearts.

However, this could only be a distortion of the theme of Messiahship in the Old and New Testaments.  What mystical connection to Christ Grudem must have to be able to write an adequate account of Jesus’ Messiahship without doing any exegesis of the relevant passages!

As it happens, Grudem’s abstract understanding of kingship is not what one finds after an inductive search of what the scriptures say about the Messiah and Jesus in this role. 

N.T. Wright has spent more time at this task than almost anyone.  In The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright argues persuasively both that Old Testament Messianic passages do not portray the Messiah as a merely spiritual king, and that New Testament does not contradict this point.  Wright concludes that this material cannot be understood as “an abandonment of the hope for god’s kingdom and a turning instead to ‘religious experience,’ nor yet as an abandonment of the political meaning of this universal sovereignty and a re-expression of it in terms of ‘religious loyalty’” (566).

Grudem’s account of Jesus’ earthly kingship is precisely a re-expression of Jesus’ sovereignty in terms of religious loyalty, which completely ignores Israel’s hope that God’s kingdom would come to them on earth.

It seems, then, that Grudem’s omission has lead him to distort Jesus’ kingship.

Conclusion

I think that Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology is a popular and widely-praised example of a larger trend in evangelical thought.

I have noticed that a lot of evangelical thought about Jesus tends to hurry past his role as the Messiah to grander claims about his divinity.  Yet, I would contend, Christians cannot take such a big chunk out of the apostolic witness about Jesus without missing some essential things.

For example, as a proponent of christological pacifism, I do not think that the huge gap in such a distinguished evangelical’s christology, where Jesus’ not-merely-spiritual kingship should be proclaimed, is unrelated to evangelicals’ inability to see the political relevance of Jesus’ nonviolence.

Sources

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.

—. “The Offices of Christ: Priest, Prophet, and King (1 of 2) Podcast 101.” Podcast audio. Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. May 2010. https://itunes.apple.com/ca/podcast/wayne-grudems-systematic theology/id322844869?mt=2. Accessed October 2016.

Juel, Donald. Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1988.

Wright, N.T.. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

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