The Bible is a formative text for the people of God. I have argued that it is formative primarily in a narrative or diachronic sense—that is, it speaks to the church today by narrating a critical period, a determinative trajectory, in the historical development of the people. It begins with the calling of Abraham from a classic place of empire to be the beginning of an alternative humanity, a new creation; and it culminates eschatologically in the conversion of empire to the worship of the God of Israel. The New Testament certainly looks beyond that event to a final establishment of justice and life and a final renewal of all things, but the target of the formative narrative is the victory of Christ over Rome through the faithful, self-sacrificing witness of his disciples. This is the moment at which—within the narrative constraints of the biblical outlook—the nations bow the knee and confess that YHWH, the God who has redeemed and established his people, has publicly and politically demonstrated his righteousness and has shown himself to be sovereign amongst all the gods of the pagan world (cf. Is. 45:14-25).
But if scripture is the historically constrained story of the people of God and if theology is so tightly the interpretation of that experience, in what way might scripture speak now to the world outside the church? Can it still function as “Word of God” not for the church only but also for the world? Can it be, as Paul Fromont puts it, ”an invitation to life in all its fullness for the wider world and local contexts within which churched and de-churched find themselves”?
If the Bible is to be good news for the world today, it has to be (in some fundamental sense) because it tells the story of the people that made this audacious and tumultuous journey in relationship with the Creator God. To skirt round this conclusion in order to avoid its historical particularity would be to contradict the essential character of scripture.
Before we consider the implications of this assertion, however, we need to note that the story did not end with the conversion of the empire. The story continued beyond the historical horizons of the New Testament and now includes the reversal of the victory of YHWH over European paganism: in broad sociological terms Christianity defeated paganism but over the last two hundred years has been displaced by an unholy alliance of secular rationalism, cultural pluralism, and technologically sustained materialism. In other words, we are again a people in crisis, unsure of ourselves; and as Paul rightly notes, this has consequences for the reception of the text in the world:
Perhaps it is the scripture/church relationship that is the biggest obstacle to willingness to offer genuine space for the religious/spiritual perspective on the big challenges and opportunities that face us as humanity – whether internationally, nationally, or locally…?
Before any attempt is made to redefine the public relevance of scripture, we should probably make sure that we have grasped just how problematic this “scripture/church relationship” is. So I have some rather disorderly questions…
Staying within the Western narrative, we might ask, first, what prospect there is that scripture might speak directly to a world that has largely disowned its Christian heritage. What would it take for a post-Christian society to hear the Word as though for the first time? Or more to the point, perhaps, how much does the church have to get out of the way before anyone will be surprised by the text?
What burden of transparency and integrity does the narrative-historical reading impose on the church? What are the implications for the church of asserting this particular account of our identity and mission? However we define the critical moment of personal salvation, this is subordinated in the New Testament to a narrative of corporate transformation. If scripture is an “invitation to life”, it is an invitation to the life of the community. Salvation is participation in the community of the people of God.
Does the church have the spiritual, moral and intellectual resources to respond to—or even to resist—the combined forces of secular rationalism, cultural pluralism, and technologically sustained materialism? Is the church able to draw from the narrative of its formation the strength and clarity of purpose, the wisdom and insight, to demonstrate to the post-Christian world that this text still has the power to define an alternative existence?
What could be said concerning what God is currently doing with regard to his people in the world that could possibly be counted as good news? The narrative-historical reading of scripture thrusts the historical community of YHWH into the bright lights at front of stage. But are we prepared to own up to our history? Are we willing to be subjected to scrutiny? We cannot push Jesus forward—because we know that everyone thinks that Jesus is wonderful—and hope to hide in the shadows. Second temple Judaism found itself subjected to the wrath of God, as Paul puts it in Romans, because it failed to provide a benchmark of righteousness. Can the church today claim to provide a benchmark of righteousness for the world?
The point is that scripture is not an autonomous sacred text or free-floating Word of God for the world, merely entrusted to the church for translation and dissemination. Its witness and legitimacy are intimately bound up with the life of the community that claims descent by faith from Abraham. We cannot disown its problems; we cannot escape its censure; we are the medium of its message.