It is essential for the integrity, credibility and mission of the church that we read the Bible well. Modern evangelicalism has preserved a particular theological outcome, a thesis, from scripture—the argument that God became incarnate in Jesus for the purpose of dying for the sins of the whole world so that we might be saved or redeemed or justified or reconciled with God, live holy lives here on earth, and have the ultimate hope of going to heaven when we die. This thesis, however, has been so critical not only for the identity but arguably for the survival of the modern church that it has come to be understood not simply as a particular theological outcome but as the determinative canon for the reading of scripture. The effectiveness of the modern gospel has, therefore, come at a considerable hermeneutical price.
Let me describe a phenomenon that always used to impress me as a child. If you look at a streetlamp through a leafless tree in winter, the glistening, spindly branches will appear to arrange themselves in circles around the light. The tree loses its natural shape and becomes enslaved to the controlling power of the light.
It is the same with our reading of scripture. The light of the modern gospel construct—not actually part of the tree, but a light we shine on the tree—is so bright that all the glistening, spindly texts appear to arrange themselves around it, they become an involuntary witness to the light, and we lose sight of the natural shape of the biblical narrative.
It’s a marvellous effect, and we may stand mesmerized before it. But I think we are getting to the point where it is more important to understood the true nature of the tree than to be impressed by the illusion of concentricity.
The biblical story cannot be reduced to the myth-like dimensions of the modern evangelical gospel—not without losing touch with the reality of the thing. It is a historical story and suffers from all the complexity, particularity, ambiguity, and short-sightedness that are part-and-parcel of historical existence.
The argument about how the story of “salvation” is constructed is a good example. The situation is obviously not as straightforward as the analogy of the branches suggests—there are numerous perspectives to be had between the illusion of evangelical simplicity and the stark historical shape of the text; and there is no undistorted view of the text to be had.
But there are a number of points at which it becomes rather clear, in my view, that the traditional reading seriously misrepresents the argument of the New Testament: in the Gospels, in Acts, and in Paul, Jesus is presented not as a universal saviour but as Israel’s saviour. It is this act of divine salvation, which is inseparable from an act of divine judgment, that is proclaimed to the world, presented before the eyes of the nations. Then, in their response to this good news of what God has done in order to vindicate himself and prove himself faithful to the promises made to the fathers the Gentiles find their own salvation.
How much the Immortal loves those men!
I suggested yesterday that we find this pattern already in Isaiah. I also recently came across another, less familiar text that reproduces it. Sibylline Oracles 3 is generally reckoned to be a composite document, almost entirely of Jewish authorship, written in Egypt. The larger part of the book, including the passage that I want to consider here, probably dates from around the mid-second century BC.
The book foresees an assault by the “kings of the peoples” against Jerusalem and the temple (3:657-68). God, however, will judge and overthrow these aggressors: “All well-constructed walls of hostile men will fall to the ground, because they knew neither the law nor the judgment of the great God, but with mindless spirit you all launched an attack and raised spears against the sanctuary” (3:685-88).
With the enemies of Israel destroyed, peace will be established: “…the sons of the great God will all live peacefully around the Temple, rejoicing in these things which the Creator, just judge and sole ruler, will give” (3:702-704). That is the vision of Israel’s salvation. It is followed by a response from the nations, who have seen how much “the Immortal loves those men” (3:710-11)—and we have exactly the development that we have in Acts 13:48 and Romans 15:9-12: the nations praise God for his mercy towards Israel:
They will bring forth from their mouths a delightful utterance in hymns, “Come, let us all fall on the ground and entreat the immortal king, the great eternal God. Let us send to the Temple, since he alone is sovereign and let us all ponder the Law of the Most High God, who is most righteous of all throughout the earth.” (3:715-20)
I’m not suggesting, of course, that the New Testament story was directly influenced by this text. But it reinforces the impression that the narrative template was widespread and typical, which adds weight to the exegetical argument from the New Testament. There is, admittedly, a risk of oversimplifying matters, not least because the identity of saved “Israel” changes as Gentiles are incorporated into it. But that is a narrative development: it does not weaken the general argument that Jesus is put forward as the king who will save his people from their sins (cf. Matt. 1:21), and that Gentiles find salvation in response to this extraordinary demonstration of the rightness and faithfulness of YHWH.