I want to take the opportunity provided by a rather vexed comment on my post Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong to make it clear that my narrative-historical argument about “hell” has nothing to do with liberalism. Ryan kicks off with this rather rash assertion about what liberals do:
A lot of liberals […] will throw out statements like, “You really need to know the context of what he is saying in order to understand it”, or “you really need to read more and educate yourself more to understand it.”
That is not liberalism. Liberalism, as classically understood, is the accommodation of the message of the New Testament to the worldview of the modern period. I. Howard Marshall defines “liberalism” as:
the peeling off of those aspects of biblical teaching about Christian faith and ethics that are held by many people today to be incompatible with a so-called scientific worldview and an “enlightened” understanding of morality.1
For most people the narrative-historical method is quite the opposite to liberalism: it alienates them from the texts; and we have to ask the sort of question that Hilary has just asked.
Modern liberalism, of course, was only one stage in a long process of accommodation to the cultures under which Christianity has existed. In the first place, the gospel was accommodated to the worldview of Hellenistic and later Roman Europe, a development which determined the initial shape of a good part of our current theology. Then the gospel had to be accommodated to the much more hostile environment of the post-enlightenment period. Again much of our current theology, including the theology that Ryan champions in his comment, is the result of defending traditional European theology against the onslaughts of modernity. Then finally, at least in the West, various attempts are being made to make sense of the gospel within a postmodern context.
This process of accommodation is unavoidable, but I think we are now well-advised to take stock of the situation and recalibrate. The best way we have of doing this is to consider how Jesus’ teaching functioned in its original context. We cannot do this perfectly, but we have the tools and the opportunity to do it quite well.
Rob Bell’s Love Wins seems to me to be an attempt to recalibrate within the postmodern context.
So what I am arguing for is the accommodation of the gospel to the worldview of first century Judaism—that is, to Jesus’ worldview. It’s a matter of putting the theology back where it came from. You can disagree either with the method or with the outcome of interpreting Jesus’ teaching in this way, but you can’t call it liberalism—except by way of a blanket insult.
I realize that to those who have inherited an understanding of the New Testament accommodated to the intellectual needs and constraints of European Christendom and the clash with modernity this looks like the abandonment of the solid foundation of the Word of God. As Ryan puts it:
Jesus said that man builds his faith on a foundation. Liberals believe that their ‘enlightened minds’ about 1st century judaism and contextualization gives them an air of authority and understanding of the Bible that surpasses others. That is why they can throw out those statements and think themselves humble—”You really should go read some NT Wright or Sanders and find out that Paul was really talking about a covenantal gnomism [sic] and not individual salvation… etc etc..” But the sand they stand on is shaky because it’s of their own development. They have stepped outside the Word of God as their foundation and are now standing in education and historical research.
But I strongly disagree with this argument. It appears to me that if we make two simple assumptions—first, that Jesus took seriously his historical context, and secondly, that he understood the Jewish scriptures—we are bound to arrive at a reading of the New Testament that in certain respects diverges quite significantly from the inherited reading—not least in shifting the focus from the individual to the community. Neither of these assumptions should be controversial. There is nothing terribly clever or devious about this approach.
My argument about “hell” illustrates how the hermeneutic works: Jesus uses the language of the Old Testament in a rather literal sense to interpret the historical circumstances faced by first-century Israel. I think that this reading is simply much more true to scripture and to Jesus than the view that he is teaching a doctrine of eternal conscious torment after death.
So although I would certainly not accuse Ryan of pride, I think that he has to face squarely the possibility that the tradition which he represents has misconstrued—perhaps even for good reasons—the manner in which the Bible is authoritative.
- 1. I. Howard Marshall, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology, 31.