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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what's in it for me? Part 2

In the first part of this three-part post I outlined i) what I understand by a narrative-historical hermeneutic, ii) why it cuts across the grain of mainstream evangelical thinking, and iii) in general terms how I think it can be shown that this way of reading the New Testament may still be instructive for the church today—namely that we live with the consequences of the eschatological transition described in the New Testament. Here, and in the third part, I will set out the main practical implications of this, at least as regards the central narrative of transformation.

We still have to deal with the legacy of personal sin

From Abraham onwards the people of God is a community of new creation in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world. That is, it seeks to express in its corporate life how the one creator God originally intended the world to be, not for its own benefit only but for the benefit of the world. Anyone who enters this new creation does so on the understanding that he or she must adopt a radically different way of living. As Paul would put it, he or she must put off the old person and put on a new person (cf. Eph. 4:22-24). That remains a direct practical consequence of the biblical narrative. The question then is: What has made it possible for someone today to do that? Or perhaps better, bearing in mind Groucho Marx’s quip, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member”: What has made it possible for us to be members of a new creation people without our sinfulness ruining it?

We still have to trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God

This is obviously the critical issue for evangelicals and needs to be considered at some length. My argument is that salvation in the New Testament needs to be understood primarily in terms of a “political” or “public” or “corporate” narrative roughly along these lines.

  • Salvation is a response not simply to the problem of human sin, which is where the Romans Road misses the point of Romans. It is a response to the problem of “wrath”, which in the context of the New Testament has to be understood as divine judgment in the arena of history, against the Jews first, then against the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, against pagan empire. The disobedience of Israel and the idolatry of the Greeks are, of course, particular manifestations of the universal sinful condition.
  • The good news, then, is that Jesus died for the sins of Israel in order that a remnant might escape the coming destruction and experience new life, in the Spirit, in the age to come.
  • Redemption, therefore, is not a personal event but a corporate and historical event: redemption is when God’s people get through the coming crisis of God’s judgment of the ancient world: they have been sealed by the Holy Spirit for an impending “day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).
  • Because this future redemption was secured outside the Law, through the faithfulness of Jesus, membership of redeemed Israel was thrown open to Gentiles, which is a crucial factor in how YHWH shows himself to be God of the whole world and not of Israel only (cf. Rom. 3:21-22, 28-30; Eph. 2:11-22).
  • So Gentiles who came to believe that YHWH had done this (and more) for Israel so that his name would be hallowed among the nations, could then be incorporated into this saved people, meaning that they in turn were delivered from the wrath of God against the idolatrous, immoral and unrighteous pagan world, to share in the life of the age to come.

If we compress this historical narrative, we may say—as the New Testament occasionally does—that Jesus died not only for the Jews but also for the world. But the New Testament is otherwise not much concerned to assert that Jesus died for any particular person’s sins. The point is not made with regard to any particular Jew in the Gospels or any particular Gentile in Acts. Neither Cornelius nor the Philippian jailer are “saved” by believing that Jesus died for their sins; they are saved by believing that God had made Jesus Lord and judge (Acts 10:42-45; 16:31). The pagans of Antioch in Pisidia are “saved” because they believed that God had brought a saviour to Israel (Acts 13:23, 38-39, 48).

Nowhere in Acts are Gentiles told to believe that Jesus died for their sins. What mattered to the Gentiles was that God had made him judge and Lord of the nations (cf. Rom. 10:9, 13). When they came to believe that, they repented of their idolatry and its associated “sins”—in effect, they repented of their culture—and were forgiven. They received the Spirit, and so were incorporated into the redeemed people of God.

So, from a narrative-historical point of view, Jesus’ death is a corporate, political, and eschatological event; the personal is always a corollary of the political. The traditional evangelical view, which developed largely as a reaction to the decay of public Christian identity, gets this quite back to front, and has a hard time now swimming in the direction of public understanding and practice against the powerful currents of western individualism.

Today we, too, have become part of a historical community that has been saved by Jesus’ death, and we enjoy the benefits—just as proselytes to Judaism enjoyed the benefits of the exodus. We are forgiven because we believe that Jesus has been made Lord, we are no longer under condemnation for the sin that continues to plague us, we share in the transforming and liberating life of the Spirit, and we have the hope of being part of God’s final new creation. None of this would have been possible if Jesus had not died for the sins of Israel. There would be no club to join. I would still be faced with the grim prospect of final death. So I have every reason, even under a strict narrative-historical reading, to be thankful to God for Jesus’ saving death.

This seems to me the only way to speak of my own personal “salvation” without collapsing the historical-eschatological narrative, which dominates the New Testament, into abstract metaphysics. Practically speaking, the shorthand “Jesus died for my sins” is not wrong and can be very powerful, but I think that we need to be very careful not to assert it at the expense of the much more important political narrative.

Comments

Andrew,

Thank you for this. I am anxious to see your next post. This is probably my favorite series that you have done. I think that it will help people to understand the scriptures much better, and I plan on passing it around when you are finished.

Brian

Your point sounds very much like David Brondos in “Paul on the Cross”. If you haven’t read it, you will find that it compliments your position nicely.

Hi Doug. I recall you had mentioned David Brondos in a previous post of Andrew’s. I read it on your recommendation there and found it as you say, complementary to Andrew’s thought. Have you read Brondos’ more recent book “Redeeming the Gospel: The Christian Faith Reconsidered”? It digs in further by interacting with previous and current Lutheran thought. It helped me a lot, especially with seeing more of what Perriman is trying to get across. Right now, I find myself learning from both Andrew and Peter Wilkinson as they interact.

While not new to Andrew’s blog, this is the first time I posted something.

Thanks for this great post. I´ve got one question though. You use several times the term saved. What do you mean by that? What does being saved mean? Is it as you talk about being saved from the wrath of God only a status? Or is it a way of life, as I would see it that redefines all spheres and relationships we have. More like the hebrew term of shalom. Would you see being saved and living an shalom basically the same? I would like to hear some words about that.

Often I find among evangelicals, that evangelism is all about being saved as a status, that does not lead to a transformed way of live, where salvation is also experienced lived out right now. Either you got the status, and you are on our site, or you have not got it and you are an outsider.

Thanks

Gerry, I don’t think being saved as a status makes any sense at all in the New Testament context. Israel needed to be saved from destruction so that there might continue to be a viable people of God, family of Abraham, in the world, that would bear effective witness to the creator God. For Gentiles salvation by faith meant becoming part of that redeemed people and taking on the responsibility of corporate witness. That is no less true for us today. To be saved means to leave a macrocosm that will end in death and decay because of sin and to become part of a microcosm that will end in life because of righteousness. Living in shalom would be one good way of characterizing that saved life.

I appreciate that you are reinforcing your main point throughout this post, Andrew, that “the personal is always a corollary of the political” in the way you frame a narrative-historical interpretation. I disagree that “the traditional evangelical view” gets this back to front, and I think there are problems in your argument, in which my five criticisms made earlier still stand.

In a shift of emphasis from your usual argument, you concede that “We still have to deal with the legacy of personal sin”. However, instead of asking “how do I become a new creation person, in whose life sin has been dealt with?”, the issue begins to slip away with the question you then ask: “What has made it possible for us to be members of a new creation people without our sinfulness ruining it?”

In the next section beginning “We still have to trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God”, you simply fail to answer the question at all, by repeating that salvation was a political event in the history of Israel, not a personal event, either for them or for us.

In fact, in that same section, you move from saying that “Salvation is a response not simply to the problem of human sin”, in which you concede that “human sin”is at least an issue, to saying:

Redemption, therefore, is not a personal event but a corporate and historical event: redemption is when God’s people get through the coming crisis of God’s judgment of the ancient world

Here, you contrast redemption as a “personal event” to redemption as “a corporate and historical event”, and I think that is the heart of the problem. For you, “personal” has become the same as “individual”. But the issue of the New Testament is: how do the events of Jesus’s death and resurrection become a personal issue for anyone who believes? There is no setting of the personal against the corporate anywhere in the scriptures, still less in the New Testament.

You then say (same section), alluding to Romans 3:21-22, 28-30 and Ephesians 2:11-22

Because this future redemption was secured outside the Law, through the faithfulness of Jesus, membership of redeemed Israel was thrown open to Gentiles

This is a misreading of the passages; in particular a misreading of Romans, where Romans 3:21 onwards draws together what Paul has been saying to Jew and Gentile, that God’s redemptive plans were expressly for the benefit of Jew and Gentile, and attacks Jewish exclusivism. In Ephesians 2:11-22, it is eccentric indeed to to assume that Paul’s entire argument is that we are “saved” by becoming part of Israel. The entire argument, not isolated to this passage, is that the elements that constituted historic Israel have now passed away, like the booster rockets to a space probe. We are saved by believing in Jesus, both for forgiveness of sins (in its wide-ranging sense) and salvation from coming wrath.

So we have lost the question of how God deals with personal sin, which the argument seemed to be setting out to address, by shifting, at the end of the section, to the issue of how Gentiles as well as Jews were to be saved from the coming (historical) wrath. The only answer seems to be that when Gentiles believe in the God who has provided salvation from wrath for the Jews, and if they become members of the club as well (though we are not told how), they will not be subject to wrath as well. But the question you set out to answer: how do they (or we) become members of that club without spoiling it, has been totally side-stepped and ignored.

Having avoided this central question, which the post seemed to be about to address, you then say:

Nowhere in Acts are Gentiles told to believe that Jesus died for their sins.

as if this proved your point, when actually you were, apparently, going to say how Gentiles would have their personal sins dealt with. The logic of your argument is now that Gentiles can’t join the club without having the sins that would spoil it dealt with, but nowhere are we told (in Acts, at least) that Gentiles are to believe in Jesus who died for their sins. So what is the solution for Gentiles?

I don’t think it is true to say anyway that Acts does not tell Gentiles that Jesus died for their sins. An example is Acts 13. Paul is addressing, first, “you children of Abraham and God-fearing Gentiles” (ie Gentiles who had not become Jews, but worshipped Israel’s God) - 13:26. The message to both these groups is: “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” - 13:38. Many believed - 13:43. When other Jews stir up the crowds against Paul and Barnabas, they turn to “speak the word of God” - 13:46 to the Gentiles. There is no sense anywhere that a different message from “forgiveness of sins” was preached to the Gentiles, nor by any other means than through Jesus for them personally.

However, we do not need Acts alone to tell us what Paul preached to the Gentiles. We have the letters, in which no distinction is made between how redemption came to Jew or Gentile. To both groups, it was through the direct effect of Jesus’s death and resurrection in application to the life of the believer - whether Jew or Gentile.

There is a great deal in this post which is problematic, which includes the logic and flow of the argument itself, as well as the way scriptures are interpreted.

Very helpful series Andrew. No question that evangelicalism is totally obsessed with personal, internal piety to the neglect of the corporate/political shape of the christian life. This is not about setting one against the other but about making sure the the horse comes before the cart and not the other way around. In other words, what drives what? In fact, there’s a growing consensus among evangelical scholars around the conclusion that evangelicalism as a whole suffers from an endemic emphasis on the individual/personal and a non-existence ecclesiology, as evidenced in the collection of essays in John G. Stackhouse, Jr., ed. Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) and Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier, eds. The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005).

Leading NT scholar Richard Hays is under no doubt that the apostle Paul “imagines God’s eschatological salvation in corporate terms: God transforms and saves a people, not atomized individuals. Consequently, the faithful find their identity and vocation in the world as the body of Christ.” In the same articke he also says “Since Paul continues to be read-against the grain-as preoccupied with the individual’s relationship to God and with the moral responsibilty of individuals, there is a need for fresh theological studies that highlight the importance of ecclesiology (i.e., community formation) for Paul’s ethics… The Corinthians have understood the gospel in terms of individual spiritual fulfillment, and this misunderstanding has led to rivalry and fragmentation of the community. At every point in his response, Paul recalls them to unity by stressing the ecclesial context of God’s grace, the corporate character of God’s redemptive work in Christ, and the shared vocation of the community.” (Ecclesiology and Ethics in 1 Corinthians, Ex Auditu, 1994.)

So Andrew, it looks like you’re in good company with your emphasis on the corporate/political/public narrative of God’s people.