p.ost

(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 3

In this short series of posts I have been trying to show why and how a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament—that is, a reading that adjusts the theological content of the New Testament to its proper and natural historical horizons—remains formative and instructive for the church today. The second post looked at the place of Jesus’ death in the New Testament story. My argument is that it has to be understood essentially as a death for the sake of Israel, or a death for the sake of the future of the people of God, in which Gentiles also came to have a vital and game-changing interest. Luke’s account of Paul’s experience in Antioch in Pisidia does not tell the whole story, but it certainly backs up this general contention.

The more important point to emerge here, however, has been the connection between Jesus’ death and his designation as “Lord”. Whereas modern evangelicalism construes salvation in personal and universal terms as accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, with the emphasis very much on the saving significance of his death, the New Testament construes salvation in political-eschatological terms, with the emphasis very much on the Lordship of Jesus. (See on this point: “What’s wrong with the “Romans Road” to salvation?”) Jesus died so that a renewed, purified, Spirit-filled people of God would emerge, in the course of a protracted eschatological crisis, to bear courageous and faithful witness to the fact that Israel’s God had made Jesus judge and ruler of the nations.

We still have to reckon with the supreme lordship of Jesus over the forces that rule the old creation

So I would argue that as we seek today to come to terms with the enduring relevance of the New Testament narrative, the critical point to grasp is not that Jesus died for my sins but that God made him both king over his people and judge and ruler of the nations—of empires, cultures, civilizations. But this has become, over the last two or three hundred years, a complex and ambiguous confession. If the historical fulfilment of the New Testament belief that Jesus would judge and rule the nations came with the overthrow of classical paganism and the conversion of the Greek-Roman world, we have to recognize that we affirm the Lordship of Jesus today under conditions of defeat: Christendom has been defeated by a rationalist and pluralistic secularism.

The sovereignty of the risen Lord remains the fundamental ground on which we, as those who confess Jesus as Lord, deal with the world. Jesus as King safeguards the integrity of his people, which means, on the one hand, that we are accountable in the final analysis to him alone, and on the other, that he defends us against our “enemies” (cf. 1 Sam. 8:19). That is a solid, practical, and enduring entailment of the narrative-historical reading. But at the same time we have to ask quite what it now means to affirm the sovereignty of Jesus in the world—not just in abstract or ultimate terms, but concretely, historically. The public dethronement of Jesus in the West needs to be factored into our ecclesiology and missiology.

We still have to deal with the indwelling, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit

There are two practical sides to the out-pouring of the Spirit in the New Testament, drawing on two distinct prophetic antecedents. First, the Spirit is given at Pentecost as a continuation of the prophetic ministry of Jesus in the twilight of second temple Judaism. Indeed, Pentecost is itself a sign, interpreted with reference to the prophet Joel, that God was about to judge this crooked generation of his people. Secondly, the Spirit is the power that renews and informs the new covenant people—the outworking of prophecies in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Spirit fulfils the purpose that the Law had under the old covenant; the Spirit is the means of practical righteousness; the Spirit inspires ministry. Both paradigms remain fully in force today, though under different eschatological conditions. The people of God is a prophetic community that lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. As in the New Testament, people receive the Spirit when they believe, when they are convinced, that this whole thing, this whole story, really is the doing of the creator God and choose to be part of it for the sake of his glory.

We still have to stand in worship before the creator God

The defining relationship in a new creation people is, of course, at all times, throughout the ages, the community’s relationship to the creator, who dwells in the midst of them; and probably the most important aspect of that relationship is worship. Much of modern worship is self-centred and sentimental. A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament should lead us to sing much bigger and more dangerous songs about the God who makes all things new, who has made his Son Lord of the nations, who calls his people to a radical obedience, etc.

We still have to learn a new type of obedience to righteousness

This really takes us back to the first point (in part two) about dealing with personal sin. A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament suggests that the “gospel” is the proclamation of what God did for his people during a period of eschatological crisis. The personal dimensions to faith have to be worked out in relation to the “political” narrative. One consequence is that at the personal level evangelism is not so much the offer of salvation as the call to to become part of an obedient community that bears witness—always fallibly, always on the basis of grace—to the full scope of creational righteousness. That requires personal “salvation”, but as a means to a missional end. Once we get this clear, there are countless ways in which both the Old and the New Testament can be used to instruct the church in practical creational righteousness.

In conclusion I will quote with gratitude the excellent opinion of Rob from Australia:

In my experience working with university students in Australia for over 10 years and with a major evangelical mission agency, the relentless emphasis on the individual has generally led to weak discipleship, little sense or commitment to the importance of the corporate/ecclesial nature of the christian life and an anemic mission/vocation in the world. In this context I have found the NP/Perriman approach immensely useful, transformative and missionally powerful in ways which the old and tired individualised, internalised paradigm never delivered.

The narrative-historical approach does not in the least leave the modern church—or the modern world—with no compelling interest in the content of the New Testament. On the contrary, I would argue that it provides us with a much more rigorous and credible connection with the scriptures than the selective, reductive and distorting approach of much modern evangelical theology.

Comments

Andrew,

Given that your narrative-historical reading of the New Testament gives appropriate emphasis to the NT’s apocalyptic-eschatalogical context, how do you determine what commands of God continue into our very different context today?

For example, someone could accept your approach and conclude that the people of God in that generation fulfilled the destiny to which God had called them, resulting in, among other things, the production of the New Testament itself - bearing witness to the eternal redemptive work of God through Christ in their age. Apart from any further guidance such a person would still be left wondering what the mission of God might be in our age - and even whether it was to be pursued corporately or individually. In other words, to focus just on one aspect this question, particularly important to you, just because the mission was corporate in New Testament times does not ipso facto mean that it is today.

(As a reminder from previous comments, I am not pushing for an individual orientation over a corporate one, I’m pushing for a Christ orientation over a people of Christ orientation.)

My answer to that would be that we are not just dealing with the New Testament. It seems to me that one of the advantages of the New Perspective / narrative-historical approach is that it gives us a much better basis to make use of the Old Testament. The story of Israel from Abraham to Jesus establishes the paradigm of a new creation people called to live with theological, ethical and political integrity in the midst of, and visible to, the nations. Nothing in that narrative suggests the sort of atomistic universalism that modern evangelicalism has become. Of course, the New Testament changes the terms and conditions of the existence of the people of God in some important ways—not least that the corporate new creation existence is sustained by the grace of God. But the basic requirement that the people love God and their neighbour remains the same.

I’m still not clear where you’re going with the “Christ orientation”. As I see it Christ figures principally in the following ways:

  1. The author and embodiment of the historical salvation achieved by the early churches.
  2. The one who has been given authority to rule at the right hand of God over all powers for the sake of the church.
  3. The antecedent of an absolute new creation by virtue of his resurrection from the dead.
  4. The one through whom God created all things, which may mean through whom God created the age to come after the eschatological crisis.

I like that your view embraces the Old Testament, for what is the New Testament if not an explication of the Old Testament in light of the advent of Israel’s Messiah?

I do not understand, however, how you distinguish your view in any important way from modern evangelicalism on the fundamental point for which you criticize it. That is, you seem to be railing against what you view as modern evangelicalism’s emphasis on individual spirituality over against corporate spirituality. Yet modern evangelicalism does not at all countenance the sort of nonchurchgoer’s approach to the kingdom of God that, say, I espouse. You and modern evangelicalism are united in the view that, as Scot McKnight says in The King Jesus Gospel, “No one would suggest that church attendance is the perfect measure of discipleship, but neither would anyone deny it is at least a baseline measure.”

Therefore, since modern evangelicalism is as committed as you are to the necessity of withdrawing from society at large and gathering with those who are like-minded, why all the hoopla?

Who said anything about “withdrawing from society at large”? The Abrahamic family should be visible, it should have an active priestly and prophetic role with regard to the world. The fact that communities of God’s people congregate together once a week for worship, prayer and instruction ought to be a natural extension of that function. There’s a big difference between church that merely represents a gathering of saved individuals and church that is a dynamic expression of the corporate witness of God’s people.

You mean God’s “peoples” since there are so many of divisions of the people of God?

Sure, why not?

The myriad of Christian denominations is God’s doing? Why then in 1 Corinthians 1-3 was Paul so apalled by even its incipient stages?

I think rather more because of their evident selfish ambition, than their identification as distinct groups.

Let us then, to take just one verse from that section of Paul’s letter as an example, amend our Bibles as follows:

“Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all [do not feel that you have to] agree, and there be no division among you [born of selfish ambition, though allow divisions for pure motives], but you be made [in]complete [not] in the same mind and [not] in the same judgment.”

1 Cor 1:10 NASB, as amended by John (not the apostle)

John, in all seriousness, your interpretation of 1 Cor 1-3 is impossible to square with the text. Selfish ambition may indeed be understood as the cause of the divisions, but it was the divisions themselves that were condemned and not merely what motivated them.

I think it’s rather a good rendering with which you’ve provided us. It could lead to a revolution in theological communication.

Alas, ignoring biblical text in order to preserve treasured tradition is a revolution you are way too late to inaugurate.

Not only inaugural events are worth their while, Mike.

John,

You don’t seem to be taking my question seriously. I hope Andrew will.

No; I took your question seriously, just not your rather narrow and unnecessarily provocative reposts, Mike.

So you seriously believe that 1 Cor 1-3 indicates that Paul was not opposed to divisions in the believing community - only to improper motivations for them?

I will answer your question, with seriousness, Mike.

But only after I first ask you to be aware how acerbic and almost aggressive you sound in most of this thread. A posture that does not lend itself to prompting open, vulnerable discussion—which is rather necessary to Internet discussions that, by their nature, are almost always a foreshortening of a larger narrative. If it continues, I will definitely leave it to Andrew, who has much more time and energy for this sort of thing than I.

Now, your orginal question was w/r/to denominations, rather than an exegesis of 1 Cor 3 and my original comment was “much more”… i.e. not either or. My point is that divisions are not necessarily destructive and it is not necessary to say that God is either the author of denominations or dead set against them. In another place, Paul says, let there be factions amongst you so that we may see whom God approves (I am aware that some read him here as being acerbic himself…nevertheless, it’s a moot point if you take that position)

However, where selfish ambition is concerned, it is clear that it is a root of many kinds of evil. It is mentioned in many places, whereas denominations are not mentioned once, as such. That is your eisegesis of the 1 Cor 3 passage. To take Andrew’s meta-narrative, you remove it from its historical setting and place it within our own historical context and assume that it can easily interpret and be used to condemn what you believe God is against (i.e. denominations). It’s not entirely invalid, but from this perspective, it’s not cast iron either!

Thus, I return to my point: I think that a warning against selfish ambition is a more beautiful and effective admonition than a warning against denominations. Can you take that view seriously, Mike?

John,

One of the reasons I’ve taken to reading and interacting on this blog is that I 1) enjoy hearing Andrew’s perspective, 2) appreciate his open-mindedness on certain issues, and 3) have similarly enjoyed the perspective of other commenters such as Jaco van Zyl and Peter Wilkinson, even when they disagree with each other. It’s the kind of environment in which a blog can be quite productive and achieve the highest of hopes people have for such a medium.

All that being the case, I try to keep my comments and questions as direct and succinct as possible so as not to waste anyone’s time. I also seek to engage on topics where views differ from my own in some important way in order to produce a synthesis, or at least some progress toward a synthesis. These two goals might result in someone, as you have, judging my comments as “acerbic and almost agressive.” I regret this, but I’m unwilling to become prolix and fawning just to avoid it. I contribute from good will and for the best interests of everyone involved, considering my own interests, as best I am able, to be of the least importance.

While I take seriously the view that selfish ambition is a bad thing, I think it’s off-topic in this discussion. Of course, everyone is against selfish ambition - Paul, Andrew, you, me - everyone! What’s at issue here is something else. I’m even quite willing to drop the discussion about denominations because it wasn’t where I wanted to focus anyway. My unanswered question to Andrew was, “Since practically all of modern evangelicalism sees church involvement as a sine qua non of discipleship, how does the narrative-historical approach actually differ from it? (While I’m no apologist for modern evangelicalism, it seems unfair and unfactual to say that it exalts individualism over corporatism; what problems from the narrative-historical point of view must lie in other emphases.) And, more broadly, how do we who seek to obey God in our day process what we learn from a narrative-historical reading such that we know what God wants us to do? (Modern evangelicals at least offer a prescription, albeit with varying specifics and emphases, so a counter-view should at least offer a general prescription of its own.)

For me, all questions lead back to the fountainhead question, “How do we please God in our generation?”

“The gentleman he protesteth too much, methinks.”

withal, I perceive that I have intruded upon an occurrence that does not welcome my presence and I now withdraw.

Goodnight