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.