Evangelicalism, A new kind of

Thu, 29/03/2012 - 11:03

As I would redefine the term from a narrative-historical perspective, an “evangelical” in the broadest sense is someone who finds “good news” in the long and complex story of the historic family of Abraham, descended through Jesus. Or better, the church is “evangelical” insofar as it finds good news in that story.

The evangelical vocation

What Abraham stood for was the remaking of God’s good creation in microcosm, as a world within a world, after humanity had chosen, in defiance of the creator: i) self-determination (Adam and Eve), ii) a course of violence and injustice (the generation destroyed in the flood), and iii) the idolatry of empire (the builders of Babel).

That still encapsulates the broad purpose of the people of God: the church is not an aggregation of redeemed individuals; it is an alternative society, set in opposition to the idolatry, self-interest, injustice, violence, tyranny, oppression, and systemic arrogance of what we glibly call “fallen” humanity. To be evangelical is to embrace the full scope of that opposition.

But this has always been a troubled, painful, and controversial vocation. We still find it extremely difficult and unnatural to live up to the ideal of a just people, reconciled to the creator, as a blessing to the nations. To be evangelical, therefore, is to be unreasonably, absurdly, stubbornly optimistic about the concrete and symbolic potential of this people’s narrated existence; and we are sustained in that optimism by what is now for us, since Jesus, the unfailing grace of God.

The evangelical narrative

As I understand it, the bible tells the story of the people of God from the call of Abraham to the climactic moment when his descendants inherited the pagan world. It is authoritative for the church precisely because it tells this story. This, I think, is the proper starting point for an evangelical hermeneutic: the Bible sets the narrative trajectory for the people of God throughout the coming ages.

The story is told partly “historically” and partly prophetically or apocalyptically. The New Testament deals with a critical period when it appeared that the family of Abraham, in the form of national Israel, was about to lose the right, under devastating circumstances, to represent the creator God amongst the nations. Israel was hell bent on a course that would lead to the destruction of its national and religious existence, but in the fulness of time a young wonder-working prophet from Nazareth entered the charged political arena proclaiming a narrow and difficult path that would lead to life, though he was not confident that many find it.

The good news of Jesus (in historical context)

His death for the sins of his people defined the way forward for faithful Israel. His resurrection from the dead convinced his followers that the creator God, the God of Israel, had not only made him the way, the truth, and the life for his people, but also had given him the authority to judge and rule over the nations. This was the “good news” that was proclaimed first in Jerusalem and then across the Greek-Roman world. The inclusion of Gentiles in the commonwealth of Israel at this juncture was itself a sign to the empire of the transformation to come. This is the evangelical heart of the narrative: the “gospel” is public and political, not private and personal.

The exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father set in train a long historical process. Through the faithful witness of communities of eschatological transformation the pagan world, which had for so many centuries opposed the God of Israel and oppressed his people, would be overthrown, and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ—and not any other god—was Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God.

Apocalyptic Trinitarianism

So from this point onwards the family of Abraham has had to relate to the one creator God on new terms—as the Father who determines the fate of his people, as the Son who has been given authority to reign, and as the Spirit who is the inspiring, empowering presence of the creator in the midst of his people. A statement of Trinitarian belief that is genuinely biblical—and so genuinely evangelical—has to take account of the apocalyptic narrative of Jesus’ “sonship”: unlike the pagan kings he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself to the point of death on a Roman cross; because of this obedience he was exalted, and given authority to rule as Lord and king, to the glory of Israel’s God.

To Christendom and beyond

This is how the family of Abraham, for so long confined to the small beleaguered state of Israel, came to inherit the world. But the story does not stop there, and evangelicals must learn how to make sense of the continuing narrative. European Christendom, as both a political and a theological construct, lasted in one form or other for perhaps 1700 years, to be defeated in the end by the combined forces of secular rationalism and post-imperial pluralism. The heirs of European Christendom have been mostly exiled from the territory that they once dominated, and in order to survive are having to disengage themselves from many of the habits of thought and practice that characterize a world that no longer exists.

But an evangelical, being an incorrigible optimist, believes that the story is by no means over; that the family of Abraham, descended through Jesus, has a viable future; that there is still “new creation” ahead of us. Moreover, an evangelical has the confidence to invite people into this difficult historical journey of corporate witness.

The whole story (plus actions)

So to be an evangelical community now is to find and proclaim the good news that arises from this whole story. It is good news that God is; that he still calls into existence a servant people for his own possession, to be priests and prophets in the world; that he remains faithful towards those who trust him; that he can still hold his own against the powerful cultural forces that oppose him and oppress his people; that he is still able to effect the renewal of his creation in ways that convince us that he will not finally be defeated but will make all things new. It is good news that Jesus died for the historical family of Abraham; it is good news that there is no longer the possibility of terminal failure; it is good news that the doors of that community are open; it is good news that in and around this community lives are transformed, the sick are healed, sight is restored to the blind, the poor are comforted, captives are set free, relationships are renewed, divisions are healed, prejudices and fears are overcome.

It is good news that sometimes this is not all just words….

Comments

Elegantly and clearly stated, Andrew. The point at which many, including myself, will take issue with it, however, is when you say:

His (Jesus’s) death for the sins of his people defined the way forward for faithful Israel. His resurrection from the dead convinced his followers that the creator God, the God of Israel, had not only made him the way, the truth, and the life for his people, but also had given him the authority to judge and rule over the nations. This was the “good news” that was proclaimed first in Jerusalem and then across the Greek-Roman world.

This tells us, taking the broader context you have provided for “death for the sins of his people”, that the death of Jesus was for his 1st century Jewish followers only, in that they needed its direct benefits for the continuance of their narrative. It does not tell us that this death had any direct relevance or application to me or anyone beyond the 1st century.

In the same paragraph, you say:

The inclusion of Gentiles in the commonwealth of Israel at this juncture was itself a sign to the empire of the transformation to come.

Apart from the meaning not being very clear, though probably clear enough in the light of your argument as a whole, most would probably think that the Gentiles were ‘transformed’ on precisely the same terms that Jews were transformed, by the direct personal (but not private)relevance and application of the death of Jesus and the personal (but not private) gift of the Spirit. Which leads to the third area where I and many would take issue with your argument:

This is the evangelical heart of the narrative: the “gospel” is public and political, not private and personal

“Private” is not a synonym for “personal”, and indeed falsely casts “personal” in a negative light. “Public”, and even “political” do not necessarily exclude “personal”; “private” should be dismissed as a way of unnecessarily denigrating “personal”.

What is excluded in your definition is personal transformation, which as I read the NT underlies community, social and even political transformation. Personal transformation, according to most Christian paradigms, including evangelical, rests on the universality of the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross. According to you, this death is no longer universal, nor does it have personal relevance or application.

I think you have a problem in providing a satisfactory explanation for the power of the gospel, then and now, which you have redefined from its traditional meaning.

I would be happy to include personal transformation in this definition of evangelicalism. No one can join the “difficult historical journey of corporate witness” without putting off the old person and putting on a new person. I didn’t emphasize that because I don’t want to reinforce the individualism of much modern evangelicalism, but I also think it should go without saying that the public narrative has radical implications for individuals.

I still think it makes more sense to speak of people being incorporated into a community that has been saved from destruction by the death of Jesus. I was pleasantly surprised last night, when teaching a class on the church, to find this statement in the mostly conventional Reformed material that we are using:

To be saved means to become part of the saved community; and one can express (live out) one’s salvation only in this community.

Gentiles cannot have been “saved” on the same terms as Jews—Jews were already part of the covenant people, Gentiles were not; Jews had sinned under the Law, Gentiles had sinned apart from the Law. Perhaps they were “transformed”, which is the word you used, on the same times, however—through the reception of the Spirit. No one was “transformed” by the death of Jesus.

I think you have a problem in providing a satisfactory explanation for the power of the gospel, then and now, which you have redefined from its traditional meaning.

I don’t think so.

Gentiles cannot have been “saved” on the same terms as Jews—Jews were already part of the covenant people, Gentiles were not

Romans 3:21-31?

I would argue that Romans 3:21-25 speaks of the redemption of Israel through Jesus’ death. His death is an atonement hilastērion) for the sins of Israel. But the response of Jews and Gentiles has to be the same—that is a response of faith—if Israel’s God is to be the God of the nations. Gentiles are “saved” because Jesus died for Israel. This, I think, is the core argument, but by extension, or as a theollogical shorthand, it no doubt can be said that Jesus died for the Gentiles.

What is the object of faith, for Jews and Gentiles? Surely it is the same thing - the death of Jesus on the cross. I don’t see how you can come to your reading. Paul is going out of his way to emphasize that this death was not limited to those within the covenant: it was “apart from the law” - v.21; it was “the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe” - v.22; “There is no difference” - verse 22b, which can only mean no difference between Jew and Gentile, “for all have sinned” - verse 23, meaning Jews and Gentiles, “and are justified … through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” - v.24; “Is God the God of the Jews only? Is He not God of the Gentiles too? Yes, of the Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised by faith” - vs.29-30. (The NIV has it right for once, in my opinion, by adding “by that same faith”).

How can you say, from this, that Jews were saved by faith in Jesus’s death on the cross, but Gentiles were saved by a faith other than having the death of Jesus on the cross as its object?

Romans 4 goes on to develop this argument; Abraham was an uncircumcised Gentile when his faith “was credited to him as righteousness”. He was not within the covenant. The “we”, “our”, “us” in 4:24-25 do not speak of an exclusive Jewish faith, but a faith at that time which originated with a Gentile in an earlier time, was applicable now to Jews, and had “Jesus who was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” - v.25 as its object.

From Romans 1:18-32 and 2:16 onwards, including Romans 3:9-20, Paul has addressed Jews and Gentiles as culpable of the same sins (eg 3:9). The sins may have originated in idolatry, but went far beyond idolatry in their specific outworking, and were true of Jew and Gentile alike - 1:18-32 (apparently Gentile-focused, but with distinct echoes of Jewish sins from the OT). It would be inexplicable if Paul then restricted the solution for sin to Jews only, and then only at this stage of the 1st century. This is clearly not the case - the whole tenour of his argument only makes sense if it is seen to include Jews and Gentiles on entirely the same terms - the faithfulness of Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement - 3:25, and faith in that death, in which boasting is excluded precisely because it was not for Jews alone, but Jews and Gentiles.

The impact of Paul’s argument in Romans, and what makes it such an astonishing piece of writing, is that he uses Jewish assumptions to overturn Jewish assumptions. The “righteousness of God” was to be shown outside (“apart from”) the law; and this was what the Law and Prophets, which Jews took as their charter for exclusivism, testified. It was a “redemption” (recalling the Exodus) and “hilasterion” (recalling the temple - the ‘mercy-seat’), but not just for Jews, because “there is no difference”. Abraham, the object of veneration and identity for Jews as their father, was justified as a Gentile, and provided a model of faith for Jews who had the covenant. No wonder Jews were out for Paul’s life!

The death of Jesus on the cross was universal in its scope. “For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him” (so Jesus was more than a prophet), “and through him to reconcile all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” - Colossians 1:19-20. How much more universal can you get than that?

What is the object of faith, for Jews and Gentiles? Surely it is the same thing - the death of Jesus on the cross.

Peter,

For what it’s worth, I would point out that within Romans 3-4 at least (if we assume the subjective genitive in 3:21-26), the object of faith is actually “the one who justifies the ungodly (4:5), “God who raises the dead” (4:17, 24).

Daniel,

Since the problem, as set out in chapters 1-3, was the sinfulness of Jew and Gentile alike, the sinfulness and exclusivism of the one (Jews) obstructing the fulfilment of the covenant to the other (Gentiles), the solution, as set out in 3:21-31, is not, simply God, but what God did through Jesus, who is validly described as the object of faith. This is summarised in 3:22 as “the righteousness of God through ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’ (my preferred translation) for all who believe.”

For all who believe what? The object of faith is Jesus, as redemption - 3:24, hilasterion 3:25, and God only through Jesus - “put to death for our sins and raised for our justification.” - 4:25. Because so much of the focus is on Jesus, it inevitably raises the question of who he was. 4:24 provides the answer: Jesus our Lord. Only God or Caesar had that title, and Paul wasn’t here referring to Caesar, but Casear’s challenger - Lord, as God, YHWH.

Romans 3 & 4 are also emphatic: the death of Jesus was for Jew and Gentile alike, even though it is described in terms of supposedly exclusively Jewish history.

Andrew, a splendid thoughtful piece. In this sense I might still be Evangelical. I suspect some conservative critics might not find this to their liking (which gives me cause for encouragement). Your chosen starting point is Abraham. Whatever else the Patriarch might have understood by God, he had no Bible. He didn’t know about Moses, the Law, Israel , Jesus, Liberal or Evangelical. He stepped out on the strength of naked trust - a dynamic relationship. It is that relationship - the inheritence of the family of Abraham - which still precedes the codification of the story.

Whether ‘there is no longer the possibility of terminal failure’ is rather like asking whether our high wire act has a safety net. I once saw a circus performer miss the net and hit the ground. It is a key question to ask. for whom does that non-possibility exist’? Does ‘love win’ and what is the scope of that victory?

Nice comment, thanks.

Part of the failure to understand what you are saying is based on a failure to understand the importance of Deuteronomy 32 to the 1st Century Jew. Deuteronomy 32, the Song of Moses, says that one day there will be a terminal generation of people under the Mosaic Law. They will be the most degenerate generation in the history of the Mosaic Law. They will be put to the sword. The faithful remnant will be saved from this judgment (somehow, though the means will be a mystery for most of the Biblical narrative). At the same time, the Gentiles will rejoice because God will enage them as well. Deuteronomy 32 is found at the heart of New Testament eschatology and it is clear that Paul thought that the terms of the curse of the Law were being played out in his generation. Both Jews and Gentiles had to be reconciled to God because of sin via Adam. However, Jews had the additional problem of being in the crosshairs of a covenantal curse from which the faithful remnant needed salvation. This is why the first section of Romans 7 is so important to the Jewish portion of the audience in Rome, but is not as critical to the Gentile audience.

A failure to recognize that Jews and Gentiles were being saved from significantly different things in the story of the New Testament can be very confusing.

Doug Wilkinson

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