Narrative, a Jewish Jesus, and early high Christology

I heard Rikk Watts from Regent College, Vancouver, talk this week to a group of church leaders about what’s currently going on in theology. He began with some good reflections on the challenges facing anyone trying to keep track of developments across the ever-expanding—or ever more boggy—field of New Testament studies. To paraphrase his paraphrase of Bernard Lonergan, there are good ways of not knowing everything and bad ways of not knowing everything.

But the core of his argument with respect to the New Testament was that we are steadily abandoning systematic constructions of theology in favour of 1) a historical narrative about 2) a thoroughly Jewish Jesus, which 3) has been shown nevertheless to generate an early high christology.

Why the end of the world is the end of the world

What happens at the end? What sort of transformation does John have in mind when he says that earth and heaven “fled away” from the presence of God at the judgment of all the dead (Rev. 20:11)? Are we to suppose that the world-as-we-know-it must finally disappear—or perhaps be destroyed—to be replaced by an utterly new heaven and new earth (21:1)? That has probably been the traditional view, but other interpretations are available. J. Richard Middleton, whose stimulating book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology I have been poring over recently, insists that what John describes is not cosmic destruction but the renovation of this world. Others will argue that John, like Isaiah, uses the language metaphorically to speak of the restoration of God’s people following the judgment of AD 70. Here’s why I think the “traditional” view is nearer the mark.

Who says that this prophecy has two referents?

It is often argued that biblical prophecies may have two or more frames of reference. For example, Middleton allows that the language of cosmic dissolution in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse (sun and moon darkened, stars falling from heaven) may refer to events leading up to the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem. He even concedes the possibility that “all the signs of the Olivet discourse were fulfilled in AD 70”. But he argues, nevertheless, for a multivalent hermeneutic:

Without denying any of this, I would also note that it is possible for the language of celestial signs and (seeming) cosmic destruction to have a double referent, pointing to both sets of events simultaneously, much as some Old Testament prophecies clearly refer to events in the prophet’s own day and also have a later and more climactic fulfilment in New Testament times (for example, Isaiah’s prediction in 7:14 of a royal birth in Ahaz’s court, or possibly the prophet’s own son, later applied to the birth of Jesus in Matt. 1:23).

The widow of Zarephath, Naaman the Syrian, and the redemption of the world

One of the ways the evangelical church is attempting to correct the traditional notion that salvation has to do with individuals going to heaven when they die is to affirm instead the idea of salvation as the redemption of creation. J. Richard Middleton’s book, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology, is an excellent contribution to the enterprise. But does the argument work? My sense is that the paradigm oversimplifies the biblical narrative, either by suppressing much of the political detail or by assimilating it into a universalised notion of redemption. Middleton’s discussion of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, I think, illustrates the problem.

Based largely on a reading of the “Nazareth manifesto” episode in Luke 4:16-30, Middleton argues that Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God entailed the promise of “concrete, this-worldly deliverance and restoration” (258). The manifesto applies, in the first place, to Israel, and Middleton recognises this. But his statement of Jesus’ mission at this point has a wider perspective: it is to “proclaim in word and deed that God is at work restoring this fractured world—breaking the grip of evil, healing diseased bodies, bringing life out of death” (259).

J. Richard Middleton on salvation and the restoration of all things

Who or what is saved? And how does salvation fit into the biblical story? In his book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology J. Richard Middleton argues against an old model which defines salvation as a personal journey towards an otherworldly destiny: Jesus died for my sins so that I may go to heaven when I die. He expounds instead a “holistic” model of salvation as the journey that creation itself is on towards the renewal of heaven and new earth. The aim of the book is “to sketch the coherent biblical theology (beginning in the Old Testament) that culminates in the New Testament’s explicit eschatological vision of the redemption of creation” (15).

He is at pains to stress, moreover, that this restoration of all things does not entail the destruction of the world-as-we-know-it. “The point is that although the kingdom of God may seem to be making only small inroads into the oppressive powers of evil, it will eventually transform the world, just like a bit of yeast transforms the entire dough” (210). So the mission of the church is, in effect, to save the universe—or at least, to collaborate actively with the creator in its eventual redemption.

Is the church in the post-Christian West in exile?

Is “exile” a good word for the state of the church in the post-Christian West? The metaphor is commonly used, especially by those who see some missional potential in the marginalisation (another spatial metaphor) of the modern church. See, for example, Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. John Goldingay, however, has reservations:

We are not in exile; we are simply people who have been outvoted, literally and/or metaphorically. Exile happens to people who are not citizens and not members of imperial powers. We can’t use the image of exile to let ourselves off the hook of responsibility for the violence our nations undertake. Further, it’s surely not the case that most Christians see themselves as increasingly on the edge, at odds with the empire, or in exile from their culture – you might even suggest that the problem lies in our not seeing ourselves thus. I don’t think that most Christians in (say) Uganda or the United States think in that way. Further, while Europe and countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are post-Christian, most of Africa and the rest of the colonial/postcolonial world are not, and neither is the United States (which is of course a postcolonial entity, with the appropriate love-hate relationship with its European forebears). In the United States, I like to say we are living in the time of Josiah, not the exile.

The Son of Man according to Daniel, Enoch and Jesus: it’s the same old story

Scholars disagree over who exactly the son of man figure is in Daniel’s vision. Is he a supernatural being—a great angel like Michael? A human individual, perhaps a messiah? Or is he a symbolic person representing the suffering saints of the Most High? I lean strongly towards the latter interpretation because it fits the story that is being told. But I would also argue that the story being told, whether here in Daniel, or in 1 Enoch, or in the Synoptic Gospels, is much more important than we generally suppose.

The four destructive beasts which emerge from the sea are, according to the interpreting angel, four kingdoms (Dan. 7:15 LXX). The little horn which appears on the head of the fourth beast is a particularly nasty king. He will “speak words against the Most High”; he will make war against the “holy ones of the Most High” and rout them; he will seek to suppress the Law (7:21, 25 LXX). But the “ancient of days” will sit in judgment. The beast will be destroyed, and the verdict will be given for the “holy people (laōi hagiōi) of the Most High”; and “the holy ones gained possession of the seat of empire (basileion)” (7:22, 27 NETS).

Reframing the story that gets us to Jesus

I watched one of Regent College’s Reframe videos with the Harlesden crowd earlier in the week. Old Testament professor Phil Long does what everyone seems to be doing these days—he tells the story about Israel that climaxes in Jesus. I’m all in favour of it, but I think that the video highlights some basic flaws in the typical evangelical appropriation of the shiny new narrative model.

As Phil tells it—and it is nicely done—it is the story of how God sets out to redeem a deeply corrupted and broken world. This seems to be a standard assumption. It begins with Abraham and is traced through the sojourn in Egypt, to the Exodus, quietly passing over the bloody conquest of Canaan, through the period of the Judges, to the moment when Samuel anoints a king to rule over Israel. Then the promise is made to David that God will build a house for him, be a father to his son, and “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-16). The conquest of the northern kingdom and the Babylonian exile are mentioned briefly. But then it’s a big jump to the fulfilment of Israel’s story and the climax of history in Jesus. End of story.

The end of Gehenna

Jeremiah foresees a day of judgment coming upon Israel because the “sons of Judah… have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it”, and have sacrificed their children in Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Jer. 7:30).

The Babylonian army will besiege the city, and the dead will be buried in Topheth or strewn across the Valley of the Son of Hinnom to be eaten by birds and beasts, because there is no burial space left in the city. The valley will be renamed the Valley of Slaughter (Jer. 7:30-34; 19:4-9). The city will be a horror, a thing to be hissed at by passers-by.

Ben Irwin: The Story of King Jesus (a review)

I came across Ben Irwin’s blog because he linked to the piece I wrote on Jesus having nothing to say about homosexuality, and quite a lot of people stopped by to look. I noticed that Ben has written a book called The Story of King Jesus, and since, in my view, the recovery of the narrative of kingdom is central to the reconstruction of an evangelical theology after Christendom and after modernity, I got hold of a copy.

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