I taught a module on the historical Jesus recently for church leaders. My starting point was the suggestion that there are two basic ways of telling the story about Jesus. Traditionally the church has told a vertical story: Jesus comes into the world from heaven to die for our sins and then returns to the Father, and that’s about it. There is a beginning (creation and fall) and an end (Jesus returns, final judgment), but what happens in history before and after the “Christ event” is a matter of only secondary theological interest. The traditional model, however, is coming under increasing pressure from what is essentially a historical reading of the New Testament. According to this paradigm, which is horizontal rather than vertical, diachronic rather than synchronic, Jesus plays a decisive part in the history of Israel, and his meaning for the world cannot be dissociated from that narrative.
Samuel Adams argues—continuing my piecemeal critical review of his stimulating and exasperating book The Reality of God and Historical Method—that Wright’s historical method cannot deal adequately with the reality of God. Wright’s is not a thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” because he ‘allows the “supernatural” as part of the worldview of the people who claim such an event to have happened’ (209). As a historian Wright evaluates the super-natural aspects of the New Testament witness not according to an Enlightenment worldview (Reimarus, Paulus, et al.) but according to a first century Jewish worldview (Jesus, Paul, et al.). That’s an improvement on a lot of historical Jesus research, but it remains an essentially naturalistic enterprise. It is a development of the Enlightenment framework, not a departure from it. So here, according to Adams, is the heart of the question…
Here’s another example of how a theological reading can drive a coach and horses through historical exegesis. At the heart of the “theological doctrine of the incarnation,” Adams writes, “is the union of the divine and human in Jesus the Messiah”. Keeping in mind Wright’s historical method and critique, however, he insists that this is not an abstraction from scripture….
The fault line between theology and history is pervasive, persistent and profound. Samuel Adams argues in The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright for a theological hermeneutics at the heart of which is the “apocalyptic event” of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (122). This event is “historical” only in the general and abstract sense that it happened in time and space; it has very little to do with the particular history of Israel under the political-religious conditions of the late second temple period. I suggest, in fact, that the phrase “Christ event” should be consigned to the dustbin of a-history.
The explicit testimony concerning Jesus throughout Mark’s Gospel is that he is the beloved Son, empowered by the Spirit, who will serve the purposes of YHWH, who will suffer, who will be vindicated by his resurrection from the dead, and who will be seated at the right hand of YHWH, having received from YHWH authority to judge and rule over Israel and, potentially at least, the nations.
The cluttered mega-chart below (click for an enlarged version) combines yesterday’s schematic overview of Samuel Adams’ concise and lucid summary of Wright’s account of the relation between theology and history with my earlier attempt to show how the narrative-historical method goes back to the blessed Albert Schweitzer’s insistence that both Jesus and Paul need to be understood within the frame of apocalyptic Judaism.
In The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright Samuel V. Adams offers an inversion of Wright’s solution to the division between theology and history. Whereas Wright addresses the question of God from the side of history, Adams wants to consider how the matter would look if we began not with historical method but with the reality of God. “Can what theologians say about God make sense of both the historical question and theological question and articulate them in such a way that does justice to both?” (17). He will argue for an apocalyptic theology that can be traced from the Reformation, through Kierkegaard and Barth, to Torrance and Martyn.
The last few weeks have been busy, and I’ve not had the time, or frankly the inclination, to blog. I haven’t posted a sermon before, and it’s perhaps a rather desperate measure, but I feel under some pressure to show that the narrative-historical approach can work in normal preaching-teaching contexts. The proof-of-the-pudding, of course, is in the eating. The sermon was originally part of a series on witness that Crossroads International Church in the Hague was doing earlier in the year, but I also preached it as a one-off in our little church in Westbourne Grove last Sunday. You might think of it as expounding a narrative urban theology. It’s been edited—all the flim-flam that I usually throw in to lighten things up a bit has been removed; and it ends rather abruptly—I decided not to include the impassioned altar call. Make of it what you will.
Craig got in touch with a couple of questions. He wants to know, first, what P.OST stands for. That’s straightforward and not very exciting. I ran a “collaborative” site called Open Source Theology from about 2002 to 2009. It was associated with the self-consciously postmodern rethinking that went along with the now defunct (I assume) “emerging church” movement. Increasingly I found myself diverging from the emerging line in the direction of what I regarded as a more cogent reading of scripture, so I started a personal blog and called it P.OST or postost.net—that is, post-Open Source Theology. Dull, eh?
I’ve been preparing some material for a workshop on Theology and Future Church for a group of church planters, and as often happens, my mind ran off in a rather impractical direction. But the point is this. Too often practitioners look for a theology that will directly support or enhance or defend their practice—or discredit the practice of their opponents. What are we supposed to think about gay marriage? Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? How do we resolve the tension between evangelism and social action? And so on…. We have issues, pressing issues, and that’s where we want to start.
But that’s not what the New Testament is for. Not primarily. If at all. It’s not a reference book for twenty-first century missional praxis. It has no idea what life is like in the twenty-first century. It knows nothing about homosexual fidelity, Islam, or the ideological split between gospel and justice. It tells the story of how the people of God were transformed through the faithfulness of Jesus and how that transformation changed the ancient world. I think that New Testament studies at the moment is doing a marvellous job of helping us to understand the power of that story—and in a way that may be profoundly, though unconventionally, evangelical.