In the previous post I argued that in the New Testament the propositional content of the “gospel” is not that Jesus died for anyone’s sins but that Jesus, having been wrongfully executed, has been raised from the dead in vindication and seated at the right hand of God to exercise the delegated rule of God. In other words, it is a kingdom or “political” gospel rather than a salvation gospel. This is the message which the apostles proclaim first to Israel, then to the nations of the Geek-Roman oikoumenē. That Jesus’ suffering and death made salvation possible—first for the Jew, then, in a rather different way, for the Greek—is part of the process, part of the story that is being told. But it is not the thing that is proclaimed as “good news”. In a comment, however, Mickey asked about this passage from 2 Corinthians….
There is no gospel but the one that reconciles a man with his creator. Everything else must be built upon this or it is built on nothing. Salvation is an individual experience. The community needs to flow out of this revelation.
This is the standard evangelical understanding of the process, only stated in more gender-exclusive terms than is customary these days. We begin with a gospel of personal salvation, from which community follows: people are converted, then they become church. There is no “public” dimension to this model, so it has been criticised by many in the emerging church and the incarnational-missional movement, among others, for failing to carry and live out a distinctive social-political message. Community never gets beyond being the terminus of the personal conversion-sanctification process.
I came across a comment by someone on Facebook in response to my post about what an apostle does. He suggests, first, that I must come from a typical large church (he couldn’t be further from the truth), that is “not engaging in the Kingdom” (I’ll get on to this), and then asserts:
We MUST be about the work of GROWING the Kingdom, and as such, we are apostles sent out to save the lost.
With the narrative of Acts still very much in mind, there are a couple of issues here that I want briefly to highlight.
In my view, the missional-incarnational movement needs to engage constructively with the sort of narrative-historical reading of the New Testament that is emerging from biblical studies. And vice versa. I think that both mission and New Testament studies would be served by the dialogue. For example, Alan Hirsch and others have highlighted the importance of recovering an “apostolic” dynamic in mission, but the definition of apostleship is largely under the control of the missional agenda: the apostolic function “pioneers new missional works and oversees their development”, it is “responsible and gifted for the extension of Christianity”. This is a pragmatic definition devised by missiologists for practitioners, and clearly there is some overlap with the work of the New Testament apostles. But there is also a significant gap. A reading of the New Testament that asks about the function of the apostles in their own narrative-historical contexts suggests that there may be important aspects to the role which the missiologists have overlooked.
As you will be aware if you are not a complete stranger to this blog, I strongly hold to the view that a narrative-historical hermeneutic, informed by good work being done in New Testament Studies, gives us a much better understanding of the New Testament than the theologically driven methods of interpretation that the church generally relies on. The big question, then, is what is the church, with all its practical commitments, supposed to do with it? Well, here’s one suggestion. I have been arguing that Acts frames the mission of the early church narratively, both as the fulfilment of Israel’s story and as the beginning of a new story about YHWH and the nations. It is not our story—it happened 2000 years ago, duh! But we face similar uncertainties about the future, and I would argue that how we tell the story of our own crisis is becoming an essential part of the renewal of mission.
The church is always, everywhere a sign of new creation. I would venture to say that it is not in any respect the real thing—nothing has fundamentally changed, there is no mystical “regeneration”, we remain fallen humans through and through, dependent on grace. But when we talk about life in the Spirit of God, we mean—among other things—that who we are, what we do, how we relate to one another and the world, are always potentially pointers to a final renewal of all things, a new heaven and new earth. The broadest prophetic task of the church is actively, practically, personally, corporately, socially, politically, environmentally to prefigure the final, cosmic vindication of the Creator God over his enemies. I hope to make this point, clearly and simply enough, in my teaching at the Christian Associates staff conference in Prague next week.
But that’s not really what we see being taught and worked out in the New Testament. What we see in the New Testament is communities that bear corporate witness, at different stages in an unfolding narrative, to a much more immediate and pressing vindication of the God of Israel over his enemies. The New Testament is much more about kingdom than new creation. Let me illustrate.
I am preparing some talks on Acts for a church-planting conference in a couple of weeks. What I want to say, roughly, is 1) that the apostles went about their mission with a powerful historical—or apocalyptic—narrative in mind; 2) that the churches they planted were not just churches, they were communities of God’s new future for Europe, they were the means by which the righteousness of Israel’s God would be demonstrated to the pagan world; and 3) that church-planting in Europe today needs to be undertaken with a similar “narrative-historical” mindset. Hopefully it won’t sound quite as dry and theoretical as that.
The apostles did not set out to save lost souls or to convert Europe to Christianity. They set out to proclaim to the peoples of the Greek-Roman world that the God of Israel had raised his Son from the dead and made him the coming judge and ruler of the nations.
The apostles were not evangelists or missionaries in the popular sense. Their message or gospel was much more like that of Moses’ announcement to Pharaoh or Jonah’s to the people of Nineveh. Moses told Pharaoh that YHWH was about to act to deliver his people—a public and political event. Jonah told the Ninevites that in forty days YHWH would overthrow the city—a public and political event. For the apostles the resurrection of Jesus was confirmation that in the not too distant future YHWH would overthrow the whole idolatrous pagan system—a public and political event. God is no longer willing to overlook the centuries of ignorance; he commands all people to repent of the worship of idols (Acts 17:30). The task of the apostles was to make this known across the empire, from Judea to Spain.
Paul reminds the perhaps predominantly Gentile believers in Corinth of the gospel which he had originally preached to them. This gospel he had received from others: “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). My question is this: Who does “our” refer to? For whose sins did Christ die?
Gordon Fee points to the relevance of Isaiah 53:4-6, 11-12 LXX: “This one bears our sins… weakened because of our sins… gave him over to our sins… shall bear their sins… because of their sins.” But he then speaks of this “atonement” in universal terms: Paul’s brief creed “presupposes alienation between God and humans because of human rebellion and sinfulness, for which the just penalty is death”.
This is a simple example of a basic error of comprehension that is commonly made when we allow theological interpretation priority over historical interpretation. We instinctively read it as a universal statement. Paul meant it, I think, in a more restricted historical sense.
Psalm 137 begins as a lament. The exiles in Babylon weep when they remember Jerusalem. They cannot sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land. The psalm ends, however, with a plea to YHWH that he will punish the Edomites for their complicity in the destruction of Jerusalem, and a chilling “beatitude”:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (137:8–9)
A historical-critical reading of the text has no qualms about taking the imprecation at face value. If the Jews in exile or after the return from exile hoped that their God would inflict the same horrors on the Babylonians that Israel had suffered at their hands—there is a certain principle of justice at work here—it’s not for the modern interpreter to mitigate or sidestep or gloss over the ethical difficulties that this presents to the modern reader. Historical-critical commentaries on the text are not formally required to take into account the difficulties that the “plain sense” might pose for Christian theologians, liturgists, pastors, Bible study leaders, etc.
I started writing a little piece on narrative-historical commentaries and how to get by without them and I was going to use the account of Jesus’ action in the temple to illustrate it, but it got too long. So here’s the part on Mark 11:15-19 and parallels. The rest will follow.
The day after his carefully staged entry into the city, having spent the night in Bethany, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and entered the temple. According to Mark, he drove out those who sold and bought, probably in the court of the Gentiles, he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the pigeon-sellers, and prevented people from carrying anything through the precincts. A brief snippet of his teaching is recorded:
Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers. (Mk. 11:17)