The proclamation of the gospel is the “narration of past history” (Hengel)

I’m currently teaching an Introduction to the New Testament class at St John’s Nottingham. I started last week with a quotation from Martin Hengel: “There cannot… be any proclamation of the gospel which is not at the same time a narration of past history.” That can be taken in different ways, but if we are going to make “gospel” a defining factor in what we are here for, our mission, then to connect it closely in this way with the narration of past history seems to me exactly right. Perhaps we can even put it the other way round: the narration of past history is the proclamation of good news. It certainly was for the early church.

What I will try to show in this introductory course is that the historical material is not just more-or-less-optional background to the self-sufficient content of the New Testament. It is the whole point of the New Testament. If we don’t slot the story of the New Testament into the story of Israel as it was being remembered and experienced in the first century, we will misunderstand Jesus, his mission, and the message of the early church about him.

Ethnocentrism, universalism, and new creation: an overstated salvation-historical paradigm

I said last week that I would expand on my critique of Donald Hagner’s diagrammatic representation of Old Testament salvation history in his The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. As he sees it, the biblical story plays out against the backdrop of the “reality of a fallen world” after Eden. With Abraham God “begins to work to counteract the fall and its effects”, which is the beginning of salvation history (13-14). The three main covenants with Israel (Abrahamic, Sinaitic, and Davidic) culminate in the hope of an eternal kingdom, but with the prophets an apocalyptic perspective emerges which has in view “a transformation of the entire created order that will affect all humanity” (19). This eschatology needs to be challenged. The argument that in the prophets we see a two-fold development from ethnocentrism to universalism and from “national-political expectation” to “a transcendent expectation” is, I think, overstated.

History and theology: off the charts

A major part of my general argument is that the modern church thinks of the New Testament as theology (or beliefs) set in a historical context and thinks that the historical context is of much less importance than the theology. My contention is that the New Testament gives us the opposite: history set in theological context, or theologically interpreted history; and that the history is of central importance. The defectiveness of our common understanding of the New Testament can be illustrated rather well by means of a couple of diagrams from Donald Hagner’s book The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction.

The first diagram presents the salvation-historical timeline of the Old Testament. We begin, naturally, with Eden and the fall, and then the chart splits between the up-and-down historical experience of Israel and an idealized trajectory which culminates in prophetic visions of a renewed creation that transcends history.

The Anglican Church renounces renouncing the devil

The General Synod of the Church of England voted this week to pension off the devil, as The Telegraph puts it. The baptism service will no longer include a promise by parents and godparents to “renounce the devil and all his works” or in the language of a more modern version, “reject the devil and his rebellion against God”. Instead they will be asked to turn away from sin and stand bravely against evil, which is much more culturally appropriate and accessible. Supposedly.

As I read the New Testament, however, it seems that the devil was put out of business a long time ago. According to the book of Revelation, the devil was cast out of heaven by Michael and his angels some time after the ascension to stop him accusing Jewish Christians before the throne of God (Rev. 12:7-12). He then went off in diabolical frustration to make war against the churches in the Greek-Roman world (12:13-17). He did so by giving “his power and his throne and great authority” to the “beast” of Roman imperialism (Rev. 13:2): he inspired Rome’s sometimes savage persecution of the emerging Christian movement. The intensity of his opposition was down to the fact that “he knows his time is short” (12:12).

St Michael kicks the dragon out of heaven

There has been some good discussion of the account of the expulsion of Satan from heaven in Revelation 12:7-12 attached to yesterday’s post about Luke 10:18. If only for my own benefit, I want to try to explain what I think is happening theologically in this passage.

In Jewish thought Satan is a supernatural being who either resides in the heavenly realms or has access to God in heaven. In this passage he is ejected from heaven by Michael and his angels, and as a result heaven and those who dwell in heaven rejoice (Rev. 12:12). They are naturally glad to see the back of him.

The fall of Satan from heaven and what comes next

Having turned down applications from a number of people who were not up to the task (Lk. 9:57-62), Jesus appoints seventy-two messengers and sends them throughout Israel. The saying about the harvest being plentiful and the need for workers belongs in this historical setting (Lk. 10:2); it is not given as a universal rationale or mandate for the evangelistic mission of the church.

The messengers are purposefully vulnerable and ill-equipped. They are to greet no one on the road. When they arrive at a town or village, they are not to go from house to house. If the first house they enter receives them, they should accept the offered hospitality. They are to heal the sick and proclaim that “The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk. 10:9). If they are not at first welcomed, they are to condemn the town, saying, “Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.”

When Adam names the woman, he does not exert authority over her

I’m trying very hard to like Greg Gilbert’s book Who is Jesus?, really I am, but he is a classic example of someone caught between two paradigms. On the one hand, he wants to take on board new perspectives arising out of biblical studies. On the other, he doesn’t want to let go of core Reformed-evangelical doctrinal commitments. He has set out boldly in search of biblical understanding but has brought so much theological baggage with him that he will have a hard time getting through the narrow exegetical gate that leads to the life of the narrative to come.

His identification of the prince of Tyre and king of Babylon with Satan is one example. I may, at some point, get on to his misrepresentation of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. But here I want to lodge a vigorous complaint against his interpretation of the episode in Genesis 2 when Adam names the woman.

Neither the prince of Tyre nor the king of Babylon is Satan

I have never understood why the prophecy about the prince of Tyre in Ezekiel 28:1-19 and the taunt against the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:3-23 have traditionally been interpreted as having reference to Satan. I have just come across the argument again in Greg Gilbert’s book Who is Jesus?

Gilbert accepts that the Ezekiel passage is ostensibly about the prince of Tyre but insists that it makes no sense to speak of the ruler of an obscure coastal city in the ancient Near East as an anointed guardian cherub, who was in Eden and on the holy mountain of God: “even as poetry, it would be overkill to the point of absurdity and poetic failure”.

John Piper, Scot McKnight, and Second Temple Judaism on eternal conscious punishment

In response to this tweet by John Piper, Scot McKnight has posted a collection of Jewish texts from the second temple period which he thinks demonstrate a spectrum of views, from annihilationism (the destruction of the wicked at or after death) through “earthly judgment” to the dreaded eternal conscious punishment. On examination, however, the evidence for eternal conscious punishment appears to be less clear than Scot takes it to be.

Same-sex unions in eschatological perspective

This is not going to be a conventional review of James Brownson’s book on gender and homosexuality in the Bible. I’ll begin with two very broad assertions, then look at the texts, and finish with some cautious and increasingly opaque conclusions—be warned. For a summary of Brownson’s argument see this post. For a detailed critical evaluation of the book see Andrew Goddard’s essay.

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