One of the most important questions driving current developments in our understanding of the New Testament—and therefore of what it means to be “Christian”—has to do with the relation between the early Jesus movement and Judaism. In practice this issue closely matches the hermeneutical question that I have tended to emphasise here: should our understanding of the New Testament be controlled by theology or by history? I have been reading Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First Century Context to the Apostle, edited by Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm. The book has prompted these reflections and will be used to plot and illustrate a trajectory that I think is of considerable importance for the narrative-historical argument.
At the Faith in the Future conference at the London School of Theology yesterday Len Sweet urged us all to use stories and metaphors in our preaching. So here’s a metaphor about how we tell the biblical story, reflecting on another theme that emerged during the course of the day—the shift in how we construct a biblical narrative for mission.
Yesterday’s post about Simon Gathercole’s little book defending substitution as an integral part of Paul’s understanding of the atonement got a brief mention in a piece by James McGrath along with a post by Mike Bird on the same subject. Here I attempt to map the three positions represented by McGrath, Bird and me, grossly oversimplifying in all three cases—people are always more complicated than the positions that they sometimes appear to take.
McGrath blogs on the “Progressive Christian” channel at Patheos. He thinks that the doctrine of penal substitution is deeply “problematic as a contemporary theological viewpoint” and that this “is a matter that no amount of prooftexting can address”.
Bird blogs on the “Evangelical” channel at Patheos. In the post cited by McGrath he takes issue with a Missio Alliance article in which William Walker recommends a “debt forgiveness” model for the atonement against a penal substitionary or payment model. Bird defends the traditional position on theological and biblical grounds, citing texts which in his view demonstrate that the cross is “satisfaction”, “penal” and “substitutionary”.
Simon Gathercole is worried that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is going out of fashion so he sets out to defend it in this brief book Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul. It’s a very limited argument: in two main exegetical chapters he considers two statements that Paul makes: Christ died “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3; and Christ died “for the ungodly… for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). I ended up unconvinced by his defence, but not quite for the reasons I expected.
In the Introduction, Gathercole explains that he thinks substitution is important for both doctrinal and pastoral reasons. He provides a straightforward definition: “I am defining substitutionary atonement for the present purposes as Christ’s death in our place, instead of us” (15). He distinguishes between substitution and other atonement ideas: penalty, representation, propitiation, and satisfaction. Finally, he addresses a number of theological, philosophical and logical criticisms of the “doctrine of substitutionary atonement”, including Steve Chalke’s notorious claim that substitutionary atonement amounts to “cosmic child abuse”, which he dismisses as “extremely shallow”, and Christopher Hitchens’ fierce objection to vicarious redemption: “I cannot absolve you of your responsibilities. It would be immoral of me to offer, and immoral of you to accept” (27). But this is just the introduction to a small book whose focus is on exegesis, so don’t expect anything more than a passing appraisal.
I asserted a while back that there is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus had anything to say, directly or indirectly, about homosexuality. I don’t think he threatened pederasts with drowning, or asked people if they had gone out into the wilderness to see a gay man in effeminate clothing, or included homosexuals in the category of eunuchs. In a comment, however, Peter Wilkinson drew attention to the argument, put forward here and elsewhere, that Jesus knowingly healed the centurion’s catamite, thus affirming their same-sex relationship (Lk. 7:1-10; Matt. 8:5-13). Is there any reason to think that this “honoured” slave served a sexual purpose? Again, probably not.
First, what do I mean by a “narrative-historical hermeneutic”? I mean a way of integrating the Bible into our self-understanding as the church—that is, a way of doing theology—that takes it to be the story told by a community about its historical existence over time, reaching back to the promises made to Abraham, and reaching forward—at least as I see it—to the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
That last part is too historical for most people and perhaps has to be regarded as optional for the time being. The point, though, is that our defining theology is to be constructed as a story about history that looks both backwards and forwards: it remembers what God has done in the past; it accounts for what God is doing in the present; and it imagines what God will do in the future from the perspective of the particular prophetic community.
There are two parts to the narrative-historical hermeneutic that I am trying to develop and promote on this site. I argue, first, that the Bible should be read as the complex but essentially coherent story that a people told about its historical experience over a long period of time; and as a corollary, that the “theological” content of the Bible is part of the telling of that story.
Then secondly, I suggest that the church today can and should learn to live, do and believe according to this historically grounded narrative and not according to the various reductionist theological schemata that have been superimposed on scripture throughout the ages. In my view, the hermeneutic not only gives us a much better understanding of the New Testament; it also gives us a powerful paradigm for reconceptualizing the identity and purpose of the church after Christendom.
Someone asked me yesterday whether “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) points to the fact that the disciples were to proclaim that the kingdom of God was coming, meaning judgment on unbelieving Israel and the nations. I was at the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights on Sunday, and since proceedings were mostly in Greek, I missed any reference to the church calendar. In the afternoon Father Melchizedek gave an elegant homily in English looking at the events of Acts 2, but I’ve been slow to register the fact that we’ve just celebrated Pentecost. No wonder people are asking if the UK is still a Christian country.
Luke’s account of events in Acts 2 is a good example of how the biblical narrative often constrains our modern theologies. We think that this is all about the church as we know it. It’s not. The pneumatology of Pentecost has to work within narrow historical boundaries. As is noted in the question, it has to do with Israel and judgment. I’m not so sure about the nations.
What is the church and what is it for? In the West we live in a post-Christendom and increasingly post-Christian world whose fundamental beliefs are secular humanist. The great public symbols of Christian authority have been cast to the ground and trampled under foot. The last vestiges of a Christian culture are being slowly erased. The referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland taking place today is an immediate illustration of the point. This is a profoundly challenging situation for the church, and in my view we are generally finding it very difficult to reconstruct a credible and workable identity and purpose for ourselves in this brave new world.
This issue came up in some teaching I did recently. Why did Jesus instruct his disciples not to go in the way of the Gentiles or to the towns of the Samaritans but only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-15)? Doesn’t that contradict the “great commission”, when the disciples are sent out into the whole world to make disciples of all nations? Students tended to resolve the problem by arguing that the kingdom was offered first to Israel as God’s chosen people and then to everyone else. That seems to me to be at best half right and to entail a mistaken notion of the kingdom of God.
The underlying assumption seemed to be that kingdom is roughly equivalent to salvation. It is a wonderful new thing that is held out to humanity on the grounds of the death of Jesus, and it is only really an accident of “salvation-history” that the Jews got first bite of the cherry.
This gets both kingdom and salvation wrong. The mission of the disciples in Matthew is meaningful only on the assumption that “kingdom” is and remains an integral part of Israel’s story. It is not something extraneous that is offered to Israel first like a cream cake, which they turn down because they are dyed-in-the-wool legalists, and it’s then passed round to the Gentiles, who scoff it gratefully. In fact, I would say, the story of Israel is the story of kingdom. Or it’s the story of how to fail and succeed at cake making.