Resurrection, judgment, and sexual immorality

This week began with a class on Acts in Nottingham and ends with a three day theological forum in Glasgow on healthy sexuality and the LGBT debate. Here I attempt to track the route between the two topics—to show how Acts sets the eschatological frame for Paul’s condemnation of sexual immorality and of homosexual behaviour in particular in Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

The standard (evangelical) way to think about the missional narrative in Acts runs roughly along these lines: Jesus ascends to the Father, the disciples are filled with the Spirit thus becoming the church, they preach a gospel of salvation from Jerusalem into Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, and so the church grows. Something like that certainly happens, but I don’t think it gets us to the heart of the “mission” that drives Luke’s narrative.

The argument of Galatians: justification by faith in a new future

As much as any other of Paul’s letters, Galatians is written with an eschatological narrative frame firmly in place. It’s not immediately obvious—it’s been squeezed to the periphery by the argument about faith and the Jewish Law which dominates the letter. But that does not mean that eschatology has no bearing on interpretation. Quite the contrary. The argument about faith and the Jewish Law is important precisely because of eschatology, as I intend to make clear as we get on to Acts and Galatians next week in my class at St Johns Nottingham.

The skeletal narrative of the Synoptic Gospels

Some more sketchy notes on the Synoptic narrative for my teaching at St Johns Nottingham before moving on—rather hesitantly—to John’s Gospel.

The story told about Jesus and the coming kingdom of God in the Synoptic Gospels does not stand on its own; it is not a self-contained narrative. It is an integral part of the story of first century Israel and second temple Judaism. The connections with the historical frame are established in a number of ways, but most importantly through the reworking of, let’s say, five principal Old Testament themes relating to the clash between Israel and the nations….

The kingdom of God: a down-to-earth explanation

Tomorrow in Nottingham we will be looking at the narrative skeleton of the Synoptic Gospels as an outworking of the history of second temple Judaism and as the ground for the emergence of the church in the third century. I shall quote Wright’s criterion of “double similarity”, though perhaps not quite to the end that he had in mind:

…when something can be seen to be credible (though perhaps deeply subversive) within first-century Judaism, and credible as the implied starting-point… of something in later Christianity, there is a strong possibility of our being in touch with the genuine history of Jesus. (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 132)

The rich man, Lazarus and Abraham

I’ve written about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) a couple of times (see below), mainly for the purpose of dismissing the popular doctrine of hell. I missed an intriguing intertextual detail, however, that is attributed to Simon Perry in a Wikipedia article, though Nolland makes passing reference to it. The fact that Lazarus is named is sometimes taken as evidence that this is not a parable, that Jesus is thinking rather of two real historical people, one of whom has gone to suffer eternal conscious torment in hell. But there appears to be a much more compelling and meaningful explanation.

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.

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