Satan, serpents and the dreadful forces of political change

This is a further—and final—response to some productive comments made by Paul K. regarding my argument about the narrative-historical method and its implications for our understanding of the kingdom of God. He argues that the gospel deals with spiritual powers as well as “socio-political forces”—he has in mind the serpent in the garden “who usurped Mankind’s rule, and the kingdom of God through his people, becoming the god of this age and enslaving humanity and keeping them in bondage”. So whereas I am proposing that it is the story of Israel and the nations that dominates scripture, he thinks that a much bigger story about God and humanity provides the interpretive framework.

I question, in the first place, whether we can make such a firm distinction between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” in scripture. It seems to me that once we get to Babel and the call of Abraham out of empire and as an alternative to empire, the whole story through to Revelation 20:10 is worked out in political-religious terms. The focus may oscillate between the “spiritual” and the “socio-political” aspects of this two-sided construct, but at no point does the narrative break away from the political context, like a bird breaking out of its cage, to fly free in the open skies of an a-historical spirituality. This point was made in an earlier post, but it can be further illustrated by looking at the particular question of the role of Satan in the story.

Narrative rules. But which one?

My last post dealt with some specific texts which Paul K. suggested do not fit the kingdom paradigm that I am proposing. A more general question raised in his comment has to do with the relation of the story about kingdom to the theme of creation. Paul agrees that “there is something bigger and fuller going on than individual salvation and individualistic Christianity” but thinks that it is God’s story, not Israel’s story, that should be at the heart of the interpretive framework. He takes the kingdom narrative back to Genesis 1, where Adam and Eve are “given the commission to rule the earth (under God’s rule)”.

There are three narrative levels in the Bible—this is implicit in Paul’s comment. At the top there is an overarching story about God and creation. At the bottom there are innumerable individual stories. Between the two there is a story about Israel as a people struggling in the course of history to maintain its identity and vocation in engagement, for better or for worse, with the nations.

Kingdom texts that don’t fit the paradigm?

In a lengthy comment on my “The narrative-historical method—an outline” post Paul K. asks some thoughtful and probing questions about the relevance or prevalence of the notion of kingdom that I have been proposing. My argument is that the kingdom motif in the New Testament belongs not to a creational but to a political-religious story about Israel and the nations, which culminates, as I see it, in the conversion of the empire. There are three main parts to Paul’s response. I will address the third here—the interpretation of some New Testament texts which he suggests do not fit the narrative-historical paradigm. The other two parts I will address in separate posts.

The narrative-historical method—an outline

This was prompted by a conversation with a London School of Theology student about his dissertation proposal for the distance learning MA in Aspects and Implications of Biblical Interpretation. It’s just another attempt to clarify what I have been calling the narrative-historical method, though from my own peculiar, idiosyncratic, obsessive point of view—others will see things differently. Coincidentally, Mike Mercer posted a piece on Internet Monk today entitled “The Big Picture of Andrew Perriman’s Narrative-Historical Scheme”. It focuses mainly on the content of the narrative. What follows here is an outline of the hermeneutical method underpinning the reading.

DeYoung and Gilbert on the mission of the church

In their book What is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert make a brave and generous attempt to steer the conversation about mission back in a more traditional direction. Many people these days would maintain that the mission of the church is to transform social structures—highlight the plight of the homeless, make poverty history, end human-trafficking, and so on. DeYoung and Gilbert do not dismiss this agenda out of hand—in fact, they have some very positive things to say about it. But they have three concerns about the impact of current “missional thinking”.

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures

I have argued in a couple of posts recently (see below) that the “gospel” in the New Testament is not the personal message that Jesus died for your sins but the public proclamation, in the particular historical setting of the crisis of first century Israel, that God has raised his unjustly executed Son from the dead and has given him authority to judge and rule, first over Israel, then over the nations. But John Shakespeare asks about 1 Corinthians 15:1-5:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: 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, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor. 15:1–5)

For the sake of completeness and in hope of putting the topic to bed for a while, here is how a I think this needs to be understood.

Theology, history and which Jesus?

One of the main intellectual tasks facing the church in the aftermath of modernity has been to reconnect theology and history. Historical criticism, with help from scientific method generally, generated such distrust of the biblical narrative that it was safer for theologians to do their thing without reference to history other than in the most abstract terms. Historians, for their part, were happy not to have nervous theologians looking over their shoulder all the time telling them what the texts were supposed to mean and scolding them for asking too many questions. The divorce suited both parties.

God in Christ reconciling the world to himself is not really the gospel either...

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….

The “gospel” was not about the reconciliation of a man with his creator

Here’s another response that I saw on Facebook to my post “What should we expect apostles to do today?” This time the focus is not on the kingdom but on the “gospel”:

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.

It is not our job to extend the kingdom

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.

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