People who read this blog regularly will know that I am generally rather sceptical about claims that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—intended to present Jesus as God. See, for example, “Jesus as Lord in Mark” or “Simon Gathercole’s argument about pre-existence and divine identity in the Synoptics”. I’m not saying that the idea does not occur, in some form or other, elsewhere in the New Testament, or that the later church was wrong to construct its theology in formal trinitarian terms. I am well disposed towards the view that the divine emperor paradigm was a significant factor in the development of the “kingdom” argument, providing a bridge between the early apocalypticism and the later metaphysics. But I am concerned that in our zeal to establish an early high christology we risk misrepresenting what is actually happening in the Synoptic Gospels, which is kingdom, not incarnation.
I have been involved with Christian Associates in one capacity or another—as a pastor, inept church-planter, teacher—for the last twenty years or so. I love the people, I love the organization, I love its vision for starting imaginative new communities of faith in a difficult secular environment, and I love its willingness to give serious attention to its theological underpinnings. One of these days I will post the statement on gender balance in leadership that we recently produced, as an example of our determination to develop a solid, missionally focused, biblical theology for our work.
Following on from the previous post on how to sing about the wrath of God, here are some simple diagrams to explain the hermeneutics involved.
1. There is a tension between two understandings of the cross. The rigorous conservative/Reformed folk want to sing about the wrath of God being satisfied. More liberal/squeamish evangelicals (like me) would much prefer to sing about the love of God being magnified.
I started writing this on Sunday morning before going off to church. It’s a reflection on a piece by Roger Olson about the difficulties many Christians have in using the language of divine wrath. He had come across a revised version of the song “In Christ Alone”, by Getty and Townend, in which the line “And on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied…” had been replaced with “And on the cross where Jesus died, the love of God was magnified…”. You can see what the editor was up to. Coincidentally—and wonderfully—the first song we sang at church was “In Christ Alone”. The unexpurgated version. And I was reminded of one or two other objections that I have to the “theology” of this charming song. You can listen to it live at the Gospel Coalition, with lyrics.
Two men go to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee thanks God that he is “not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector”. He fasts twice a week, he tithes his income. The wretched tax collector, on the other hand, says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus comments that it is the tax collector, rather than the Pharisee, who goes home “justified” (Lk. 18:10-14).
In a detailed critique of Tom Wright’s book What Saint Paul Really Said Phil Johnson argues that this parable teaches exactly what Wright wants to deny about justification—that it has to do with “individual guilt and forgiveness”. This is where Jesus “expounds most clearly on the principle of justification”. It shows that he was “fully in agreement with the classic Reformed interpretation of Paul”. It’s as though Jesus had read Paul, foreseen the Reformation, and thought up a little story to illustrate the point!
A narrative-historical hermeneutic has to respect the distinctions and boundaries—even the cracks and disjunctions—that emerge in the telling of the story. If we allow ourselves to read later developments back into earlier passages, we muddy the waters and risk getting the whole story, to whatever degree, wrong. Scripture has to be read forwards, not backwards. So I have argued that the Gentile mission was a revelation of the risen Christ or of the Spirit to the post-Easter church. Prior to his death Jesus nowhere teaches that Gentiles will be included in the new covenant people. The impending intervention of YHWH in the history of his people will make an impact on the nations—indeed, news of this coming intervention will be proclaimed to the nations in the period leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. This is a familiar Old Testament idea: the Lord bears his holy arm before the eyes of the nations, and the ends of the earth will see God’s salvation of his people (Is. 52:9-10). It does not require some sort of ingathering of Gentiles into the family of Abraham.
Given that, let me try and explain what I think the so-called “great commission” to make disciples of all nations is all about (Matt. 28:19-20). We start with Jesus’ teaching on the Mount of Olives.
I have read both Weiss’ Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Schweitzer’s The Mystery of the Kingdom of God recently. Both excellent books—up to a point, which I’ll come to—and well worth reading. The significance of their work for the modern understanding of the kingdom of God is neatly captured by Bruce Chilton in his 1996 book Pure Kingdom: Jesus’ Vision of God:
What most of all struck scholars at the end of the [nineteenth] century was that in early Judaism “the kingdom of God” was used neither of an individual’s life after death in heaven nor of a movement of social improvement on earth. Those had been dominant understandings of the kingdom, deeply embedded in the theology and preaching of the period. The brilliant and incontrovertible assertion of the basic significance of eschatology, first by Johannes Weiss and then by Schweitzer, changed all that. They demonstrated that the kingdom of God in early Judaism and in Jesus’ preaching involved God’s final judgment of the world; the concept of the kingdom was part and parcel of anticipation of the last things. (4)
This is a rather technical piece—some notes I made while working on something else—but the gist of the argument can be gained from the introduction and the conclusion. I have been looking at how the idea of a Gentile mission emerges in the New Testament. I made the point in “The parable of the wedding feast and the man without a wedding garment” and the ensuing discussion that Jesus does not contemplate a Gentile mission or the inclusion of Gentiles in the community of his followers before his death. He may have expected Gentiles to be included, or at least involved, at the parousia, but the mission that he inaugurated was basically a Jewish mission to Israel.
Behind Jesus, of course, is the Old Testament, and it is generally held by those who would attribute a Gentile mission to Jesus that the Psalms and the Prophets in particular foresee a day when large numbers of Gentiles will be incorporated into the covenant people. Christopher Wright, for example, has a good section in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative in which he makes a progressive case to this effect, culminating in the contention that “there were voices and visions within the Old Testament that looked for the day when nations would be included within Israel in such a way that the very word Israel would be radically extended and redefined” (455).
I don’t think I’d noticed this before. I have frequently maintained that what Jesus means by the “judgment of geenna” is not post mortem torment in what we call “hell” but the suffering and destruction that would result from the war against Rome. Basically, the argument is that Jesus adapted the imagery from Jeremiah’s predictions of the horrors of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). For lack of space to bury the dead in the city, corpses would be thrown over the walls into the Valley of the Son of Hinnom—the valley of Gehenna—where they would be “food for the birds of the air, and for the beasts of the earth, and none will frighten them away” (Jer. 7:33). For the details see “Hell, the unbiblical doctrine of” and my book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective. But I may have overlooked the significance of this passage….
I’ve been asked a couple of times recently about Matthew’s rather startling and perplexing version of the parable of wedding feast (Matt. 22:1-14). Don Lambirth, for example, sent me this question:
In your opinion who are the people who are invited but don’t come? Who are those who are invited later and do come? And this is the one that always puzzles me… who is the guy who shows up not dressed properly? And why is he kicked out? What if he was poor and couldn’t afford a wedding garment? Would Jesus and Paul have presented this story differently? And what I mean is did Jesus speak of the outsiders as the dregs in Jewish society whereas Paul may have flipped it into a story of the outsiders being Gentiles?
Matthew has this as one of three parables told to the chief priests and elders of the people in the temple: they are like the son who said he would work but did not; they are like the tenants in the vineyard who produce no fruit but kill the servants sent to them and even the owner’s son; they are like guests invited to the wedding of the king’s son who can’t be bothered to attend. Luke has Jesus tell the story in the house of Pharisee, over dinner, in response to the man who exclaimed, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!” (Lk. 14:15-24). The note of judgment is muted in Luke’s version.