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.

What should we expect apostles to do today?

In my view, the missional-incarnational movement needs to engage constructively with the sort of narrative-historical reading of the New Testament that is emerging from biblical studies. And vice versa. I think that both mission and New Testament studies would be served by the dialogue. For example, Alan Hirsch and others have highlighted the importance of recovering an “apostolic” dynamic in mission, but the definition of apostleship is largely under the control of the missional agenda: the apostolic function “pioneers new missional works and oversees their development”, it is “responsible and gifted for the extension of Christianity”. This is a pragmatic definition devised by missiologists for practitioners, and clearly there is some overlap with the work of the New Testament apostles. But there is also a significant gap. A reading of the New Testament that asks about the function of the apostles in their own narrative-historical contexts suggests that there may be important aspects to the role which the missiologists have overlooked.

Mission after Christendom: beyond the incarnational-missional paradigm

As you will be aware if you are not a complete stranger to this blog, I strongly hold to the view that a narrative-historical hermeneutic, informed by good work being done in New Testament Studies, gives us a much better understanding of the New Testament than the theologically driven methods of interpretation that the church generally relies on. The big question, then, is what is the church, with all its practical commitments, supposed to do with it? Well, here’s one suggestion. I have been arguing that Acts frames the mission of the early church narratively, both as the fulfilment of Israel’s story and as the beginning of a new story about YHWH and the nations. It is not our story—it happened 2000 years ago, duh! But we face similar uncertainties about the future, and I would argue that how we tell the story of our own crisis is becoming an essential part of the renewal of mission.

Communities of God’s future

The church is always, everywhere a sign of new creation. I would venture to say that it is not in any respect the real thing—nothing has fundamentally changed, there is no mystical “regeneration”, we remain fallen humans through and through, dependent on grace. But when we talk about life in the Spirit of God, we mean—among other things—that who we are, what we do, how we relate to one another and the world, are always potentially pointers to a final renewal of all things, a new heaven and new earth. The broadest prophetic task of the church is actively, practically, personally, corporately, socially, politically, environmentally to prefigure the final, cosmic vindication of the Creator God over his enemies. I hope to make this point, clearly and simply enough, in my teaching at the Christian Associates staff conference in Prague next week.

But that’s not really what we see being taught and worked out in the New Testament. What we see in the New Testament is communities that bear corporate witness, at different stages in an unfolding narrative, to a much more immediate and pressing vindication of the God of Israel over his enemies. The New Testament is much more about kingdom than new creation. Let me illustrate.

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