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.
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.
I am preparing some talks on Acts for a church-planting conference in a couple of weeks. What I want to say, roughly, is 1) that the apostles went about their mission with a powerful historical—or apocalyptic—narrative in mind; 2) that the churches they planted were not just churches, they were communities of God’s new future for Europe, they were the means by which the righteousness of Israel’s God would be demonstrated to the pagan world; and 3) that church-planting in Europe today needs to be undertaken with a similar “narrative-historical” mindset. Hopefully it won’t sound quite as dry and theoretical as that.
The apostles did not set out to save lost souls or to convert Europe to Christianity. They set out to proclaim to the peoples of the Greek-Roman world that the God of Israel had raised his Son from the dead and made him the coming judge and ruler of the nations.
The apostles were not evangelists or missionaries in the popular sense. Their message or gospel was much more like that of Moses’ announcement to Pharaoh or Jonah’s to the people of Nineveh. Moses told Pharaoh that YHWH was about to act to deliver his people—a public and political event. Jonah told the Ninevites that in forty days YHWH would overthrow the city—a public and political event. For the apostles the resurrection of Jesus was confirmation that in the not too distant future YHWH would overthrow the whole idolatrous pagan system—a public and political event. God is no longer willing to overlook the centuries of ignorance; he commands all people to repent of the worship of idols (Acts 17:30). The task of the apostles was to make this known across the empire, from Judea to Spain.
Paul reminds the perhaps predominantly Gentile believers in Corinth of the gospel which he had originally preached to them. This gospel he had received from others: “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…” (1 Cor. 15:3–4). My question is this: Who does “our” refer to? For whose sins did Christ die?
Gordon Fee points to the relevance of Isaiah 53:4-6, 11-12 LXX: “This one bears our sins… weakened because of our sins… gave him over to our sins… shall bear their sins… because of their sins.” But he then speaks of this “atonement” in universal terms: Paul’s brief creed “presupposes alienation between God and humans because of human rebellion and sinfulness, for which the just penalty is death”.
This is a simple example of a basic error of comprehension that is commonly made when we allow theological interpretation priority over historical interpretation. We instinctively read it as a universal statement. Paul meant it, I think, in a more restricted historical sense.
Psalm 137 begins as a lament. The exiles in Babylon weep when they remember Jerusalem. They cannot sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land. The psalm ends, however, with a plea to YHWH that he will punish the Edomites for their complicity in the destruction of Jerusalem, and a chilling “beatitude”:
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (137:8–9)
A historical-critical reading of the text has no qualms about taking the imprecation at face value. If the Jews in exile or after the return from exile hoped that their God would inflict the same horrors on the Babylonians that Israel had suffered at their hands—there is a certain principle of justice at work here—it’s not for the modern interpreter to mitigate or sidestep or gloss over the ethical difficulties that this presents to the modern reader. Historical-critical commentaries on the text are not formally required to take into account the difficulties that the “plain sense” might pose for Christian theologians, liturgists, pastors, Bible study leaders, etc.
I started writing a little piece on narrative-historical commentaries and how to get by without them and I was going to use the account of Jesus’ action in the temple to illustrate it, but it got too long. So here’s the part on Mark 11:15-19 and parallels. The rest will follow.
The day after his carefully staged entry into the city, having spent the night in Bethany, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and entered the temple. According to Mark, he drove out those who sold and bought, probably in the court of the Gentiles, he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the pigeon-sellers, and prevented people from carrying anything through the precincts. A brief snippet of his teaching is recorded:
Is it not written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”? But you have made it a den of robbers. (Mk. 11:17)
I got an email from Don Lambirth, who has read material on this site about hell and also my book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective and has some questions. I have edited the questions slightly. Thanks, Don. Hopefully, my answers will be of interest to others.
1) On your view of Gehenna being AD70 and not final who else, whether in church history or in recent theological circles, holds this view? I see that NT Wright hinted at it. Brian McLaren seemed intrigued by it, and I found a guy named Walter Balfour… in the 1800s wrote a book about it. But I’m having trouble finding others. I think this view point is very plausible.
I have not been able to do an exhaustive historical study of the interpretation of “Gehenna”. I’ve just searched through the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and it appears that for the Fathers it was consistently a place of final punishment by fire. Jerome identifies it with the Greek Tartarus: “We should indeed mourn for the dead, but only for one whom Gehenna receives, whom Tartarus devours and for whose punishment the eternal fire burns” (Letter 39.3). As I mentioned in the post to which you allude, Wright considers the possibility that Gehenna has “the sense of a physical conflagration such as might accompany the destruction of Jerusalem by enemy forces”. I rather think that quite a few scholars will note the relevance of AD 70 for Jesus’ apocalyptic vision without making the connection with Gehenna.
At the “Jesus and Brian, Or: What have the Pythons done for us?” conference at King’s College London this last weekend, Bart Ehrman gave a lecture on “Parody as Historical Method”. At the time it struck me as borderline pugnacious—he was the only one of the presenters I heard who felt the need to aim The Life of Brian against conventional belief. Most took the view that the film was prescient—John Cleese kept calling it “miraculous”—in anticipating developments in historical Jesus research over the last 35 years.
I didn’t take detailed notes of Ehrman’s talk, so I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of my recollections—so much for eye-witness testimony. Also I’m more interested in the narrative Jesus than in the historical Jesus, so my comments are limited and probably rather simplistic.
Ehrman started by explaining that what had most disturbed him in the film as a young conservative evangelical, fresh from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College, was not one of the obviously offensive or “blasphemous” scenes but the three deranged (or merely idiotic) seers in the marketplace preaching their messages of doom. With only a limited appreciation for the place of apocalyptic in Jesus’ teaching, Ehrman sensed nevertheless that the parody “undercut the core of Jesus’ message and mission”.
I got so depressed watching England lose to Uruguay last night that I started reading the chapter on the “Apocalyptic Character of Paul’s Gospel” in J. Christiaan Beker’s celebrated book Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel: The Coming Triumph of God. OK, it wasn’t technically the end of the world, but the book provided some welcome distraction.
In the chapter Beker discusses what he considers to be the four basic components of Paul’s apocalyptic thought. They are derived from Jewish apocalyptic, but Paul has radically modified them on the basis of his encounter with Christ and the Christian tradition. The motifs are vindication, universalism, dualism and imminence. My argument here will be that Beker gets vindication right, misconstrues Paul’s “universalism”, and so gets into difficulties over imminence. The dualism motif doesn’t greatly affect the picture.
Sitting in the London School of Theology library yesterday I was flicking through David Turner’s Baker Exegetical Commentary on Matthew and came across his discussion of this passage:
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. (Matt. 16:27–28)
Turner thinks that verse 27 “clearly refers to the coming of Jesus to the earth and the final judgment”, listing a number of passages in support: the parable of the harvest at the “close of the age” (Matt. 13:40-41), Jesus’ statement about the coming of the Son of Man in the Olivet discourse (24:30-31), the judgment of the nations, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne accompanied by his angels (25:31), and Jesus’ retort to the high priest that he will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (26:64).
Turner then notes the problem of verse 28, which is ‘perplexing because it stresses the certainty of this future coming by stating that some of Jesus’s contemporaries will live to see “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”’.