Does it matter whether it really happened?

There are two parts to the narrative-historical hermeneutic that I am trying to develop and promote on this site. I argue, first, that the Bible should be read as the complex but essentially coherent story that a people told about its historical experience over a long period of time; and as a corollary, that the “theological” content of the Bible is part of the telling of that story.

Then secondly, I suggest that the church today can and should learn to live, do and believe according to this historically grounded narrative and not according to the various reductionist theological schemata that have been superimposed on scripture throughout the ages. In my view, the hermeneutic not only gives us a much better understanding of the New Testament; it also gives us a powerful paradigm for reconceptualizing the identity and purpose of the church after Christendom.

Tongues of fire

Someone asked me yesterday whether “tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3) points to the fact that the disciples were to proclaim that the kingdom of God was coming, meaning judgment on unbelieving Israel and the nations. I was at the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights on Sunday, and since proceedings were mostly in Greek, I missed any reference to the church calendar. In the afternoon Father Melchizedek gave an elegant homily in English looking at the events of Acts 2, but I’ve been slow to register the fact that we’ve just celebrated Pentecost. No wonder people are asking if the UK is still a Christian country.

Luke’s account of events in Acts 2 is a good example of how the biblical narrative often constrains our modern theologies. We think that this is all about the church as we know it. It’s not. The pneumatology of Pentecost has to work within narrow historical boundaries. As is noted in the question, it has to do with Israel and judgment. I’m not so sure about the nations.

What is the church and what is it for? A dynamic definition

What is the church and what is it for? In the West we live in a post-Christendom and increasingly post-Christian world whose fundamental beliefs are secular humanist. The great public symbols of Christian authority have been cast to the ground and trampled under foot. The last vestiges of a Christian culture are being slowly erased. The referendum on same-sex marriage in Ireland taking place today is an immediate illustration of the point. This is a profoundly challenging situation for the church, and in my view we are generally finding it very difficult to reconstruct a credible and workable identity and purpose for ourselves in this brave new world.

Why did Jesus instruct his disciples not to preach the kingdom of God to Gentiles and Samaritans?

This issue came up in some teaching I did recently. Why did Jesus instruct his disciples not to go in the way of the Gentiles or to the towns of the Samaritans but only to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-15)? Doesn’t that contradict the “great commission”, when the disciples are sent out into the whole world to make disciples of all nations? Students tended to resolve the problem by arguing that the kingdom was offered first to Israel as God’s chosen people and then to everyone else. That seems to me to be at best half right and to entail a mistaken notion of the kingdom of God.

The underlying assumption seemed to be that kingdom is roughly equivalent to salvation. It is a wonderful new thing that is held out to humanity on the grounds of the death of Jesus, and it is only really an accident of “salvation-history” that the Jews got first bite of the cherry.

This gets both kingdom and salvation wrong. The mission of the disciples in Matthew is meaningful only on the assumption that “kingdom” is and remains an integral part of Israel’s story. It is not something extraneous that is offered to Israel first like a cream cake, which they turn down because they are dyed-in-the-wool legalists, and it’s then passed round to the Gentiles, who scoff it gratefully. In fact, I would say, the story of Israel is the story of kingdom. Or it’s the story of how to fail and succeed at cake making.

7 fallacies about hell

Like a lot of people who promote the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal suffering, J.D. Greear insists, in “7 Truths About Hell” on the Gospel Coalition site, that he would happily erase the belief from Christian teaching if he could, but he can’t because it’s in the Bible, so we have to live with it. Besides, it is his view that we can’t fully understand God and his world unless we come to terms with the doctrine. To that end he sets out “seven truths” that he thinks should frame our discussion of the topic.

The problem is that the fact of hell is merely taken for granted—we are asked to take C.S. Lewis’ word for it. You would have thought that a set of seven framing truths would have a demonstrable biblical or theological relationship to the doctrine that supposedly sits in the middle of them. But they don’t. They are arbitrary and incoherent; they don’t appear to frame anything in particular; and where scripture does come into the picture, it is speaking about something other than hell as popularly understood.

The biblical story of the kingdom of God: a thought for election day

Samuel had judged Israel all the days of his life, doing the circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to Ramah. In his old age he appointed his two sons as judges over Israel, but as is sometimes the case with public officials, they turned out to be corrupt: “They took bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam. 7:15-8:3). So the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king in place of his worthless sons. Samuel was reluctant to do so, but God made it very clear that he was to give them what they wanted.

This is the point at which the story about the kingdom of God begins in scripture. The episode gives us two of the three main components of the concept. It also teaches us that the kingdom of God is not a spiritual or theological or, for that matter, cosmic abstraction—it belongs to the narrated historical experience of the biblical community.

Jesus and the sea: arguments about divine identity

There are two incidents in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus demonstrates mastery over the sea. In one he calms a storm with a word of rebuke (Mk. 4:35-41); in the other he walks on the water as the disciples struggle to cross the Sea of Galilee at night, seemingly with the intention of passing by them (Mk. 6:45-52). In recent debates over Jesus’ “divine identity” both these stories have been interpreted as evidence that Mark intended his readers to discern an identification between Jesus and the God of Israel. It is YHWH who stills the storm when scattered Israel cries out to him in distress, so that his people may reach their “desired haven” (Ps. 107:29-30). It is YHWH who “alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground” (Job 9:8 LXX). If it is now Jesus who does these things, then Jesus must be God.

The Lord’s Supper in narrative-historical perspective

There are two main debates that the church has engaged in over the Lord’s Supper, one having to do with theory, the other with practice. First, what is the relation between the physical elements of the “meal” and the person of Jesus? Is Jesus really present in the substance of the bread and the wine? Or are they merely symbolic representations of his sacrificial death for the sins of humanity? Or something in between? Secondly, should the Lord’s Supper be celebrated ritualistically, as a profound sacramental mystery, or pragmatically, as a common fellowship meal? Or something in between?

The two questions are closely linked. If we believe that the bread and wine have been changed into the actual body and blood of Jesus, then we will handle them with great reverence and ceremony. If they are the symbolic means of commemorating a past event in the context of an ordinary meal, then the celebration can be much more informal. Or something in between.

The meteor sighting on the road to Damascus: why do we believe what we believe?

William Hartman is the co-founder of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, which presumably makes him a reputable scientist. In a March 2015 article in the journal Meteorites and Planetary Science, which is presumably a reputable scientific publication—you get a bit wary about these things—he argues that the bright light that Paul saw as he approached Damascus could have been a fireball meteor like the one seen above Chelyabinsk in Russia in 2013. The points of correspondence are moderately impressive.

Rethinking Matthew’s coming of the Son of Man

I came across this comment from Peter Enns this week: “I am very amenable to Andrew’s approach and others like it—although I still do a double-take at Matt 24:30-31.” That sort of remark—particularly from someone as sane as Peter Enns—usually makes me go back and look at the text again. I think I’ve got this whole thing right—the historical frame of reference of Jesus’ eschatology—and it troubles me when people disagree, especially when they are otherwise amenable to the narrative-historical approach.

But it’s funny how sometimes it doesn’t take much to cast a passage in a new light. Working through Matthew’s version of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse again in reaction to Peter’s scepticism, it occurred to me that I may have over-restricted the scope of Jesus’ statement about the Son of Man (Matt. 24:29-31). Maybe.

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