Following my previous post on “The wrath of God and the death of Jesus” and some discussion that ensued, here is a reasonably concise 17 point summary of the narrative-historical perspective on the wrath of God—at least as I see it.
How do you feel when you read the terms “wrath of God” and “penal substitution”? Do you feel that something of profound and eternal theological importance has been stated, even if you’re not quite sure what it is? If so, you are probably on the reactionary Reformed side of the theological fence that currently divides modern evangelicalism. Or do you squirm inwardly, wincing at language that sounds distinctly medieval and barbaric? If so, then undoubtedly you are of a more progressive persuasion.
I have argued before and, for the benefit of someone who recently asked me about wrath and the death of Jesus, I will argue again that whichever side of the fence we are on, the theological mindset of modern evangelicalism simply does not allow us to read the New Testament story for what it is. The problem is that neither the Reformed nor the progressive position understands history. In this connection, I recommend Scot McKnight’s multipart response to Samuel V. Adams’ critique of N.T. Wright’s historical method.
David Sunday asks how Jesus can be called “Everlasting Father” in Isaiah 9:6:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
“How can Jesus the Messiah, the second person of the Godhead, be called Everlasting Father?” Sunday insists that Isaiah is not teaching us that “God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, is the same person as God the Father”. That can’t be what Isaiah means because that would be the heresy of modalism, and obviously Isaiah wasn’t a heretic So what Isaiah must mean is that Jesus is “father-like” in the way that he treats us. Moreover, this is an “eternal” characteristic. The child described by Isaiah is “the author of eternity”, the “father of time”!’ He is fatherly in that he reveals the Father to us (cf. Jn. 14:9-10).
ccording to the tradition that has been passed down to us, Christmas is the time of year when we celebrate God coming to earth in lowly human form to save humankind from sin and death. The glory of the deity has been laid aside, the radiant godhead has been veiled in flesh, the creator of all things has been pleased to dwell as man with man for a while, God-with-us, Immanuel, so that there may be peace on earth, so that God and sinners may be reconciled, so that the sons (and daughters) of earth may experience a second birth and die no more, etc.
Wheaton College has suspended an associate professor of political science for endorsing the view of Pope Francis that Muslims and Christians “worship the same God”. The ensuing debate has been partly theological: to what extent are Christian and Muslim definitions of God compatible? And partly social-political: how do we maintain peaceful and constructive relations between Christians and Muslims in our increasingly pluralistic cultures? I don’t want to play down the complexity of the controversy, but I suggest that a narrative-historical approach may at least shed a different light on the issue.
Someone recently told me that the narrative-historical perspective is “quite disorienting”. The experience reminded him of a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein: “Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.”
I have often thought about it in similar terms. Scripture is a great forest. Evangelical tradition has bulldozed a broad, efficient road through the forest, and many are those who walk briskly along it, in a hurry to get from A to B. But a growing historical awareness is teaching us to look at the forest with different eyes and with greater curiosity. For all the clarity and efficiency of the traditional theological route, it gives us a very misleading impression of the shape and extent and life and richness of the forest.
A recent series of posts on the Missional Church by Ed Stetzer drew my attention to a Missional Manifesto that Stetzer and others wrote five or six years ago. In many ways, it’s a very good document—a safe, conventional, but in its way compelling exposition of the currently fashionable idea that “God’s mission has a church”. The practitioner in me wants to endorse it. It speaks well to the church as it endeavours to recovery a community based missional dynamic. But the argument about mission is tied to the New Testament, and the narrative-historical interpreter in me is reluctant to endorse the assumptions that are made. It leaves me thinking that there must be a better way of joining up the narrative dots between the New Testament and the practice of the church today.
A new report by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in the US and LifeWay Research has identified four main statements that constitute normative evangelical belief:
1. The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
2. It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Saviour.
3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Saviour receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
Apparently, the sociologists, theologians and leaders consulted came up originally with a set of 17 statements. Since three out of the four that survived the cut seem to be making basically the same point, you can’t help wondering whether something important was missed out. The resurrection? The reign of Jesus as Lord at the right hand of the Father? The church? Right behaviour?
The judgment of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46 is a good test case for how New Testament eschatology works. It is usually read as an account of a final universal judgment, on the assumption that we are still waiting for the Son of Man to come on the clouds of heaven at the end of history.
It is a traditional perspective, deeply embedded in the iconography of Christendom. The judgment scene that forms the third part of the stunning Redemption Triptych (1455-59) by Vrancke van der Stockt, for example, has Christ seated above the clouds of heaven with a couple of angels. In the arch that frames him are scenes drawn from this passage.
The Church of England has been rather taken aback by the refusal of leading cinemas in the UK to screen a video of people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the run-up to Christmas. The short film, which I find rather moving in its hurried way, is part of a campaign to encourage your average man-or-woman-in-the-cinema to pray.