What must the church become? Narrative and praxis

An opinion piece in the Guardian last week asked, “Is the end of western Christianity in sight?” On the strength of the most recent British Social Attitudes data the article asserted that “No religion” is now by far the largest self-identification in England and Wales, that the mainstream churches are failing to make converts, that religion has come to stand for the opposite of freedom, especially sexual freedom, that it is “hard to see a route back for normative Christianity”, and perhaps surprisingly that human rights “could become vulnerable in an entirely post-Christian environment where the collective memory slips from the old moorings inherited from Christian ethics”.

The world is changing. The Archbishop of Canterbury may be right in thinking that the tide is turning in this country, that the church is entering a new spring at last. He may not be right. Either way, it’s unlikely that the future will be business as usual. New wine always needs new wineskins. Here are some thoughts on narrative and praxis as we walk nervously into the unknown.

Apocalyptic-Inflationism and new creation

Keen to avoid being condemned for the “heresy” of Apocalyptic-Inflationism and to “maintain narrative orthodoxy”, James asks what he should do with passages such as Revelation 21:3-5:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:3–5)

Theological heresy and narrative-historical heresy

In his Christian Theology: An Introduction Alister McGrath discusses the taxonomy of “natural heresies” outlined by Schleiermacher in The Christian Faith (147-49). Here is the gist of the argument.

1. The essence or basic principle of Christianity is that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ.

2. The rejection of this principle is the rejection of Christianity itself. “In other words, to deny that God has redeemed us through Jesus Christ is to deny the most fundamental truth claim which the Christian faith dares to make.”

Blessed are the narrative-historical interpreters: preaching the Beatitudes

We had a very good sermon on the Beatitudes yesterday. It did not sentimentalise the passage. It paid attention to the literary form. It was sensitive to language. It warned against careless application to our own context. But it made the assumption that this was generally relevant ethical-religious teaching: some care needs to be taken over translation, but Jesus is speaking as much to us as to his first century audience. I don’t think we should make that assumption.

Theology and history: on totally different wave lengths

I have had quite a lengthy conversation here with Bobby Grow following on from my random review posts about Samuel V. Adams’ book The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright. The conversation was basically a dispute, a little testy in places, about whether the interpretation of scripture needs to be predetermined by theological ideas about the epistemologically prior revelation of God in Christ developed by the later church.

Grow has reached the conclusion—rightly I think—that we are “on totally different wave lengths” and appears to have withdrawn from the conversation; and who can blame him? I express my thanks for his substantial contribution. But I thought it might be worth reviewing and summarising briefly what appear to me to have been the main areas of disagreement.

Samuel V. Adams and Paul’s “apocalypse of Jesus Christ”

I think I’m getting to the bottom of Samuel V. Adams’ excellent, invigorating, complex, stimulating and—in my view—flawed critique of N.T. Wright’s historical methodology.

History and theology have given us two different ways of understanding “apocalyptic”. When historians such as Wright use the term, what they have in mind principally is a body of literature, mostly of Palestinian Jewish origin, dating from roughly 300 BC to the early second century AD, which furnished, among other things, supernaturally revealed narratives of hope for Jews suffering Greek and Roman oppression. The corpus consists of texts such as Daniel, Jubilees, 1 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, the Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Levi, or parts thereof. Some of the Qumran literature has a distinctly apocalyptic colouring.

Two stories about Jesus

I taught a module on the historical Jesus recently for church leaders. My starting point was the suggestion that there are two basic ways of telling the story about Jesus. Traditionally the church has told a vertical story: Jesus comes into the world from heaven to die for our sins and then returns to the Father, and that’s about it. There is a beginning (creation and fall) and an end (Jesus returns, final judgment), but what happens in history before and after the “Christ event” is a matter of only secondary theological interest. The traditional model, however, is coming under increasing pressure from what is essentially a historical reading of the New Testament. According to this paradigm, which is horizontal rather than vertical, diachronic rather than synchronic, Jesus plays a decisive part in the history of Israel, and his meaning for the world cannot be dissociated from that narrative.

Adams and Wright: beyond worldviews?

Samuel Adams argues—continuing my piecemeal critical review of his stimulating and exasperating book The Reality of God and Historical Method—that Wright’s historical method cannot deal adequately with the reality of God. Wright’s is not a thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” because he ‘allows the “supernatural” as part of the worldview of the people who claim such an event to have happened’ (209). As a historian Wright evaluates the super-natural aspects of the New Testament witness not according to an Enlightenment worldview (Reimarus, Paulus, et al.) but according to a first century Jewish worldview (Jesus, Paul, et al.). That’s an improvement on a lot of historical Jesus research, but it remains an essentially naturalistic enterprise. It is a development of the Enlightenment framework, not a departure from it. So here, according to Adams, is the heart of the question…

Theological hermeneutics and the meaning of “Immanuel”

Here’s another example of how a theological reading can drive a coach and horses through historical exegesis. At the heart of the “theological doctrine of the incarnation,” Adams writes, “is the union of the divine and human in Jesus the Messiah”. Keeping in mind Wright’s historical method and critique, however, he insists that this is not an abstraction from scripture….

Adams, Wright, Barth, theology, history, time, eternity, and Paul’s letter to the Romans

The fault line between theology and history is pervasive, persistent and profound. Samuel Adams argues in The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright for a theological hermeneutics at the heart of which is the “apocalyptic event” of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (122). This event is “historical” only in the general and abstract sense that it happened in time and space; it has very little to do with the particular history of Israel under the political-religious conditions of the late second temple period. I suggest, in fact, that the phrase “Christ event” should be consigned to the dustbin of a-history.


Subscribe to P.OST RSS