The Gospel of Matthew and the horizon of the early church

Mike Mercer—Chaplain Mike—wrote a nice piece a couple of years back on the Internet Monk site putting forward the view that Matthew’s Gospel is “a Torah, a catechism, an instruction manual for the church”. He wonders whether this perspective brings into question my contention that Jesus was a prophet of Israel speaking to Israel about Israel. It might. It depends what Matthew understood by “church” and, in particular, how he perceived its horizons.

It seems to me that if we are to pursue the narrative-historical approach consistently, we need to recognize that the Gospel was written as a catechism for a church in eschatological transition—and as the title of Mike’s post suggests, probably for a Jewish church in eschatological transition. If there is a catechistic shape to it, it is for the purpose of grounding perhaps disoriented Jewish believers in Jesus’ reinterpretation of the story of Israel. This would be no less true if the Gospel was written a decade after the destruction of the temple.

Will there be gender inequality in the resurrection?

Another place where gender and eschatology intersect is Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ question about the woman whose misfortune it is to be serially married to seven brothers: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife”. In Luke’s more developed version Jesus explains that those who will be judged worthy to attain to the age to come and to the resurrection from the dead will not engage in marriage “because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Lk. 20:34–36; cf. Matt. 22:30; Mk. 12:25). Paul Adams wonders whether this passage has a bearing on the headship question.

Jesus presumably has in mind Daniel 12:1-3. At a time of great trouble for the Jews, “such as never has been since there was a nation till that time”, the people will be delivered, “everyone whose name shall be found written in the book”. In conjunction with this salvation, many of Israel’s dead will awake (or “arise”, anastēsontai, in the LXX), “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”. The “wise”, who bore the brunt of Antiochus Epiphanes’ persecution (Dan. 11:33), will “shine like the brightness of the sky above… like the stars forever and ever”. The point to stress is that this is not a universal resurrection: it is a resurrection of the good and the bad in Israel at the end of a very ugly crisis.

Gender and headship in eschatological perspective

Following a vigorous and invigorating discussion of Trinity, subordination and headship at a small theological forum last week, I sat down this morning to have a look at Ephesians 5:22-33 again. It occurs to me that I have never really considered the possibility of assimilating the gender issue into the narrative-historical hermeneutic that has been central to my thinking about the New Testament over the last ten years—I wrote Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul well before I got into that groove/rut. Ephesians is a thoroughly eschatological text, and if we read the household teaching as an integral part of the letter as a whole rather than as free-standing ethical instruction, it may appear that in urging submission to one another, Paul may have had a particular end in view. Let’s give it a go.

To begin with, both Jews and Gentiles have “obtained an inheritance”, which they will acquire possession of at some point in the future (1:11-14). This is the central argument in chapters 1-3, and it puts an eschatological outcome firmly in view. It depends on the fact that Christ has been raised from the dead, seated at the right hand of God, above all spiritual and political powers, not only in the present age but also in the age to come. All things have been put under his feet, and he has been given “as head above all things for the church, which is his body” (1:20-23).

The meek shall inherit the land: an exercise in hermeneutical restraint

Why do we assume that in his sermon on the mount Jesus addresses the whole church throughout the ages? Much of the teaching has to do with what it means to fulfil the Law of Moses, which Jesus categorically says he has not come to abolish—at least, not until heaven and earth pass away (5:17). The unrighteous are threatened with the same fate (corpses thrown into Gehenna) that Jeremiah prophesied for Jews in Jerusalem ahead of the Babylonian invasion. Jesus borrows metaphors from the prophets (two roads and a house swept away by a storm) to describe the dilemma faced by first century Israel under Roman occupation. He speaks as a prophet to Israel about Israel.

So why are we so eager to read Matthew 5-7 as a compendium of classic Christian wisdom or a manifesto of radical Christian ethics? Presumably because we find in it such powerful and enduring sentiments as “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “You are the light of the world”, “everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent, etc.”, “Love your enemies”, “You cannot serve God and money”, “seek first the kingdom of God”, and so on.

There are two Trinities in the New Testament and they are not the immanent and economic Trinities

In the last post on “The begotten Son and the subordinate woman” I argued that the Father-Son language in the New Testament belongs, pretty much exclusively, to the “central apocalyptic narrative of Jesus’ vocation, obedience, suffering, death, resurrection, exaltation and rule as YHWH’s appointed king over the nations”.

This means, in the first place, that the Father-Son-Spirit of Trinitarian orthodoxy is not the same as the Father-Son-Spirit of the New Testament. But I also suggested that we should be careful not to muddle up the Father-Son story “with a Wisdom theology that makes Jesus the one through whom all things were made”. Picking up on this point, Billy North asked about the interpretation of Colossians 1:16-17 (I think) in the context of this statement: “For by him all things were created… all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” This is not a complete answer to that question, but it goes some way towards it.

The begotten Son and the subordinate woman

I’m still working on the Trinity and gender question, and I have to say, it still mystifies me that theologians on both sides of the debate will argue that relations between the persons of the Godhead are determinative for relations between man and woman. Egalitarians think that there is no subordination in the Godhead, so there should be no subordination between men and women. Complementarians think that there is an economic or relational or functional or voluntary subordination in the Godhead, so women should economically or relationally or functionally or voluntarily submit themselves to men.

What’s the basis for the argument? I haven’t come across it yet. Certainly not 1 Corinthians 11:3, if that’s what you’re thinking, which has to do with behaviour, not ontology. Peter Schemm even admits that “there is still much work to be done in developing a constructive model for exactly how male-female relations might reflect relations within the Trinity”. Quite.

Subordination, Trinity and gender

The supposed connection between Trinity and gender-equality (or not) has come up for me in a couple of different settings recently. On the one hand, I have been trying to decide whether a statement about the equality of persons in the Godhead has a bearing on Christian Associates’ policy regarding women in leadership. On the other, I have to write an essay for a theological forum in the UK looking at the connection (or otherwise) between a doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son and the subordination of women to men. From a biblical point of view I settled this question in my own mind years ago, but I must admit I did not pay a great deal of attention to the Trinitarian argument.

Trinitarian thought is a muddy business at the best of times. Add gender to the debate and we have a veritable quagmire. To keep things relatively simple here, I think it can be reduced to two questions and two positions.

The wisdom of Trinitarianism

Reading Charles Freeman’s no doubt partial account in The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason of the development of Nicene orthodoxy makes you realize, nevertheless, just how entangled with the intellectual and political interests of Christendom the development of Trinitarian thought was.

I have argued that, historically speaking, the conversion of the Roman empire should be seen as the proper fulfilment of New Testament expectations regarding judgment of the pagan world, the confession of Christ as Lord, and the vindication of the persecuted churches. But this “coming” of the reign of YHWH over the nations led inevitably to a fundamental reorientation of the “Christian” mind. The church challenged the state over the question of who ultimately was in charge—God or the gods, Christ or Caesar. That’s the apocalyptic or political narrative. But the church was more than happy to collaborate with the Platonist tradition in Greek philosophy in the construction of a new Christendom worldview. That’s the ontological or cosmic narrative.

As a result, the central theological achievement of early Christendom—the precise identification of Father, Son and Spirit as co-equal, co-eternal persons sharing one divine substance, etc.—can be presented as a thoroughly problematic compromise between philosophical enquiry, political expedience, and biblical interpretation.

Jesus, the gods, and the philosophers

According to the standard evangelical model Jesus died for the sins of the world, and ever since Pentecost the church has proclaimed this “good news” of personal salvation to the world and will continue to do so until Jesus returns. That model is at best a modern theological abstraction. What we actually encounter in scripture is the story of a people as it interacts throughout history with the nations. This story comes to a head in the New Testament in the foreseen clash between the churches and pagan Rome. This conflict is not mere historical background, to be discarded once the necessary beliefs have been prised from it. It is what the New Testament is all about. It is what we confess, it is how we understand ourselves.

I have been reading a couple of books recently that add considerable detail to the cultural and religious landscape in which this conflict took place: the first volume of NT Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and Charles Freeman’s very stimulating The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason. The diagram below attempts to capture—in grossly oversimplified fashion—the main lines and outcomes of the engagement.

Is Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles a missional text?

My friend Dan Steigerwald, who lives in Portland, Oregon, has written an excellent little book called Growing Local Missionaries: Equipping Churches to Sow Shalom in Their Own Cultural Backyard. He takes the view that the church after Christendom is a church in exile and he proposes a missional model based on Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon in which he urges them to build houses, plant gardens, marry, bear sons and daughters, increase in number, and most importantly “seek the shalom of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom“ (Jer. 29:4-7).

Dan asks: “Could it be that God is challenging us to make a radical shift in our self-perception not unlike the one demanded of Israel so long ago?” (28). This would mean, on the one hand, getting used to the idea of doing mission from a place of weakness, on the margins of society; and on the other, redefining that mission as the practical sowing of shalom in our different worlds. We are called, as God’s people in exile, not to be victims but to be a “pervasive force for good” (25).

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