Plotting the kingdom: now and not yet and not like that

In order to keep my knee-jerk prejudices against certain aspects of traditional evangelical theology in good working order I have been reading Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible: A Guide to Reading the Bible Well, edited by Grudem, Collins and Schreiner. What I have been looking for is examples of how theologians really don’t get narrative, and I have not been disappointed. Thomas R. Schreiner begins the section on the New Testament by affirming that biblical theology, unlike systematic theology, “concentrates on the historical story line of the Bible”, and then proceeds to outline “some of the main themes of New Testament theology” (109). In other words, he’s incapable of dealing with the “historical story line” without systematizing it.

The first of the main themes is the “already-not-yet” of the kingdom, which Schreiner thinks “dominates the entire New Testament and functions as a key to grasping the whole story”. I’ve discussed this before, but I’ll discuss it again.

Two narratives of the cross for Good Friday

There is a simple, universal or cosmic or existential narrative of the cross—the horizontal beam. Humanity has fallen, every individual person has sinned and must go by way of the cross to gain eternal life. But, for all its merits, this is a theological abstraction. It is not the biblical narrative.

The biblical narrative of the cross is not universal or cosmic or existential and it is nothing like as simple. It is historical—the vertical piece, which sustains whatever else we may wish to say.

It arises out of the story of ancient Israel. The brutal execution of Jesus by the Romans is a critical moment in the story of how the descendants of Abraham made the long and arduous journey from exile to empire, from judgment to justification, from sin to forgiveness, from Law to Spirit, from death to the life of the age to come.

Chris Tilling aims a relational christology at Bart Ehrman

I’ll make this my last post on Bird, et al.’s lively—bordering on manic—response to Bart Ehrman’s book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Chris Tilling is a good friend, so I need to tread a little carefully here. His argument is based largely on his published PhD thesis Paul’s Divine Christology (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament, 2. Reihe), which I have read and greatly enjoyed.

In chapter 6 of How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman he puts forward an analysis and critique of Ehrman’s basic christological narrative. At the heart of Ehrman’s project, Tilling thinks, is the distinction between “exaltation Christologies” and an “incarnational Christology”….

Simon Gathercole’s argument about pre-existence and divine identity in the Synoptics

Bart Ehrman thinks that Jesus became God—not in reality, of course, but in the minds of the early Christians. Against Ehrman, Simon Gathercole argues in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman, much as Michael Bird did earlier, that the Synoptic Gospels “see Jesus as having pre-existed and as divine in the strong sense of that word” (116). Again, I think the chapter demonstrates that evangelicals are on very weak ground here and should really just come to terms with the christological limitations of the prophetic-political narrative in the New Testament. The affirmation that Jesus is “Son” belongs to a specific, circumscribed argument about kingdom. It has nothing to do with divinity or pre-existence. So with all due respect for Gathercole’s good intentions, let me explain why I think he is barking up the wrong tree.

The meek shall inherit the world: an exercise in historical restraint

The sermon on the mount is addressed to first century Jews in Israel. The Beatitudes define that small community of first century Jews in Israel through which and for the sake of which YHWH would restore his people at a time of severe political-religious crisis. It is a community of the helpless, of those who suffered and mourned because of Israel’s wretched condition. They would be persecuted. But they would be the beneficiaries of the impending intervention of YHWH as king to judge his people. They would inherit—so I argued recently—not the earth but the “land” of Israel. It has nothing to do directly with the church today.

When and how would this come about? Presumably when the owner of the vineyard came and put the wicked tenants to a miserable death and gave the vineyard to others who would produce fruit for him (Matt. 21:41); and when the king in anger “sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city” and then ordered his servants to gather for the wedding feast whomever they could find in the streets, “both good and bad” (Matt. 22:7-10).

Michael Bird on the question of whether Jesus thought of himself as God

I am very appreciative of Michael Bird’s work, partly because he understands the importance of developing a credible theological mindset on the basis of a New Perspective reading of the New Testament, partly because he quoted my sinking ship parable from The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church in his Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. But I am not persuaded by his argument in one of the chapters that he has contributed to How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature—-A Response to Bart D. Ehrman that the Jesus who is presented to us in the synoptic Gospels understood himself to be divine, even in the qualified sense that Bird proposes:

When I say that Jesus knew himself to be God, I mean that he was conscious that in him the God of Israel was finally returning to Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) to renew the covenant and to fulfill the promises God had made to the nation about a new exodus. (52)

Bird argues that if we read certain episodes from Jesus’ career in the light of this premise, it may appear that the boundary between divine author and divine agent becomes blurred. “Several stories and sayings in the Synoptic Gospels point toward Jesus’ unique role as a divine agent with an unprecedented authority and who undertakes divine action” (56). I have covered this issue before (see below), but I will hastily work through Bird’s admittedly rather summary arguments here, leaving out his section on the “Johannine testimony”.

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.

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