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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Getting saved in the Gospels

Christianity is reckoned by most people, I imagine, to be at core a religion of salvation. The defining event is the cross, understood as an act of atonement or redemption, the means by which people are saved. If you are not a Christian you are “lost” or “perishing”. If you become a Christian, you don’t simply convert or join: you admit that you cannot save yourself, that you need a Saviour, therefore you repent of your sins and are saved. You then become part of a community of saved individuals, the church, and are expected to do what other saved people do, until eventually you die and go to heaven.

This has certainly been the overriding paradigm for the modern conservative and evangelical church, and we all naturally assume that it’s biblical. At the heart of the New Testament must be the simple and consistent gospel proclamation: you are a sinner, but the good news is that Jesus died for your sins; so believe in him and be saved from lostness before death and annihilation or worse after death.

Why I don’t like being labelled a “preterist”

I asserted in the last post on the “firstfruits” that my reading of New Testament eschatology “is not preterism; it is a matter of taking the historical perspective of the early church seriously”. Peter thinks that taking the historical perspective of the early church seriously is exactly what preterists do. So surely, the distinction is spurious?

I have to say, my effort over the years to distance myself from modern preterism has been a little tongue-in-cheek, but there is a serious point to it. Preterism frames our reading of the New Testament in a particular way, both historically and hermeneutically. My contention is that the evolving literary-historical methodologies of New Testament studies will provide, in the long run, a broader and more robust basis for constructing a properly “evangelical” theology for the age to come.

What role do the “firstfruits” play in New Testament eschatology?

I was asked how I understood the reference to “firstfruits” in the New Testament. It’s a rather obscure topic perhaps, but a bit of word study won’t go amiss and may shed some light on the eschatological narrative.

In case you’re not familiar with my idiosyncratic way of reading the New Testament, my view is that the “eschatological” material has mostly to do with events in a foreseeable future: judgment against Israel, judgment against the nations, the vindication of the disciples and the churches, and the rule of Christ over the nations. This is not preterism; it is a matter of taking the historical perspective of the early church seriously. On the margins of the apocalyptic-prophetic vision of the New Testament, however, is a final judgment of humanity, defeat of evil and death, and renewal of heaven and earth.

Justice, justification, Jesus, Jerusalem, and the hell of fire

I was recommended Tim Keller’s book Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just as preparatory reading for a sermon at Crossroads International Church in the Hague this coming weekend. It’s a compassionate, practical, carefully argued, and in some ways quite audacious exhortation to the conservative evangelical church—and from firmly within the conservative evangelical church—to recognise that practising social justice is an integral part of biblical teaching. “The most traditional formulation of evangelical doctrine,” Keller says, “rightly understood, should lead its proponents to a life of doing justice in the world.”

Given the theological starting point, it’s an excellent book, and we could leave it at that. But it seems to me that in places the scriptural substructure is rickety and on the verge of collapse. If it holds up long enough to enable Reformed Christians to take social justice seriously, all well and good. But in the long run I think that we are going to have to undertake some extensive renovations.

Five (reinforced) fundamentals for an evangelical future

In an article on the Christianity Today website Ed Stetzer dismisses the doom-sayers and gloom-mongers who think that the church is in terminal decline and puts forward five fundamentals for an evangelical future. I am of a naturally cheerful disposition, but I think his analysis and proposals are superficial and naïve. Jeremiah warned Israel against the complacency of the false prophets who said that the people would never go into exile, or if they did, that it wouldn’t be for long, a couple of years at the most (Jer. 7:1-15; 28:10-16). Sometimes the pessimists are right.

Stetzer is confident that the sky is not falling for evangelicals: we just need to “face some truths and change some behaviors to reach the world with the message of the gospel”. He is looking five to ten years down the road, but I think that is short-sighted. That sort of outlook just keeps us trying to do the same things only slightly better.

More on history and the drama of scripture

Daniel Hoffman makes an important point about my argument that salient events in the history of the church could be said to have the same level of theological significance as events in the Bible:

I sympathize with this in theory—it sounds right, but it seems to me the obvious difference, at least as far as the conscious life of the church is concerned, is that we have no divine revelation/canonical scripture interpreting the post-New Testament developments. It may be that historically considered, the “collapse of Christendom” is as significant for the people of God as the exile, but the later comes with an inspired and canonical description and interpretation and the former does not.

I think this may actually highlight a serious problem with the five act play model of biblical authority. In what sense does the history of the church since the New Testament period constitute a continuation of the biblical narrative?

All the world’s the stage: a narrative-historical revision of Wright’s five act play hermeneutic

A friend sent me a link to a short talk by Tom Wright in which he explains his now quite well known five act play model of biblical authority. There are two further parts to the talk on reading the scriptures as narrative and on how the church can improvise its own narrative. I recommend it. I like the idea in general terms—I think that narrative is the hermeneutical key not only for understanding scripture but also for understanding the condition and purpose of the church today. But I have reservations about the implementation.

Wright originally proposed the model in a Vox Evangelica (1991) article called “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative?” It is also presented in The New Testament and the People of God (139-43) as a method for reconnecting the descriptive and normative approaches to scripture, which have been forced apart by modernism. Scholarship has gone one way, the church has gone another.

So Wright asks: “Is there another model, consistent with serious literary, historical and theological study, which will result in the New Testament exercising that authority which Christians from the beginning have accorded to it?” Yes, and here it is…

What should we do with the lost and found parables today?

The three stories told in Luke 15 about something or someone that is lost and then found are not about us, were not addressed to us, were not written for us. They are certainly not vehicles of a universal evangelistic message about lost sinners who need to be saved by the atoning death of Jesus and reconciled to God. They were told by Jesus to one section of first century Jewish society to explain why he hung out with another section of first century Jewish society:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable… (Lk. 15:1–3)

…and then another one, and then another one—all to the same effect. They are not free-floating fables, like Aesop’s timeless story of the hare and the tortoise. They should not really be subjected to vitrification in our churches. They belong somewhere, sometime. They have a context. They are rooted in history.

Discipleship and the eschatological narrative of 1 Corinthians

I have to prepare some material about discipleship for a small leaders’ retreat. The approach I want to take is to frame discipleship narrative-historically. No surprises there. One way to do this is to take a very practical letter with strong discipleship content, such as 1 Corinthians, and try to show how the paraenetic material relating to disunity, sexual immorality, lawsuits, celibacy and marriage, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, men and women, etc., is controlled by an overarching eschatological narrative. It is not generalised ethical-spiritual teaching; it is narratively contextualised; and we are likely to misunderstand Paul if we drive a wedge between the practical teaching about how to live and be church and the eschatological frame. By the same token, I will argue—but not here—that we cannot do discipleship properly today if we do not take into account our own unique narrative-historical context.

Greg Beale’s multi-storied new-creational kingdom theology

The basic thesis of Greg Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology is i) that the Old Testament gives us the story of how God “progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos”; and ii) that this storyline is transformed in the New Testament inasmuch as Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have “launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign” (16, italics removed, statements abbreviated, other caveats may apply).

In short, he aims to develop a more or less comprehensive biblical theology controlled by a story oriented towards the “goal of new-creational kingship” (179). Note the merging of “new creation” and “kingdom”—I’ll come back to that.

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