A couple of statements that I heard in church last week have stuck in my head (along with the tune of the little drummer boy, which I now can’t get rid of). The first was in a song by someone whose name I forget that was played during the collection—a ludicrous line about the little boy Jesus staring up at the stars and remembering how he had made them all. That was another reason to look at what John has to say about the creative logos.
Not least at this time of year we bring a lot of conventional expectations to the reading of the prologue to John’s Gospel. We hear a familiar story of God sending his pre-existent Son into the world so that people might believe in him and become “children of God”. In order to sustain that reading we filter out rather a lot that’s in the text, in addition to all the tacit literary knowledge that is excluded simply because we are complacent modern readers.
Part of what I want to try to do here, therefore, is to let some of the textual and contextual detail back in to see if the passage reads any differently. But I have to say that I am also motivated by a concern not to let John’s idiosyncratic Gospel stand as a stumbling-block to the task of reading the New Testament historically. This is not about debunking the Christmas stories; it is part of a search for an evangelical reading of the New Testament that takes its historical contingency seriously.
Frank Viola has an interesting interview with “New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight”, who is all over the place at the moment, about his book One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow. Scot makes the point in the interview that it is impossible to do justice to the book in such a short space—and it is, of course, equally impossible to do justice to Scot by addressing his argument in such an indirect fashion and for frankly ulterior purposes. But in order to answer a question regarding how his position relates to my post on Brian McLaren and evangelicalism and to clarify some rather limited areas of disagreement with Scot (for those who are interested) I will make a few cautious comments.
In one of his Q&R posts Brian McLaren responds to the question: “I appreciate your person and work, but why are you still an evangelical, emergent or not?” The argument, for the most part, is that evangelicalism is Brian’s heritage and that he has had no compelling reason so far to dissociate himself from it, though he has certainly considered taking such a step. His hope is that in the long run there will be a grassroots convergence of “progressive Roman Catholics, progressive Evangelicals, missional Mainline Protestants, and forward-thinking sectors of the African-American, Asian, Latino, and other churches”.
For some unaccountable reason Michael Jackson’s The Little Drummer Boy has always been one of my favourite Christmas songs. I make no apologies. But the video for this version of the song by Bob Dylan from last year, which I found on Francis Beckwith’s blog, is rather more poignant—in an oddly dated, beautiful, aristocratic way which is hard to explain.
I use the term "post-eschatological" with reference to the situation of the people of God after the major eschatological horizons of the Jewish war and the victory of the community in Christ over Greek-Roman paganism. This is a little misleading, but it is meant to take account of the fact that most of what the New Testament has to say about the future refers to these foreseeable historical events. I do not mean to preclude the third horizon of a final judgment and final remaking of creation.
I have argued both in The Coming of the Son of Man and in The Future of the People of God that the foreseen clash with Greek-Roman paganism and the suffering and vindication of the early church constitute the determinative trajectory of Pauline eschatology. Jim Hoag points out, however, that to see the conversion of the empire as the climax of this trajectory is nothing if not ironic—and that it appears to clash, for example, with Greg Boyd’s passionate attacks on a modern “Constantinian” church that can be so easily manipulated into sanctioning violence and injustice. The clip from one of Greg’s sermons is well worth listening to.
So Jim asks: ‘where do you believe Boyd is on point and where do you think he is at variance from your ideas that this victory over Rome was what it meant for “the kingdom of the world to become the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ”?’
I referred a couple of days back to an old interview done by James M. Hamilton with Justin Hardin (seemingly now tutor in New Testament at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) in which Hardin discusses the extent to which Paul was consciously engaging with the Roman imperial cult. I want to go back to it because the final question that is put to Hardin highlights what I think is a central and critical issue for understanding how New Testament theology works.
Scot McKnight articulates what is essentially a “New Perspective” take on the gospel for a mainstream evangelical readership in a nicely judged cover story on the apparent tension between Jesus and Paul for Christianity Today. He gives a rather personal account of the journey that many evangelicals have made in recent years from Paul to Jesus, from the traditional Reformed gospel of “justification by faith” to a much more earthy and ethically construed gospel of the “kingdom of God”, and describes how difficult it can be to integrate these two positions:
It is not exaggerating to say that evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and that many today are choosing sides. I meet many young, thinking evangelicals whose “first language” is Jesus and the kingdom. Yet despite the trend, perhaps in reaction to it, many look to Paul and justification by faith as their first language. Those addicted to kingdom language struggle to make Paul fit, while those addicted to Paul’s theological terms struggle to make Jesus fit.
I have just finished reading an excellent essay by Craig Evans entitled “The Beginning of the Good News and the Fulfillment of Scripture in the Gospel of Mark” in Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament (McMaster New Testament Studies), edited by Stanley Porter. I think I can just about spin this as a belated advent post.
Evans suggests that Mark portrayed Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy ‘as a conscious challenge to the rumors circulating in the Roman Empire that Jewish prophecy was fulfilled with the advent of Vespasian as the new emperor and, by virtue of his exalted office, the new “son of God” ’ (86). This slots into a fairly heated scholarly debate about the extent to which the “gospel” in the New Testament was framed in anti-imperial terms. I won’t attempt to summarize the arguments and counter-arguments here, but this interview with Justin Hardin, though typographically untidy, gives an impression of the debate.