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

John Barton on biblical criticism and reading the Old Testament

I have found John Barton’s defence of “biblical criticism” as a fundamentally semantic or literary enterprise extremely helpful in clarifying what I mean by a narrative-historical hermeneutic. The biblical text relates, on the one hand, to how things really were, and it is the task of historical-criticism to examine that referential relationship: is the text what it purports to be? does it give an accurate and trustworthy account of the people and events to which it refers? But it relates, on the other hand, to the communities which produced and read the text. This is also a historical relationship, but the critical task in this case is primarily to understand what is being said by and for the benefit of the original communities. It is this emphasis on what is being said that is so valuable in The Nature of Biblical Criticism .

Don Carson, kingdom, ethics and individual salvation

I managed to get an internet connection on the bus between Antakya (Antioch on the Orontes) and Tarsus and followed a link from Michael Bird to a Themelios article by Don Carson on “Kingdom, Ethics, and Individual Salvation”, republished on the Gospel Coalition site. It doesn’t seem an inappropriate theme to reflect on as we ride in air-conditioned comfort in the footsteps of Paul.

Carson is responding to a number of different views on the kingdom of God advanced in recent years that diverge from “traditional evangelicalism and traditional Reformed thought”. Most of them are attempts to reintroduce a social and ethical dimension to the church’s understanding of the kingdom of God, either alongside or in displacement of a supposedly Pauline focus on individual salvation. As Carson puts it:

…the focus of their frame of reference is one or another of these large visions, usually tied to a distinctive understanding of the kingdom, heavily leaning toward societal transformation (either of the entire society or, in the Anabaptist heritage, the ecclesial society).

Where should a statement of faith begin?

I was asked a while back by Brad Knight what I thought of this post by Roger Olson. Olson addresses the question:

When composing a Christian statement of faith, a statement of faith for a Christian church, educational institution, whatever, what or whom should the first article be about? Where should it begin?

He rejects starting either with God, because it may lead to subordinationism, or with the Bible, because it may lead to biblicism, and argues instead that “our primary focus of faith as Christians, that which conditions all else, is Jesus”. We cannot begin with a “generic or even pre-Jesus” account of God and then “project that onto Jesus”. We must confess fundamentally and primarily, in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsay, that “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all”. Martin Luther, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann are also invoked in support of this view.

Rocking the boat: Noah in narrative-historical perspective

Following the brilliantly intense Christian Associates staff conference in Budapest, my wife and I are spending a couple of weeks in eastern Turkey. Yesterday we went to see the remarkable rock structure, in the hills close to the border with Iran, that is believed by some to be the petrified remains of Noah’s ark. The archaeological site is named after the Turkish army captain İlhan Durupınar who noticed it in aerial photographs taken after it was exposed by earthquakes and heavy rain in 1948, but it is known locally as Nuhun Gemisi, “Noah’s ship”.

Evangelicals, historical criticism and the second coming

One of the most encouraging developments in evangelical thought in recent years has been the willingness of scholars to engage with scientific and historical criticism. I have recommended the work of Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns before. , edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry, is very much in the same vein. It serves as a good introduction to a number of critical debates. Did Adam and Eve exist? Did the exodus really happen? Did Israel’s covenant theology predate the exile? Did the prophets always predict the future accurately? Does the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy compromise the canon? Is the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels historically reliable? And is the Paul of Acts compatible with the Paul of the Letters?

The aim of the book is to show that historical criticism can be done honestly and critically by evangelicals without jeopardizing the fundamental tenets of a Christian confession. The argument in most of the chapters is that even if, in any instance, we were to accept—let’s say hypothetically—the findings of historical criticism, the basic theological truth at issue remains pretty much intact. Not surprisingly, there is less willingness to entertain the hypothetical possibilities when it comes to the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus.

Making space for God in post-Christian Europe

I spent last week teaching at a church family camp in Belgium on the theme of “Making space for God in post-Christian Europe”. It was a great opportunity to think through, with a highly motivated but marginalized group of people, how a narrative-historical approach to the New Testament might help us to rethink our response to the overwhelming challenge of secularism. This is brief summary of the main points that I wanted to get across.

We began by talking about the crisis as it is experienced by the evangelical churches in Flemish-speaking Belgium, wedged uncomfortably between the formerly dominant Catholic Church and an increasingly aggressive secularism. On the one hand, the identity of the evangelical churches has been determined to a large degree by a rigorous anti-Catholicism: many of their members are converts from the Catholic Church and regard it as the great prostitute, Babylon. On the other, they are painfully aware that their young people are finding it very difficult to keep believing in a culture that is so hostile to faith. In an article in The New York Times (“A More secular Europe, Divided by the Cross”) Andrew Higgins quotes Gudrun Kugler, who is director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians:

“There is a general suspicion of anything religious, a view that faith should be kept out of the public sphere,” said Gudrun Kugler…. “There is a very strong current of radical secularism,” she said, adding that this affects all religions but is particularly strong against Christianity because of a view that “Christianity dominated unfairly for centuries” and needs to be put in its place.

One way or another, this situation accounts for the reluctance of the churches to depart from a very narrow and conservative understanding of their task.

Church as eschatological community (part 2)

This is the belated second part of my write up of a talk I gave at Community Church Harlesden a few weeks back. In part one I argued that what we find in the New Testament is not a generic or standard or universal definition of church but a definition of church as historically contextualized, eschatological communities. An eschatological community, as I use the term here, is a community that is called to respond to an eschatological crisis—by which I mean a radical historical challenge to its identity or even existence. My argument is that in order to survive the crisis of defeat by the forces of modernity and post-modernity the western church needs to recover a sense of being part of the story of the community of God’s people, with a past, a present, and most importantly a future.

Where does authority lie? Peter Enns on historical criticism and evangelicalism

Peter Enns has written a clear, concise and sensible piece on the uneasy relationship between historical criticism and evangelicalism that I think is well worth reading. He notes the tensions between evangelicalism’s commitment to scripture as divine revelation and the proper task of historical criticism, which is to look behind scripture—to “inquire as to its origins and meaning as understood within the cultural context in which the various texts were written”. Evangelicalism is comfortable in principle with the grammatical-historical method, but it is not happy with the way critical tools have been used—very effectively—to undermine the authority of the texts.

Three ways to put ourselves in the story

In response to my argument that what we have in the New Testament is a “narrative for the early churches as they confronted the frightening hegemony of classical paganism”, Evelyn asks, quite reasonably: “but then how can it serve as a narrative for us?” I will suggest here that there are three basic ways in which the New Testament may serve as a narrative for us. We can be in the narrative, we can be in part of the narrative, or we can be beyond the narrative: in each case our identity is determined by the narrative. There’s nothing much new here—it’s really just a summary of earlier material.

Would God have got excited about the conversion of Constantine?

Someone recently got in touch with some pertinent questions about my contention that the main trajectory of New Testament eschatology lands not at the end-of-the-world but firmly in the muddy battle-field of history, at the conversion of Rome.

This is not just a question about New Testament eschatology, of course. It is also a question—as will become clear—about how we understand revelation and, indeed, about how we understand God.


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