I am sitting in the library at the London School of Theology trying to cobble together a book proposal. Looking for distraction I have just pulled off the shelf beside me The Wicket Gate by G.A. Studdert Kennedy, first published in 1923. Opening the book more or less at random I happened upon this entertaining comment on the lines “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son” from the Nicene Creed….
Steven Opp has drawn attention to the argument of W.G.T. Shedd in The Doctrine of Endless Punishment that Sheol in the Old Testament (Hades in the Greek Old Testament) is not merely the grave but a place of endless punishment for the wicked, in part, at least, on the grounds that there are passages which suggest an alternative destination for the righteous. The passages in question are Psalms 16:11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24 and Proverbs 14:32. On a superficial reading of these isolated verses Shedd’s argument looks plausible. But if context and the underlying Hebrew text are taken into consideration, that plausibility disintegrates rather easily.
I have suggested in The Coming of the Son of Man and on this blog that the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is not intended to provide factual information about the afterlife but rather belongs to Jesus’ critique of a complacent elite in Israel that served mammon rather than God (cf. Lk. 16:13-14). It is, in effect, a parable for the coming eschatological reversal of fortunes in Israel, when the hungry would be filled with good things and the rich would be sent empty away. This argument allows me to hold to my view that Jesus did not teach the existence of “hell” as a place of eternal conscious torment; rather he warned disobedient Israel, and especially the various political-religious elites, that they faced divine judgment in the form of invasion, war, slaughter, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The disposal of the dead in the valley of the sons of Hinnom—that is Gehenna—stands as a metonymy for the appalling suffering and loss of life that would accompany the siege of Jerusalem. It is not an image for suffering after death.
But the question was recently put to me: If that’s the case, why did Jesus tell a story about the afterlife in order to make such a mundane historical point? It’s a good question.
Having just read Frank Viola’s Beyond Evangelicalism, I thought I ought to take a look at David Fitch’s more solidly analytical, and much less succinctly titled, .
The leading argument of the book is that the narrowly focused conversionism characteristic of much modern evangelicalism has produced an empty and duplicitous “politic”, or political stance, in the world. Fitch gives lots of sordid examples, from Hal Lindsey to Bernie Ebbers. The critique is Žižekian, but the remedy will have to go beyond Žižek. So Fitch will argue that our defining doctrines of i) the authority of scripture, ii) the gospel, and iii) mission need to be re-grounded “in the core of our life together: Jesus the incarnate Christ, as sent from the Father, extended in the Spirit” (130). This will give us instead a “politic of fullness”, arising out of the fulness of Christ.
Chris asks a straightforward and pertinent question in response to my general argument that a narrative-historical hermeneutic, which necessarily brings into the foreground of our reading the contextual factors that restrict the New Testament’s frame of reference, may still be formative for the belief and practice of the church today:
I am part of the Mennonite movement and you know we stress the Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies. Are we reading Jesus out of context to say we should be doing that today? How would we know?
I have been goaded, against my better judgment, into responding to Peter Wilkinson’s persistent complaint that I have not answered the five points that he raised against the narrative-historical reading that I have been determinedly advocating here. His arguments have to do not so much with the inner coherence of the historical reading as with its supposed failure to do what modern evangelicalism does so well—that is, account for the salvation and sanctification of the individual believer. So at the risk of repeating myself, here is my response to his five points, mostly a recapitulation of what I wrote in a series of posts, beginning with The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1, intended to address precisely the concerns that he raised.
I recently argued that Frank Viola’s definition of “beyond evangelical” captures some important, healthy emphases but does not do justice to the “narrated existence of the people of God”. Frank’s response was that the narrative component comes under the fourth note of the “eternal purpose” of God; he has developed the argument elsewhere, notably in his book From Eternity to Here: Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God and in a “flagship” talk. The phrase comes from Ephesians 3:11 (“This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord…”), which Frank interprets it as a reference to the centrality of the church in the intentions of God:
Behold the towering passion of your God: The church, the ekklesia, is His ultimate passion. She is His central thought. She is His eternal purpose. This glorious woman is in Him, by Him, through Him, and to Him. God’s grand mission is to obtain a bride who passionately loves His Son. Any missional endeavor, therefore, that doesn’t put the church front and center falls short of God’s central thought. (From Eternity to Here, 128)
I’m participating in a small forum on, among other things, critical realism somewhere in the damp, green depths of the English countryside at the moment. Critical realism can be addressed from different angles, but one major area of relevance for Christian preachers, teachers, and theologians is the current movement towards historical readings of the New Testament. Critical realism has been used by people like Tom Wright to situate such readings between the naïve realism of modernist historiography and the radical epistemological scepticism of postmodernism.
The British historian David Bebbington is usually credited with devising the standard definition of evangelicalism. I came across it again today in Frank Viola’s compilation of blog posts . Viola very briefly summarizes Bebbington’s definition in order to explain what he means by “beyond evangelical”….
In this short series of posts I have been trying to show why and how a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament—that is, a reading that adjusts the theological content of the New Testament to its proper and natural historical horizons—remains formative and instructive for the church today. The second post looked at the place of Jesus’ death in the New Testament story. My argument is that it has to be understood essentially as a death for the sake of Israel, or a death for the sake of the future of the people of God, in which Gentiles also came to have a vital and game-changing interest. Luke’s account of Paul’s experience in Antioch in Pisidia does not tell the whole story, but it certainly backs up this general contention.