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

The forgiveness of Israel’s sins in Hebrews

The Letter to the Hebrews is addressed to Jewish Christians and is, therefore, thematically much closer to the Gospels and the early part of Acts, which is why I want to look at it before we come to Paul. The argument is by no means an easy one, so if you’re not interested in the sordid details of the exposition that follows, here is the executive summary:

Jesus’ death was a once-and-for-all sacrifice for the sins committed by Israel under the Law. Just as his death on a tree redeemed Jews from the curse of the Law, so Jesus’ offering of his own blood, by which he qualified to enter the heavenly sanctuary, gained for Jews forgiveness of sins committed under the Law and made possible a new sacrifice-free covenant.

This lends further weight to my cautious thesis regarding the central atonement narrative, which is that Jesus died directly for the sins of Israel, as an outworking of the Law, and only indirectly for the sins of Gentiles.

Forgiveness of sins in Acts

At the end of Luke the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations (Lk. 24:47). In Matthew they are told to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), which is presumably a baptism specifically of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ death, as a concrete and ultimate act of obedience to God, has sealed a new covenant with Israel, on the basis of which the sins of the people are forgiven. The disciples are to tell the world about this. In Acts we see, from Luke’s perspective, what this mission looked like in practice.

The absence of any reference to the atoning function of Jesus’ death in these passages is noticeable. The pattern is simple and consistent: people believe in the story of what God is doing for and through his people, central to which is the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus; they repent and are forgiven. The evidence of Acts suggests that modern evangelicalism has grossly overstated the personal saving significance of Jesus’ death. And conversely, understated the significance of the vindication and exaltation of Jesus.

Forgiveness of sins in the Gospels

My intention was to write a fairly straightforward piece on the connection between forgiveness of sins and the death of Jesus for my Lexicon of theological terms in narrative-historical perspective, but it’s become too unwieldy to fit into one article. In Forgiveness and the wiped out document nailed to the cross I put forward a simple overview of the argument, with crude diagrams, and a reading of Colossians 2:13-15, where Paul links the forgiveness of sins to the cross by way of the metaphor of an erased document. But I think, now, that I will also deal with forgiveness in the Gospels, Acts, Paul and Hebrews in separate posts. I’ll then put a final summary piece in the Lexicon for good measure.

To repeat, the basic contentions are: first, that in the core narrative of the New Testament Jesus’ death is viewed as a death for Israel rather than universally as a death for all people; and secondly, that forgiveness of sins is tied not to Jesus’ death as an atoning event but simply to repentance and belief in what the God of Israel was doing to transform the status of his people in relation to the nations.

Forgiveness and the wiped out document nailed to the cross

One of the implications of a narrative-historical hermeneutic is that the community, not the individual, is made the locus for New Testament theological reasoning. So, for example, eschatology—the “end” stuff—is not about what happens to individuals when they die but about what happens to communities, nations, empires, when God steps in to change things. This is not to say that the fate of individuals is unimportant, just that it is not at the centre of New Testament thought.

The same argument applies to soteriology—the “salvation” stuff. I am inclined to think that it is at least misleading to reduce salvation to the formula “Jesus died for my sins”, as though the cross were an event in our personal narrative:

A couple more problems with the narrative-historical premise. Will it never end?

In The narrative premise of a post-Christendom theology, which stands as an introductory piece for the approach to reading the New Testament that I think an “evangelical” church somehow needs to take on board, I suggest that: 

The New Testament presupposes, describes, and predicts a long, tumultuous transition in the history of the people of God, running from the initial summons to Israel to repent in the face of imminent judgment and national destruction (John the Baptist) to the eventual displacement of the institutions and worldview of classical paganism and the recognition of Christ as sovereign over the empire and beyond (Constantine).

My point is that this is not just historical background. It is what the New Testament is all about. It is what the theology of the New Testament is all about. So, for example, Jesus’ death must be understood in the light of the impending political catastrophe; his resurrection anticipates a dramatically different state of affairs beyond that catastrophe. Al has asked, however, whether the argument is not rather invalidated by the way things actually turned out….

God, theology and history

In response to my attempt to correct the impression that the narrative-historical approach to reading scripture has an “ultimate weakness”, Justin and his brother Daniel kindly explained that I had got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The problem that they highlight is not so much that firmly locating the New Testament in its own historical context renders it powerless to address the situation of the church today. Their concern, driven by a serious personal consideration, is that it leaves us with a portrait of God far removed from modern conceptions—as Daniel puts it, “ontologically at odds with” the God articulated by such modern methods as Process theology or Radical theology. I appreciate the concern they have to take the narrative-historical approach seriously and have some rather disconnected thoughts in response. Please keep in mind that modern philosophical theology is not really my thing.

The strengths (and weaknesses) of the narrative-historical method

In a discussion of John 14:6 on the podcast site Home Brewed Christianity Justin makes this comment with reference to the narrative-historical hermeneutic that underpins much of what I have written on this blog and in my recent books:

…what I think is good about Andrew (as well as being his ultimate weakness) is that he advocates for an unflinching focus on the narrative-historical context of the text which circumvents any particular theology or doctrine by saying ‘what is the historical-narrative trajectory of the story’ and allows it to shape and define how we see God acting in scripture. Andrew attempts to remove any theological bias and fights against a practice of reading our theological orthodoxy and history backwards into the text. So in short… he advocates that for as much as humanly is possible we must allow the narrative to say only what it is saying to only the people it is saying it to only in the historical context it is said in. Many say they do this but I’ve not found anyone else that does it so methodically as he does.

This seems to me to be a pretty good summary assessment. Thank you, Justin. I want to address that parenthesis about the “ultimate weakness” of the methodology, but first I will outline what I take to be the essential theological content generated by the approach and then briefly list what I think are its main strengths. I have set out my understanding of the “I am the way and the truth and the life” saying here.

The Great (Apocalyptic) Commission

I recently received an email from someone who has a friend who had a couple of points to make about the so-called Great Commission. She wants to know what I think.

  • Since Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all “nations” rather than of all “people”, what he means is something like “make Christians among all people groups”, not “make everybody a Christian”.
  • The mission of Jesus is to redeem a people whose role in the world will be to ‘exemplify and manifest God’s characteristics “as a city on a hill”’. It is not, as Evangelicals would have us believe, to crowd as many people as possible into that city.

What I think is that this is basically right as far as it goes but that it doesn’t go far enough….

Reading the parable of the mustard seed after Christendom

As I see it, a narrative-historical theology is bound to recognize that the collapse of western Christendom is a profoundly significant event in the story of the historical people of God—as significant as the exodus, the exile, Pentecost, the destruction of Jerusalem, the conversion of the empire, the Great Schism between East and West, or the Reformation. The story does not begin with Jesus and it does not stop with Jesus. Our theology, therefore, is unavoidably post-Christendom and should be aware of the fact: the context is not incidental.

For this reason I think that the Anabaptists, who have embraced the current marginalization of the church more enthusiastically than most, are worth listening closely to. Closely, but not uncritically. Anabaptists have been so quick to embrace the post-Christendom reality of the church because they have always been resolutely opposed to the cosy collusion between church and political power that began with Constantine. But this entrenched antipathy, like any ideological bias, can lead to distortions.

Discipleship means giving up everything to follow Jesus. Or does it?

Lloyd Pietersen’s post-Christendom reading of the Gospels leads him to stress the fact that for Luke “discipleship means giving up everything to follow Jesus” ( Reading the Bible After Christendom , Kindle version, loc. 657). Jesus tells his disciples that “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”, but to gain it they will have to sell their possessions and give to the needy. By taking this radical step they will ensure that they are not distracted from their course by the treasure that they hold on earth (Lk. 12:32-34). Like a man who wishes to build a tower or a king going out to fight a battle, they must frankly assess the cost of following Jesus, because “any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (14:28-33).

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