Should we still love our enemies?

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?

At the risk of repeating myself...

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.

What was God's "eternal purpose"?

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)

Is the promise of the narrative-historical approach real or illusory?

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 narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what's in it for me? Part 3

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.

The salvation of Gentiles at Antioch in Pisidia

Before I get on to part three of “The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me?”, I want to make a few clarifying comments (not for the first time) about the “salvation” of some Gentiles at Antioch in Pisidia in Acts 13:44-48. I made the point in part two that Gentiles are not told in Acts that they must believe that Jesus died for their sins in order to be saved, and that what they come to believe in Antioch is that God has “brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he had promised” (13:23), whom God made king by raising him from the dead. I will try to set out as clearly as I can the stages of Paul’s argument and what happens when the Gentiles get involved. What he says, and what he doesn’t say. As modern readers we find it very difficult not to import our own theological predilections and priorities into the text.

The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what's in it for me? Part 2

In the first part of this three-part post I outlined i) what I understand by a narrative-historical hermeneutic, ii) why it cuts across the grain of mainstream evangelical thinking, and iii) in general terms how I think it can be shown that this way of reading the New Testament may still be instructive for the church today—namely that we live with the consequences of the eschatological transition described in the New Testament. Here, and in the third part, I will set out the main practical implications of this, at least as regards the central narrative of transformation.

The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1

A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament, which I strongly advocate, perhaps too strongly at times, makes the straightforward assumption that the theological content of the New Testament—its proclamations, arguments, instructions, doctrines, etc.—cannot be properly understood apart from the historical narrative by which, explicitly or implicitly, this material is framed.

This means that in order to understand what the New Testament is saying about God or Jesus or salvation or mission we have to take into account the past, present and future of the texts: i) the past story of Israel as interpreted through the Old Testament and other Jewish writings; ii) the present circumstances of the emerging communities that produced and read the texts; and iii) the foreseen future of these communities, their historical horizons. The future dimension still gets consistently overlooked, even in narrative approaches such as Tom Wright’s, which is remarkable given the thoroughgoing apocalyptic character of so much of the New Testament.

What I think Romans is about

I had a very enjoyable and encouraging couple of hours this evening teaching a class on Romans at Chelmsford Cathedral. Much of it was a discussion of the differences between Reformation readings that make justification by faith the organizing centre of the Letter and New Perspective readings that see Romans as Paul’s retelling of the story of Israel. I wasn’t there to present my own view of the text; but to help clarify my thoughts I prepared the following rough summary of how I see the argument in the Letter unfolding. We start with Paul’s only explicit statement of why he has written to the churches in Rome.

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