Historical context for the New Testament

I keep making the point that the New Testament is a situated theological engagement with the historical narrative of the people of God. As such it is a work both of memory and of imagination: it addresses the present in the light of what has happened and what will happen.

It seems a good idea, therefore, to set out a rough outline of the relevant period—basically, in my view, the period from the decree of Cyrus permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem to Constantine’s Edict of Milan, by which Christianity was legalized. Modern evangelicalism has a very poor sense of history. We have somehow persuaded ourselves that the New Testament can be read perfectly well in more or less complete isolation from the historical substrate which it presupposes at every point. That is because we are only really interested in theology. I want to challenge that bias. What follows is very incomplete and is not very exciting in itself—I’ve made little attempt to work the Jesus story into it. But it should not be read merely as optional background material. It shares the same narrative foreground space as the New Testament itself.

Response to Ben Witherington on Gehenna

Ben Witherington has taken the trouble to post a couple of comments (here and here) in response to my critique of his argument about Gehenna in his book Revelation and the End Times. He makes four points in defence of his more or less traditional understanding of geenna in the Gospels as a reference to a place of everlasting punishment after death. I am delighted that he has taken the trouble to address the “substantive points” that I raised—basically a restatement of my view that, like Jeremiah before him, Jesus invoked the Valley of Hinnom as a metonymy for judgment on Jerusalem. But I remain unconvinced.

Gospel: a story in parts

The “good news” in the New Testament is really the telling of the whole story, from Jesus’ initial proclamation to Israel through to judgment on the pagan world. But it has been broken down into its component parts. This observation correlates rather well with Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘ “creed” and “gospel” are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel’ ( The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited , 63), though the narrative details would come out rather differently. The creedal narrative that emerges from the New Testament is a string of good news items.

Scot McKnight and the gospel of King Jesus: halfway there

In his new book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited Scot McKnight starts out by arguing that the “gospel” has to be distinguished from the “plan of salvation” that lies at the heart of modern evangelical theology and preaching. The gospel is not a formula for personal salvation; rather it belongs to “the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s Story” (44). Only once we get this difference sorted out will it become possible to ‘develop a “salvation culture” that finds its only true home in a “gospel culture”. The urgency of this correction lies in the fact that only a “gospel culture”, in Scot’s view, can inform and sustain discipleship.

Ben Witherington III on Gehenna, and the clash of paradigms

The premise of this site is that evangelical theology is in transition and that this transition is driven by some really quite deep tectonic shifts in the way that the evangelical community understands its biblical origins. In simple terms, it amounts to a clash between two paradigms—one that prioritizes the theological interests and commitments of the interpreting community, the other that prioritizes the historical situatedness of the texts. Ben Witherington’s discussion of Jesus’ teaching about “Gehenna” in his little book Revelation and the End Times provides a good illustration of how these two paradigms may quietly bump into each other without any one noticing—including, it would seem, the author. In my view these collisions are not innocuous: they are symptomatic of the deeper shift that is taking place, they are evidence of methodological confusion, they should be exposed, and they should be resolved in favour of the historical reading.

Emerging ecclesiology in crisis

I have been meaning for some time to respond to some comments made by Jason Clark to the effect that the emerging church lacks a coherent ecclesiology. He was commenting on a piece I wrote four years ago asking: What does the emerging church stand for?

Jason acknowledges that there have been some important ecclesial “turns”—the search for a more solid experience of church in Anglicanism, for example, or the development of “missional communities”. But he feels, nevertheless, that ecclesiology has rather lost out to mission. The emerging church movement has mapped the postmodern socio-cultural landscape in considerable detail but has not attempted to define the form of the body of Christ in this brave new world with anything like the same enthusiasm.

How could the church have got doctrine x wrong?

Doctrinal revisionism is in the air, and unsurprisingly it makes people nervous. Currently it appears that many of the fundamental tenets of modern Protestant orthodoxy are being subjected to critical re-examination from the inside—among them justification by faith, penal substitutionary atonement, the subordination of women, the second coming, heaven as the final destination of the saved, hell as the final destination of the lost. How come? How can that be good? How can the church have got so much wrong?

1 Peter and communities of eschatological transformation

This is another attempt to sketch the “eschatological” narrative that underlies 1 Peter and shapes the theological content of the Letter. My argument is that the eschatology—the narratively constructed future that can be extrapolated from the Letter—is not merely a component of Peter’s theology alongside other components such as soteriology or ecclesiology. Modern theology has taught us to look for that sort of systematic organization, but the Letter is a response to the concrete circumstances of the communities addressed. Those circumstances are narratively or dynamically or historically constructed; and the theological content is what Peter has to say in the light of that construction. Theology and narrative are inseparable.

Jimmy Dunn: one God, one Lord, and the shema

During a lively dialogue with Larry Hurtado at the British New Testament Society conference this morning Jimmy Dunn put forward his well known view that there is a significant functional differentiation—even subordination—between Jesus and God in the New Testament that should not be obscured in our efforts to safeguard a high christology. He was responding to Hurtado’s basic argument that the worship of the earliest churches exhibited a dyadic pattern—that is, in their prayer, acclamation, confession, hymns, and such practices as the Lord’s meal and baptism, they effectively “worshipped” Jesus in the same terms as they worshipped God.

The revelation of Jesus: a quick narrative-historical reading of 1 Peter

Behind every letter in the New Testament there is a story. Behind Romans, for example, there is the story of communities of Gentile Christians called in Christ to be living sacrifices for the sake of the eventual victory of Israel’s God over the gods and powers of the pagan world. That’s how I read it, at least. Behind the Letter to the Hebrews there is the story of a Jewish-Christian community somewhere that has faced severe persecution and is likely to encounter worse in the near future, but has grown weary of the struggle to remain faithful.

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