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.
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.
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.
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.
Steven Opp is an evangelist. Remarkably, he has read my book The Future of the People of God—I imagine he is the only “evangelist” to have done so—and he wants to know whether the narrative-historical reading of Romans can be reconciled with traditional approaches to evangelism:
I work in evangelism and so Romans, which is a key text in giving the Gospel, is important for me to understand.… I’m still trying to figure out how the narrative view can coincide with the traditional “Romans Road” for presenting the Gospel to a modern individual.
I really like this comment from Steven Opp—first, because it gives me an opportunity to address in a bit more detail the relation between the justification of Gentiles on the basis of what they have done and the justification of the people of God by faith; and secondly, because Steven is an evangelist and naturally wants to know whether the narrative reading is going to help him present the gospel to “a modern individual”.
So today more on those righteous Gentiles. The question of what an evangelist might do with this approach, if anything, we’ll look at in a day or two.
What about in Ch. 3 when speaking of both Jews and Gentiles Paul says no one is righteous, not one? Then he goes on to talk about Jesus. Is the difference that while no one is righteous (Ch. 3) the Gentiles do righteous things (Ch. 2), so you can be unrighteous but still do righteous deeds which effects how you are judged?
The popular view is that when Christians die, they go to heaven to be with God for ever and ever. This is a sub-biblical notion that has to some extent been corrected in recent years, thanks not least to Tom Wright. We are now much more likely to recognize that the biblical narrative terminates not in the migration of saved souls to heaven but in the renewal of heaven and earth and the descent of God to dwell in the midst of his new creation.
We had a very interesting session on the Book of Revelation in Harlesden last Tuesday evening. The big hermeneutical question it raised, in my view, is whether we live in the story it tells or after the story it tells. Barney suggested that we live in it and compared its complex allusive discourse cleverly and engagingly to the Meatrix. In many respects the analogy works well: it certainly helps us to understand the coded nature of the Book of Revelation better. But there is a critical point, I think, at which the analogy breaks down. Factory farming is a contemporary issue for us. Is that true of the issues addressed in the Book of Revelation? I don’t think so. We live in the Meatrix allegory. We do not live in the main story of that is being told in largely Revelation. We live after it and have to learn from it in rather different ways.
This question was put to me via the contact form. It’s brief and I’m not entirely sure where it’s coming from. My guess is that the questioner is from a Calvinist background and wants to know whether my writings are safe to read, but I could be wrong, and it doesn’t much affect my response.
I found an article on your website and noticed it mentioned the word “Reformed” but I couldn’t tell from the context if you hold to Reformed theology or not. Can you please explain where you stand on Reformed theology, Calvinism and the doctrines of grace?
A four hour ferry journey across Lake Van gives me the opportunity to write up some reflections on chapter seven of Tom Wright’s How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels , in which he describes how the clash between God and Caesar plays out in the story of Jesus. These rusting boats have for a long time carried trains and their passengers travelling between Istanbul and Tehran. Today’s cargo consists of several freight wagons, a couple of Kurds, ourselves, and an emaciated German cyclist heading for Tashkent, whom we fed with the leftovers from our bread and cheese lunch.