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

A narrative statement of missional faith

I’ve been engaged in a little exercise with some friends rewriting a mission organization’s statement of faith. What I have presented below is my reworking of a rough, more cautious, but actually rather effective first attempt to make “a bit of a narrative out of our core beliefs, rather than a bunch of rigid, stand alone statements”. How much of my more elaborate and idiosyncratic version will survive corporate scrutiny remains to be seen. It has rather less missional oomph to it.

We didn’t set out with a very clear set of guidelines. My sense is that we wanted primarily to get away from the ponderous and defensive doctrinalism of traditional statements of faith. We wanted to construct it more or less in narrative form, though it remains explicitly a statement of belief—a way of saying, “These things matter to us.” We wanted to bring the full story of God’s people back into focus to counter the unremitting individualism of modern expressions of faith. We wanted to highlight the missional dynamics of the story. We wanted it to be compelling.

We didn’t want it to be voguishly postmodern or so unlike traditional statements of faith that people could not see the connection, though I suspect I may have erased a little too much of the language of orthodoxy.

“Hell” and the individual sinner

Rob got in touch with a couple of questions about my post on the unbiblical doctrine of hell. My argument is roughly that the language of painful judgment in the New Testament—Gehenna, wailing and gnashing of teeth, violent destruction, etc.—refers not to what happens to individuals after death but to what happens to Israel or to the political-religious enemies of Israel in the course of history. For example, bodies being thrown into Gehenna—into the valley of the sons of Hinnom—is something that typically happens when Jerusalem is being besieged by an enemy (Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). It is a prophetic symbol of God’s punishment of his people. What Rob asks is this:

I’m attracted to much of the argument but just wonder how you deal with texts where the individual seems in the crosshairs. Eg., Jesus urging people to lose eyes or hands etc. as better than entering into hell. Any thoughts? Is it just saying better than being annihilated?

What also of texts where the devil seems to be headed for torment? If that’s for him, and sinners go to the same place, why would they not also have a similar fate?

Violent Jesus vs. non-violent Jesus. And the winner is...?

I’ve been reading David Neville’s book A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives in order to review it for the Evangelical Quarterly. Neville sets out the problem he means to address in the opening paragraph:

There is a discrepancy at the heart of the New Testament. Briefly stated, the discrepancy is this: although the canonical Gospels present a fairly uniform picture of Jesus as an advocate of peace and practitioner of nonretaliation, certain texts within these same Gospels and in other parts of the New Testament apparently anticipate a future arrival, or parousia, of Jesus in the guise of a violent avenger. The same Jesus who blesses peacemakers, teaches non retaliation, and responds nonviolently to violence directed against himself is nevertheless associated with end-time violence. (1)

The book describes how this tension manifests itself in the Gospels and Acts and in Revelation. I don’t recall a reason being given why the epistles are excluded, though Neville notes that in Paul’s view “rectification by grace does not preclude judgment of human works”—in this respect, he says, “Paul and Matthew were of the same mind” (21).

Who or what will see the Son of Man coming in clouds? And where?

According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that, as the apocalyptic storyline reaches its climax and the lights start going out over Jerusalem, “they” will see the Son of man coming in clouds (Mk. 13:24-26). But who—or what—are “they”? In A Peaceable Hope: Contesting Violent Eschatology in New Testament Narratives David Neville offers an interesting line of interpretation that has not often been considered.

Triumphalism, empire, and the early church

Paul Dean is troubled by the inclusion of the word “triumphantly” in the closing sentence of the previous post on The end of narrative for Christians and Jews: “For the church, narrative came to an end triumphantly in the conversion of the empire and was replaced by theology.” He asks: “Why is that word there? Do you think it was a good thing or is the word a psycho-historical interpolation?”

The word is there basically to heighten the contrast with the end of narrative forced upon the Jews by the catastrophe of the failed revolts against Rome and the subsequent emergence of rabbinic Judaism—a shift “from politics to piety”, as Wright puts it.

The end of narrative for Christians and Jews

The New Testament is an eschatological text. It tells a story, which is essentially a Jewish story about the fulfilment of age-old, deeply held hopes expressed in the Psalms and the prophets. The death and resurrection of Jesus brings that story to some sort of climax, but not to an end. There is much still to come: revolt, war, persecution, resurrection, judgment, vindication—and the day when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations. The message that the apostles took to the nations of the Greek-Roman world had as much to do with the future as with the past. The “gospel” looked back to what God had done in Christ, but it also pointed forwards to the judgment that would soon come on the great idolatrous empire:

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Rev. 14:6–7)

The woman and the dragon

Preparing some lectures on Revelation, I came across Ian Paul’s very helpful introduction to the book in 2: Exploring the New Testament: A Guide to the Letters & Revelation (Exploring the Bible) . With Revelation, probably more than with any other New Testament text, it is difficult to deal with its meaning apart from its form. How we understand its literary character—as some sort of apocalyptic text—inevitably determines how we make sense of what it has to say about the future of God’s people. The point can be illustrated nicely from the visionary allegory of the woman and the dragon in Revelation 12. Ian highlights the significance of both the mythological and the Old Testament backgrounds for interpreting the passage. I want to explore this a bit further here, not least because I think it lends support to my general contention that the New Testament is fundamentally about how the God of Israel comes to judge and rule the nations, not in some abstract theological sense but in history.

The long, difficult story of new creation

I had a long conversation over the weekend with an Asian friend who is engaged in conflict-resolution projects in her war-torn country. She was particularly interested in the importance of inter-faith conversations and practices, and we got round to talking about the difference between Christian and Buddhist worldviews or cosmologies.

As she put it, she is driven in her work by a desire to serve life, perhaps rather loosely sustained by the awareness that everything participates in the divine—I think she might describe herself as a secularized Buddhist, but I’m not sure.

I suggested that although the modern church has often appeared more inclined to bicker over beliefs and boundaries than to make the world a better place, in principle the same desire to affirm and serve life is there. But it is mediated necessarily through the story of the strained relationship between a distinct people and the Creator God, which is all the way through a story of new creation.

The “Christ hymn”: true humanity or true kingship?

The new Story of God Bible Commentary series is another encouraging sign that the narrative-historical approach to the New Testament is building up a head of steam, even if it is not entirely clear which track it is heading down or how far it might go. Interpretation is about telling the story, application is about living the story:

The authors of this series study and probe the Bible as God’s story, to discern and then articulate how we can live the Bible’s story faithfully and creatively in the culture today.

The Koinōnia blog has an excerpt from Lynn Cohick’s Story of God commentary on Philippians in which she discusses the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11. It gives an idea of the level and style that the series is aiming at. Her main point is that the passage should not be read merely as a proof-text for the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Rather the hymn “describes the person of Jesus Christ and, in so doing, develops a vision for what it means to be fully human before God”.

How Paul saw the future

Paul had a sharp and vivid understanding of what the future held. It took the form of a prophetic narrative that would affect his own people Israel, the nations and the churches. It was not a matter of peripheral interest, an appendix to his theology. The narrative is pervasive in his letters and determinative for faith. People were converted to a new belief about the future. They believed, for example, that a day of wrath was coming from which they would be delivered by Jesus:

…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess. 1:9–10; cf. 1 Cor. 1:7–8)

They believed that they would sooner or later inherit, as a community, as a nascent culture or civilization, a radically new political-religious order when the God of Israel would be acknowledged as sovereign over the nations.

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