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

Good Friday: the death of Jesus in narrative-historical context

It has been stated a number of times in recent discussions here that only a divine Jesus could atone for the sins of the world. The death of a mere man is simply not big enough or significant enough—metaphysically speaking—to account for such a massive outcome. Since it is Good Friday tomorrow, I will take the opportunity to explore this argument in a little more depth. The selection of texts may seem arbitrary, and I may have missed some important ones out. But they seem to be the ones that give us most to go on.

I can understand that once we have reached the consolidated theological position that Jesus is fully God and fully man, it may seem necessary to read that ontology back into everything that is said about him in the New Testament, including what is said about his death. But I am at a loss to see how the case might be made as a matter of biblical interpretation. If we read historically rather than theologically, forwards rather than backwards, the efficacy of Jesus’ death as an act of atonement appears to rest not on ontology but on a concrete act of faithful obedience within the narrative of Israel. As I see it, therefore, the task we face is to wrest Jesus’ death from the sphere of an abstract metaphysics and return it to the apocalyptically constructed account of what God was doing with and through first century Israel vis-à-vis the nations.

Jesus is God or Jesus is Lord?

The long conversation I have been having with John Tancock (starting here) illustrates rather well, to my mind, the difference between the theological approach and the narrative-historical (a.k.a. apocalyptic-eschatological, biblical critical, you name it) approach to reading the New Testament. John was responding to an old post entitled Did Jesus claim to be God?, but a couple of recent pieces have explored the conflict on a broader hermeneutical basis: The battle between theology and history for the soul of the church: 24 antitheses and Theology, narrative and history: how they work in practice.

From John’s perspective, as a long-standing defender of classic Trinitarianism against the barbarian tribes of Modalists, Arians, Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, interpretation of the christological texts is ultimately answerable to the Council of Nicaea. So if I do not agree with him that one text or another does not teach that Jesus is God, then it would appear that I am an Arian and so a serious threat to the integrity of the faith.

From my perspective, however, it is very difficult to see why interpretation should be held accountable to a debate that took place centuries later in a very different intellectual environment. If interpretation of the New Testament is answerable to anything, it should be to the court of the Jewish scriptures and, to a lesser degree, of the literature of second temple Judaism.

When prophecy fails: why do people always assume that Jesus got it wrong?

I have started reading Frederick Murphy’s book Apocalypticism in the Bible and Its World: A Comprehensive Introduction . Why? Because I think that the theological paradigm for interpretation of the New Testament has passed its sell-by date and that apocalyptic is a crucial component of the alternative historical paradigm. The book is described as a “Comprehensive Introduction”, and it appears to be just that.

One of the things that Murphy discusses in the opening chapter is the relationship between apocalyptic and prophetic literature. A key difference has to do with how they deal with history. Both genres expect divine intervention in human affairs, but whereas in the case of prophecy “that intervention deals with a specific historical situation and the resolution results in something not so different from what preceded it”, apocalypticism generally predicts an imminent end to history (21). Significantly, Murphy points out that in prophecy the language of “cosmic disruption”—of a “new heaven and new earth”, for example—is “for the most part metaphorical”. I would argue that this is also true for much apocalyptic writing, but that is not really the point I want to make here.

Theology, narrative and history: how they work in practice

Following up on The battle between theology and history for the soul of the church: 24 antitheses, I want to clear up what looks to me like an area of confusion regarding the relationship between theology, narrative and history. In a couple of helpful comments Ted Grimsrud argues for what he calls a “practice-oriented theology”, which in his view occupies more or less the same space on the chart as the narrative-historical approach. He contrasts a theology that is mainly about doctrine and abstract ideas with a theology that is “part of the story of bringing healing into a broken world”. Such a theology is historical in the sense that “it happens in our historical existence, our lives in this world”.

So another contrast would be between theology that focuses on life after death (and is “ahistorical”) and theology that focuses on life before death (and is “historical”).

I would certainly agree that theology should be practice-oriented, though I am not convinced that the story that begins with Abraham is primarily one of “bringing healing into a broken world”. But I also want to point out that if we begin with the practice of theology, we are likely to think of it as “historical” only in a synchronic or existential sense, in contrast to what is transcendent or “ahistorical”. The narrative-historical approach is interested in history as a diachronic phenomenon. I suggest to Ted that his practice-oriented theology is (in practice) narrative but not narrative-historical. This is not particularly a criticism. It is a way of pointing out that we need our “theology” to do different things. Ted is more interested in application than in biblical interpretation. I am more interested in biblical interpretation than application. Both are important. The challenge is to connect the two without sacrificing the integrity of one or the other.

The battle between theology and history for the soul of the church: 24 antitheses

I keep coming back to this. There are people out there in the church—perhaps not very many—who think more or less the same way that I do. We may not agree on the details or the degree, but we are oriented in roughly the same direction. But there are a lot of good people out there in the church who don’t think the way I do, and it is a constant struggle to understand why this is and what can be done about it. It sometimes feels like a battle for the soul of the (evangelical?) church. Perhaps that’s too melodramatic, but the distrust runs deep, and I don’t see a lot being done to build bridges. I’m certainly not helping much.

I tend to think of it broadly as a clash between theology and history, but, as the chart below indicates, we’re really talking about the clash between theology and history on the “high” side of the polarity between a high view of scripture and a low view of scripture. These are not absolute positions, of course. They are scales, they overlap, they generate makeshift, often unintended alliances. I have argued for a consistent narrative-historical reading of scripture, for two reasons: because it does justice to the texts and because it grounds us in the lived reality of the people of God. Many people are sympathetic to this point of view but would prefer a theological-historical hybrid, a compromise position between the two quadrants. We should also note that this is a distinctly Western-Protestant view of things.

Reading the Old Testament as a Christian

I am preparing a piece for a theological forum in a couple of weeks on reading the Old Testament as a Christian. I will probably make two main points. The first is that the traditional approach needs to be reversed. We usually read the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament: on the one hand, we go looking for Christ behind every tree—or better, every rock (cf. 1 Cor. 10:4); on the other, we resort to methods of obfuscation, decontextualization, excision, allegorization, and plain wishful thinking in order to make the theological content of the Old Testament fit whatever dogmatic grid we have constructed for reading the New Testament. I will suggest, to the contrary, that we currently need to read the New Testament in the light of the Old Testament. The New Testament is much less “Christian” and much more Jewish than we usually think.

A missional understanding of justification by faith (by way of Isaiah)

Isaiah is on the defensive. He hears a word from the Lord and he has to speak it. He does not disobey, nor does he contradict God. As a result, he gets scourged, beaten, and spat upon. But he can endure all this abuse from unrighteous Israel because the Lord is his helper. He has not been disgraced, he will not be put to shame, for “he who justified (dikaiōsas) me draws near” (Is. 50:8 LXX). On this basis he defies his opponents:

Look, the Lord helps me; who will harm me? Look, all of you will become old like a garment, and as it were a moth will devour you. (Is. 50:9 LXX)

In this painful conflict with a nation which mostly refuses to believe that his words are from God, Isaiah is confident nevertheless that he is in the right, that he is doing the right thing—that he is justified by God because he has been faithful in performing the task of a prophet.

Eternal life and the story of Israel

I got a question from someone recently asking about the meaning of “eternal life” in the Gospels. He takes it that the expression “age to come” refers to the time after either the collapse of national Israel or the collapse of the pagan oikoumenē. That is also my view. But at the end of the story of the wealthy ruler Jesus appears to connect the age to come with “eternal life” (Lk. 18:30); and later it is closely associated with the resurrection (Lk. 20:35). Does this not suggest that “age to come” refers not to a historical but to a resurrected existence?

I want to answer the question a little indirectly—and perhaps incompletely—by considering the criticism of Tom Wright’s understanding of Jesus’ eschatology and kingdom ethics that Nicholas Perrin puts forward in Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright .

What is the basis for the mission to the Gentiles?

As a thoroughly Gentile church we take the logic of a mission to the Gentiles for granted, but it’s not as obvious or inevitable as we might think. Jesus appears to have been almost entirely occupied with a mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6; 15:24; cf. Jer. 50:6) and, while in the flesh, even to have opposed the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles (Matt. 10:5). The community of believers in Jerusalem—the direct heirs of his mission to Israel—had a hard time coming to terms with the unconditional inclusion of Gentiles in the renewal movement. It was clearly not a self-evident extension of the program. So how did it come about? What was its theological underpinning?

Eschatology, mission and the theological formation of the church

I spent a day this week with a group of leaders from a network of churches in the UK who were discussing how best to teach theology across the movement. They went about it with a refreshing candour: “We have an anti-intellectual history—we need to embrace learning.” The discussion revolved around the questions of what should be included in an “in house” theological training programme and how it might most effectively be delivered.

The rather less practical question that kept going through my mind, however, was: What do we want this sort of programme to achieve? What is the guiding vision? Are we looking to theology to underpin our ecclesial structures and doctrinal commitments? Or do we need it to take us somewhere? In the context of the consultation that would probably not have been a very helpful contribution—the network in question already has a solid vision for the coming decade. But I want to explore a bit further here what we currently need theology to do in our churches.

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