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

The Lord said to my lord...

I have argued in a number of posts recently (see below) that the confession that Jesus is Lord is not the same as the confession that Jesus is God, and that we are likely to miss a critical part of New Testament teaching if we carelessly conflate the two. There is an eschatological or historical narrative about lordship, which in my view aims at judgment against the idolatrous Greek-Roman world, and there is a protological or cosmic narrative, modelled on Jewish wisdom thought, by which Jesus is closely associated with God as creator. In the first, Jesus is given authority to rule at the right hand of God. In the second, he is an agent or means of creation or new creation. These two narratives intersect at some point, and we may imagine that they eventually converged in the conviction that Jesus is God. But in the New Testament, they mostly remain distinct.

Rob Bell: What we don’t talk about when we talk about God

I have been listening to Rob Bell talk about his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God with Justin Brierley and Andrew Wilson on Premier Radio’s Unbelievable podcast. I download one of these discussions from time to time if I have a long car journey to make. I find them a bit rambling, and most of them have an apologetic focus, which is not really my thing. But Justin has had some good contributors, and it is refreshing—if not downright remarkable—to hear such high level debate on Christian radio. I recommend them. I wrote recently about the stimulating debate between Tom Wright and James White over the meaning of justification. Coincidentally, I am attending a conference tomorrow at which Wright will be speaking about Paul and the cross of Christ. But to the matter in hand….

Is the Shema really so important for understanding “one God… one Lord” in 1 Corinthians 8:6?

Richard Worden Wilson has drawn attention to a short piece by Scot McKnight on the relation between Paul’s statement about one God and one Lord in 1 Corinthians 8:6 and the Shema, the great Jewish confession that “The LORD our God (yhwh eloheinu), the LORD (yhwh) is one” (Deut 6:4). McKnight thinks that “one Lord, Jesus Christ” identifies Jesus with YHWH: ‘astoundingly, Paul sees “God” (Elohim) as the Father and he sees “Lord” (YHWH) as Jesus’.

I respectfully disagree with this interpretation. I think it is a mistake to identify the “Lord” who is Jesus in Paul’s statement with YHWH, for reasons which I will set out. But first I want to say again, for the benefit of those who want to banish me into outer darkness, that this is not an argument against the view that Jesus is presented in the New Testament as God. It is an argument for the view that this is not what is meant by the confession that Jesus is Lord. It is the argument that at the heart of the New Testament is the apocalyptic story of how the God of Israel raised his obedient Son from the dead and gave him authority to judge and rule over the nations, a narrative trajectory which I suggest found its historical fulfilment in the conversion of the empire. It is an argument for thinking that this historical ambition is much more important for understanding the New Testament than the assertion of Jesus’ divinity.

Tweaking Richard Bauckham on Jesus and the God of Israel

In his valuable book Richard Bauckham argues that the unique identity of God in scripture is characterized in two ways: he is the particular God of Israel, known to them as YHWH, who brought them out of Egypt and revealed himself to Moses as “YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Ex. 34:6); and he is God in relation to all reality, he is creator and sovereign ruler of all things. These two categories remain for the most part distinct, but they come together in Deutero-Isaiah “with special combined significance in Israel’s eschatological expectation”:

In the future, when God will fulfil his promises to his own people, showing himself to be finally and definitively the gracious God they have known in their history from the exodus onwards, God will at the same time demonstrate his deity to the nations, implementing his sovereignty as Creator and Ruler of all things in establishing his universal kingdom kingdom, making his name known universally, becoming known to all as the God Israel has known. (8)

Some rough and ready “rules” for doing a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament

In response to persistent demands that I explain my hermeneutic, here is a list of seven rough and ready “rules” for doing a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.  They loosely outline or summarize what is to my mind a coherent and defensible methodology, but I have not offered here much by way of philosophical justification. I take the view that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. A list of related posts can be found here.

What must a person believe in order to be saved?

The question came up in yet another long and fraught debate about the divinity of Jesus whether belief that Jesus is God is required for salvation. Reference was made to an article by C. Michael Patton, who thinks that the following beliefs are essential for salvation: belief in God, in Christ’s deity and humanity, that “you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy”, that Christ died on the cross and was raised bodily, and that faith in Christ is necessary—in other words, you have to believe in belief. He comments:

These are the most essential doctrines of all. This includes what every Christian should always be willing to die for. In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved.

To my mind this is a standard, if rather rigorously worded, rationalist-theological summary of what is required for personal salvation. It takes the form of a set of abstracted propositions parenthetically and uncritically supported by proof texts. It assumes that salvation is primarily an existential-individual concern rather than a historical-corporate concern.

Christendom: fulfilment or false start?

In a perceptive comment in which he recommends consideration of Abraham Heschel’s “theology of Pathos”, Mark Nieweg draws attention to what he sees as a fundamental dilemma or paradox at the heart of the consistent narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament.

I have actually been more accepting of your challenges in the Trinitarian posts than those that see the triumph of Christ over paganism in the empire and therefore allowing the “success of the apocalyptic narrative.” I see this more as a “false start” with tremendous consequences to the understanding of the church in the world than anything else.

This is important because in my view, as far as understanding the New Testament is concerned, the apocalyptic question is much more significant than the question of whether Jesus was God. The Trinitarian question is an engagement with philosophy. The apocalyptic question is an engagement with history.

Jesus as Lord in Mark

Ed Dingess, who appears to be a Reformed apologist, has taken the trouble to add some polite and thoughtful comments to my post “Kenton Sparks: historical criticism and the virgin birth”. He makes some good points and raises some good questions about the narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament, recognizing that it cuts across the grain of more traditional theological readings. He takes issue, however, with my suggestion that it is “difficult to maintain the view that the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels claimed to be God”:

The theme of the divinity of Christ is obvious, not only in the initial launch of Mark’s project which points us up to the coming of Israel’s God in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the fact that it is carried on throughout the entire project itself.

I will address some of the broader issues relating to method and traditional theological readings in another post—I don’t want my approach to be understood as anti-trinitarian; I don’t think it is, fundamentally, anti-trinitarian. Here I want to consider the claim that the Old Testament quotations in Mark 1:2-4 introduce the theme of the divinity of Jesus. The theoretical discussion should not be pursued apart from a careful and unprejudiced reading of the texts.

What about 1 Corinthians 1:30? Nope, no imputation of righteousness here either. So where is it then?

John Piper thinks that 1 Corinthians 1:30 “stands as a signal pointing to the righteousness of Christ that becomes ours when we are united to him by God through faith”. He is pleased to be able to quote Tom Wright’s “concession” to the Reformed view regarding this text:

It is the only passage I know where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.

In fact, in his response to Piper, Wright strongly refutes the argument that we have here “something called ‘the righteousness of Christ’ imputed to them, in the full sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sense so emphasised by John Piper”. Wright’s view is that those who are “in Christ” share in his vindication but not in a perfect moral righteousness that is somehow “credited” to their account. I agree, but I think the case becomes much stronger—and Paul’s argument more coherent—when we take the narrative-historical-eschatological context into consideration.

More on the righteousness of God and the justification of believers

Some pertinent questions were asked by Jon and Geoff in the comments in response to my last post on Wright and White on the “righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21. This is an extended answer to them. The questions overlap a little, so I may be repeating myself in a couple of places.

It may help before we start, though, to clarify two assumptions that I make.

First, I think that the underlying correlation in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is practical rather than than abstract, historical rather than theological. The lived realities would have been much more alive to Paul’s mind than they are to ours. On the one hand, Jesus, despite being God’s son, was forced to suffer as a “sinner”—to be condemned by the Pharisees as a lawbreaker, by the high priest as a blasphemer. On the other, the apostles are ambassadors, servants, co-workers with God, agents of the righteousness of God.

The language is certainly condensed, to the point of abstraction: “sin” is set against “righteousness”. But I would argue that this is a rhetorical encapsulation of the realistic historical account.

Secondly, as will become clear in my answer to the first question, I think that it is misleading to discuss righteousness and justification in Paul apart from a pressing eschatological framework shaped by Old Testament narratives of judgment and vindication. Reformed theology struggles to give a coherent account of Paul not least because it tries to make his argumentation work in a post-eschatological—indeed, Christendom—setting.

So, to the questions….

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