I have downloaded Tom Wright’s new book How God Became King - Getting to the heart of the Gospels and plan to read it as we travel through northern Iraq and eastern Turkey on our way home from Dubai. I am not expecting any great surprises—not in the book, at least; the journey home may be another matter. I assume that Wright will argue—much as Scot McKnight has done recently—that various strands of contemporary Christianity, whatever limited insights they may have achieved, have failed to grasp the overarching story that is being told in the Gospels, which has to do with how Israel’s God became king. By bringing Israel’s story to completion in the way that he does Jesus accomplishes the extension of God’s reign from the small world of Israel to the whole earth. Something along those lines.
I will be speaking at a church in one of the labour camps Friday afternoon. My plan is to explain what Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is all about and why it is worth taking the trouble to read it. I will stress the fact that Ephesians is a straightforward “letter”, written for a straightforward purpose, with a straightforward story to tell, not a timeless treatise on Christian theology or a compendium of proof texts for the benefit of preachers.
But what is the argument or “story” of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians? Of course, since the Protestant Reformation rashly put scripture in the hands of ordinary lay believers, everyone has been entitled to make of the text what he or she wills; and everyone has an opinion on whether that’s a good thing or not. For what it’s worth, here’s my narrative-historical reading of it.
Brian LePort, who regularly takes the trouble to highlight posts on this blog, for which I am very grateful, has posted a great list of the “ten most difficult doctrinal/theological subjects that contemporary Christians must address”. I don’t agree with everything on the list, probably because I am not American. The question of whether Adam and Eve were historical figures is topical but seems a non-issue to me, unless perhaps it is reckoned to stand for a much broader debate about the relation between scripture and science; and the two items addressing political allegiance and ethnicity in relation to ecclesiastical unity clearly reflect an American perspective. I’m also a bit surprised that “gospel” and “kingdom” don’t get a mention until a long way into the comments. Have a look. See what you think.
While we’re on the subject of what people in the New Testament had to do to be saved, I notice that Larry Hurtado whose blog I highly recommend, disagrees with Tom Wright over the question of the ultimate salvation of national Israel.
Wright—according to Hurtado’s reconstruction of his argument—thinks that the “Israel” upon whom a “partial hardening has come” in Romans 11:25 refers to the Jews, whereas “all Israel” that will be saved in verse 26 is the church. So there is no exegetical basis for the American obsession with the state of Israel today. Hurtado thinks that such a shift in meaning in so small a space is unlikely, and argues that “in Romans 9–11 Paul’s protracted and repeated concern is the fate of his people, fellow Jews, in light of his firm conviction that Jesus has been made now the one source of salvation, and the large-scale rejection of the Gospel by his people”. I think that Hurtado is right so far, but wrong in his conclusions about the future of national Israel from Paul’s perspective.
What did people in the New Testament have to do to be “saved”? I was prompted to ask this question by this assertion in a comment in the discussion about the sinlessness of Jesus:
Many within the orthodox evangelical world go so far as to say that one can not deny Christ’s deity and experience the personal salvation that He offers.
What I have done here is simply look at occurrences of the words “save”, “saved” or “salvation” in the New Testament and highlight what appears to be required of people in order for them to be saved. It is a limited exercise. There will be passages that have a bearing on this question where the salvation terminology is not found—for example, passages that use different word groups, or which speak of people perishing or being destroyed because they have not done something. But I think it will give us a pretty clear idea of what people were expected to do or believe in response to the saving action of God—and more importantly, as I will suggest at the end, of the narrative contexts in which this theme emerged.
One of the issues raised by the lengthy discussion about the designation of Jesus as a high priest after the order of Melchizedek is that of Jesus’ “sinlessness”. Traditionally we have understood this in what I suppose are general existential or ontological terms: Jesus was sinless because he was by nature both God and man. But the New Testament, for the most part, frames the matter differently, situating the motif in a narrative and eschatological context that puts the emphasis not on his nature but on his obedience under particular conditions. This is not an isolated correction, of course. It is part of a wholesale shift in how we make sense of the New Testament and therefore of Christian origins—from a dogmatic-theological reading to a narrative-historical reading.
One of the arguments put forward by those who wish to find the divinity of Jesus under every stone is that as a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:17) Jesus must have been both God and man. This is a misunderstanding of the argument in Hebrews, and I want to set out briefly why I think this is the case. There is a lot more in the discussion that I would like to pick up on, particularly cherylu’s helpful contribution, but there’s an Eagles concert to go to tonight at the Dubai Rugby Sevens ground, and we’re off camping in the desert south of the Liwa Oasis tomorrow. From the ridiculous to the sublime.
A key part of the broad “thesis” that I am putting forward on this blog and in my books is the observation that the New Testament texts reflect a consistently apocalyptic outlook. What I mean by this, essentially, is that the whole story about Jesus and the emergence of the churches is directed towards certain decisive future events by which the status and condition of the people of God in relation to the nations would be dramatically transformed. This was expected to happen within a realistic and relevant historical horizon: it was to impact the world as the early church knew it. It was not the whole story: the New Testament narrates a critical episode in the continuing story of the family of Abraham, which has Genesis 1-11 as its preface and John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth as its epilogue. We cannot, therefore, simply apply the theology of the New Testament to the church today as though nothing has changed.
This morning’s Good Friday sermon focused on four aspects of the atoning function of the cross: propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation. The sermon had a strong evangelistic slant, and it’s not at all surprising that Jesus’ death was presented as having this four-fold atoning significance for the individual sinner. The wrath of God against the individual sinner is propitiated; he or she is redeemed, justified, and reconciled, and then becomes part of the covenant community. I think this traditional approach, for all its evangelistic effectiveness, turns the New Testament argument inside out.
I imagine Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover article on Christianity in Crisis will attract a great deal of interest. He castigates the modern church in all its forms for its corruption, hypocrisy, loss of moral authority, materialism, obsession with sex, intellectual obscurantism, and collusion with political power. He thinks that Jesus would have been baffled by North American religion and by culturally dominant North American Evangelicalism in particular. In place of the “the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations”, he portrays a Jesus who looks very much like Francis of Assisi—the real Francis of Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, not the fashionable “erstwhile hippie, communing with flowers and animals”.