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

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….

Wright and White on the “righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21

Driving back from visiting my mother yesterday I listened to a Premier Radio podcast of Tom Wright and James White debating the meaning of “justification” in Paul. It’s a difficult and rather disjointed conversation—Justin Brierley was clearly struggling to keep his head above water—but it’s worth listening to.

Wright has been enormously helpful in bringing into focus the Jewish-biblical—rather than Latin-medieval—background to Paul’s argument about justification and righteousness. But it seems to me that, in his reconstruction, the end of Israel’s exile is effectively the end of narrative—the end of theology as an engagement with the narrative of God’s people.

He is near, at the doors

Ian Paul wonders whether it’s not the besieging Roman army that will be at the closed gates of Jerusalem rather than the Son of Man, who will be “coming on the clouds of heaven” rather than entering by the gates. His interpretation would fit the historical thesis well, but I’m not sure the limited exegetical evidence we have points in this direction.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Jesus says “at the doors” (epi thurais) rather than “at the gates” (epi pulais). The distinction can be illustrated: the high priest Eliashib and his brothers the priests built the sheep gate (pulēn) and set up its doors (thuras) (Neh. 3:1 LXX). It doesn’t make much difference to the immediate sense of the passage but it may have a bearing on its relation to other texts.

The coming of the Son of Man: theology or history?

Here’s another example of how we can let theology or dogma get in the way of good biblical interpretation. Bill Mounce, whose mostly excellent exegetical notes I read from time to time, discusses the translation of Mark 13:29, which in the ESV reads:

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

The problem that Mounce addresses is the translation of the phrase engus estin (“is near”). There is no pronoun in the Greek. If we supply “he”, as in the ESV, it appears to make Jesus say that the Son of Man will return within a single generation, which “of course, he didn’t”. This would leave us with what Mounce calls “one of the great conundrums” in the Gospels. 

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.


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