I have just noticed that The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom is now available on the Wipf and Stock website. I haven’t actually got my own hands on a copy yet, but one should be winging its way to Dubai right now. There’s a description of the book below, along with the back cover endorsements, but basically, in a nutshell, the argument is that by locating Paul’s Letter to the Romans firmly and transparently in a narrative-historical framework, with the Jewish War, the persecution of the churches, and the eventual victory over paganism potentially in view, we not only gain a more cogent understanding of Paul’s ‘theology’, we also put ourselves in a better position to reconstruct our identity as the people of God in this brave new post-Christendom, post-modern world.
I had set out to respond rather briefly to some remarks made by paulf in a comment on my “The kingdom of God: not ‘now and not yet’” post, but in the excitement that response has swollen to the proportions of a whole new post. Paulf stated:
The imminent kindgom of God, which was a new world order ruled by Israel through YHWH, is a simple concept that would have been a staple of Jewish thought in the time of Jesus. It was promised in the Hebrew Bible and was what Jews would have hoped for, whether they believed in an afterlife or not. It was the key to the message of both Jesus and Paul.
But, he argues, ‘it never happened, which was a big problem’. Jesus said that people standing with him would see the kingdom come; and Paul advised against marriage because the world was ‘on the verge of being transformed by this new kingdom’. So either they were wrong or this coming ‘kingdom’ has to be treated as a metaphor for something else, something essentially spiritual and invisible in nature. That seems to me a too restrictive dichotomy. I think we can take seriously the public, political form of the ‘kingdom of God’ as it is described in the New Testament without dismissing the clear sense of urgency that is widely attached to it. In other words, both Paul and Jesus spoke of imminent and foreseeable events and were right to do so.
David Fitch has posted a series of articles presenting a thoughtful and constructive critique of the emerging/missional church. He looks at Peter Rollins’ deconstructionist approach to scripture and warns that it risks de-incarnationalizing the Word of God; he raises concerns about Brian McLaren’s de-eschatologization of the kingdom of God; and in the third article he argues that the sort of approach to mission advocated by Alan Hirsch (pictured) and Michael Frost in books such as The Shaping of Things to Come has a potentially de-ecclesiologizing impact on the relationship between church and society. There is also a helpful introductory post: ‘The Three Potential (ideological) Traps of Emerging Missional Theology.’
Here I want to pick up on the third argument and suggest that while in the short term there is an important debate to be had regarding the tension between a radical missiology and a cautious ecclesiology, there are long term changes taking place (both historical and theological) that are likely to necessitate a more radical reappraisal of the biblical narrative and how it forms the self-understanding of the people of God.
It is a commonplace of Reformed and evangelical theology that the kingdom of God is ‘now and not yet’. In one sense it has already arrived; in another sense it hasn’t. According to Wikipedia the argument goes back to the Princeton Calvinist theologian Gerhardus Vos. Some sort of ‘now and not yet’ dynamic in Christian theology seems inevitable if we believe in a final transformation or renewal of all things rather than merely an indefinite continuation of present conditions. The question I have has to do with the ‘kingdom of God’ part of the formula. What I suggest is that it would have made sense in the restricted historical perspective of the early believers, but that for the post-eschatological church it needs to be translated into creational terms. This may seem merely a matter of semantics, but I think that the widespread and undiscriminating use of the formula (indeed, our kingdom of God language in general) obfuscates rather than clarifies the biblical narrative.
Although apocalyptic enthusiasm has abated somewhat in recent years as the church has looked for ways to shore up its earthly credibility and relevance, you still occasionally hear the argument put forward that once the gospel of salvation through personal faith in Jesus has been preached to all the nations, the end will come – that is, Jesus will return, the kingdom of God will be instated, the world will end, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and so on. In fact, I heard it put forward with passion in church this week.
I have no objection to proclaiming the ‘gospel’ to the nations (though exactly what we mean by ‘gospel’ is another matter); and I fully understand the motivational force of the end-times argument. But as a matter of biblical interpretation I think it is mistaken.
What is it about theology – or perhaps, what is it about human intellectual activity generally – that makes it so hard for us to listen to each other well, read carefully what others have written, and restate each other’s views accurately? And then, what is it that makes us so cross, defensive, dismissive, when we find ourselves misunderstood or misrepresented or miscriticized?
It has a lot to do, no doubt, with the fact that so much of our dialogue and debate is done impersonally: we react not to people whom we know and love but to books or to blog posts or to bloodless online personalities or to remote overrated celebrities. I had lunch this week with a couple of pastors from a church that feels rather alien to – even hostile towards – my own theological and spiritual sensitivities. Indeed, I pointed out to them that I have written books that fundamentally disagree with their positions on women in leadership, prosperity theology, and the imminent return of Jesus. It could have been an awkward lunch, but they were very gracious men – and just establishing that much of a personal relationship was enough to suppress the urge to pick a fight. Instead, I left thinking that we should not tolerate or reinforce the gulf between, in this case, (charismatic) neo-Reformed and ‘emerging’ or ‘new perspective’ theologies – and that we should certainly not take so much satisfaction from the adversarial character of the debate. If we invested as much time in building relationships as in building up our polemical stockpiles, we might find a way beyond the impasse.
Having said that – OK, call me a hypocrite – what got me started on this tack was a couple of critical remarks that I came across while scouring the web in search of something to get wound up about.
I have been engaged in a very constructive conversation with Derek Flood about ‘Penal substitution and the OT narrative of judgment’. My argument has been roughly that in order to understand who Jesus was, what his intentions were, and in this particular case how his suffering might be understood in terms of both punishment and substitution, we need a much stronger sense of the historical narrative in which he is embedded – and we need to resist the bad and lazy habit of reading our highly processed theological conclusions into the text. In response Derek has raised an extremely pertinent question about (I guess) the devotional or pastoral or theological or catechetical ‘value’ of consigning Jesus to the past, as it would seem:
As you say, your “main concern is to relocate Jesus, with exegetical and historical integrity, within the biblically interpreted narrative of Israel.” My question is: why would that be valuable? Or more specifically, to what end?
Following my post on the question of whether Jesus claimed to be God it was (indirectly) suggested to me that Jesus may have communicated his sense of divine identity through his actions rather than through his words. Despite popular assumptions to the contrary, Jesus’ miracles in themselves cannot be counted as evidence that he was God; nor can his resurrection. Off the top of my head, I can think of no more than two or three incidents that might qualify (I am open to considering other suggestions), and in these cases it still seems more likely that they reveal a person who believes he is acting on behalf of God rather than a person who thinks that he is acting as God.
In his little book Is God a Delusion? Nicky Gumble (‘the pioneer of the Alpha course’) addresses Richard Dawkins’ claim that ‘There’s no good, historical evidence that Jesus ever thought he was divine’ (79-80, 127-131). It’s an old debate, of course, and neither Dawkins nor Gumble contributes anything very new to it; but I suspect that Dawkins may have the better of this particular argument, and not merely for historical reasons. I draw attention to it partly because I have covert sympathies with Dawkins anyway and feel a little embarrassed by the way he has been so rudely duffed up by evangelicals, but mainly because it highlights again (see also Putting the theological cart before the biblical horse) the worrying structural discrepancy between theology (in this instance, admittedly, a rather elementary apologetic defence of a mainstream belief) and the interpretation of Scripture.
I have, for some time, had a bee in my bonnet about the penal substitutionary atonement debate. There are those, on the one hand, who think it sits right at the indigestible core of a sound understanding of the atoning significance of Jesus’ death; and there are those, on the other, who think it sucks. To my mind there is a solid alternative that emerges when we put on our dogmatic-noise-cancelling ear-phones and sit and read the Scriptures as historical narrative, which in the broadest and simplest sense is what they are.
I came across a discussion on Derek Flood’s Rebel God blog, which got the bee buzzing furiously again. In his post Derek is primarily concerned to refute a penal substitutionary reading of Isaiah 53. I think he is quite right to say that ‘this is not a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice’, but I’m not sure that this makes the word ‘penal’ redundant. There is at least a difference to note between God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice and Jesus being implicated in the direct punishment of Israel (in order to satisfy the demands of the Law). It seems to me that the best argument for a narratively limited and historically informed (that is a crucial qualification) doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is the fact that Jesus died on a Roman cross in anticipation of the punishment of Israel by the instrumentality of the besieging Roman armies, who crucified Jews willy nilly.