I sometimes use the term “post-eschatological” with reference to the situation of the people of God after the major eschatological horizons of the Jewish war and the victory of the community in Christ over Greek-Roman paganism. This is a little misleading, but it is meant to take account of the fact that most of what the New Testament has to say about the future refers to these foreseeable historical events. I do not mean to preclude the third horizon of a final judgment and final remaking of creation.
I have argued both in The Coming of the Son of Man and in The Future of the People of God that the foreseen clash with Greek-Roman paganism and the suffering and vindication of the early church constitute the determinative trajectory of Pauline eschatology. Jim Hoag points out, however, that to see the conversion of the empire as the climax of this trajectory is nothing if not ironic—and that it appears to clash, for example, with Greg Boyd’s passionate attacks on a modern “Constantinian” church that can be so easily manipulated into sanctioning violence and injustice. The clip from one of Greg’s sermons is well worth listening to.
So Jim asks: ‘where do you believe Boyd is on point and where do you think he is at variance from your ideas that this victory over Rome was what it meant for “the kingdom of the world to become the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ”?’
I referred a couple of days back to an old interview done by James M. Hamilton with Justin Hardin (seemingly now tutor in New Testament at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) in which Hardin discusses the extent to which Paul was consciously engaging with the Roman imperial cult. I want to go back to it because the final question that is put to Hardin highlights what I think is a central and critical issue for understanding how New Testament theology works.
Scot McKnight articulates what is essentially a “New Perspective” take on the gospel for a mainstream evangelical readership in a nicely judged cover story on the apparent tension between Jesus and Paul for Christianity Today. He gives a rather personal account of the journey that many evangelicals have made in recent years from Paul to Jesus, from the traditional Reformed gospel of “justification by faith” to a much more earthy and ethically construed gospel of the “kingdom of God”, and describes how difficult it can be to integrate these two positions:
It is not exaggerating to say that evangelicalism is facing a crisis about the relationship of Jesus to Paul, and that many today are choosing sides. I meet many young, thinking evangelicals whose “first language” is Jesus and the kingdom. Yet despite the trend, perhaps in reaction to it, many look to Paul and justification by faith as their first language. Those addicted to kingdom language struggle to make Paul fit, while those addicted to Paul’s theological terms struggle to make Jesus fit.
I have just finished reading an excellent essay by Craig Evans entitled “The Beginning of the Good News and the Fulfillment of Scripture in the Gospel of Mark” in Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament (Mcmaster New Testament Studies), edited by Stanley Porter. I think I can just about spin this as a belated advent post.
Evans suggests that Mark portrayed Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy ‘as a conscious challenge to the rumors circulating in the Roman Empire that Jewish prophecy was fulfilled with the advent of Vespasian as the new emperor and, by virtue of his exalted office, the new “son of God” ’ (86). This slots into a fairly heated scholarly debate about the extent to which the “gospel” in the New Testament was framed in anti-imperial terms. I won’t attempt to summarize the arguments and counter-arguments here, but this interview with Justin Hardin, though typographically untidy, gives an impression of the debate.
I started out to write a response to some questions by Jim Hoag about my understanding of Romans 8 and then came across an excellent review of The Future of the People of God by Daniel Kirk. Since Jim’s comments and Daniel’s critique converge on the same issues, albeit from different directions, I will try to address both here.
Jim makes the point that to suggest that Romans 8 addresses the circumstances and destiny not of the ordinary Christian but specifically and pertinently of the early martyr community constitutes a “dramatic hermeneutical shift”. Indeed it does; and its implications, of course, reach beyond Romans 8. But is there any prospect of this reading gaining traction?
Here is a simple model that captures what seem to me to be the three basic constructive hermeneutical options that we have for describing how the ancient text of scripture speaks to the modern (committed) reader. There is the common understanding that the Bible as sacred text or “Word of God” speaks directly and more or less clearly to the modern reader; and there are two indirect approaches, one by the way of narrative, the other by the way of analogy.
Paul’s statement in Romans 3:21-26 that the future justification of God has been revealed in anticipation in the present time through the faithfulness of Jesus for all who believe is clearly of central importance for our understanding of “salvation” in Paul. Discussion has centred for the most part on the twin loci of the genitive phrase dia pisteōs Iēsou Christou (“through faith in Jesus” or “through the faithfulness of Jesus”?) and the soteriological terms apolutrōsis (“redemption”) and hilastērion (expiation/propitiation).
There is, however, a more fundamental question, partly disclosed by the debate over the meaning of the genitive phrase, that needs to be brought to the surface and clarified: What exactly is spoken about by means of the soteriological metaphors? What story is being reinterpreted or redescribed by the language of redemption or atonement? Is it a story about the salvation of humanity that happens also to include Israel (this is Douglas Campbell’s surprisingly conventional assumption) or a story about the salvation of Israel that is found to have implications for humanity?
Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God is a highly polemical argument about the nature of salvation and the character of God. It is polemical inasmuch as it is driven from the outset by a rigorous opposition to what Campbell calls “Justification theory”—the argument that salvation consists essentially in the satisfaction of divine wrath through the atoning death of Jesus, which is appropriated not by any type of work but by faith alone. Campbell maintains that Paul sets out his own understanding of salvation not in Romans 1-4 but in Romans 5-8. Salvation is the unconditional deliverance of humanity from enslavement to sin in order to participate in a new ontology—a new liberated existence—in Christ. Campbell achieves this fundamental theological realignment by ascribing all the retributive material in Romans 1-4 to a particular Jewish-Christian Teacher with whom Paul enters into fictitious dialogue.
A substantial gain to be had from reading the New Testament narratively rather than simply theologically is that the approach allows us to describe a meaningful continuity between the outlook of the New Testament and the subsequent history of the people of God. So, for example, it seems to me that key eschatological trajectories that arise in the New Testament land not beyond history but at critical moments in the foreseen experience of the church—most importantly, the Jewish War and the conversion of the empire.
One consequence of this change of perspective is that the European church and the age of European Christendom are significantly implicated in our interpretation of the New Testament. I think this narrative focus puts us in a much better position to resolve our current post-Christendom dilemma, but we also have to consider how the global church fits into the story. This post is a sketchy and very superficial attempt to integrate the experience of the non-Western church into the argument about the symbolic and theological significance of the collapse of Christendom.