Whatever happened to the People of God?

One of the ways in which emerging theologies have attempted to correct the individualistic bias of much modern Reformed and evangelical theology has been to stress the cosmic dimension to salvation. So, for example, J.R. Woodward, whom I greatly regret having missed when he passed through Dubai last year, started off a recent post on the “key elements of personal salvation” with the words: “While the Good News of Jesus Christ is both personal and cosmic in nature….”

Rob Bell and the Apostle Paul on the moral, intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of the people of God

Now that much of the fuss over Rob Bell’s book has died down, and the spotlight of pre-emptive inquisition has shifted to Francis Chan’s as yet unpublished Erasing Hell: What God Said About Eternity, and the Things We Made Up, I have downloaded the Kindle edition of Love Wins and actually started reading it. To be honest, I was prompted by the remark of a good friend that whereas she found the writings of Tim Keller clear and concise, Rob Bell had her checking the indications for the medication she was taking to see if it might have affected her mind. That wound me up a bit. But we shall see. Maybe she’s right.

For now, I want to highlight this statement from chapter 1 and draw an important comparison with Paul’s argument against first century Israel in Romans 2…

Christendom and the victory of God

This post started out as a quick response to some good questions raised by Daniel in relation to my reconstruction of the story-line of the divine meta-comedy, but as sometimes happens, it grew too big and needs repotting.

I appreciate that the phenomenon of Western Christendom has been extremely problematic and something of an embarrassment for the modern church; and it’s only in some limited respects that I would venture to defend it. I am certainly happy that the Christendom paradigm has now collapsed—though not everyone is aware of the fact—and that we are in a position to reconsider the possible outcomes of the biblical narrative under very different circumstances.

But let me make a number of points in response to the basic objection that Christendom was a disaster and can hardly be seen as the victorious climax to the biblical narrative.

Acting out the biblical narrative

Paul Fromont (one of two prodigal but thoughtful Kiwis) has kindly highlighted my The New Testament and “what now for the church” post, in which I nailed my colours to the mast regarding the formative potential of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. I mentioned in the post that I like Tom Wright’s five act play analogy for biblical authority but disagree about how the story that is told in this divine comedy is to be reconstructed. Paul asked about this.

Andrew…, how about a post on why you disagree with Tom Wright on how the New Testament narrative is reconstructed? … I’m reading though that you’re in agreement with his analogy of an unfolding drama in five-acts…? I’ve always found it a really useful analogy.

Trinitarian community

I taught a class in church on the doctrine of the Trinity last week, and you know, all things considered, it went pretty well. I placed some emphasis on the developmental character of the doctrine. I explained that it’s not all there in the Gospels necessarily, but that some thin strands of theological reflection and charismatic experience emerged subsequent to the resurrection that were woven by the Greek and Latin theologians of the post-Jewish church into the highly rationalized doctrine of three differentiated but same-substance persons in a singular Godhead. That was their prerogative, and who am I to object?

Concerning that day and hour no one knows

Just to be clear, there will be a final judgment of all the dead, a final renewal of heaven and earth, and a final destruction of all that is contrary to the goodness of God’s creation. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). At least, that is my belief. But it is not what Jesus is talking about here when he tells his disciples that not even he knows exactly when the sequence of events that he has just recounted will reach its climax. A lot of people are clutching at this text at the moment to reassure themselves that Harold Camping doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Under the circumstances a little exegetical clarity—indeed sanity—probably would not go amiss.

Son of Man, Jesus’ use thereof

The “Son of Man” motif is central to Jesus’ self-understanding and of critical importance for a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. As J.D.G. Dunn says:

After ‘the kingdom of God/heaven’ there is no phrase so common in the Jesus tradition as ‘the son of man’. Its importance within the Jesus tradition, and possibly as a key to that tradition, therefore, can hardly be exaggerated. More to the immediate point, it seems to be the nearest thing in the Jesus tradition to a self chosen self-designation.

The history of interpretation is exceedingly, and probably unnecessarily, complex. I suggest that three patterns of usage are relevant for understanding what Jesus meant when he referred to himself as “the son of man”.

The New Testament and “what now for the church”

One of the objections most forcefully raised against a consistent narrative-historical reading of the New Testament is that it makes the texts more or less irrelevant as a source of teaching and inspiration for the church today. Peter Wilkinson expressed this objection in a recent comment in no uncertain terms:

Hereon in we are in uncharted, post-biblical waters, and left to sink or swim, to put it crudely, according to our own devices. There is no biblical matrix left in which we can locate ourselves. That’s a huge problem with your approach, and whenever the issue arises of what now for the church, you don’t have a lot to say. I find this inevitable conclusion of your approach, as it currently stands, rather incredible.

Jesus and the authority to forgive sins

This is one of the passages that is often put forward as “evidence” that the synoptic Gospel account already presents Jesus as both human and divine. The argument is that i) it is the prerogative of God to forgive sins, ii) in this story Jesus forgives sins, iii) therefore Jesus must be God. Added to this, it is sometimes supposed that Jesus demonstrates exclusive supernatural insight into the inner thoughts of the scribes who were so offended by his pronouncement. Neither of these propositions is correct.

Theology and history and Jesus as the culmination of Israel's story

For reasons which I won’t disclose, I have been working through a doctrine course of a distinctly Reformed hue. If the church is convinced that it needs such a thing as a “doctrine course”, Reformed or otherwise, then this is by no means a bad one. But for me it has highlighted again the fact that so much theological activity puts the cart before the horse.

Let me give an example. The section on the Trinity lists a number of biblical texts as “evidence” for the belief that Jesus is God. The assumption is that the doctrine or belief is a given fact and basically beyond dispute; biblical prooftexts may be adduced as evidence for it, but this is merely a formality and certainly does not require anything as troublesome as exegesis.

That is very different to reading Matthew 9:4, say, and considering how Jesus’ insight into the thoughts of the scribes is to be explained, from which it is unlikely that we would draw the conclusion that he is omniscient and therefore God. It is very different to reading Matthew 9:1-8 and asking about the significance of the fact that authority has been given to men to forgive sins—the passage virtually rules out the conclusion that Jesus was God.

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