Roger Olson is always worth reading. (Well, perhaps not always. No one is always worth reading.) He has just posted an excellent and very sympathetic piece on the emerging church movement. It feels a little bit behind the curve, but that may have more to do with perception than with reality; and in any case, the issues remain pertinent. He concludes with some good comments on the sort of commitments that ought to characterize emerging churches.
I want to take the opportunity provided by a rather vexed comment on my post Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong to make it clear that my narrative-historical argument about “hell” has nothing to do with liberalism. Ryan kicks off with this rather rash assertion about what liberals do:
A lot of liberals […] will throw out statements like, “You really need to know the context of what he is saying in order to understand it”, or “you really need to read more and educate yourself more to understand it.”
Rob Bell takes the view in Love Wins that in Jesus’ day Gehenna was the “city dump”: “There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash.” It is a metaphor for the terrible consequences of rejecting “the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us”. But in particular, Bell seems to be saying, it was a metaphor for the devastating historical consequences for Israel of “straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love”.
He continually warns them how tragic the suffering will be if they actually try to fight Rome with the methods and mind-set of Rome…. Because of this history, it’s important that we don’t take Jesus’s very real and prescient warnings about judgment then out of context, making them about someday, somewhere else. That wasn’t what he was talking about.
I have just received a review copy of a book by Brian Jones called Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It), published by David C. Cook—an excellent title, though I hate to admit it. The book also starts with one of the most gripping opening stories that I have come across. I am usually put off by the banal, formulaic anecdotes that seem to be the mandatory preface to popular Christian books, but this was an exception. Both the gist of the anecdote and the urgent, uncompromising argument of the book can be inferred from this loudly italicized paragraph, in which Jones reproaches himself for not taking hell seriously:
Let me get this straight: You’re willing to run into a burning building to save someone’s life, but non-Christians all around you are going to hell and you don’t believe it, let alone lift a finger to help.
On this blog and in the books I have written in the last few years I have argued for an evangelical self-understanding that expresses its fidelity to scripture by means of what I think is most usefully classified as a narrative-historical hermeneutic. What I mean by this is that the theological content of the Bible, and of the New Testament in particular, in its various forms, is primarily meaningful—and sometimes only meaningful—in the context of the unfolding but circumscribed story of a people that claimed to be heirs of the promises made to Abraham.
Is the Bible a collection of historical texts stuck in the past? Is it a sacred text that transcends and overrules its historical origins? Or do we somehow have to hold these two perspectives in tension?
By and large, historical-critical approaches to biblical interpretation assume the first perspective; popular faith-motivated approaches assume the second. Modern evangelical scholarship, meanwhile, generally wants to have its cake and eat it, holding out for some version of the third position: first, we establish what the text once meant; then we consider what it now means. But this is a rather unstable and perhaps even spurious compromise, and the Bible remains at the centre of a strenuous tug-of-war between the historians and the theologians.
There was an interview with a Lutheran priest on the radio this morning from the cathedral in Oslo. He spoke of how he had preached the peace of Christ every week… and then described the dreadful shock of learning that the bombing and killings had been carried out not by radical Islamists, as everyone had immediately assumed, but by a blond Norwegian who claimed to be a fundamentalist Christian. In fact, among the many thousands who were flocking to the cathedral to light candles and pray were a significant number of Muslims—refugees from countless, distant, bloody conflicts. One young Iraqi was thankful that the church was open for prayer to all who believed in God.
James K.A. Smith, who stayed in our house in the Hague with his family a few years back, wrote last week about the state of contemporary theology, complaining in particular about the “balkanization” of professional theology today. He attributes this—in part, at least—to a shift in the way theologians identify themselves. Traditionally theological identity was determined by denominational allegiance: Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran. Now theologians appear to have developed a taste for more abstract and theory-laden labelling: “ecclesiocentric”, “apocalyptic”, “radically orthodox”.
Jeannine K. Brown has a very sensible introductory chapter to her book Scripture as Communication, in which she provides some straightforward definitions of the key terms in this field of study. So “hermeneutics” is the “analysis of what we do when we seek to understand the Bible, including its appropriation to the contemporary world”. “Meaning” is the “communicative intention of the author, which has been inscribed in the text and addressed to the intended audience for purposes of engagement”. “Exegesis” is the “task of carefully studying the Bible in order to determine as well as possible the author’s meaning in the original context of writing”. She then highlights three factors to which the exegete needs to pay attention in order to “bridge the cultural gap” between the original setting of the Bible and our own place in space and time. These are genre, literary context, and social setting. Finally, “contextualization” is the “task of bringing a biblical author’s meaning to bear in other times and cultures” (19-26).