Interpreters of the New Testament should show more respect for boundaries

My argument about the historical frame of the Christmas stories and of Simeon’s prayer in particular has been subjected to sustained criticism by Peter Wilkinson, who is certain that at least in the latter case there is reference to the salvation of the nations.

Since Peter is unconvinced by the exegetical arguments, it may help to explore what is going here at the hermeneutical level. One way to account for the disagreement would be to view it as a question of how much respect we have for contextual boundaries. Peter takes the popular line that contextual boundaries may be disregarded in order to preserve traditional interpretations. We naturally want the Christmas stories to be about us. We have a hard time accepting the idea that the traditional discourse of Christmas—the carols, the readings, the nativity plays, the evangelistic sermons, not to mention the doctrine of incarnation—is all a massive over-determination of the texts. I take the view, on the other hand, that contextual boundaries should be respected, even if this means that traditional interpretations are weakened, sidelined, deferred or rejected.

How do we get our names into the book of life?

My Kindle book Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective is selling like hot mince pies on Amazon, which is quite a bit less than hot cakes but much more festive. Can you think of a better way to make a loved one very happy at Christmas for just $3.29 (or the equivalent in pounds and euros)? One person who has read it and found it “fascinating” is Andrew H, though he was surprised by the lack of hope in the ending and had this question to ask:

I wonder if I may ask though… how does one get their name into the book of life. I felt the ebook ended quite abruptly with little hope as you simply stated that people and non-martyred believers will be resurrected, and depending on their name being written in book of life they will be annihilated.

I’d be interested in your thoughts, as this seems quite depressing and arbitrary if not downright scary.

Christmas now and then

The true meaning of Christmas—as a Christian rather than a pagan celebration—is represented in the popular imagination most commonly by the serene tableau of the radiant baby Jesus in a manger, surrounded by his parents, a few inquisitive cherubs, rustic shepherds, and resplendent wise men, proffering their fabled gifts. Children’s nativity plays introduce a slight blur of movement and some noisy singing, but otherwise it is an overwhelmingly static moment—an ensemble of devout medieval personages, a clumsy arrangement of wooden figures—fixing the presence of the incarnate God. Static and comforting. The fact that representations of the biblical scene are often now banned from public places ought to release a whiff of subversion into the festive air, but even that caustic and disturbing smell is likely to be masked by the heady, sweet traditional scents of Christmas—mulled wine, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, sage and onion stuffing oozing from the end of the turkey.

The idolatry of Christendom

It’s taken me a little while to get round to responding to a comment by Al Shaw regarding my argument that the main storyline of the New Testament effectively culminates in Constantine. Al writes:

One of my areas of concern is that you appear (to my mind) to place too high a view of the Constantinian moment in the history of the people of God, and even imply that it was in some sense a fulfillment of the gospel narrative of Christ’s vicory and reign over the nations.

I have addressed this very important criticism in a number of posts now, some of which are listed at the bottom of this piece. But it is an evolving argument, and I am happy to try to answer it again, though still only in a rather sketchy fashion.

Marcus Borg’s “historical-metaphorical” hermeneutic

I will be attending a small conference on Douglas Campbell’s The Deliverance of God later this week at King’s College London, and I lugged my copy of his monstrous book all the way from Dubai with a view to doing some necessary revision. Unfortunately, I have also just acquired a copy of Marcus Borg’s much lighter and much less demanding Speaking Christian: Recovering the Lost Meaning of Christian Words, and I accidentally started reading that instead. I probably won’t get very far with it this week, but chapter 2 (“Beyond Literalism”) has a section on Borg’s “historical-metaphorical understanding” of the Bible, and I was curious to see how it compares with a narrative-historical understanding.

Will Jesus save us from the wrath to come?

We went to see Surviving Progress last night at the Dubai International Film Festival. Based on Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, this powerful Canadian documentary argues that humanity has got itself stuck in a global “progress trap”. The fundamental problem is that we are running modern software on mental hardware that has not been upgraded in 50,000 years, so technology is exploited to satisfy immediate needs but the invisible or remote costs are not factored in. As a result we are consuming ourselves to death. Global debt is the massive suction force that ensures that the world’s natural resources are continually over-exploited to feed the insatiable appetite of the various unaccountable oligarchies that control the system.

Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective

I have collected together most of the stuff that I have posted on this site on the subject of “hell” and life after death in a new Kindle book called Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective . Much of it was prompted by the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived . Being a collection of blog posts the book is academically lightweight, far from comprehensive, and suffers from many of the characteristic vices of the medium. Maybe that’s all to the good. In any case, I think it puts forward a pretty coherent case for reading the texts as interpretations of historical outcomes rather than as data for general theories about a personal afterlife. I think this approach solves the problem of hell in a way that remains profoundly true to the evangelical thrust of the New Testament.

A second question about annihilationism

This is the second of two questions about annihilationism. The first had to do with the origins of the argument that the “hell” language in the New Testament refers not to suffering after death but to historical events interpreted as divine judgment, which could be quite unpleasant enough enough. This second question raises a more specific issue: Is it necessary to believe that the unrighteous are also raised at the end, only to be destroyed again?

A question about annihilationism

A couple of questions were sent to me recently regarding my view on “hell”. I have blogged far more than I ever intended to on the subject over the last year, mainly because Rob Bell’s Love Wins put the Emergent cat among the excitable Reformed pigeons. I take a rather distinctive line on the matter. I think that, for the most part, when the New Testament speaks of wrath or judgment or gehenna, it speaks prophetically of foreseeable historical events, in particular the devastating war between Israel and Rome and—less distinctly—the overthrow of the whole system of classical paganism. The doctrine of “hell” as we know it developed as a later misreading of New Testament apocalyptic, as European metaphysics won out over Jewish narrative. The final judgment on sin is destruction and death—the destruction of societies or civilizations, on the one hand; the death of individuals, on the other. The final judgment on sinful humanity is the lake of fire, which is the “second death” (Rev. 21:8).

This argument is close to the standard alternative to the “eternal conscious torment” view of “hell”, annihilationism, but it is not exactly the same, which brings us to the two questions. The first, which I will address today, has to do with sources. The second, which I will keep for tomorrow, concerns the resurrection of the unrighteous.


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