History and theologies: schematization number 6

Actually, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve attempted to schematize the relationship between history and theology. But I think it is central to the current theological task, so another attempt won’t go amiss. Modern evangelical theology is largely an abstraction. It is a very basic abstraction, very communicable, in many ways very appealing, and it can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. But a price has been paid for this accommodation to the narrow, privatized domain of modern religiosity.

First, it has made it very difficult for us to read scripture well, because the whole chaotic, glorious thing has somehow to be chopped up, pared down, allegorized, and in various ways misinterpreted in order to fit into a very small conceptual box.

Secondly, we have a very weak grasp of what is in fact the central narrative element in the Bible—the concrete historical existence of a people called in Abraham, in reaction against socially constructed blasphemy, to be a corporate, visible and credible witness to the full reality of new creation. In my view, this is why we find it so hard to integrate social and environmental values into our life and witness.

My small contribution to the SBL International Meeting in London

I will be at the Society of Biblical Literature International Meeting in London next week. First time to go to one of these things. I will be presenting a paper in the Paul and Pauline Literature section on Monday afternoon on “Sibylline Oracles and the Judgment of the Greeks”, but the other contributions look like they will be much more interesting and probably much more scholarly. If you’re going to be there, please look out for me.

A (less) radical new look

I’ve decided to go for a cleaner, simpler, less cluttered look to P.OST. I prefer the sense of open spaces at the moment. I’ll take the opportunity, while I’m at it, to thank everyone profusely for stopping by and joining in the conversation occasionally. If you have family, friends or colleagues who might be interested in a narrative-historical take on the future of evangelical theology, why not click on the little mail icon at the bottom of a suitable post to send them a link. Happy theologizing!

Out of Egypt I called my son: the rabbit in the hat trick

There are a number of well known “misreadings” of prophecy in the New Testament, where the writer, in his enthusiasm to prove that Jesus is Israel’s messiah, appears to have found a meaning in the text that simply is not there—rather as a magician pulls a rabbit out of an empty hat. It’s a great illusion. It might fool the credulous. But really! Anyone with an ounce of grammatical-historical sense will protest that it’s just a simple trick.

A case in point is Matthew’s claim that the return of Jesus from Egypt to the land of Israel fulfilled the prophecy, “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt. 2:15). It was mentioned by Jonathan yesterday in relation to the discussion of the messianic interpretation of Genesis 3:15. Jonathan suggests that it is an example of a rabbinic interpretive method known as remezim or “hints”. He refers to a very good article by his father on the whole subject of how the New Testament makes use of the Jewish scriptures. But I think there is something else going on here.

Is the global church following the Western church over the edge?

Phil Wood, who writes an Anabaptist blog from the UK, made this comment yesterday in response to The Church is dead?:

I was talking a little while ago with a friend who has a senior role in an American Mennonite Conference. We had a long discussion when I said that in Britain we were ahead on the Post-Christendom curve but what’s UK today will be US tomorrow. Britain is the oldest industrialized country in the world. I don’t think it’s a surprise that so many of these trends (the breakdown of community too) have their origins here. Whether the decline virus is 100% communicable is another question. If I were being hopeful I would say that before the curve reaches the vibrant churches of the global south we might have learned a thing or two about being Christians without Constantine.

We could picture the current state of affairs in this way: the UK church is in the front carriage of a train that has already been pulled over the precipice into catastrophic decline by the runaway engine of secular rationalism; the church in the US is not far behind, and anyone leaning out of the window will see what is coming; but the global church is still some way back, thoroughly enjoying the ride.

The church is dead?

In a post on Out of Ur Skye Jethani discusses reports of the decline of the Southern Baptist Convention and of the evangelical church in North America more generally: “50 churches are closing every week, church attendance is not keeping pace with population growth, and the average age of church members is going up”. He thinks that the evidence cannot be gainsaid, but he is reassured by the words of Dallas Willard: “I am not discouraged, because I believe that Christ is in charge of his church, with all of its warts, and moles, and hairs. He knows what he is doing and he is marching on.”

Jethani is also reassured by the evidence from his trip to the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization that “the global church is more than surviving… it’s thriving!” He concludes: ‘So, while many both inside and outside the family of God take some perverse pleasure in declaring “The church is dead,” we can with full faith and confidence shout in response, “Long live the Church!”’ I am delighted that the global church is thriving, but I have some questions.

The Gentiles are saved by the salvation of Israel

It is a basic error of modern evangelicalism that it has over-compressed the biblical narrative in order to provide a simple, user-friendly “gospel” for the practical purposes of personal evangelism, pastoral instruction, and the highly subjective forms of worship that prevail in our churches. My concern here is much less with the simple gospel—“Jesus died for my sins” is a good enough post-biblical shorthand—than with the horrible deformation of biblical thought.

The doctrine of atonement is a good example. Evangelicalism has taken the three-dimensional political narrative of atonement that we find in the New Testament and reduced it to a two-dimensional theory of personal salvation.

Paul’s argument about the atonement of Israel in Romans 3-4

This is a close examination of the place of Romans 3:24-25 in Paul’s argument about the fate of the Jews in chapter 3 as a whole. It is a response to objections made to my post on atonement that when Paul speaks here of a redemption in Christ Jesus, etc., he does not discriminate between Jews and Gentiles, that the atonement referenced by the word hilastērion is directly for all humanity. My view is that this traditional reading of these verses can be sustained only if we remove them from their context in Romans and make use of them as a prooftext for salvation in Christ, which of course we do all the time.

Atonement, without the theoretical nonsense

At the simplest level what we mean by “atonement” is that Jesus died for my sins in order to reconcile me to a holy God. But when the church attempts to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross does this, we quickly find ourselves entangled in a number of competing theories: the moral influence theory (popular with liberals), the Christus Victor theory (currently popular with emerging types), Anselm’s satisfaction theory (popular with Anselm), the notorious penal substitution theory (popular with the neo-Reformed), the sacrificial theory (popular with the writers of the New Testament, but see below), the governmental theory of Hugo Grotius, and no doubt many others.

I came to cast a fire on the earth

There is no question that Pentecost is a “wondrous and challenging feast”, which should put “to the lie a lazy, sleepy, hidden, and tepid Christian life”. I quote from a Meditation on the Feast of Pentecost by Msgr. Charles Pope of the Archdiocese of Washington. But the Monsignor then sharpens the stick with which he means to prod the lazy, sleepy Christian by invoking Jesus’ dramatic statement in Luke 12:49: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” Pope comments: “This is a feast about fire, about a transformative, refining, and purifying fire that the Lord wants to kindle in us and in this world.” In general post-biblical terms that may be right, but it gains its contemporary relevance at the expense of a narrative-historical understanding of the passage.


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