What is the historical frame of reference of Jesus’ parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins? Tradition has taught us to read this as a story about a final consummation at the second coming of Jesus, at some uncertain point in our own future. Taken in isolation from the story that Matthew is telling this might be a plausible interpretation, but if we take the narrative context seriously, I think we have to conclude that what Jesus had in mind was a much more immediate and relevant outcome.
Synopsis of Christian Origins and the Question of God I-III
There’s a lot of interest in N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God at the moment. If you haven’t read the preceding volumes in the Christian Origins and the Question of God series—or want to refresh your memory—you may find my comprehensive synopsis helpful. For a list of my own occasional comments on PFG click here.
For much of the last decade the tide of popular-level evangelical theology – by which I mean theology as it engages constructively with the life and mission of the church – has been moving strongly in an emerging direction. At least, that has been my perception. Over the last couple of years, however, the tide appears to have shifted direction dramatically, and storms of a rather different controversy have been brewing.
I noted recently that a resurgent neo-Reformed movement appears to have turned its guns from the emerging church, or what’s left of it, to the mainstream of moderate and theologically easy-going evangelicalism. Roger E. Olson has a post offering a slightly different perspective. He traces the emergence of a marauding modern Calvinism back to the early 1990s, and his concern is with its assault on evangelical Arminianism rather than on the emerging church. But he registers the same alarm at the determination of Calvinists to reshape evangelicalism in their own image – and at the stifling of debate, the exclusion of dissenters from seminaries, the inflammatory rhetoric of heresy, and the heavy-handed propaganda that have been the product of it.
This is why I don’t like systematic theologies. I picked up a copy of John M. Frame’s Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An introduction to systematic theology today – it’s amazing what you can find in Dubai, as long as it’s Reformed. The book is a classic example of how theologians instinctively and unself-critically read a predetermined theology back into the biblical texts.
Frame admits rather disingenuously that if he were free to invent his own religion, eternal punishment would not be part of it. As it is, he says, ‘I must teach only what the Bible teaches, and the Bible certainly has a lot to say about eternal punishment’ (297).
In the discussion prompted by my post on ‘The parables of delay and the question of dual fulfilment’ paulf argued that it’s impossible to resolve the tension in Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse between the early references to the destruction of Jerusalem and the later statement about the Son of man: ‘we know from history that the son of man did not come through the clouds and set up a kingdom.’ So either Jesus was wrong, which many have argued; or he was speaking about something that would happen in an entirely different time-frame, presumably at the end of history.
The Biologos Foundation, which ‘addresses the central themes of science and religion and emphasizes the compatibility of Christian faith with scientific discoveries about the origins of the universe and life’, has come up with a statement of faith, shamelessly cribbed from 1 Corinthians 15:1-5:
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
There has been a lot of debate recently about the contested identity of the evangelical movement in America. We have been aware for some time of the strength of the neo-Reformed reaction against the emerging movement. I wrote a piece a while back about the depressing war between Emergents and Reformed over the cross, just to give an example. But it is probably a sign of the strength of the backlash that it is now being directed at what takes itself to be mainstream evangelicalism. It was, in fact, a comment by Jim Hoag on a post about the Pyromaniacs’ hostility towards cultural engagement that drew my attention to Scot McKnight’s impassioned piece on the need for big tent evangelicals to resist the redefinition of the term. Daniel Kirk’s promulgation of a modest evangelical manifesto for the 21st century has also provided a timely response to the perceived lurch to the right.
In response to my comments on the fulfilment of prophecy it was suggested to me (by other channels) that while much of Matthew 24 can ‘with difficulty’ be made to fit exclusively into an AD 70 framework, the same cannot be said for the parables of delay in 24:36 - 25:30. In other words, Jesus must be thinking about events that will happen in our future and for which we must in the same way be prepared. I disagree, but before I say why, I want to say briefly that I regard this not as a Preterist argument but fundamentally as a defence of a historically grounded evangelicalism – as belonging to the affirmation of a thoroughly biblical understanding of the evangel as a statement, or even statements, about the historical existence of a ‘new creation’ community.
I have just come across an old and decidedly skimpy review by Kyle McDanell of The Coming of the Son of Man. Judging by the list of his favourite blogs I wouldn’t have expected Kyle to agree with the thesis of the book, but he is decent enough to recognize the thoroughness and integrity of the argument while disagreeing somewhat vaguely with the conclusions. There was not the level of ‘speculation, conversation, or ambiguity’ that he had expected to find in a book purporting to offer a ‘New Testament eschatology for an emerging church’. Much appreciated, Kyle.
Perhaps the central flaw in the Reformed reading of Romans – and why it generates such distorted definitions of key theological terms such as ‘wrath’, ‘salvation’, ‘righteousness’, ‘faith’ and ‘gospel’ – is that it sets out from the assumption that Paul is writing about the universal condition of individuals rather than the historical and contingent condition of Israel as a people. So Michael Patton’s post ‘Twelve reasons why Romans 9 is about individual election, not corporate election’ naturally caught my eye when it appeared on my blogroll.
The question of whether the early Christians were disappointed in their expectations regarding some calamitous end-of-the-world event crops up repeatedly both in academic and popular theologizing and continues to be a major factor in the modern discrediting of the New Testament. Sitting in Brussels airport the other day waiting for my friend Wes to arrive from Glasgow, I resumed my slow intermittent reading of Karen Armstrong’s book The Bible: The Biography (see also ‘A biography of the Bible and the loss of peace’) and arrived at this paragraph…