(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

What must a person believe in order to be saved?

The question came up in yet another long and fraught debate about the divinity of Jesus whether belief that Jesus is God is required for salvation. Reference was made to an article by C. Michael Patton, who thinks that the following beliefs are essential for salvation: belief in God, in Christ’s deity and humanity, that “you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy”, that Christ died on the cross and was raised bodily, and that faith in Christ is necessary—in other words, you have to believe in belief. He comments:

These are the most essential doctrines of all. This includes what every Christian should always be willing to die for. In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved.

To my mind this is a standard, if rather rigorously worded, rationalist-theological summary of what is required for personal salvation. It takes the form of a set of abstracted propositions parenthetically and uncritically supported by proof texts. It assumes that salvation is primarily an existential-individual concern rather than a historical-corporate concern.

Christendom: fulfilment or false start?

In a perceptive comment in which he recommends consideration of Abraham Heschel’s “theology of Pathos”, Mark Nieweg draws attention to what he sees as a fundamental dilemma or paradox at the heart of the consistent narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament.

I have actually been more accepting of your challenges in the Trinitarian posts than those that see the triumph of Christ over paganism in the empire and therefore allowing the “success of the apocalyptic narrative.” I see this more as a “false start” with tremendous consequences to the understanding of the church in the world than anything else.

This is important because in my view, as far as understanding the New Testament is concerned, the apocalyptic question is much more significant than the question of whether Jesus was God. The Trinitarian question is an engagement with philosophy. The apocalyptic question is an engagement with history.

Jesus as Lord in Mark

Ed Dingess, who appears to be a Reformed apologist, has taken the trouble to add some polite and thoughtful comments to my post “Kenton Sparks: historical criticism and the virgin birth”. He makes some good points and raises some good questions about the narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament, recognizing that it cuts across the grain of more traditional theological readings. He takes issue, however, with my suggestion that it is “difficult to maintain the view that the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels claimed to be God”:

The theme of the divinity of Christ is obvious, not only in the initial launch of Mark’s project which points us up to the coming of Israel’s God in the person of Jesus Christ, but also in the fact that it is carried on throughout the entire project itself.

I will address some of the broader issues relating to method and traditional theological readings in another post—I don’t want my approach to be understood as anti-trinitarian; I don’t think it is, fundamentally, anti-trinitarian. Here I want to consider the claim that the Old Testament quotations in Mark 1:2-4 introduce the theme of the divinity of Jesus. The theoretical discussion should not be pursued apart from a careful and unprejudiced reading of the texts.

What about 1 Corinthians 1:30? Nope, no imputation of righteousness here either. So where is it then?

John Piper thinks that 1 Corinthians 1:30 “stands as a signal pointing to the righteousness of Christ that becomes ours when we are united to him by God through faith”. He is pleased to be able to quote Tom Wright’s “concession” to the Reformed view regarding this text:

It is the only passage I know where something called ‘the imputed righteousness of Christ,’ a phrase more often found in post-Reformation theology and piety than in the New Testament, finds any basis in the text.

In fact, in his response to Piper, Wright strongly refutes the argument that we have here “something called ‘the righteousness of Christ’ imputed to them, in the full sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sense so emphasised by John Piper”. Wright’s view is that those who are “in Christ” share in his vindication but not in a perfect moral righteousness that is somehow “credited” to their account. I agree, but I think the case becomes much stronger—and Paul’s argument more coherent—when we take the narrative-historical-eschatological context into consideration.

More on the righteousness of God and the justification of believers

Some pertinent questions were asked by Jon and Geoff in the comments in response to my last post on Wright and White on the “righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21. This is an extended answer to them. The questions overlap a little, so I may be repeating myself in a couple of places.

It may help before we start, though, to clarify two assumptions that I make.

First, I think that the underlying correlation in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is practical rather than than abstract, historical rather than theological. The lived realities would have been much more alive to Paul’s mind than they are to ours. On the one hand, Jesus, despite being God’s son, was forced to suffer as a “sinner”—to be condemned by the Pharisees as a lawbreaker, by the high priest as a blasphemer. On the other, the apostles are ambassadors, servants, co-workers with God, agents of the righteousness of God.

The language is certainly condensed, to the point of abstraction: “sin” is set against “righteousness”. But I would argue that this is a rhetorical encapsulation of the realistic historical account.

Secondly, as will become clear in my answer to the first question, I think that it is misleading to discuss righteousness and justification in Paul apart from a pressing eschatological framework shaped by Old Testament narratives of judgment and vindication. Reformed theology struggles to give a coherent account of Paul not least because it tries to make his argumentation work in a post-eschatological—indeed, Christendom—setting.

So, to the questions….

Wright and White on the “righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21

Driving back from visiting my mother yesterday I listened to a Premier Radio podcast of Tom Wright and James White debating the meaning of “justification” in Paul. It’s a difficult and rather disjointed conversation—Justin Brierley was clearly struggling to keep his head above water—but it’s worth listening to.

Wright has been enormously helpful in bringing into focus the Jewish-biblical—rather than Latin-medieval—background to Paul’s argument about justification and righteousness. But it seems to me that, in his reconstruction, the end of Israel’s exile is effectively the end of narrative—the end of theology as an engagement with the narrative of God’s people.

He is near, at the doors

Ian Paul wonders whether it’s not the besieging Roman army that will be at the closed gates of Jerusalem rather than the Son of Man, who will be “coming on the clouds of heaven” rather than entering by the gates. His interpretation would fit the historical thesis well, but I’m not sure the limited exegetical evidence we have points in this direction.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that Jesus says “at the doors” (epi thurais) rather than “at the gates” (epi pulais). The distinction can be illustrated: the high priest Eliashib and his brothers the priests built the sheep gate (pulēn) and set up its doors (thuras) (Neh. 3:1 LXX). It doesn’t make much difference to the immediate sense of the passage but it may have a bearing on its relation to other texts.

The coming of the Son of Man: theology or history?

Here’s another example of how we can let theology or dogma get in the way of good biblical interpretation. Bill Mounce, whose mostly excellent exegetical notes I read from time to time, discusses the translation of Mark 13:29, which in the ESV reads:

So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates.

The problem that Mounce addresses is the translation of the phrase engus estin (“is near”). There is no pronoun in the Greek. If we supply “he”, as in the ESV, it appears to make Jesus say that the Son of Man will return within a single generation, which “of course, he didn’t”. This would leave us with what Mounce calls “one of the great conundrums” in the Gospels. 

Good Friday: the death of Jesus in narrative-historical context

It has been stated a number of times in recent discussions here that only a divine Jesus could atone for the sins of the world. The death of a mere man is simply not big enough or significant enough—metaphysically speaking—to account for such a massive outcome. Since it is Good Friday tomorrow, I will take the opportunity to explore this argument in a little more depth. The selection of texts may seem arbitrary, and I may have missed some important ones out. But they seem to be the ones that give us most to go on.

I can understand that once we have reached the consolidated theological position that Jesus is fully God and fully man, it may seem necessary to read that ontology back into everything that is said about him in the New Testament, including what is said about his death. But I am at a loss to see how the case might be made as a matter of biblical interpretation. If we read historically rather than theologically, forwards rather than backwards, the efficacy of Jesus’ death as an act of atonement appears to rest not on ontology but on a concrete act of faithful obedience within the narrative of Israel. As I see it, therefore, the task we face is to wrest Jesus’ death from the sphere of an abstract metaphysics and return it to the apocalyptically constructed account of what God was doing with and through first century Israel vis-à-vis the nations.

Jesus is God or Jesus is Lord?

The long conversation I have been having with John Tancock (starting here) illustrates rather well, to my mind, the difference between the theological approach and the narrative-historical (a.k.a. apocalyptic-eschatological, biblical critical, you name it) approach to reading the New Testament. John was responding to an old post entitled Did Jesus claim to be God?, but a couple of recent pieces have explored the conflict on a broader hermeneutical basis: The battle between theology and history for the soul of the church: 24 antitheses and Theology, narrative and history: how they work in practice.

From John’s perspective, as a long-standing defender of classic Trinitarianism against the barbarian tribes of Modalists, Arians, Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others, interpretation of the christological texts is ultimately answerable to the Council of Nicaea. So if I do not agree with him that one text or another does not teach that Jesus is God, then it would appear that I am an Arian and so a serious threat to the integrity of the faith.

From my perspective, however, it is very difficult to see why interpretation should be held accountable to a debate that took place centuries later in a very different intellectual environment. If interpretation of the New Testament is answerable to anything, it should be to the court of the Jewish scriptures and, to a lesser degree, of the literature of second temple Judaism.


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