Rocking the boat: Noah in narrative-historical perspective

Following the brilliantly intense Christian Associates staff conference in Budapest, my wife and I are spending a couple of weeks in eastern Turkey. Yesterday we went to see the remarkable rock structure, in the hills close to the border with Iran, that is believed by some to be the petrified remains of Noah’s ark. The archaeological site is named after the Turkish army captain İlhan Durupınar who noticed it in aerial photographs taken after it was exposed by earthquakes and heavy rain in 1948, but it is known locally as Nuhun Gemisi, “Noah’s ship”.

Evangelicals, historical criticism and the second coming

One of the most encouraging developments in evangelical thought in recent years has been the willingness of scholars to engage with scientific and historical criticism. I have recommended the work of Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns before. Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism, edited by Christopher Hays and Christopher Ansberry, is very much in the same vein. It serves as a good introduction to a number of critical debates. Did Adam and Eve exist? Did the exodus really happen? Did Israel’s covenant theology predate the exile? Did the prophets always predict the future accurately? Does the phenomenon of pseudepigraphy compromise the canon? Is the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospels historically reliable? And is the Paul of Acts compatible with the Paul of the Letters?

The aim of the book is to show that historical criticism can be done honestly and critically by evangelicals without jeopardizing the fundamental tenets of a Christian confession. The argument in most of the chapters is that even if, in any instance, we were to accept—let’s say hypothetically—the findings of historical criticism, the basic theological truth at issue remains pretty much intact. Not surprisingly, there is less willingness to entertain the hypothetical possibilities when it comes to the virgin birth or the resurrection of Jesus.

Making space for God in post-Christian Europe

I spent last week teaching at a church family camp in Belgium on the theme of “Making space for God in post-Christian Europe”. It was a great opportunity to think through, with a highly motivated but marginalized group of people, how a narrative-historical approach to the New Testament might help us to rethink our response to the overwhelming challenge of secularism. This is brief summary of the main points that I wanted to get across.

We began by talking about the crisis as it is experienced by the evangelical churches in Flemish-speaking Belgium, wedged uncomfortably between the formerly dominant Catholic Church and an increasingly aggressive secularism. On the one hand, the identity of the evangelical churches has been determined to a large degree by a rigorous anti-Catholicism: many of their members are converts from the Catholic Church and regard it as the great prostitute, Babylon. On the other, they are painfully aware that their young people are finding it very difficult to keep believing in a culture that is so hostile to faith. In an article in The New York Times (“A More secular Europe, Divided by the Cross”) Andrew Higgins quotes Gudrun Kugler, who is director of the Observatory on Intolerance and Discrimination against Christians:

“There is a general suspicion of anything religious, a view that faith should be kept out of the public sphere,” said Gudrun Kugler…. “There is a very strong current of radical secularism,” she said, adding that this affects all religions but is particularly strong against Christianity because of a view that “Christianity dominated unfairly for centuries” and needs to be put in its place.

One way or another, this situation accounts for the reluctance of the churches to depart from a very narrow and conservative understanding of their task.

Church as eschatological community (part 2)

This is the belated second part of my write up of a talk I gave at Community Church Harlesden a few weeks back. In part one I argued that what we find in the New Testament is not a generic or standard or universal definition of church but a definition of church as historically contextualized, eschatological communities. An eschatological community, as I use the term here, is a community that is called to respond to an eschatological crisis—by which I mean a radical historical challenge to its identity or even existence. My argument is that in order to survive the crisis of defeat by the forces of modernity and post-modernity the western church needs to recover a sense of being part of the story of the community of God’s people, with a past, a present, and most importantly a future.

Where does authority lie? Peter Enns on historical criticism and evangelicalism

Peter Enns has written a clear, concise and sensible piece on the uneasy relationship between historical criticism and evangelicalism that I think is well worth reading. He notes the tensions between evangelicalism’s commitment to scripture as divine revelation and the proper task of historical criticism, which is to look behind scripture—to “inquire as to its origins and meaning as understood within the cultural context in which the various texts were written”. Evangelicalism is comfortable in principle with the grammatical-historical method, but it is not happy with the way critical tools have been used—very effectively—to undermine the authority of the texts.

Three ways to put ourselves in the story

In response to my argument that what we have in the New Testament is a “narrative for the early churches as they confronted the frightening hegemony of classical paganism”, Evelyn asks, quite reasonably: “but then how can it serve as a narrative for us?” I will suggest here that there are three basic ways in which the New Testament may serve as a narrative for us. We can be in the narrative, we can be in part of the narrative, or we can be beyond the narrative: in each case our identity is determined by the narrative. There’s nothing much new here—it’s really just a summary of earlier material.

Would God have got excited about the conversion of Constantine?

Someone recently got in touch with some pertinent questions about my contention that the main trajectory of New Testament eschatology lands not at the end-of-the-world but firmly in the muddy battle-field of history, at the conversion of Rome.

This is not just a question about New Testament eschatology, of course. It is also a question—as will become clear—about how we understand revelation and, indeed, about how we understand God.

Does James preach the gospel?

It may sometimes appear that the narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament throws up more questions than answers, but one point that I am pretty confident about is that what the modern evangelical world generally means by “gospel” is not what Jesus or Paul meant by “gospel”.

Or James.

I happened upon this quote by Donald Hagner recently, from his book The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, which my friend Chris Tilling had offered for consideration, I suspect in some bemusement:

One sometimes gets the impression from some people that all twenty-seven books of the NT, since they are inspired, canonical books, must be of equal importance and value. As a canonical book, James must be heard in the church, and it has much to offer. However, it does not express the gospel, and for that reason it is not the equal of other books. (683)

Creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is not much of a metanarrative

I came across this somewhat at random, but it illustrates a point. In an article on the role of theology on the Gordon Conwell website John Jefferson argues that a sound biblical theology is like the backbone in the human body—it provides “support, shape and stability to the Body of Christ”.

In the early church this was expressed through four functions: catechesis, or the teaching of basic Christian doctrine; apologetics, the defence of the faith; polemics, the suppression of heresy; and homiletics—“assisting preachers and teachers in the exposition and teaching of Scripture”.

Jefferson then goes on to suggest that a sound biblical theology “can provide vitality, vision and standards for assessment in the local congregation”. The framework for vision is provided by the “biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption and new creation”, and the point is made that salvation is not just about forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven but also about an “experience beginning now of entering into the life of the Triune God”.

Does the gospel first appear in Genesis 3:15?

Another good example of how theology gets read back into texts where it doesn’t belong is provided by the argument that the gospel first appears in Genesis 3:15. The singular “seed” of the woman, who will crush the head of the serpent, is taken to be a prophecy of the coming messiah. It’s known as the “protevangelium”. The argument cannot be defended exegetically as we shall see—and as even Calvin reluctantly admitted:

…other interpreters take the seed for Christ, without controversy; as if it were said, that some one would arise from the seed of the woman who should wound the serpent’s head. Gladly would I give my suffrage in support of their opinion, but that I regard the word seed as too violently distorted by them; for who will concede that a collective noun is to be understood of one man only? Further, as the perpetuity of the contest is noted, so victory is promised to the human race through a continual succession of ages. I explain, therefore, the seed to mean the posterity of the woman generally. (Commentary on Genesis)

But the point I will emphasize is that it illustrates the pervasive failure of dogmatic theologies to respect the integrity and boundaries of the text.

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