Do I believe in Satan? To be honest, on a good day, I’m not sure I do. I suspect that this arch hypostasis of evil is just a bit too much of a stretch for my largely rationalist view of the world. Should I be concerned about this? A narrative appraisal of Satan’s function in the New Testament suggests perhaps not. We naturally want to ask questions about the ontology and metaphysics of Satan. Does he really exist? How does he fit into a modern-theistic worldview? But in the New Testament Satan is a dramatic figure, a character in a story, who plays a quite specific, and in the end limited, role in the unfolding crisis.
In an article in the latest edition of Christianity Today (“The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony”) Leslie Fields examines the current preference expressed by many evangelicals for narrative over doctrine. She offers by way of evidence a statement made by Derek Flood in a Huffington Post article: “Christian faith is not primarily about arguing over right beliefs and doctrines, it is about letting the story of God’s grace become our story and shape our lives.” Evangelicals are falling over each other these days in their enthusiasm to insert their beliefs into the wide open space between once-upon-a-time and happy-ever-after. Indeed we are.
While we’re on the subject of the kingdom of God, what are we to make of Jesus’ enigmatic saying about violent men taking the kingdom by force (Matt. 11:12)? The only way to make sense of it, I would suggest, is to read carefully Jesus’ reaction to the visit from the disciples of John the Baptist recounted in Matthew 11:2-19. Such an approach will reinforce my argument that the coming of the kingdom of God is understood in the Gospels as an imminent political event that will transform the historical condition of Israel. Preachers take note.
The coming of the kingdom of God in the Synoptic Gospels is, in my view, entirely a cataclysmic future public event. This event would not happen very soon, from Jesus’ point of view, but some of his followers would certainly live to witness it. It is closely linked, in Jesus’ apocalyptic story-telling, with the coming of the Son of Man. I am not trying to push any particular theological position here. I am recommending a historical judgment: this language, in this context, under these conditions, could only have pointed to decisive political events within a realistic historical timeframe, in a foreseeable future.
But what about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”? Doesn’t this mean that Jesus thought that the kingdom was both present and future, both now and not yet?
The debate running over here regarding spiritual and physical kingdoms seems to me to be getting confused. To my mind, a straightforward distinction needs to be made between the place where the king is and the place where his reign takes effect.
Jesus became Israel’s king by his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God, from where he would rule until all his enemies have been placed under his feet. It’s misleading to call this a “spiritual” rule—the New Testament doesn’t; “heavenly” would be a better term. It’s a rule enacted from heaven.
In some reflections on an essay by Darrell Bock in the recent Howard Marshall festschrift Michael Bird makes the comment: “I seriously wonder if we have two competing gospel visions in evangelicalism.”
He quotes a couple of paragraphs from Bock’s essay which make the point that whereas the gospel that is mostly preached in the church today is about forgiveness of sins, what Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 highlights is “not so much how Jesus saves us, but where that act of saving takes us”—namely, to a restored covenantal relationship with God in the Spirit, as prefigured in Jeremiah. In fact, Bock maintains, nothing at all is said about forgiveness or the atoning function of Jesus’ death in Acts 2.
I don’t want to make this too much a Q&A type blog, but when good questions come up in the comments, it seems a shame to waste them. This one from Mitchell Powell gets at a problem which is often reckoned to be the Achilles heel of narrative-historical approaches to the New Testament, though perhaps from a different angle to usual.
Scot McKnight has provoked copious debate on Jesus Creed in characteristically economical fashion by asking people what they think of the eight marks of a “true church”, by which is meant a church that conforms to the teachings of the New Testament, as defined by Mark Driscoll:
- The church is made up of regenerated believers in Jesus
- The church is organized under qualified leadership
- The church gathers to hear preaching and to respond in worship
- The church rightly administers the sacraments
- The church is spiritually unified
- The church is holy
- The church is devoted to fellowship
- The church is committed to Jesus’ mission
I picked up a discounted copy of Roger Olson’s A-Z of Evangelical Theology (SCM, 2005) in the London School of Theology book shop earlier in the week. A central theme of the book that I am currently working on will be the kingdom of God and how to live with it, so I had a look at Roger’s brief article on the topic (226-27). He notes, first, that some evangelicals take the Augustinian view that the kingdom of God “exists secretly in the world wherever the true church of Jesus Christ worships and serves”. The kingdom is spiritual, not to be identified with any “historical socio-political arrangement”, and will only be fulfilled “in the eschaton, when Christ returns triumphantly to establish it in the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem”. So the kingdom is “already”, exhibited in the life of the church, and “not yet”, to be fulfilled in the “visible rule of Christ over creation after his return to earth”.
I am sitting in the library at the London School of Theology trying to cobble together a book proposal. Looking for distraction I have just pulled off the shelf beside me The Wicket Gate by G.A. Studdert Kennedy, first published in 1923. Opening the book more or less at random I happened upon this entertaining comment on the lines “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, and Giver of Life, Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son” from the Nicene Creed….