Is the church in the post-Christian West in exile?

Is “exile” a good word for the state of the church in the post-Christian West? The metaphor is commonly used, especially by those who see some missional potential in the marginalisation (another spatial metaphor) of the modern church. See, for example, Michael Frost’s Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture. John Goldingay, however, has reservations:

We are not in exile; we are simply people who have been outvoted, literally and/or metaphorically. Exile happens to people who are not citizens and not members of imperial powers. We can’t use the image of exile to let ourselves off the hook of responsibility for the violence our nations undertake. Further, it’s surely not the case that most Christians see themselves as increasingly on the edge, at odds with the empire, or in exile from their culture – you might even suggest that the problem lies in our not seeing ourselves thus. I don’t think that most Christians in (say) Uganda or the United States think in that way. Further, while Europe and countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada are post-Christian, most of Africa and the rest of the colonial/postcolonial world are not, and neither is the United States (which is of course a postcolonial entity, with the appropriate love-hate relationship with its European forebears). In the United States, I like to say we are living in the time of Josiah, not the exile.

The Son of Man according to Daniel, Enoch and Jesus: it’s the same old story

Scholars disagree over who exactly the son of man figure is in Daniel’s vision. Is he a supernatural being—a great angel like Michael? A human individual, perhaps a messiah? Or is he a symbolic person representing the suffering saints of the Most High? I lean strongly towards the latter interpretation because it fits the story that is being told. But I would also argue that the story being told, whether here in Daniel, or in 1 Enoch, or in the Synoptic Gospels, is much more important than we generally suppose.

The four destructive beasts which emerge from the sea are, according to the interpreting angel, four kingdoms (Dan. 7:15 LXX). The little horn which appears on the head of the fourth beast is a particularly nasty king. He will “speak words against the Most High”; he will make war against the “holy ones of the Most High” and rout them; he will seek to suppress the Law (7:21, 25 LXX). But the “ancient of days” will sit in judgment. The beast will be destroyed, and the verdict will be given for the “holy people (laōi hagiōi) of the Most High”; and “the holy ones gained possession of the seat of empire (basileion)” (7:22, 27 NETS).

Reframing the story that gets us to Jesus

I watched one of Regent College’s Reframe videos with the Harlesden crowd earlier in the week. Old Testament professor Phil Long does what everyone seems to be doing these days—he tells the story about Israel that climaxes in Jesus. I’m all in favour of it, but I think that the video highlights some basic flaws in the typical evangelical appropriation of the shiny new narrative model.

As Phil tells it—and it is nicely done—it is the story of how God sets out to redeem a deeply corrupted and broken world. This seems to be a standard assumption. It begins with Abraham and is traced through the sojourn in Egypt, to the Exodus, quietly passing over the bloody conquest of Canaan, through the period of the Judges, to the moment when Samuel anoints a king to rule over Israel. Then the promise is made to David that God will build a house for him, be a father to his son, and “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-16). The conquest of the northern kingdom and the Babylonian exile are mentioned briefly. But then it’s a big jump to the fulfilment of Israel’s story and the climax of history in Jesus. End of story.

The end of Gehenna

Jeremiah foresees a day of judgment coming upon Israel because the “sons of Judah… have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it”, and have sacrificed their children in Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Jer. 7:30).

The Babylonian army will besiege the city, and the dead will be buried in Topheth or strewn across the Valley of the Son of Hinnom to be eaten by birds and beasts, because there is no burial space left in the city. The valley will be renamed the Valley of Slaughter (Jer. 7:30-34; 19:4-9). The city will be a horror, a thing to be hissed at by passers-by.

Ben Irwin: The Story of King Jesus (a review)

I came across Ben Irwin’s blog because he linked to the piece I wrote on Jesus having nothing to say about homosexuality, and quite a lot of people stopped by to look. I noticed that Ben has written a book called The Story of King Jesus, and since, in my view, the recovery of the narrative of kingdom is central to the reconstruction of an evangelical theology after Christendom and after modernity, I got hold of a copy.

Paul within Judaism and the challenge for the post-Christendom church

I’ve tried this sort of exercise before, but reading Magnus Zetterholm’s chapter in Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First-Century Context to the Apostle has prompted me to have another go at schematising the relation between theology and history and the challenge that this presents to the church today.

We start with the story of Israel. The New Testament is in some respects a climax to this story, but it also projects a narrative future in the language and imagery of Jewish apocalypticism. This narrated future, in my view, consists of judgment on first century Israel in the form of the Jewish War, the faithful witness of the churches in the Greek-Roman world, and the eventual overthrow of pagan Rome and the confession of Christ by the nations of the ancient world.

The Christianized Paul, the New Perspective Paul, and Paul within Judaism

One of the most important questions driving current developments in our understanding of the New Testament—and therefore of what it means to be “Christian”—has to do with the relation between the early Jesus movement and Judaism. In practice this issue closely matches the hermeneutical question that I have tended to emphasise here: should our understanding of the New Testament be controlled by theology or by history? I have been reading Paul Within Judaism: Restoring the First Century Context to the Apostle, edited by Mark Nanos and Magnus Zetterholm. The book has prompted these reflections and will be used to plot and illustrate a trajectory that I think is of considerable importance for the narrative-historical argument.

Mapping the hermeneutics of penal substitution: McGrath, Bird and me

Yesterday’s post about Simon Gathercole’s little book defending substitution as an integral part of Paul’s understanding of the atonement got a brief mention in a piece by James McGrath along with a post by Mike Bird on the same subject. Here I attempt to map the three positions represented by McGrath, Bird and me, grossly oversimplifying in all three cases—people are always more complicated than the positions that they sometimes appear to take.

McGrath blogs on the “Progressive Christian” channel at Patheos. He thinks that the doctrine of penal substitution is deeply “problematic as a contemporary theological viewpoint” and that this “is a matter that no amount of prooftexting can address”.

Bird blogs on the “Evangelical” channel at Patheos. In the post cited by McGrath he takes issue with a Missio Alliance article in which William Walker recommends a “debt forgiveness” model for the atonement against a penal substitionary or payment model. Bird defends the traditional position on theological and biblical grounds, citing texts which in his view demonstrate that the cross is “satisfaction”, “penal” and “substitutionary”.

Simon Gathercole defends substitution

Simon Gathercole is worried that the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is going out of fashion so he sets out to defend it in this brief book Defending Substitution: An Essay on Atonement in Paul. It’s a very limited argument: in two main exegetical chapters he considers two statements that Paul makes: Christ died “for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3; and Christ died “for the ungodly… for us” (Rom. 5:6-8). I ended up unconvinced by his defence, but not quite for the reasons I expected.

In the Introduction, Gathercole explains that he thinks substitution is important for both doctrinal and pastoral reasons. He provides a straightforward definition: “I am defining substitutionary atonement for the present purposes as Christ’s death in our place, instead of us” (15). He distinguishes between substitution and other atonement ideas: penalty, representation, propitiation, and satisfaction. Finally, he addresses a number of theological, philosophical and logical criticisms of the “doctrine of substitutionary atonement”, including Steve Chalke’s notorious claim that substitutionary atonement amounts to “cosmic child abuse”, which he dismisses as “extremely shallow”, and Christopher Hitchens’ fierce objection to vicarious redemption: “I cannot absolve you of your responsibilities. It would be immoral of me to offer, and immoral of you to accept” (27). But this is just the introduction to a small book whose focus is on exegesis, so don’t expect anything more than a passing appraisal.

Did Jesus heal the centurion’s male sexual partner?

I asserted a while back that there is no evidence in the Gospels that Jesus had anything to say, directly or indirectly, about homosexuality. I don’t think he threatened pederasts with drowning, or asked people if they had gone out into the wilderness to see a gay man in effeminate clothing, or included homosexuals in the category of eunuchs. In a comment, however, Peter Wilkinson drew attention to the argument, put forward here and elsewhere, that Jesus knowingly healed the centurion’s catamite, thus affirming their same-sex relationship (Lk. 7:1-10; Matt. 8:5-13). Is there any reason to think that this “honoured” slave served a sexual purpose? Again, probably not.


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