Triumphalism, empire, and the early church

Paul Dean is troubled by the inclusion of the word “triumphantly” in the closing sentence of the previous post on The end of narrative for Christians and Jews: “For the church, narrative came to an end triumphantly in the conversion of the empire and was replaced by theology.” He asks: “Why is that word there? Do you think it was a good thing or is the word a psycho-historical interpolation?”

The word is there basically to heighten the contrast with the end of narrative forced upon the Jews by the catastrophe of the failed revolts against Rome and the subsequent emergence of rabbinic Judaism—a shift “from politics to piety”, as Wright puts it.

The end of narrative for Christians and Jews

The New Testament is an eschatological text. It tells a story, which is essentially a Jewish story about the fulfilment of age-old, deeply held hopes expressed in the Psalms and the prophets. The death and resurrection of Jesus brings that story to some sort of climax, but not to an end. There is much still to come: revolt, war, persecution, resurrection, judgment, vindication—and the day when Jesus will be confessed as Lord by the nations. The message that the apostles took to the nations of the Greek-Roman world had as much to do with the future as with the past. The “gospel” looked back to what God had done in Christ, but it also pointed forwards to the judgment that would soon come on the great idolatrous empire:

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” (Rev. 14:6–7)

The woman and the dragon

Preparing some lectures on Revelation, I came across Ian Paul’s very helpful introduction to the book in Exploring the New Testament, Volume 2: A Guide to the Letters & Revelation (Exploring the Bible). With Revelation, probably more than with any other New Testament text, it is difficult to deal with its meaning apart from its form. How we understand its literary character—as some sort of apocalyptic text—inevitably determines how we make sense of what it has to say about the future of God’s people. The point can be illustrated nicely from the visionary allegory of the woman and the dragon in Revelation 12. Ian highlights the significance of both the mythological and the Old Testament backgrounds for interpreting the passage. I want to explore this a bit further here, not least because I think it lends support to my general contention that the New Testament is fundamentally about how the God of Israel comes to judge and rule the nations, not in some abstract theological sense but in history.

The long, difficult story of new creation

I had a long conversation over the weekend with an Asian friend who is engaged in conflict-resolution projects in her war-torn country. She was particularly interested in the importance of inter-faith conversations and practices, and we got round to talking about the difference between Christian and Buddhist worldviews or cosmologies.

As she put it, she is driven in her work by a desire to serve life, perhaps rather loosely sustained by the awareness that everything participates in the divine—I think she might describe herself as a secularized Buddhist, but I’m not sure.

I suggested that although the modern church has often appeared more inclined to bicker over beliefs and boundaries than to make the world a better place, in principle the same desire to affirm and serve life is there. But it is mediated necessarily through the story of the strained relationship between a distinct people and the Creator God, which is all the way through a story of new creation.

The “Christ hymn”: true humanity or true kingship?

The new Story of God Bible Commentary series is another encouraging sign that the narrative-historical approach to the New Testament is building up a head of steam, even if it is not entirely clear which track it is heading down or how far it might go. Interpretation is about telling the story, application is about living the story:

The authors of this series study and probe the Bible as God’s story, to discern and then articulate how we can live the Bible’s story faithfully and creatively in the culture today.

The Koinōnia blog has an excerpt from Lynn Cohick’s Story of God commentary on Philippians in which she discusses the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11. It gives an idea of the level and style that the series is aiming at. Her main point is that the passage should not be read merely as a proof-text for the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. Rather the hymn “describes the person of Jesus Christ and, in so doing, develops a vision for what it means to be fully human before God”.

How Paul saw the future

Paul had a sharp and vivid understanding of what the future held. It took the form of a prophetic narrative that would affect his own people Israel, the nations and the churches. It was not a matter of peripheral interest, an appendix to his theology. The narrative is pervasive in his letters and determinative for faith. People were converted to a new belief about the future. They believed, for example, that a day of wrath was coming from which they would be delivered by Jesus:

…you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess. 1:9–10; cf. 1 Cor. 1:7–8)

They believed that they would sooner or later inherit, as a community, as a nascent culture or civilization, a radically new political-religious order when the God of Israel would be acknowledged as sovereign over the nations.

Larry Hurtado briefly on the question of whether Jesus demanded to be worshipped

Larry Hurtado has a clear and concise summary statement of his view regarding the emergence of what he calls “Jesus devotion”. He does not think that Jesus himself demanded to be worshipped, which is not quite the same as saying that Jesus did not claim to be God or act as though he thought he were God, but it’s close. Rather, the early church directed devotion towards Jesus as soon as it became apparent that God had exalted him to a position of glory and power at his right hand.

Either Paul got the timing wrong or we’ve got the end wrong

Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which some would argue was his second (Wanamaker), or his first and second combined (Murphy-O’Connor), was written to encourage a novice community of mostly Gentile believers to stand firm in the face of persecution until the parousia of the Lord, when the wrath of God would come against the world and they would be delivered from their suffering and united with their Lord. This is the narrative—or eschatological—frame of the letter, and it controls Paul’s argument at every point.

The same can be said of his first letter to the Corinthians. They “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:7–8). The rulers of the present age are doomed to pass away (2:6). The quality of the apostles’ work will be revealed when a day of fire comes (3:13). The Lord is coming to “bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and… disclose the purposes of the heart”, when everyone will receive his or her commendation from God (4:5). A “day of the Lord” is coming, when “the saints will judge the world”, and the righteous will inherit the kingdom of God (5:5; 6:2, 9). A time of distress is approaching; the “present form of this world is passing away” (7:26, 31). In the Lord’s supper they proclaim his death “until he comes” (11:26). The world will be condemned (11:32). The dead in Christ will be raised at his coming and will inherit the kingdom (15:23, 50-56). Paul prays that the Lord will come (16:22).

1 Thessalonians: a document of eschatological formation

In his little book Reading Paul: (Cascade Companions) Michael Gorman argues that Paul needs to be “read as Scripture, as—to be blunt—the voice of God speaking to us”. The historical distance between then and now needs to be understood, but it should not get in the way of hearing Paul address us directly as the church. We “read Paul best when we read him speaking to us and for God” (3-4). The letters, therefore, are not merely “someone else’s mail”; they are pastoral letters written to “all who share the faith of Paul’s first letter-recipients”.

They should therefore not be read as philosophical or theological discourses—though they are quite rhetorically sophisticated—but as documents of spiritual formation. (28)

A paradigm shift in Pauline studies?

There’s an excellent set of brief, somewhat dense responses, from earlier this year, to a question about developments in Pauline studies on the Enoch Seminar forum:

Pauline studies have undergone major changes in recent times. Which new research topics and methods would you especially highlight? Would you, moreover, agree to speak of a paradigm shift?

Respondents include James H. Charlesworth, Paula Fredriksen, Larry Hurtado and Mark D. Nanos. The opinions offered all fall from the same tree, grown over the last 35 years from the seed of E.P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism, but they reflect something of the complexities and controversies internal to the debate.

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