Jim Hoag has a couple of pertinent questions about my “Postconservative evangelicalism and beyond” post—pertinent, in fact, to the point that he makes me wonder whether the piece had much in the way of substance to it at all. The first question has to do with what we understand by the “New Perspective”, the second with my nifty but perhaps vacuous metaphor of a narrative-historical hermeneutics cutting across the “dominant paradigms of modern theology at ninety degrees”.
The New Perspective—associated principally with writers such as Sanders, Dunn, Hays, and Wright—is a rather loose category that is going to mean different things to different people. It is also a work in progress. It started out largely as an attempt to correct the very negative presentation of Judaism as a religion of legalistic works-righteousness that has held sway over much New Testament interpretation and theology. But since this was essentially a historical correction, it has given a powerful impetus more broadly to research into the historical setting and scope of Paul’s argumentation. In effect, it has done for Paul what successive quests for the historical Jesus have done for Jesus.
I would place recent imperial-critical research (Crossan, Horsley, Lopez) in this trajectory, though it has a habit of going off at a tangent; and my own argument in The Future of the People of God is that Paul’s thought in Romans is governed by a forward-looking narrative about the place of the emerging churches of the nations in a troubled process that effectively culminated in the victory of Christ over the gods and powers of the Greek-Roman world.
Douglas Campbell has some excellent things to say regarding how the “superstructure” of a theological theory (such as Justification theory) may distort or overwhelm the reading of the “base”—the primary texts—on which it was originally constructed. The poor donkey of scripture gets overloaded with a weight of self-substantiating theory that it simply cannot sustain.
We have seen that in the case of a scripturally constructed and authenticated explanation the reading is prior and fundamental; it generates and then supports the explanation as base to superstructure.
The images below are tarted up versions of Campbell’s diagrams (238). In the first one the base of the texts properly supports the superstructure of theory—Campbell is careful not to pretend that we can dispense with “theology”.
But the theory—the superstructure—proceeds to take on a life of its own:
But the resulting theory, once established, possesses its own integrity and coherence…, to the point that it is largely detachable from its underlying texts.
Then, of course, what happens is that for all sorts of complex sociological and historical reasons the theory comes increasingly to “intrude prematurely into the act of reading that supposedly undergirds it” (The Deliverance of God, 237, Campbell’s emphasis)—quite understandable, but “epistemologically disastrous”. Campbell then goes on to describe how “Any illegitimate epistemological causality flowing from the superstructure to the base may be cloaked in a variety ways” (238)—a covert art that we are all remarkably adept at.
So in this second picture the epistemological current has been reversed: the theoretical superstructure, which I have taken the liberty of enlarging to indicate its oppressive function, controls the reading of the base texts, with potentially distorting effect.
So when I suggested that the “New Perspective offers us the best chance of ensuring that in the process we remain loyal to scripture”, what I had in mind was its capacity to swim against the current of an ‘illegitimate epistemological causality”—to resist the distorting effect generated by the sociological success of currently dominant paradigms.
The slightly fuzzy New Perspective topples the bullying theological theory and lets scripture speak with its own voice again (this is purely my contribution to the schematics):
The question will then be whether a constructive and credible tension can be maintained between an appropriate historical-critical methodology and an authentically and potently evangelical commitment. I am confident that it can.
My way of dealing with this challenge would be to foreground the narrative structure of New Testament thought, as the locus at which history, literature and theological argumentation converge. A narrative-historical methodology makes us ask different questions; it pushes context into view; it forestalls theological precommitments; it makes the text strange again; it safeguards the contingent dimensions of the texts; it identifies real and urgent rather than remote and speculative concerns; it grounds language in corporate experience; it has an ear for scriptural and cultural resonances; and so on…
The theology that emerges from this hermeneutical realignment ought to retain a narrative shape and momentum. It will have a diachronic structure—theology as an active, critical, prophetic, hopeful engagement with historical realities in the light of earlier moment in the story. That is a very different model to the largely synchronic function of systematic, conceptually organized, modern theologies (Calvinism, Arminianism, modern evangelicalism, etc.) which, as Campbell points out, effectively pre-empt biblical interpretation. The metaphor of narrative-historical interpretation at ninety degrees to the traditional paradigm attempts to capture that realignment, which of course is just another metaphor, maybe just the same metaphor, for this complex hermeneutical shift—and so it goes on.
My own view is that modern theological paradigms cannot in the long run survive the emerging critique—I think the phrase “vindication of an eschatological community through faithfulness” simply gets at the core of Paul’s argument in Romans much more accurately than the Reformation axiom about the justification of lost individuals by faith. But it will certainly be a long run, and there is no reason in principle (practice is always another matter) why the transition should not proceed by way of dialogue rather than conflict and schism.