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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The New Testament and “what now for the church”

One of the objections most forcefully raised against a consistent narrative-historical reading of the New Testament is that it makes the texts more or less irrelevant as a source of teaching and inspiration for the church today. Peter Wilkinson expressed this objection in a recent comment in no uncertain terms:

Hereon in we are in uncharted, post-biblical waters, and left to sink or swim, to put it crudely, according to our own devices. There is no biblical matrix left in which we can locate ourselves. That’s a huge problem with your approach, and whenever the issue arises of what now for the church, you don’t have a lot to say. I find this inevitable conclusion of your approach, as it currently stands, rather incredible.

What I have attempted to show on this blog and in my books is that the core elements of New Testament theology have a very precise, particular, and in certain important respects limited significance in the historical frame within which they were originally conceived and articulated. Let me give some examples:

  • The “gospel” is not a standardized message of personal salvation but a public announcement to Israel that decisive events are about to take place, or to the Gentiles that the Law no longer stands as an impediment to their participation in the people of God.
  • Jesus’ death on the cross is understood, in the first place, as a death because of the sins of Israel and only marginally and in a qualified sense as a death for all humanity.
  • The resurrection of Jesus is both actually and symbolically the resurrection of Israel on the third day following judgment (cf. Hos. 6:1-2); as part of this narrative it also anticipates the vindication of the martyr communities in their “contest” with both the Jewish authorities and with pagan imperialism.
  • The Spirit is given at Pentecost as a continuation of Jesus’ prophetic witness against Jerusalem—a whole charismatic community now gives notice of a coming day of the Lord, when judgment will come on a “crooked generation”.
  • The language of future judgment, restoration, vindication, the symbolic language of a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, etc., has in my view (see The Coming of the Son of Man) reference to foreseeable historical events, which turned out to be, roughly speaking, the Jewish war of AD 66–70 and the eventual conversion of pagan Europe.
  • The whole argument about justification by faith presupposes these eschatological horizons: it is the church insofar as it trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus, and not Law-based Israel, that will be concretely “justified” as the people of YHWH—shown to have been “right” all along—when he “judges” the ancient world, the Jew first, and then the Greek (see The Future of the People of God).
  • The “teaching” that we find in the New Testament—the Lord’s prayer, for example—is aimed at equipping the Jesus movement to live out a specific eschatological narrative that would culminate in the confession of Jesus as Kyrios by the pagan world.

All that brings out—sharply and coherently, to my way of thinking—the narrative-historical significance of New Testament theology. With it, I think, we make some major gains in terms of exegetical and historical integrity. But does it mean that the New Testament has nothing left to say to the church today? No, of course not.

Chosen people

In the first place, the traumatic narrative that runs from the preaching of John the Baptist through to the defeat of Greek-Roman paganism does not end at that point. It leaves us with an intact people of God, a viable continuation of the family of Abraham, no longer subject to persecution, vindicated for having put its faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead under such difficult circumstances. This is now a transnational people reflecting the ethnic make-up of the whole of the old pagan empire, no longer constrained by the various socio-religious boundaries imposed by the Law. The family of Abraham has in this way and to this extent inherited the world, and is therefore a fitting representative of the God of the whole world. But my point here is simply that a radically contextualized New Testament theology still leaves us with the critical component of God’s dealings with his creation, namely a people with a compelling sense of having been chosen for his possession and for his purposes.

“Mission”

The biblical narrative as a whole teaches us that this people was always intended to be new creation, a creational microcosm in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world. This template in itself establishes certain fundamental responsibilities and tasks; it may be used to define the “mission” of the church, as I have attempted to show in Re: Mission. A new creation people is in restored relationship with the Creator, expressed through worship, trust and service; it must work out the consequences of that core identity in its concrete social existence as a matter of tangible righteousness; it must express through its own creativity something of the good creativity of God. The post-eschatological church is still a model of restored humanity, a prophetic and priestly people, that embodies, articulates, mediates, the reality of God to a God-less world.

Praxis

In that respect, much of the “substance” of our self-understanding—much of the material for teaching and praxis—may still be summed up in the words of Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). Or in Jesus’ précis of the Law as love for Israel’s God and love for neighbour. These are minimalist formulations, but there is more than enough in them to keep preachers and teachers going for a while.

Salvation

Clearly, however, the people of God has been radically changed by the events described and anticipated in the New Testament—by the narrative of judgment, restoration, and public vindication. Most importantly, it is now a people that has been “saved” from the consequences of its inescapable human sinfulness by the death of Jesus. It is a people that is no longer subject to the condemnation of the Law; it, therefore, no longer lives in fear of judgment, destruction, irrelevance, or death.

Personal salvation

That is a freedom that is experienced by all those who individually make the transition, in response to the call of God, from the old humanity to this new creation, who leave behind a corrupted existence and enter into the irrepressible corporate life of the people of God. If Jesus had not died as an atonement for the inveterate rebelliousness of Israel, there would have been no community of new life. At least in that precise narrative sense—perhaps there is more to be said here—he died for everyone. So there is still a need for teaching about sin, repentance, forgiveness, baptism, and discipleship.

Jesus

What guarantees the integrity and security of the people of God now is that authority and kingdom have been given to the one who fulfilled the symbolic role of “Son of Man”, who suffered out of loyalty to YHWH at a time of political-religious crisis, who was raised, who was vindicated, and who reigns throughout the coming ages. Jesus is now the king who will “judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). There is no power at work in the world that can ever thwart or defeat or depose him. I suspect that we are currently a long way from fully understanding the implications of Christ’s lordship for the existence and witness of the church as we struggle to recover from the collapse of Christendom.

New heaven and new earth

This imperfectly realized new life is a prophetic anticipation—a sign to the world—of a final making new of all things, a final justice, when sin and death will be defeated and destroyed. The church lives between the ontological novelty of Jesus’ resurrection and what I have tended to refer to as the third eschatological horizon of the new heavens and the new earth. There is an abundance of “substance” in that inherently New Testament account of our existence.

Holy Spirit

Whereas the new creation existence of national Israel was defined and regulated by the Law, the new creation existence of the post-eschatological people of God is defined and regulated by the Spirit. In some respects we can learn directly from the New Testament church’s experience of the Spirit. In other respects we have to make adjustments because the circumstances of the post-Christendom church are very different to the circumstances of the New Testament church. A crucial part of the present task is to understand what the Spirit of God is doing in the church today as it comes to terms with the devastating consequences of rationalism, secularism, globalization, and environmental degradation.

Scripture

Finally, I think we need to recover the simple power of story-telling. Modernity has taught us to extract truth forcibly from living narratives, process it, package it, and serve it up for popular consumption. Post-modernity is giving us the opportunity to let the narrative speak for itself and qua narrative shape the self-understanding and purpose of the people of God.

Peter bemoans the lack of a “biblical matrix… in which we can locate ourselves”. But “matrix” is only one type of metaphor for our relationship to scripture. I think that there are, in fact, ways to locate ourselves in the “matrix” of scripture. For example, it seems to me that the post-Christendom church is in an insecure transitional situation much like the exodus or the exile or the difficult journey that the New Testament communities had to make before they inherited the pagan world; and we are having to exercise a similar trust in God that we have a meaningful future. There is much that we can learn from such “analogies”.

But the Bible is actually much more like a narrative than it is like a “matrix”. It fundamentally tells a story. All I am suggesting is that we learn how to live in relation to scripture for what it actually is—not a textbook of theology, not a compendium of beliefs, not a work of quasi-Gnostic myth-making, not a static “matrix” in which truths are embedded, but a very Jewish historical narrative.

There is some truth in Peter’s claim that a narrative that culminates in the conversion of the Greek-Roman world leaves us now in “uncharted, post-biblical waters”. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. I disagree with Tom Wright about how the New Testament narrative is to be reconstructed, but I think his well known Shakespearian play analogy is helpful. The first four acts are found in the Bible. The undetermined fifth act is being written by the actors:

Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.1

The play cannot be properly finished simply by repeating act four. There are ways of living in the narrative that allow us genuinely to walk with God into the unknown, in proper continuity with the narrative trajectory of scripture—not least because we have to keep moving towards the final vision of a new heaven and new earth. It undoubtedly calls for an exceptional wisdom and creativity and faithfulness, but that should not be beyond the working of the Spirit of the Creator God who dwells within us.

  • 1. N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 140 (his italics).

Comments

Thanks for this post. You pretty much run the table on the questions we face. I would ask for your clairification on a couple of issues.

I wonder if you are familiar with the work of William Abraham and the work he and others did in Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology and the Church

The Product Description on Amazon reads:

Canonical Theism is a post-Protestant vision for the renewal of both theology and church. The editors call for the retrieval and redeployment of the full range of materials, persons, and practices that make up the canonical heritage of the church, including scripture, doctrine, sacred image, saints, sacraments, and more. The central thesis of the work is that the good and life-giving Holy Spirit has equipped the church with not only a canon of scripture but also with a rich canonical heritage of materials, persons, and practices. However, much of the latter has been ignored or cast aside. This unplumbed resource of canonical heritage waits for the church to rediscover its wealth. With a bold set of thirty theses, the authors chart and defend that mine of opportunity. They then invite the entire church to explore the benefits of their discoveries. This ambitious book offers insights to be integrated into the church body, renewing the faith that nourished converts, created saints, and upheld martyrs across the years.

I found this book to be incredibly helpful in overcoming the sense of lostness from the death of Christendom because it tended to bring a “rootedness” that I did not have. For example, it actually led us to establish a liturgical service @ our church so that we could offer the LORD’s table every week. Anyway, here’s the questions:

  1. Where does the canonical heritage of the church fit into your thoughts?
  2. Which leads to the second thought: Where do you see the Eucharist fitting into these ideas?
  3. And third, you say:

I suspect that we are currently a long way from fully understanding the implications of Christ’s lordship for the existence and witness of the church as we struggle to recover from the collapse of Christendom.  

Could you unpack this of Christ’s Lordship idea a little more?

Again, thanks for this rich post.

Mark, I don’t know of the book and probably cannot comment very intelligently simply on the basis of the product description. I wouldn’t want to dismiss it out of hand, but on the face of it I would be concerned that such a broad canonical-historical approach, for all its cultural and intellectual attractions, would only further obscure the New Testament narrative. I don’t have a problem with the canon as such, and I would welcome attempts to recover the goodness of the church’s heritage. But I am not convinced that this theological heritage is going to help us interpret better. I tend to think that we need to move beyond the whole Christendom paradigm and, in effect, start again, though I appreciate that that’s not a very realistic proposal.

That sort of answers your first question. I think that one of the things we have to do if we are to move forward is to step outside the canonical heritage of the church, at least provisionally, hermeneutically, in order to read the New Testament with fresh eyes.

Secondly, I think that the eucharist for us now is essentially a meal by which we remember and celebrate the narrative moment of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For the early disciples, though, it represented a much more direct and realistic participation or koinōnia in the narrative of Jesus’ redemptive suffering.

Thirdly—that’s a very good question, which needs a more thoughtful answer than I can give at the moment. What I have in mind essentially has to do with the nature of the church’s self-consciousness of being a people over which Christ is Lord. For modern evangelicalism the lordship of Christ has become a very private matter: Jesus is my personal Lord and Saviour. There has been a push in missiology to make the wild and radical Jesus of the Gospels the model for Christian praxis, which is not without merit, but it is not at all how Paul, say, construed the relationship of the church to Jesus—except insofar as the churches were called to imitate Christ in his sufferings. For Paul it was the exalted Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, who immediately determined the shape of corporate existence. That had a lot to do with the conflict with paganism. We are now in a different place, and I think we need to reimagine the lordship of Christ with respect to a rather different set of challenges. 

There’s nothing like nailing your colours to the mast, Andrew. I agree with you about the power of story telling, but I find I’m reading a different story, subtly different at first, but hugely different in where it takes us.

Much of what defines my parting of company with you, in the sense of understanding the story, rests with your interpretation of the Daniel narrative, and Daniel 7 in particular.

In that story, there is much that is left shadowy and ambiguous about ‘the Son of Man’ until we see how it is made distinct and definite by Jesus himself. Is he corporate or individual, or both? If he was corporate and individual, in what sense(s) did he as an individual represent the corporate? Why was he needed to represent the corporate? What did he share with the corporate as their representative, and what made him different from the corporate that only he could represent them? To whom was the “authority, glory and sovereign power” given? Who did “all peoples, nations and men of every language” worship?” Was it the Ancient of Days, or the Son of Man? How did this worship come about? What was the significance of the contrast of the Son of Man with the beasts of the pagan empires? How did the people of God become bearers of that contrast in their own lives and characters as represented by the Son of Man? How did the remarkable change come about in the attitudes, actions and characters of those championed by the Son of Man from those of the surrounding nations themselves, the ‘beasts’ of pagan empires?

We can ask these questions now in the light of answers provided by Jesus, and the remarkable changes brought about by him in his people. These answers, at least as I see them, are not in your version of the story.

In particular, I diverge from your interpretation of the wider story in seeing Jesus not simply as a bridge ensuring the survival of the people of God, and thereby the fulfilment of the promises to Abraham, but as the fulfilment of the story and promises in himself, and in ourselves only in union with him, as described and acted out in our baptism, and lived out in his temple/body, with him as chief cornerstone/head, in a living relationship, not a historic relationship alone.

So if we ask how we now qualify for membership of the people of God, how can it be by a different means from those who originally qualified? It was only through Jesus, and his actions through the cross, resurrection and Spirit impartation in particular. If these are not for us, how can we qualify with those whom the NT originally addressed?

If we ask how we identify ourselves as members of the people of God, it is through the Holy Spirit and faith as reflected somewhat exclusively in the character of Jesus himself. How can we avail ourselves of this part of the story, if we are denied access to the first part of the story, which made this part of the story available to those whom the first part of the story originally addressed?

The story has universal components, not just in the future, but now. It speaks of how the curse of sin was overcome, death disempowered, new life imparted, creation restored. Your story has the latter two elements, but without the means of us getting there in the former two. I don’t know how membership of the people of God is obtained in your version of events, since a story in itself will not deal with the issues which bar us access from that people.

I’m certainly wanting to raise a banner for story. It’s the story sketched almost in its entirety in the promises made to Abraham: his descendants in exile in Egypt, brought out through the exodus into the land. The land itself is the springboard for the promised worldwide blessing through the ‘seed’, which is the on-going part of the story we are still in, with ourselves as ‘seed’ with Jesus ‘the seed’ through belonging to him (I’ve jumped to Galatians 3:29). It’s the story which weaves its way through the covenants - with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David - and fulfilled in and through Jesus, then and now.

Without Jesus, no covenant fulfilment. No new creation people, no new creation. With that you would probably agree. We are only sustained as new creation people by the new life which comes from the source and origin of the new creation - Jesus himself. I can’t see a place for that in your verion of the story. Jesus takes this role because he himself was the agent and originator of the old creation - Colossians1:15-20, which must mean that he breathed life into Adam, making him a living soul, and in the same way, he breathes new life into us, as to the disciples in John’s gospel, as at Pentecost, making us a new creation. He is still doing this.

It’s possible that a human delegate of YHWH could have done these things (and continue to do them), but so extremely unlikely as make it highly improbable. How would a human delegate alone not also have been distorted with sin like everyone else? How would a human delegate alone have handled the God-like powers which you say God gave him as a man in the gospels? This is why the very suggestive indications in the gospels, and I do not mean proof texts or abstract deductions, as well as the more or less outright statements of the letters, need to be understood as pointing to him as God. There was no other who was qualified to do what he did, and still does.

So your story leaves, for me, some big holes. There is a better and more complete version of the story, in my opinion, which fills the gaps.

I do hope this doesn’t make you exasperated again!

 

Peter, the intention of the post was simply to show how a consistent narrative-historical reading of the New Testament may still be practically “applicable to believers to today”. It was written in response to your objection that there is nothing in my argument that is “applicable to believers today”. It’s disappointing that you ignored that and chose instead to repeat your disagreement with my reconstruction of the story.

In that story, there is much that is left shadowy and ambiguous about ‘the Son of Man’ until we see how it is made distinct and definite by Jesus himself.

There is nothing much that is shadowy or ambiguous about Daniel’s vision of a human figure coming on the clouds of heaven. The angel interprets it rather clearly. The figure represents the saints of the Most High against whom a pagan ruler makes war. The wider context of Daniel 7-12 makes it clear that this figure is Antiochus Epiphanes. The question then is: What is Jesus doing when he applies this symbolic narrative to himself?

Who did “all peoples, nations and men of every language” worship?” Was it the Ancient of Days, or the Son of Man? How did this worship come about?

This is an important point. It may well be that this “worship” of the Son of Man provides a starting point for the later worship of the exalted Jesus. I have no objection to that inference—it has no bearing on my central argument and may even support it. But notice that the same Aramaic word is used in Daniel 7:27: “all dominions shall serve and obey them”, referring to the saints of the Most High. The Greek versions vary a little here, but the basic point appears to survive: the Son of man figure who is “served” by the nations is the community of faithful Israel.

What was the significance of the contrast of the Son of Man with the beasts of the pagan empires? How did the people of God become bearers of that contrast in their own lives and characters as represented by the Son of Man? How did the remarkable change come about in the attitudes, actions and characters of those championed by the Son of Man from those of the surrounding nations themselves, the ‘beasts’ of pagan empires?

The contrast between Son of man and the pagan nations was that when a pagan nation, the fourth beast, sought to destroy worship of the true God—that is, threatened to destroy the people of God—the saints of the Most High remained loyal to the covenant even when threatened with death. The people of God became bearers of that contrast by emulating Jesus in his faithful suffering. The last question seems to miss the point of the story. There was no “change” in the saints of the Most High. They simply remained loyal to the covenant. This whole narrative structure is readily transferred to the eschatological crisis faced by the people of God envisaged by the New Testament.

In particular, I diverge from your interpretation of the wider story in seeing Jesus not simply as a bridge ensuring the survival of the people of God, and thereby the fulfilment of the promises to Abraham, but as the fulfilment of the story and promises in himself, and in ourselves only in union with him, as described and acted out in our baptism, and lived out in his temple/body, with him as chief cornerstone/head, in a living relationship, not a historic relationship alone.

No, I don’t see him simply as a bridge either. It is because he saved Israel from destruction that he was raised from the dead and made King and Lord, an “appointment” which was to have massive and enduring implications both for the people of god and for the nations.

So if we ask how we now qualify for membership of the people of God, how can it be by a different means from those who originally qualified? It was only through Jesus, and his actions through the cross, resurrection and Spirit impartation in particular. If these are not for us, how can we qualify with those whom the NT originally addressed?

We qualify in the same way that the Gentiles qualified in the New Testament—because through his death Jesus broke down the dividing barrier of the Law. The cross, resurrection, and Spirit are all for us. I said so in the post.

I don’t know how membership of the people of God is obtained in your version of events, since a story in itself will not deal with the issues which bar us access from that people.

Paul does not say in Ephesians 2 that the Gentiles were kept from participation in the commonwealth of Israel by their sin. They were kept out by the Law. Nothing is said in Acts 10 to suggest that Cornelius was admitted into fellowship with Jews because Jesus died for his sins. He simply believed what God had done for Israel through Jesus and began to worship God in the Spirit. But there would have been no renewed people of God into which these Gentiles could be incorporated through their belief in the story of about Jesus if Jesus had not died for Israel. Everything absolutely hangs on Jesus.

How would a human delegate alone not also have been distorted with sin like everyone else?

The New Testament does not understand Jesus’ sinlessness as evidence that he was God. It is interpreted as evidence that he embodied the ideal obedience of Israel.

How would a human delegate alone have handled the God-like powers which you say God gave him as a man in the gospels?

As I said before, whatever authority was given to Jesus was also given to his followers. Whatever power was given to Jesus was also given to his followers—indeed, he expected them to perform greater works than he had done. I am not saying that Jesus is not regarded as an object of worship in the New Testament. That is not quite the same as saying that he was God, but my point here is only that the synoptic Gospels do not appear to present Jesus as God.

Thanks Andrew for your patient reply. I didn’t respond directly to your list of ways in which the NT might be applicable to believers today, because I didn’t really think there was much to respond to - it seemed rather vague and insubstantial. Please don’t take offence - it’s just what I thought. I think that the preceding outline summary of your position  highlights very clearly and forcefully how you interpret the NT, and shows how very different your position is from anything resembling mainline Christian belief. Again, please don’t take offence - it’s just what I observe.

Responding to your detailed comments:

There is nothing much that is shadowy or ambiguous about Daniel’s vision of a human figure coming on the clouds of heaven. The angel interprets it rather clearly. The figure represents the saints of the Most High against whom a pagan ruler makes war. The wider context of Daniel 7-12 makes it clear that this figure is Antiochus Epiphanes.

I disagree. For sure, the immediate context is the conflict with Antiochus IV. But the outcome is very different - the transfer of power to the saints and dominion of the Son of Man. Like the vision of the mountain in Daniel 2, we are taken out of  the immediate context altogether, and placed in the context of the ‘age to come’ and the entire earth - the rock that destroyed the statue became a mountain that filled the whole earth. So in Daniel 7, Jesus is not simply taking a 2nd century B.C. context-specific prophecy, and applying it by analogy with himself. There is a fulfilment in the prophecy which was not true of 2nd century Israel, but became very true of Jesus as the fulfilment of prophecy. The meaning of the prophecy hovers uneasily between immediate events and events that were yet to be fulfilled. There is a shadowiness here about the Son of Man figure which became clear and distinct in the fulfilment provided by Jesus.

“all dominions shall serve and obey them”, referring to the saints of the Most High. The Greek versions vary a little here, but the basic point appears to survive: the Son of man figure who is “served” by the nations is the community of faithful Israel

That’s what I don’t think is clear, in the sense that you say it is. I don’t know what the Greek versions say, but there seems to be agreement in the translations of 7:27, which have “all dominions shall serve and obey him”, where him is the Most High of the immediately preceding sentence. Also, all the other eight uses of pelach in Daniel refer to serving or worshipping God, or gods. The basic point for me is that there is some ambiguity about the precise connection between “the Son of Man”, 7:13, and “the saints, the people of the Most High”, 7:27. The ‘explanation’ which 7:27 provides has not entirely clarified the meaning of 7:13-14. If we take into account expectations of singular figures providing future rescue or redemption for Israel elsewhere in OT prophecy, the possibility and potential significance of a singular interpretation of Son of Man becomes even more pronounced. Anyway that is clearly how Jesus himself took up the meaning of Son of Man as his own role in relation to the Daniel prophecy - and when he did, he gave it a singular interpretation, not corporate.

The contrast between Son of man and the pagan nations was that when a pagan nation, the fourth beast, sought to destroy worship of the true God—that is, threatened to destroy the people of God—the saints of the Most High remained loyal to the covenant even when threatened with death. The people of God became bearers of that contrast by emulating Jesus in his faithful suffering. The last question seems to miss the point of the story. There was no “change” in the saints of the Most High. They simply remained loyal to the covenant. This whole narrative structure is readily transferred to the eschatological crisis faced by the people of God envisaged by the New Testament.

I think you have missed something very important and rather obvious in the prophetic symbolism here. Beasts are contrasted with a Son of Man. The pagan nations are described in terms of animal ferocity. Against them comes a human being, indeed a ‘son of man’ whose descriptive title suggests he is the very essence of what it means to be human - not here in the sense of weakness and imperfection, but by contrast with the beasts, in the sense of the truly human opposing degraded humanity.

This ‘true humanity’ (or even ‘mere humanity’ - but the contrast with the beasts makes essentially the same point) is associated with the people, the saints, in 7:27. I’d have thought, as a prophecy which is now clearly seeking fulfilment beyond the 2nd century, since the 2nd century provides no events in which it was remotely fulfilled, the meaning in association with Jesus and his people is crying out for attention. Jesus comes as the representative of the true humanity (not just the true Israelite), the last Adam, and his followers are changed to be like him, taking on his truly human attributes. But where did these truly human attributes come from? Not from man, but from God, in whom are both male and female, mankind created ‘in the image of God’.The whole passage, in the sense in which it looks beyond the 2nd century to the age to come, is pregnant with meaning.

No, I don’t see him simply as a bridge either. It is because he saved Israel from destruction that he was raised from the dead and made King and Lord, an “appointment” which was to have massive and enduring implications both for the people of god and for the nations.

This is quite interesting, because you seem to suggest that Jesus directly influences things on earth from beyond the grave, even though he is a human delegate in your narrative framework. This sets the ontological questions into overdrive. Does anyone else have an operative role like this from beyond the grave? Or is he just King and Lord as a demonstration of what God has done to the nations who tried to tangle with the people of God? (I’m trying to help you here, Andrew!). Then again, how is he King and Lord?

Paul does not say in Ephesians 2 that the Gentiles were kept from participation in the commonwealth of Israel by their sin. They were kept out by the Law.

You have misunderstood me. I wasn’t talking about the nations being barred from access to Israel, but being barred from access to the people of God formed through faith in Jesus. I was saying that in your scheme of things, the cross dealt only with the sin of Israel, and also disempowered death only for them (since death and sin are inseparably connected in the story). Somehow, sin has ceased to be an issue for anyone else other than Israel, and no cross is needed to address it for anyone other than Israel. Unless you are proposing something entirely new, that the cross either didn’t deal with Israel’s sin but did something else, or that it did deal with Israel’s sin, but was not required for anyone else’s sin, presumably because the sins of other people weren’t quite so serious.

The New Testament does not understand Jesus’ sinlessness as evidence that he was God. It is interpreted as evidence that he embodied the ideal obedience of Israel

Again you misunderstand me, and overlook the point I have made. I was asking how a finite human person could handle the God-like powers which you seem to agree had been conferred upon him. Every other representative of Israel was flawed. What made Jesus so different? How did he come to be sinless (since you also seem to think he was sinless)? The narrative you propose about Jesus raises as many questions about who he was as the one you seek to displace.

I think you have made the best possible case for saying that Jesus was human and nothing else in the gospels. I think the problems that raises, such as the questions in the previous paragraph, create a sound basis for pursuing the alternative viewpoint, which is just as cogent, that the gospels do present him as divine, and the alternative arguments to support this view work equally well. They not only create a case for Jesus as divine through textual argument, but the divinity of Jesus is essential for Jesus’s role in creation (both old and new creation), and as a comment on the inability of Israel or the nations to provide solutions for the root problem which they faced - their inveterate sinfulness and fallenness from God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s far too much in here to respond to. The issue of the cross I will come back to some time. I think it is very difficult to demonstrate the divinity of Jesus from the synoptic Gospels (I’ve just noticed that James McGrath agrees with me on this), but that is only part of the New Testament story. I have addressed some of the points relating to the Son of Man motif in a separate post. There’s a couple of rather different issues raised by your comments that I will address here.

I didn’t really think there was much to respond to - it seemed rather vague and insubstantial. Please don’t take offence - it’s just what I thought.

I’m not offended, just bemused that you can dismiss the sense of being a chosen people, the calling to be new creation, the requirement of love for God and neighbour, the demand for justice and compassion, the experience of freedom from sin, death, and condemnation, the putting off of the old creation and putting on of the new, the insistence on repentance from sin, the assertion of Christ’s sovereignty over this people, the prophetic pointing to the renewal of creation, the corporate experience of the creative Spirit of God, and the emphasis on living out of the story of scripture as “vague and insubstantial”. I try to take your critique very seriously, but I am left wondering whether it’s really worth the effort.

I don’t know what the Greek versions say, but there seems to be agreement in the translations of 7:27, which have “all dominions shall serve and obey him”, where him is the Most High of the immediately preceding sentence.

I think I muddled things a bit here. My main point has to do not with who serves or worships whom but with the identity of the figure in human form, which is very clearly identified with the community of the oppressed “saints of the Most High” against which Antiochus Epiphanes makes war.

But I agree that it’s not as clear as I suggested who is being worshipped or served by the nations.

Dan. 7:14

And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. (ESV)

The word plch (“serve”) is used in Daniel elsewhere only for the service of God or gods. But here the object of the service is more naturally the son of man figure (the nearest point of reference) to whom dominion, glory and kingdom have been given. That makes sense: the nations serve the one to whom dominion or authority has been given.

The Greek versions have either latreuō or douleuō. The former is the equivalent of plch, douleuō lacks the specific connotation of service of a deity. Again the object in both cases appears to be the Son of Man figure.

Dan. 7:27

And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; their kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey them. (ESV)

The ESV here is misleading with its “them”. It misled me. The Aramaic reads: “…and all dominions to him should serve (plch) and obey”. In this case, the object of the service and obedience of the nations could be the Most High.

The Greek versions have “be subject to and obey” or “serve (douleuō) and obey”, with a singular object.

So there is a bit of a conflict between the two verses. On the whole, it seems to me more likely that the singular pronoun in verse 27 is a carry over from the singular pronoun in verse 14, encouraged by the identification of the plural saints with the singular “son of man” figure. But that leaves the problem of the nations seemingly “worshipping” the Son of Man who represents the saints of the Most High. Perhaps that suggests that Daniel’s Son of Man is a more independent figure than I have usually allowed for, though it is an independence that is only reinforced by Jesus’ application of the paradigm to himself. It would have a bearing on the eventual “worship” of Jesus.

This of course is a crucial question.

The issue is that Jesus lived in a certain day and spoke to a certain group of people about events that concerned those people. When those people died, the issues they faced and the world view they brought into those issues died with them.

So what then do people living in other eras make of the words spoken to different people in a different context?

Although I might quibble with a few specifics, I think Andrew is largely right that Jesus was talking about the fate of Israel. He was an Israelite talking to Israelites about things they would understand and about which they cared. It is so obvious that the fact that is even debateable is crazy.

The appropriation of the message started fairly early. So much of the bible constitutes humans grappling with the question, “if god is on our side, why is everything going wrong?” In the OT, the Hebrews thought it was because people weren’t faithful enough. In the NT the messiah died because god planned it that way. Both promised that all would change when time was right.

Of course, as the devotees of Harold Camping will soon make painfully obvious, the right time has never come and people (like billions of Charlie Browns still trying to kick Lucy’s football) will continue to hope that maybe it is just around the corner. 

In order to make the message applicable,  2000 years of Christians have tied themselves in knots creating systems about “docetics” and “progressive revelations” and “church ages” and “dispensations.” We take passages in Daniel and Revelation that were written for a certain reason to specific people and try to solve it like a puzzle, as if there is a prize for the winner. But the pieces have already crumbled into dust. 

Peter, I think it presumes too much to think we can find in an ancient set of writings a matrix by which to identify ourselves. We are not there, as much as we would like to think otherwise.