p.ost

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

Theology and history and Jesus as the culmination of Israel's story

For reasons which I won’t disclose, I have been working through a doctrine course of a distinctly Reformed hue. If the church is convinced that it needs such a thing as a “doctrine course”, Reformed or otherwise, then this is by no means a bad one. But for me it has highlighted again the fact that so much theological activity puts the cart before the horse.

Let me give an example. The section on the Trinity lists a number of biblical texts as “evidence” for the belief that Jesus is God. The assumption is that the doctrine or belief is a given fact and basically beyond dispute; biblical prooftexts may be adduced as evidence for it, but this is merely a formality and certainly does not require anything as troublesome as exegesis.

That is very different to reading Matthew 9:4, say, and considering how Jesus’ insight into the thoughts of the scribes is to be explained, from which it is unlikely that we would draw the conclusion that he is omniscient and therefore God. It is very different to reading Matthew 9:1-8 and asking about the significance of the fact that authority has been given to men to forgive sins—the passage virtually rules out the conclusion that Jesus was God.

I should stress that I am not making an argument here against a high Christology; I am making an argument for a high view of scripture. The problem is that a “doctrine course” is bound to end up subordinating the organic, contextual argumentation of scripture to the rigid requirements of a theological system that has forgotten how to read historical texts.

So I am very much in agreement with Daniel Kirk when he says in a recent post on theological interpretation:

…I am convinced that there are better ways to conceive of the theological task than traditional systematic, confessional, and dogmatic theology. There is a theology that trades in the diachronic and polyvalent nature of scripture itself, and that continues to embrace such inevitable change and diversity as the church itself continues to speak over time.

Daniel has been writing some very thoughtful and stimulating stuff recently about theology and history and about how the believing church and the (unbelieving?) academy respectively understand Jesus. It ties in well with my history of biblical interpretation. The argument in Daniel’s series of posts zig-zags backwards and forwards rather, and it is difficult to know quite where the dialectic is going to land on any particular issue—which is another way of saying that I may be missing the point in what follows. But this section in a piece on The Church’s Jesus and Israel’s God raised a couple of questions in my mind, and if nothing else, they provide an excuse for some off-the-cuff reflections on the relation of Jesus to Israel’s story:

But the church’s Jesus is not merely a historical religious phenomenon.

The church’s Jesus is the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people. And so, when we go to study the church’s Jesus we find that each of the four Gospels demands of us that we interpret the Jesus story as the culmination of the Israel story.

Why can’t church and academy tell the same historical story?

The first question has to do with the idea that the church’s Jesus is “not merely a historical religious phenomenon”. Why not? If the church’s Jesus is “the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people”, why is that not simply a “religious historical phenomenon”? Why is “religious historical phenomenon” a reductive category?

To put the question differently, was the Jesus of the New Testament communities anything more than a “religious historical phenomenon”? Israel’s existence was historical; the promises to Israel were embedded in historical texts; Jesus was a historical figure; his death and resurrection were historical events in one way or another; and the subsequent unpacking of the implications of his death and resurrection in the life of the community was a historical process.

Why cannot the academy, therefore, take seriously the historical self-understanding of the early church that it existed as a result of a major eschatological transformation of the status of the people of God? After all, it was the academy, roughly speaking, that encouraged us to explore this new contextualized perspective on the New Testament in the first place. By the same token, why cannot the church even today find its identity in the story of the historical-eschatological transformation of the people of God?

So Daniel’s question—”Do you see how the Gospels take us into an interpretive field that can never be entered by the academy?”—seems to me to admit an unnecessary dissociation of the two spheres. The academy may draw the line at confessing the active involvement of God in the historical process; but as far as interpretation goes, it seems to me that in principle there is nothing to keep the church and the academy from telling the same story. That Jesus was a “man attested by God” is part of the story. Whether the academy chooses to believe it is another matter.

What is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination?

We come to the second question. What exactly is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination? Reformed and evangelical theologies will insist that this is a story of salvation, but again I think that this is letting the tail of a particular theological tradition wag the dog of scripture.

Jesus is clearly a saviour figure. He “saves” the story from premature termination. But that does not mean that the story is all about salvation. The historically limited meta-narrative of scripture, bookended by creation and new creation, is the story of how an insignificant people, chosen to represent the one good creator God, chosen to be new creation, finally got the better of pagan imperialism and inherited the world (cf. Rom. 4:13; Rev. 11:15). From Babel to Babylon to “Babylon”. This is why Philippians 2:6-11 concludes with the confession that Jesus is Lord rather than that Jesus is Saviour. The church stands in need of further correction here.

So if the academy has helped the church to return Jesus to his narrative context, it may also help us to take what seems to me to be the next critical step in understanding the narrative. The church has learned from the general New Perspective approach to see Jesus as one who marks the culmination of Israel’s story. But the evangelical assumption is that the story effectively stops there—that there is nothing more to be said that isn’t somehow encapsulated in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and perhaps Pentecost as a direct consequence of the resurrection, and perhaps, at a stretch, the destruction of Jerusalem, though we’re not entirely sure why that should matter.

But I think it is a mistake to suppose that Jesus is, in effect, the end of history. The priority of national Israel in the story—centred on Jerusalem and the temple, governed by the Law—came to an abrupt and brutal end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. But the story itself continued. If Jesus sums up what went before, he also anticipates what is to come.

This future of the narrative is partly foreseen in the New Testament—judgment on Israel, the vindication of the persecuted churches, the radical transformation of the ancient world. The biblical narrative is always concretely prophetic, forward-looking—arguably more forward-looking than backward-looking. But if we are to be true to our narrative-historical convictions, we also have to learn how to narrate what falls beyond the victory of Israel’s God over the forces of European paganism—and now, ironically, beyond the collapse of the Christendom worldview. Jesus is the end of one story but the beginning of others.

Comments

I’ve been reading for awhile now and wanted to express my thankfulness in your articulation of the beautiful story of Jesus, especially as grounded deeply in 1st Century Palestine.

Before reading your book, and since I’m a big fan of NTWright, how does your theology and eschatology differ from his?

Blessings,

William
(A Brazilian living in Los Angeles).

William, thanks. I’m also a big fan of NT Wright, but I think he does not follow through on his historical methodology. I’m sure this is an oversimplification and may even be wrong, but I think he needs to read Paul in the same way that he reads Jesus. He goes some way towards this with his argument about kingdom and empire, but it seems to me that just as Jesus looked towards the eschatological horizon of the Jewish war, Paul looked forward to the eschatological horizon of the “overthrow” of Rome through the faithfulness of a Christlike community.

This is not a matter of eschatology only. I see it as something that impacts pretty much all of Paul’s theology: he sees his apostolic task as forming communities that will be able to make the eschatological transition through the “tribulation” of the coming conflict with imperial paganism.

I’ve been working on ways to tell this narrative (Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s story) in church-settings, and to teach it to congregations and families in two different church settings now… and it’s been hopeful but messy. I’m also now going back to school to get a Ph.D. in Theology and Education, and one of my explicit purposes in doing so is that one day I can help future pastors articulate this narrative to their church settings.

So– I look forward to continuing to read your thoughts, and hope to continue a conversation with you as we both try to figure this out!

Andrew - I keep thinking I’ve grasped what you are saying, then a post like this comes along and I really wonder if I’ve understood at all.

You say that Jesus “ ‘saves’ the story from premature termination”, but in what sense does the story continue in your account? Surely the story ceases, for you, in the 1st century. Thereafter, the church must make do with piecing together some way of being the ‘new creation’, but without any direct guidelines or principles on which to identify itself or operate in the world. The OT won’t do, since that came to an end with the gospels (the coda, as you call them, to the OT). The NT won’t do, since that is all entirely relative to the 1st century destruction of the temple, and the sometime judgement on Rome and its idolatry. All we have is the assurance of the survival of the church, but even that was relative to judgement on Israel and Rome. Once these events are over, what are we actually left with?

I don’t know how your course on Reformed doctrine is presenting things, but it’s only the framework through which you have chosen to interpret the NT which excludes the possibility of the divinity of Jesus. You do not have to put a Reformed cart in front of a scriptural horse to come up with the doctrine. Nor do you have to do any acontextual proof texting. You simply try to read the story through the lenses of 1st century Jewish readers, in the first place, in which frameworks of understanding from Daniel 7 are naturally accommodated. From this perspective, we see Jesus doing time and again what only God could do, in respect of his authority to change the apodictic law, his authority over just about every aspect of Jewish life he encountered, the renewal of creation which began in Isaianic fulfilment through him, Isaiah having also said that creation would be renewed by YHWH alone, and ultimately his authority over death, and this presentation of Jesus confirmed by the letters and Revelation, in which Jesus is included in the great Jewish statements of monotheism, and presented as the pre-existent Creator in person.  He takes the place of YHWH in allusions to OT texts, and occupies the throne of YHWH in Revelation. All of this without a hint of intervention from any NT personality or writer to direct glory and honour away from him to YHWH. Extraordinary.  

There is a narrative governing the life of Jesus and the NT texts, which is the narrative of the covenants finding their fulfilment, not in a transcendent YHWH, but in a spectacularly immanent Jesus. These were the creation covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham which promised, through the story of Israel from Egyptian exile to Exodus and Promised Land, to bring blessing to all nations, this having been withdrawn through primordial disobedience, the covenant with Moses which prefigured and looked for fulfilment in the New Covenant even in the covenant document, in Deuteronomy 30:6, and at the key juncture of Deuteronomy 4:6-8 spoke of Israel having worldwide significance through the covenant, a covenant with David which not only promised a Davidic monarchy enduring into the age to come, but also spoke of the eschatological David being a witness, leader and commander of nations, and through whom Israel would call nations which she had not known and they had not known her.

This is a much bigger narrative than the little story of Israel  limited exclusively to the Daniel prophecies. This is the narrative contained within gospels and letters of the NT. This narrative is still being played out, with God’s alternative community still being presented as His version of how He wants the world to be, with a strong missionary mandate of invitation and inclusion to all to come directly to the head of that community, the chief cornerstone of the temple, itself a house of prayer for all nations, still being built today as the place above all others where God is to be found and worshipped.

So I’m puzzled when I see these things, without a hint of modern evangelical pre-emptive doctrinal presuppositions, or Alexandrian- based allegorising which has contaminated biblical interpretation ever since, and puzzled that you can’t!

You say that Jesus “ ‘saves’ the story from premature termination”, but in what sense does the story continue in your account? Surely the story ceases, for you, in the 1st century…. Once these events are over, what are we actually left with?

OK, I think you corrected yourself—the story doesn’t stop in first century; the early church looked as far ahead as the victory of Greek-Roman paganism, an event which had massive implications for the political existence, theology and mission of the church. Because it lacks a historical consciousness modern evangelicalism is barely able to grasp the magnitude of that transformation and the fact that it led to the development of theologies—including the theologies of the Reformers and modern evangelicalism—that had at best tangential contact with the New Testament.

My argument is that in certain important respects the theologies that we have inherited from Christendom lack a coherent grounding in scripture and that the narrative-historical approach actually gets us closer to the New Testament than, say, the standard pragmatic, user-friendly evangelical paradigm that we are all so familiar with.

I also simply do not share your difficulties with a narratively constructed communal life of faith. My argument differs from Tom Wright’s fifth act analogy only insofar as I make the conflict with paganism an important part of the New Testament’s outlook. But the basic approach is the same: we live out of the narrative trajectory. You keep saying that we are left with no real substance, but that’s simply because you keep looking for what you are familiar and comfortable with—stuff that you can preach to a modern evangelical congregation on a Sunday morning. N’est-ce pas?

…it’s only the framework through which you have chosen to interpret the NT which excludes the possibility of the divinity of Jesus.

For the umpteenth time (excuse my exasperation), I’m not excluding the possibility of the divinity of Jesus. I am simply trying to exclude the presumption that Jesus must be interpreted in such a way as to support certain traditional formulations.

As for your argument about Jesus doing what only YHWH could do, we’ve gone over this many times. There is a big difference between being God and acting on behalf of or with the authority of God. What the New Testament finds extraordinary is that YHWH has not reserved all authority for himself but has given critical eschatological authority to Jesus. Most of what we find in the New Testament falls into the latter category. Let’s just leave it there. We see things differently.

It seems to me that the Davidic narrative says pretty much the same thing as the Son of Man narrative—that the small nation of Israel will eventually inherit the world. It just lacks the eschatological context of pagan oppression and persecution. You put an evangelical slant on it; I prefer to reflect the biblical perspective and put a more political slant on it. Also the covenantal-Davidic argument doesn’t get us any close to a divine Jesus than the Son of Man argument.

What puzzles me is that you keep gnawing away at this stuff. Do you do this to other bloggers?

Answer to the final question - no, I don’t even visit other blogs particularly, though I occasionally follow links provided from this site. I do a lot of my theological thinking on this blog - sorry to be so parasitical. At the same time, theological thinking, having admittedly been prompted by you in the first place, performs a useful service to you in giving you the critical conversation partner that your theology needs.

I’m also pretty much committed to the same sorts of exegetical methodology as yourself, but convinced there are too many loop-holes in your conclusions to make them entirely credible. Although you say, in effect, let’s agree to disagree, I don’t feel the broader questions have been adequately addressed or answered. 

I also don’t feel I’m quite as impolite as you, but I always take that with good humour and a pinch of salt, and I can understand you getting exasperated. Blogs are hardly places where detailed challenges are meant to be raised. On the other hand, who else is seriously wanting to engage with your ideas, and question some of their supposedly unassailable conclusions?

Just to comment therefore on some of your comments. The biblical story does find its terminus, in your thinking, in what you call the victory over Greek-Roman paganism. And although I agree that the church/state concordat had massive implications for the church’s  “political existence, theology and mission”, that’s not the same as a continuing story. The story had finished, as far as you are concerned. 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.

Your approach differs from Tom Wright’s 5th Act analogy, as you know, in that he retains the cross, resurrection, Spirit, gospels and letters recontextualised, indeed Jesus himself, as directly relevant and applicable to all believers today, whereas you have relegated them to the 1st century. I’m not looking for substance which fills the void which I am comfortable with, I’m looking for any substance at all! What is useful about having to preach to a congregation on a Sunday morning is not that they require the evangelical verities to be trotted out (they haven’t much of a clue what they are), but they want to see where theory and life application connect. They won’t be fobbed off with jargon. If we are on a ‘narrative trajectory’, they want to know precisely what that means, in practical terms. It’s very good for a theological thinker to be faced with a Sunday congregration. Not an easy task, as out of integrity I can no longer present the traditional exegetical (over)simplifications, but on the other hand I have to prove that anything else has something of value to say to people’s lives, and in that sense I am convinced that many of the evangelical certitudes (as opposed to some of the evangelical exegetical simplifications) are not all wrong.

As for the divinity of Jesus, which actually you have worked hard to exclude from your presentation, I suspect more for ideological than exegetical reaons, it makes a huge difference to the narrative if Jesus was not simply the recipient of eschatological authority as a human delegate. Nowhere does God confer on him as a human delegate the massive Torah-changing rights which this authority entails. Surely you must be able to see that this issue has a huge bearing on an understanding of the story. You can’t just say, yes Jesus is divine, but we can ignore that because it doesn’t really fit with my particular interpretation of the story. It actually influences the story a great deal, and especially when we come to his death and resurrection. It is also one of the key features of the story that locates it in its wider framework, the Genesis-Revelation story, the story of the covenant(s), which I mentioned in my post, which I feel you too hastily sweep under the carpet.

Theological reflection about who Jesus was lies at the heart of the NT in gospels and letters, setting a theological trajectory which we are still experiencing, in addition to the narrative trajectory. They actually work in partnership. It is entirely valid to engage in theological reflection as well as narrative reflection, in contexts outside and beyond the NT era. Reflection recontextualises scripture, and will always be a dialogue between current historical context and text, always needing to come back to the question: What are the scriptures actually saying? I am asking exactly that question, of the scriptures, also of you, Tom Wright, myself and everyone else who engages in biblical interpretation.

 

Peter,

A few thoughts from Strunk and White:

1. Omit needless words.

2. Place yourself in the background.

3. Do not overwrite.

4. Do not overstate.

4. Do not explain too much.

Peace…

In criticizing Strunk and White: ‘The Elements of Style’, Geoffrey Pullum, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, said:

The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules … It’s sad. Several generations of college students learned their grammar from the uninformed bossiness of Strunk and White, and the result is a nation of educated people who know they feel vaguely anxious and insecure whenever they write however or than me or was or which, but can’t tell you why.

Peter,

As a teacher I haven’t found Strunk and White to be a reliable tool for teaching English grammar - as your appeal to authority has so ably confirmed. In your case, regardless of the flaws, the items mentioned were meant as a cordial admonition. Think of my appeal to authority like a kooky uncle at a dinner party who, even though he is a little zany, can still offer a good “put a muzzle on it” response to a nephew who is out of line in what is meant to be a polite dialogue.

Peace…

The fleshing out of an admonition from a disembodied cyber-voice with the first broad brush strokes of personality now begins to raise in my mind the possibilities of cyber-fantasy, towards which my inclinations are always leaning in theological discussion. The dinner party guests, the kooky uncle and the upstart, over-talkative young nephew (probably overindulged in his cups): the situation is fertile with potential. What happened next?

I suspect that silence fell over the assembled throng, the young nephew was temporarily lost for words and withdrew into himself in a sulk at the correction to this breach and abuse of cyber etiquette. Conversation continued, but a slight cloud had been cast over the proceedings, although many were glad that the kooky uncle had put into words what they had been thinking, but were too polite to say.

I suspect that when the dinner party broke up and the guests went their ways, the young man went home inwardly fuming, and stayed awake that night plotting his revenge - a bucket of whitewash over his uncle’s front door, sewing up the ends of his pyjamas, that kind of thing.

This would have been possible on the website’s predecessor, opensourcetheology.net, where a narrative developed  (an epsidode from which is here) about a theological cabal which met at the Prague backpacker’s hostel Sir Toby’s, drawing in personae who resembled various contributors to the site and their views. Alas, Postost is a more tightly controlled environment, and such diversions would not be encouraged, nor even possible. It is possible, however, to purchase the collected stories under the title ‘The Sir Toby Chronicles’ from lulu.com, and for the enthusiasts, ‘Crossways - Journeyings into the Emergent’ from the same site, with selections of delicious conversations between Andrew, myself and up to 12 contributors to the site.

Otherwise Al, if you don’t open my contributions to this site, you will notice that they take up very little space as headers on the comments menu, forming an orderly queue with everyone else, not taking on any airs and graces. And eventually, quite quickly, they drop off the home page altogether, concealed in a cyber archive hidden from human eye - a place which I also wrote about in the Sir Toby Chronicles as the mysterious subterranean world of ‘the moderators’, their tireless work, and their deliberations in the boardroom. In fact I think Strunk and White would be very much at home there.

Well, I appreciate your point, All. It sounds like good advice to me.

As someone who has always enjoyed the discussion between Peter and Andrew after a post, I have found the last few comments to be rather uncomfortable reading.

I would find it a great shame if Peter felt that this was no longer a space in which he could discuss ideas, clafiy thoughts or ask questions. I’m sure many other less vocal readers rely on Peter’s comments in order to clarify their own understanding of the posts and, whilst you may feel like you are frequently repeating yourself, I assure you that for the casual reader, or first time reader, the comments section is as informative as the post itself.

OK, Dave. Point taken. Perhaps rather more exasperation showed through on that comment than was really necessary. Apologies to all concerned.

Continuous cross-questioning on a blog, sometimes at what might be considered excessive length, might be seen as inappropriate, annoying or even obsessive.  On the other hand, where a blog is raising controversial issues in a careful, systematic way, it does invite more than one-liners in response.

Restraint is, however, a virtue, and provides a breathing space to other respondents. Reviewing my previous contributions, I can’t find anything excessive or objectionable about them, though maybe they come too frequently. Perhaps I’ll try to keep things more to the point in future.