Actually, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve attempted to schematize the relationship between history and theology. But I think it is central to the current theological task, so another attempt won’t go amiss. Modern evangelical theology is largely an abstraction. It is a very basic abstraction, very communicable, in many ways very appealing, and it can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. But a price has been paid for this accommodation to the narrow, privatized domain of modern religiosity.
First, it has made it very difficult for us to read scripture well, because the whole chaotic, glorious thing has somehow to be chopped up, pared down, allegorized, and in various ways misinterpreted in order to fit into a very small conceptual box.
Secondly, we have a very weak grasp of what is in fact the central narrative element in the Bible—the concrete historical existence of a people called in Abraham, in reaction against socially constructed blasphemy, to be a corporate, visible and credible witness to the full reality of new creation. In my view, this goes a long way towards explaining why we find it so hard to integrate social and environmental values into our theology and witness.
So what I want to do here is simply to show the difference between a standard evangelical theology of personal salvation (2) and an emerging or new perspective reading of the New Testament (3) as regards their relation to history (1). Whereas modern evangelical theology is largely an escape from history, New Testament theology is very much an engagement with history—that is, with the corporate existence of a people over time.
1. As a culture we have reference to a more or less empirical narrative told by journalists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, geologists, and astrophysicists. It starts, in theory, with the big bang, it encompasses what is likely to be the relatively brief span of human history, and it concludes, again in theory, with some sort of unimaginable cosmic curtain call. We are concerned here with a strand in the narrative that begins with the emergence of Israel as a nation, runs through exile and restoration, Roman occupation, the emergence of a breakaway sect that mutates over time into a thoroughly Gentile church, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the conversion of the empire to a modified Jewish monotheism, the rise and demise of an expansionist Western Christendom, and the ensuing struggle to redefine Christianity for the post-Christendom era, in which we are all, in our different ways engaged. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)
2. Traditional evangelical theology barely makes contact with this historical narrative. Israel exists only as the negative backdrop to the abrupt appearance of grace in Jesus. Acts establishes the paradigm of a church that primarily exists to preach a gospel of personal salvation to the nations. Then nothing much happens of theological significance, with the exception perhaps of the Reformation, until the end of the world, which could happen at any time. At best the corporate narrative of scripture is translated into an allegory of personal salvation: I am a sinner because of Adam (or because of Eve); I cannot save myself by works of religion; Jesus died for my sins; I have new life in him; I must also preach the good news of personal salvation; and I will go to heaven when I die.
3. The presumption behind an emerging or new perspective account of New Testament theology is that it is at every point an interpretive response to or anticipation of historical events. Genesis 2-3 is as much an account of Israel’s exile as it is of the universal beginnings of sin; Abraham represents the foundational self-understanding of a people chosen to be “new creation”; Israel’s troubled encounter with empire is a key thread in the developing story; Jesus preaches to and dies for Israel; the early prophetic community of his followers interpreted his resurrection as a certain sign of God’s intention to judge both Israel and the nations; the churches share directly in the death and resurrection of Jesus as they face the same hostility for the sake of the future of the people of God; they are vindicated, first by the destruction of Jerusalem, secondly by the eventual conversion of the Greek-Roman empire and the public confession of Jesus as Lord; the family of Abraham in this way inherits the world and embodies new creation on a grander scale.
The corporate narrative is clearly much more complex than the personal narrative. It does not preach well, particularly in a society that has lost all sense of historical existence and is concerned only with the immediate consumption of material and cultural goods. But the corporate narrative has priority biblically, and I think it has to be recovered—not merely by academics but by the church as a whole—if we are to construct a viable long-term future for ourselves following the disintegration of the western Christendom paradigm.