The benefits of the consistent historical over the half-historical paradigm

Yesterday I set out what I think are the three main ways in which—at least from a post-evangelical perspective—we may construe the relationship between the core event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the narrative of history: the a-historical paradigm, the half-historical paradigm, and the consistent historical paradigm. Wesman asked in a comment whether there is really much of a difference, practically speaking, between the second and third options. I think the answer is yes. I see two main benefits to the third approach.

First, I would argue that the consistent historical paradigm gives us a much better grasp of what is going on in the New Testament. In other words, it is to be preferred on exegetical grounds. It seems entirely correct to suppose that a Jewish prophetic movement like the early church would both draw on its past as interpreted by the Jewish scriptures and project outcomes in a foreseeable future consistent with its conviction that the God of Israel had raised Jesus from the dead. I think New Testament theology maps better against the historical concerns and perspectives of Jesus and his followers than against any rationally constructed system of thought.

Secondly, the consistent historical paradigm gives us an important way of relativizing or framing the phenomenon of Christendom—the period of the political, cultural, and intellectual hegemony of the Western church. If a crucial narrative outcome of the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament was the victory of Christ over Caesar and the conversion of Europe, the massive reversal of that victory over the last two hundred years must also be viewed as theologically significant.

According to the prophetic-historical narrative that arises in the New Testament, Western European Christendom constituted a flawed—an inevitably flawed—witness to the fact that the God of the small, isolated nation of Israel was indeed the God of the whole world. In important respects that witness continues globally today, largely thanks to the expansion of European Christian empires. But the Western churches, ravaged and humiliated by rational secularism, are having to find a new basis for their existence in the world, a new theological justification (I use the word deliberately), a new way of telling the story.

No doubt supporters of the second option would “affirm the Spirit’s continued work in and through the historical events of the church subsequent to the first few centuries”, as Wesman says. But I don’t think the second option is able to account for the scale of the crisis facing the Western church, because the historical narrative has ceased to be theologically or prophetically important. It has become incidental to the largely abstract progression of Christianity as a religion.

I would stress, however, that even after Christendom we still operate under the umbrella of a biblical metanarrative, defined essentially in creational terms: God is creator, he brings a new creation people into existence out of nothing, beginning with Abraham, he generates hopes of creational transformation through the troubled experience of Israel, he raises Jesus from the dead not only as the firstborn martyr but also as the firstborn of all creation (cf. Col. 1:15-20)—as an “ontological novelty”—and the community of Jesus Christ now exists as a concrete, grace-dependent sign to the world that the creator God will not ultimately be defeated but will make all things new.

So as a post-Christendom people we refer back to the story of the victory of Israel’s God over pagan empire—a story which runs from Babel, to Babylon, to the fall of the “Babylon” which is Rome. That is a historical trajectory, and it is crucial for understanding who we are. But we also define ourselves with reference to the encompassing metanarrative: we endeavour to embody the possibility of new creation under the unassailable lordship of Christ.

Wesman | Thu, 08/18/2011 - 14:11 | Permalink

Very helpful. Thank you. I definitely am frustrated by the church's sidelining of the historical narrative "to the largely abstract progression of Christianity as a religion." Another question, though: does this narrative of the triumph of Christendom that we should become paradigmatic sideline or ignore the mass of Christian communities outside the Western tradition, communities over the centuries who know little or nothing about this story line? I'm thinking hear of churches in the East or in third world countries. In other words, is this paradigm only for the church in the West?

The question here is: To what extent are the global churches the product of the Western theological and ecclesial tradition? How much of the global church is not actually descended from—and therefore carry the DNA of—European Christendom? No much, I would suggest. That does not mean that the global church will necessarily follow the trajectory of the Western church, but it has to be considered a strong possibility, and the Western church is probably not going to survive by imitating the relative “innocence” of the global churches.

I find it interesting that, just as Stephen's sermon in Acts 7 revealed just how short Israel had fallen in their mission passed down from God to Abraham to them, our history as followers of Christ is fraught with failings and sin and hypocrisy, etc. Yet the narrative of God's redemption continues on through these flawed and cracked jars of clay. Sometimes I am convinced that God's kingdom is advancing in spite of us. And other times I'm convinced that its forward progress is due to our failings and stumblings. We don't have it all together. We need Jesus. We need each other. And that desperate dependence promotes growth.

In my head, it's playing out like this:

The pagan empire was overthrown by the movement that grew out of the subversion of declaring Jesus as Lord instead of Caesar. It compromises much along the way, but did fulfill it's primary purpose. Unfortunately, it became an empire itself, and then the empire starting kicking Jesus out. Now we are left with secular empire instead of pagan empire.

It feels like it's our job to start telling the subversive stories again, Now instead of devotion to Caeser, it's devotion to the world market(and the wealthy men who run it) that we need to subvert. Start dreaming poets, your skills are needed.