The New Testament, the end of theology, and the recovery of dialogue

Read time: 3 minutes

In very broad brush strokes my overarching thesis—if you like—expounded here and in my books, is this:

  1. that the main narrative trajectory of the New Testament lands at God’s judgment of the world of Greek-Roman paganism and the inauguration of a new age in which Christ is confessed as Lord by the nations;
  2. that that new age of European Christendom is now being brought to an end by the combined forces of rationalism and pluralism, much as the age of second temple Judaism was brought to an end by the forces of empire;
  3. that one of the moves that the church has to make in response to the current crisis is to recover a sense of the historical dynamic of the New Testament in relation to Israel’s story and to reconsider how that dynamic gives impetus to the church today.

I rather suspect that given the second part of the argument, the third part will require a much more profound and radical re-formation of the “Christian” mindset than we appreciate. Our whole way of thinking and doing church is, in effect, the product of the Europeanization of the New Testament story. That was not necessarily a bad thing, but the problem is that the alliance that brought Christianity to power as Christendom has now brought Christendom to an end, and the implications of that for the viability of modern Christian thought are potentially massive.

This includes how we “read” the New Testament.

How much of our sense of what the New Testament is, how it speaks, how it hangs together, how it is authoritative, is bound up with the Christendom-modern paradigm? And how much of that can survive the collapse of the Christian-modern paradigm?

The New Testament texts are historically the product of a dispersed and diversifying community. On the one hand, the Gospels show clear literary signs of having emerged out of complex processes of communal reflection and transmission. On the other, the Letters and Revelation are to varying degrees occasional communications between the leaders of the Jesus movement and the churches, addressing particular circumstances and contexts. In other words, the texts are part of an internal dialogue that took place during a period of about thirty years after the death of Jesus (notwithstanding some critical debates about dating and authorship).

As the church moved beyond the New Testament period, however, the texts inevitably became something different. They became a consolidated and authoritative account of what Christianity was all about—a process which ended with the formalization of the canon. The texts ceased to be the literary material of a historical dialogue and became instead essentially theological documents, or documents whose main practical purpose was to furnish data for theological debate, systematisation, and teaching.

Christianity, therefore, became a religion of a theologically determined text rather than a community that remembered its historical origins through the telling of its formative narrative.

Perhaps ironically, however, the forces that defeated Christendom have also enabled us to recover much of the historical particularity of the New Testament—much of the dynamic of dialogue. On the one hand, historical criticism has taught the church a very painful lesson in historical awareness. On the other, postmodernity has taught us how to deconstruct the discourses that cultures use to maintain themselves.

Given these developments, I would suggest that the church is having to—or will have to—let go of the notion that we are a religion of a text whose authority is theologically constructed. I suggest that we are having to—or will have to—work with the notion instead that the New Testament is a collection of historical texts, bound up in the messy contingencies of history, much more narrowly confined in its outlook than theology has understood it to be. And I would also suggest that by imaginatively re-entering the dialogue, we will discover how the narrative is inherently authoritative and formative.

Justin | Sun, 11/13/2011 - 03:34 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

Given that the formation of the New Testament canon was developed according to a particular theological framework as opposed to a historical one, are there other texts not included in the canon that would be useful to read towards developing a more historical understanding?

Hope that makes sense...



Justin, the question makes perfect sense. To start with, I would certainly recommend reading Josephus’ Jewish War—in fact, I think this should be a mandatory text for any theological education. You should also read the Maccabean writings, and Wisdom of Solomon, which gives considerable insight into the thought-world of Romans. You could venture into the apocalyptic literature, but it can be daunting. Sibylline Oracles 1 and 2 are illuminating. You could also browse through the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The extent to which these texts have a direct bearing on New Testament interpretation is open to debate, but their real value lies in the fact that they remind us that the writings of the early Christians are part of real history. They did not suddenly materialize out of the spiritual ether.

You might also find my post on A New Translation: The Earliest Christian Documents: AD 49-100 interesting.


Thought-provoking as usual. A couple of thoughts:

1) Agree about the theocracy. Every book in the bible envisions a theocracy as the outcome of history. Of course, what that theocracy entailed developed over time, but in general it involved a real kingdom on earth.

2) The NT was put together through a complex process, which is why there isn't one narrative but many.

I don't think, though, that you can reasonably find any narrative that would have anything to do with the Roman Empire or the modern world. The books were written to address ancient views and situations. We would like to make them relevant and extend the predictions about the ancient world to later time. But I think that does violence to the ideas and meaning of the authors.


I don’t understand your last paragraph. Why does the Roman empire not come under the “ancient views and situations” addressed by the New Testament? The Roman empire occupied Judea, executed Jesus, destroyed Jerusalem, and periodically organized pogroms against the Christians. Surely a Jewish messianic movement oriented towards a theocratic outcome would have something to say about Rome?

@Andrew Perriman:

Duh, when I write on my phone I usually don't explain myself well.

I meant the later Roman Empire. Obviously the Roman Empire of the first century was hevaily on the minds of the NT writers. However, I don't think it is right to attribute to the authors any opinions or predictions regarding history past the time they could reasonably foresee.

It bothers me a little when people read future events into the bible, as if any of the writers had any inkling how history was going to develop. And I don't think the book was written in some code that reveals its meaning as time goes by. I don't believe in "church ages" and "dispensations" and the like. Those are ways to avoid the plain meaning of the text.

So I don't think the Bible has anything to say about Constantine or the rise of the church as empire or the European Union and on and on. We can derive principals from the bible that color our view of the world as it now exists, but anything more than that I think is presuming too much.


I completely agree that the New Testament says nothing about “Constantine or the rise of the church as empire or the European Union and on and on”. I made the point in this post that “There is no Constantine in the New Testament.”

But I don’t think that it is historically unrealistic to suppose that the New Testament predicted in less precise terms the eventual overthrow of classical paganism and even in some sense of the victory of YHWH over empire. The expectation is found not just in the New Testament. It is in Isaiah and Daniel and in Jewish apocalypticism generally (have a look at Sibylline Oracles 1 and 2, for example).

There is a big difference between arguing on literary-historical grounds that certain types of hope were consistent with Jewish thought and arguing retrospectively on dispensationalist grounds that specific later events can be forced into the grid of New Testament prophecy.

A very good summary of what you are fleshing out in your articles, books, etc. Very concise and understandable. Now on to the challenge into the detail of 'interpreting' the NT......


So is the later Roman Empire's persecution of *non*-Christians a part of the NT historical theme and anticipation?  If the writers' view of things reaches into the Christianization of the empire (if i'm understanding you correctly there), how do you take the bad with the good?



Good question. No, I think the New Testament can see the horizon of the vindication of the church’s defiance of paganism in the name of Jesus for the sake of the glory of Israel’s God, it can see the sovereignty of Jesus acknowledged amongst the nations, but it cannot see—or doesn’t attempt to see—beyond that horizon.

Part of the answer to your question also has to do with how we interpret the idealism or absolutism of Jewish prophecy. It seems to me that there is always a surfeit of meaning in prophecy, a degree of hyperbole, an idealism, a perfectionism, that can easily mislead the reader into thinking that transcendent events are being described. I would suggest that the language reaches beyond messy historical realities, always in search of a final renewal of creation, but its frame of reference remains realistic and historical.

Perhaps then if you are really serious about the points raised in this posting you should seriously consider the criticism of the fabricated origins and political purposes of the chruch "fathers" who fabricated the Bible which is given in this essay.