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