p.ost

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

At the risk of repeating myself...

I have been goaded, against my better judgment, into responding to Peter Wilkinson’s persistent complaint that I have not answered the five points that he raised against the narrative-historical reading that I have been determinedly advocating here. His arguments have to do not so much with the inner coherence of the historical reading as with its supposed failure to do what modern evangelicalism does so well—that is, account for the salvation and sanctification of the individual believer. So at the risk of repeating myself, here is my response to his five points, mostly a recapitulation of what I wrote in a series of posts, beginning with The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1, intended to address precisely the concerns that he raised.

There is no adequate dealing with the legacy of sin for those outside Israel in the 1st century in your account.
This point was addressed in the second of the “what’s in it for me?” posts. I’ll come back to this, but obviously if we assume that the gospel as it is presented in the New Testament is primarily a solution to the problem of personal sin, we are going to have trouble grasping the force of the narrative-historical reading. The gospel as presented in the New Testament is not primarily a solution to the problem of personal sin, so we have to find another way of addressing the “legacy of sin”.
Second, in your account there is no basis for the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (also important for transformation) in the life of the believer outside 1st century Israel.
This point was addressed in the third of the “what’s in it for me?” posts. The early church received the Spirit both as a sign of coming eschatological transition and as the transforming power of the new covenant in place of the Law. That hasn’t changed. Those who belong to the renewed people of God necessarily have the Spirit of God. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost had a particular eschatological significance that we have largely lost sight of in our charismatic enthusiasm, but I have never suggested that the activity of the Spirit is confined to the first century church.
Third is the question of the relevance of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teaching in the NT. If it was for believers in the unique circumstances of the 1st century alone, on what do we base subsequent and current belief or practice?
We base current belief and practice on the fact that we are members of a people that was radically transformed through the eschatological crisis anticipated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In other words, we are called to live in right relation with the creator as Israel was—that is, as a political-religious community in the midst of the nations—but under new conditions: we confess Jesus as king, we are empowered by the Spirit, and we are no longer subject to condemnation because of sin. In that way our belief and practice is informed by the whole biblical witness without being forced into the mould of this or that contextually inappropriate teaching.
Fourth: if the church worldwide had got it so wrong from, say, the 2nd and 3rd century to today, how did we or anyone come to faith, since what we were told was based on a complete misconception, and how do we account for a worldwide faith based on this misconception?

Because once the eschatological victory over paganism had been gained, the Jewish apocalyptic narrative lost relevance. European Christianity—the fruit of the victory over paganism—reconceptualized the whole story, probably rightly, certainly unavoidably. But now that Christendom has come to an end, we are thrown back on the New Testament as a historical text in order to reground our identity. The other point to assert, however, is that the narrative-historical reading simply gets the New Testament right—more or less—and the modern evangelical reading, for all that it has contributed to the life and work of the church, doesn’t.

There is no direct encounter with Christ in relation to his death, since that was intended for them, nor for us nor anyone else.

This begs the question. It assumes what actually needs to be demonstrated—that the New Testament conceives of Jesus’ death as a direct personal saving event for each individual sinner. I don’t think it does. I disagree with the individualistic evangelical metaphysic here. The essential apocalyptic argument of the New Testament is that Jesus died so that a people might live and not be swept away by the coming wrath of God. That people still exists. It is still a redeemed people—that is, it is not subject to the deadly consequences of its constant failings and disobedience, it lives by grace. Anyone who becomes part of this people shares in the corporate benefits. It is not how evangelicals typically view matters, but it cannot be said that Jesus’ death has no practical relevance for people today.

Perhaps an analogy will help, although it is an oversimplification. A ship is in danger of sinking in a storm because the feckless crew have not carried out proper maintenance. One of the passengers tries to warn the crew that they face a catastrophe, but they ignore him. In the end he goes down into the bowels of the ship and makes the necessary repairs himself, but loses his life in the process. So the ship and its passengers and crew are saved from sinking—and let’s suppose that the dead man comes back to life and is installed as captain. The ship sails on to pick up other passengers to take them on their planned cruise of a lifetime. These passengers do not benefit directly from the death of the man who carried out the repairs—they were not on the ship at the time. But there would have been no ship for them to board if he had not made that sacrifice. They would have missed out on this cruise of a lifetime. They have every reason, therefore, to be personally thankful to the captain for his self-sacrificial action.

Comments

Ha ! A new banner added for emphasis. I ‘m gonna miss that grand old man though.

I don’t see how sin in any scriptural reading can be regarded as public but not personal. You can accuse evangelicalism of majoring on the personal and ignoring the public, but a balanced response is to look at both, not major on the one at the expense of the other.

You have done something similar with the Spirit, and though you now say that the Spirit is “the transforming power of the new covenant in place of the Law”, that has hardly featured in any previous post that I can recall.

With regard to the NT and Jesus’s and apostles’ teaching, you say:

our belief and practice is informed by the whole biblical witness without being forced into the mould of this or that contextually inappropriate teaching

So on what are we to base our on-going belief and practice, if we are to assume from this that the teaching of the NT is “contextually inappropriate” for us today? And on what grounds are we to judge what is contextually appropriate or inappropriate?

Also, it’s not begging the question to say “there is no direct personal encounter with Jesus, in relation to his death”, in your interpretation. That is precisely what you are saying. You may say, as you do, that it is not necessary. I’m simply pointing out what you are saying. It is a corollary of the belief that sin is not personal, in the biblical account. For the record, I simply disagree with that reading, as I have already stated.

Your final analogy is illuminating to your case; the question is whether it provides a satisfactory way of looking at the NT. I’ll leave that for others to judge.

You haven’t really addressed points 4 & 5, especially 4. How on earth can the Christian faith have become a world-wide phenonemon through the centuries, and have had major transforming effects on lives and cultures, both on an individual and corporate level, if the message that was being preached was based on a total misconception, which you are now correcting?

I have made the point often enough that the public or political narrative has implications for individuals, both then and now—it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise. I have prioritized the public and political narrative because that is what the New Testament does. In Mark 1:15 Jesus is not announcing a gospel of universal personal salvation; he is announcing a gospel of national historical salvation. Evangelicalism has to come to terms with this; it has got the whole thing inside out and back to front.

So on what are we to base our on-going belief and practice, if we are to assume from this that the teaching of the NT is “contextually inappropriate” for us today? 

I don’t see the problem. It’s not that difficult, in the light of scripture as a whole, to explain what it means to worship one God, to confess Jesus as Lord, to live by the power of Spirit, to love one another, to do what is good and right, to give an account of ourselves to the world, and so on. My view is that we can far more mileage out of simply telling the story—let alone interpreting it—than we appreciate.

And on what grounds are we to judge what is contextually appropriate or inappropriate?

On historical grounds.

Also, it’s not begging the question to say “there is no direct personal encounter with Jesus, in relation to his death”, in your interpretation.

I think you’ve misunderstood me here. The question being begged is whether my account of the New Testament has to include the evangelical premise that Christ died directly for every person’s sins. That may be a legitimate inference, but it is not the central argument. But thank you for pointing out what I’m saying.

How on earth can the Christian faith have become a world-wide phenonemon through the centuries, and have had major transforming effects on lives and cultures, both on an individual and corporate level, if the message that was being preached was based on a total misconception, which you are now correcting?

“Total misconception” are your words not mine. I said in the post that Christendom was probably right to construct its faith as it did as an outworking of the victory of Christ over pagan empire; and arguably modern evangelicalism has been right to construct its faith as it has as the best way to deal with the collapse of the Christendom paradigm. The people of God from Abraham onwards have continually had to adapt their faith to changing historical circumstances. I think that we are now being driven by a powerful historical consciousness to move beyond a reliance on theological models that do not give good account of the New Testament. In the process we are again having to reconstruct our faith.

My post “How could the church have got doctrine x wrong?” is also relevant here.

Andrew,

I am part of the Mennonite movement and you know we stress the Sermon on the Mount and the command to love our enemies. Are we reading Jesus out of conetxt to say we should be doing that today? How would we know?

I’ve attempted an answer here.

I think you’ve misunderstood me here. The question being begged is whether my account of the New Testament has to include the evangelical premise that Christ died directly for every person’s sins.”

I think the best way to define the inclusion of the individual and the Gentile is to say we are save by extension. Christ came to save Israel (corporate entity). He was her Messiah. He came to resurreted her (corporate entity). All the OT promises belonged to her. She is the ship in your analogy. Once she is saved/raised/restored the individual who was on board was saved (AD 70), and now others can come on board (post AD 70).

Andrew - you are introducing weasel-words again! You say:

I have made the point often enough that the public or political narrative has implications for individuals, both then and now—it would be ludicrous to suggest otherwise.

This looks at first as if you concede the notion of personal sin in the narrative (which the sciptures superabundantly do), but actually “implications for individuals” allows for quite a different interpretation.

So it’s back to the drawing board. You do not allow for personal sin (as biblically described) in the narrative.

What this means is that the ship sails serenely on with a resurrected pilot, who has fixed the engine problems, and the question of the personal qualifications of the passengers to remain on board remains untouched.

The transforming power of the Holy Spirit, which was only granted on the basis of faith in a crucified, risen, ascended Jesus, has no place in your account, it seems. Or if it does, on what grounds is the Holy Spirit given to a sinful people, Jews and Gentiles, and is this of any significance at all in your narrative-historical presentation?

There would be no national or corporate sin without personal sin. The personal qualification for people to board or to remain on board the ship (though the analogy was never intended to make this point) is that they have been personally justified—held to be in the right—for believing and trusting in the death and resurrection of Jesus as the basis for the transformation of the status and destiny of the people of God. That justification carries with it the personal forgiveness of their sins, which means that they are no longer under condemnation, and the personal gift of the Holy Spirit. I illustrated from the incident in Antioch the fact that Gentiles received forgiveness of personal sins and the Holy Spirit because they believed that through his death and resurrection Jesus had brought salvation to Israel and had been made judge and ruler of the nations. Please read what I have written and stop twisting my words. I said very clearly that the Holy Spirit continues to be given now, as it was in the New Testament, to those who believe:

Secondly, the Spirit is the power that renews and informs the new covenant people—the outworking of prophecies in Jeremiah and Ezekiel. The Spirit fulfils the purpose that the Law had under the old covenant; the Spirit is the means of practical righteousness; the Spirit inspires ministry. Both paradigms remain fully in force today, though under different eschatological conditions. The people of God is a prophetic community that lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. As in the New Testament, people receive the Spirit when they believe, when they are convinced, that this whole thing, this whole story, really is the doing of the creator God and choose to be part of it for the sake of his glory.

I do read your posts carefully Andrew - and sometimes think from the uncritical reactions of others that I’m the only one who does. Your explanations make no more sense now than when I first questioned them.

Of course the various promises of the NT are, as you say, applicable to NT believers - provided that they are members of the Israel whose history, according to your interpretation, is bounded with imminent destruction, from which they need to be rescued.

But that’s as far as it goes. There is no coherent reason provided by you here or anywhere else why these promises should apply to anyone else - either Gentile converts in Acts 13, or Gentiles anywhere else, or believers at any time or place beyond the immediate target people to whom, according to you, the NT is addressed.

There is no explanation, in your reading, why the Spirit should have anything to do with believers outside the Israel of the immediate historical context. The best you can say is this:

As in the New Testament, people receive the Spirit when they believe, when they are convinced, that this whole thing, this whole story, really is the doing of the creator God and choose to be part of it for the sake of his glory.

It is no explanation at all. How can sinful people anywhere be part of this story when the means of deliverance from sin, and dealing with it, through the death, resurrection, ascension and outpoured Spirit of Jesus, are not for them?

All of my criticisms have consistently maintained this central, core objection, and I have also articulated the only response you are able to give, which is that outside the immediate context of 1st century Israel, the benefits received by Israel can only be obtained by others by some sort of association with them. But the grounds of this association are never explained, and never given justification - because there isn’t any explanation or justification. This to me, highlights problems with your supposedly coherent framework of interpretation.

If you want to respond to this, could you please avoid using words and phrases like goaded, twisting my words, and so on. I am doing no such thing, and simply politely pointing out problems which, so far, you seem unable to see.

“I do read your posts carefully Andrew - and sometimes think from the uncritical reactions of others that I’m the only one who does. ” Are you serious, Peter? Do you know how this makes you sound?

I don’t know you beyond the many, many repetitive comments you make on this website, but if I was to go on those alone…well, let’s just say its not a good look mate. I’m not sure why Andrew and his views get you so worked up. If you don’t agree with Andrew and his approach then fine. Don’t. But to carry on making the same tiresome points over and over again, really… Surely you have better things to do with your time.

How can sinful people anywhere be part of this story when the means of deliverance from sin, and dealing with it, through the death, resurrection, ascension and outpoured Spirit of Jesus, are not for them?

That is the evangelical premise. That’s why I said that your criticism begs the question. It’s not, in my view, the New Testament premise. I don’t see why people today should not be forgiven their sins and incorporated into the Spirit-filled people of God on the same grounds that the Gentiles in Antioch of Pisidia, by believing in the God who made his Son judge and ruler of the nations, etc.

I’ll just try this one more time - and for the sake of Rob, Justin and anyone else who finds this irksome, leave it at that.

If God could only forgive the sins of Israel through the death of Jesus, and that includes transforming those who believed into a new humanity, on what basis are the sins of the rest of the world forgiven, and people transformed?

What sense does it make to say that outside Israel, everyone else’s sins could be forgiven simply by believing what God had done for Israel, and not for them?

This is not an evangelical premise, it is straightforward logic. Since we have agreed that personal sin underlies public or political sin, then does there not need to be some form of basis for dealing with personal sin? What does it mean to say all that is needed is to believe “in the God who made his Son judge and ruler of the nations etc?”

I simply do not believe the narrative historical framework you have devised has any answer to this basic problem, and that it calls into question the very basis of your particular interpretation.

How can sinful people anywhere be part of this story when the means of deliverance from sin, and dealing with it, through the death, resurrection, ascension and outpoured Spirit of Jesus, are not for them?

As I understand it, it is as suggested above… the world beyond Israel was included by virtue of extension – Israel was God’s priestly nation on behalf of the world wherein she was placed and called. In other words, what God was doing first for Israel He then did for or on behalf of the wider world.

Ultimately Jesus was ‘true Israel’ and fulfilled what disobedient national Israel ever failed to do. Jesus’ obedience secured Israel’s redemption and thus reconciliation flowed beyond. Where belief i.e., faith fits into the picture is in the call to priesthood, that is, to service. In other words, one is “saved to serve” not “get to heaven”.

Thus the ‘good news’ is “your [creation’s] God reigns”. That reality does not need people’s individual acclamation for it to be true. Those who do however are the means or “vessel” through whom God’s blessing flows, again to those beyond.

Andrew,

Fantastic! Fantastic! Fantastic! While I disagree with you on some points here and there (not in this presentation so much but in your over all understanding of certain aspect of the Bible’s presentation such as who is Rev’s Babylon), this summary was right on. I especially loved your analogy at the end to demonstrate the “corporate” aspect of NT theology. This corporate aspect permeates the entire NT (and Old for that matter) and is what Christendom has completely missed over the centuries (along with its historical context. Codos for your continued demonstration of it). These two reasons I believe are what drives this reading of the Scriptures with a universal and individual focus.

Question concerning the corporate aspect of the NT. Have you read Tom Holland’s book, Contours of Pauline Theology? Excellent presentation on this theme. I think you would really enjoy it.

Again, thanks for this entry!