I recently argued that Frank Viola’s definition of “beyond evangelical” captures some important, healthy emphases but does not do justice to the “narrated existence of the people of God”. Frank’s response was that the narrative component comes under the fourth note of the “eternal purpose” of God; he has developed the argument elsewhere, notably in his book From Eternity to Here: Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God and in a “flagship” talk. The phrase comes from Ephesians 3:11 (“This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord…”), which Frank interprets it as a reference to the centrality of the church in the intentions of God:
Behold the towering passion of your God: The church, the ekklesia, is His ultimate passion. She is His central thought. She is His eternal purpose. This glorious woman is in Him, by Him, through Him, and to Him. God’s grand mission is to obtain a bride who passionately loves His Son. Any missional endeavor, therefore, that doesn’t put the church front and center falls short of God’s central thought. (From Eternity to Here, 128)
Frank’s approach in From Eternity to Here is certainly narrative but it cannot be said to be historical. It is essentially a retelling of the biblical story as a divine “romance”, in places as little more than an allegory of the relationship between God and the church. Consider, for example, this statement:
All said, Babylon is not your native habitat. It’s a counterfeit of the house of God. If we learn nothing else from the Babylonian captivity, let us learn this: Many of God’s people are living in Babylon today…. (186)
In many ways, rhetorically speaking, it is a very effective retelling of the biblical story. But it is not—and doesn’t pretend to be—an attempt to grapple with the historical dimension to the New Testament, with the contingency of its outlook and teaching. This is the heart of my critique, not simply of Frank’s book but of a progressive evangelicalism that does no better than its modernist antecedents at articulating the political-religious dynamic that drives the New Testament and, importantly, grounds it in human social reality. I highlighted similar concerns over A Jesus Manifesto.
To illustrate the point, let’s consider what Paul says in Ephesians 3:11. Frank’s argument, if I’ve understood him correctly, is that the church was a fundamentally new and glorious thing, hidden throughout the ages though foreshadowed in the Old Testament, particularly through the typology of marriage (24). But for Paul the “eternal purpose” of God is not that his Son should at last have the church as his bride but that Gentiles should be included in the commonwealth of Israel. This is what he has been commissioned to proclaim to the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. The “mystery” hidden throughout the ages up until that moment has now been revealed: through Christ, whose death broke down the dividing wall of the Jewish Law, Gentiles are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). What is the reason for this? So that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10).
This, I think, gets at the “purpose of the ages” (prothesin tōn aiōnōn), which had been God’s intention all along: this new international community of redeemed Israel would be the means by which the “God who created all things” would at long last justify himself before the powers that controlled the ancient pagan world. This is the historical—or eschatological—frame of reference for Paul’s argument at this point, and it is missing from Frank’s retelling of the story. My view is that evangelicalism cannot afford merely to construct its truth narratively. It has to learn to construct its truth narrative-historically.