I came across this somewhat at random, but it illustrates a point. In an article on the role of theology on the Gordon Conwell website John Jefferson argues that a sound biblical theology is like the backbone in the human body—it provides “support, shape and stability to the Body of Christ”.
In the early church this was expressed through four functions: catechesis, or the teaching of basic Christian doctrine; apologetics, the defence of the faith; polemics, the suppression of heresy; and homiletics—“assisting preachers and teachers in the exposition and teaching of Scripture”.
Jefferson then goes on to suggest that a sound biblical theology “can provide vitality, vision and standards for assessment in the local congregation”. The framework for vision is provided by the “biblical metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption and new creation”, and the point is made that salvation is not just about forgiveness of sins and the hope of heaven but also about an “experience beginning now of entering into the life of the Triune God”.
Because of Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension to the right hand of the Father and sending of the Holy Spirit, we—as adopted sons and daughters in Christ—can begin to experience the love of Jesus’ Father for his beloved Son, in the communion of the Holy Spirit, looking forward to its culmination and never-ending deepening in the presence of God in a gloriously beautiful New Creation (Rev. 21, 22).
This strikes me as a classic statement of modern evangelical orthodoxy, revised only in two respects: the end point—the eschaton, the terminus ad quem—is not heaven but new creation; and the fashionable “metanarrative” label has been slapped on the package.
These cosmetic improvements aside, what we have is the sort of theology represented by the old altarpieces, such as the Redemption Triptych of Vrancke van der Stockt, which I came across in the Prado recently.
In this schema we go from fall to final judgment, rather than from creation to new creation, but the fundamental problem is the same: the redemptive event is left stranded as a metaphysical abstraction somewhere between the “myth” of human beginnings and the “myth” of final judgment.
The “metanarrative” of creation, fall, redemption and new creation sounds cosmic in its reach, but in practice it is no more than the inflated container for the personal narrative of sin and redemption. On the one hand, there is no narrative of Israel in Jefferson’s account and therefore no historical or theological grounding for redemption. On the other, there is no narrative of the church: Christianity is just a big playground where we run around—boys and girls, sons and daughters—happily experiencing the love of God until the end of time.
The biblical story is the story of the fall and redemption—indeed, the repeated fall and redemption—not of individuals but of a people. The story of a people is made up of historical events—exodus, war, exile, invasion, diaspora, the fall and rise of civilizations. All of this has disappeared through the gaping holes in the crude frame of Jefferson’s metanarrative.
It is clear from the article that even when it wants to talk about vitality and vision, modern evangelicalism entirely lacks the theological resources to grasp this dimension of the church’s existence. This is a very static, conservative, unadventurous, and in my view complacent model of the place of theology in the life of the church.
Modern evangelicalism has an eschatology, but it is functionally useless. New Testament theology was eschatologically oriented because it had to enable the early churches to negotiate effectively the historical crises that were bearing down on them—not fantasy end-times tribulation but the real hardship and suffering that the churches would have to endure if their God was ultimately to be vindicated, justified, in the pagan world. They were not in a playground. They were in a war zone.
It seems to me that the church in the West today needs to recover something of that eschatological urgency and ambition. A sound biblical theology should do more than provide structure, shape and stability. It should generate the narrative by which we make sense of our place in the scheme of things—not somewhere vaguely between creation and new creation but here in the twenty-first century, as we struggle to justify our existence in the face of an all-powerful, all-meaningful, all-consuming secular materialism.
Ironically, Jefferson thinks that the theological vision of new creation “can energize and unify a congregation” in the way that Kennedy’s vision of “A man on the moon by the end of this decade” back in 1961 energized NASA for the Apollo mission. But a theological vision that has its sights set on new creation cannot inspire the sort of historical—and political—urgency that put a man on the moon. The final hope is important, but it is not a substitute for the hopeful and difficult engagement with the living God in history.