In response to my argument that what we have in the New Testament is a “narrative for the early churches as they confronted the frightening hegemony of classical paganism”, Evelyn asks, quite reasonably: ”but then how can it serve as a narrative for us?” I will suggest here that there are three basic ways in which the New Testament may serve as a narrative for us. We can be in the narrative, we can be in part of the narrative, or we can be beyond the narrative: in each case our identity is determined by the narrative. There’s nothing much new here—it’s really just a summary of earlier material.
In the whole story
Traditionally, we have tried to live in the whole New Testament narrative. We understand that the story of the church begins at Pentecost, but we assume that the teaching of Jesus to his disciples and the teaching of the apostles to the churches may be merged together to form a single narrative about the early expansion of Christianity and an integrated body of doctrine that will see us through to the end, when all New Testament eschatology will be fulfilled. There is no narrative differentiation. It is all just one big blob of teaching.
In part of the story
This paradigm has been modified recently under pressure from New Testament studies. (For a bit of background, you might be interested in an entertaining piece by Anthony Le Donne called “Post-Third Quest Quirks; or, Have We All Stopped Medicating?”). People like Tom Wright have argued that before Jesus is the beginning of the church’s story, he is the fulfilment of Israel’s story. This has brought the historical events of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 into view, and we are more likely now to recognize the historical uniqueness of the situation faced by the community of disciples in Judea. But although there has been some recognition at the same time that the proclamation of the early churches that Jesus is Lord was an act of political defiance, there are no further events of eschatological significance between AD 70 and the end-of-the-world. The church today, therefore, lives in the narrative of the apostolic church.
Beyond the story
In both these paradigms we are encouraged to find our place place directly in the New Testament narrative. My argument has been, however, that the narrative-historical approach that we see in Wright’s model should be applied more consistently, more aggressively, because Jewish apocalyptic—and by extension Jewish-Christian apocalyptic—always envisages not only the historical renewal of Israel but also the decisive victory of YHWH over the nations which opposed Israel. The fulfilment of Israel’s story in the death and resurrection of Jesus does not mean that we then enter a changeless theological happy-ever-after. The narrative keeps going, pushing past the destruction of Jerusalem, through the vindication of the churches of the empire, into Christendom, and beyond….
It is this narrative unfolding in history which means that the New Testament remains formative and authoritative for the church today. The redemption of God’s people through the death and resurrection of Jesus, through the emergence of an obedient martyr community, through the events of AD 66-70, through the long confrontation with paganism, has made the church today what it is—just as the drawn-out, traumatic exodus journey was critical for the formation of Israel’s historical identity. That gives us ample reason to read the New Testament.
But I would also stress that moving beyond the historical horizons of the New Testament only puts us back in the overall biblical story about a people called in Abraham to be God’s new creation in the midst of the nations until a final restoration of all things. This seems to me to be a major advantage of the narrative-historical approach. It is a way of reclaiming the whole biblical narrative without reducing the Old Testament to the status of a more or less disposable historical preface to the theologically important stuff of the New Testament.