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

The narratives of mission

I suggested in passing in a recent post on mission and blessing that in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative C.J.H. Wright (not to be confused with N.T. Wright) ‘has misconstrued the “grand narrative” of the Bible as oriented towards salvation rather than “kingdom”’. JR Rozko, who is writing what sounds like an intriguing dissertation aiming to “develop a soteriological vision in light of the relationship between the missio Dei and the Kingdom of God”, asked in a comment what I meant by this statement.

Can you unfurl that a bit more? Qualitatively, how do you understand the difference here in Wright? How would you, briefly, reframe this…?

I’ll give it a go….

I think it’s a rather common misconstrual at the moment—a narrative compromise that allows evangelicals in particular to have their half-baked cake and eat it. The argument is that Abraham marks the beginning of God’s mission to save the world and that this redemption narrative comes to its consummation in Jesus. The mission of the church from Pentecost onwards is simply to implement and extend that salvation. The other Wright is equally at fault in this regard, in my humble and inconsequential opinion. I think the story needs to be told differently.

I have lost count of how many times I have tried to set out what I see as the basic narrative-historical shape of scripture and its relation to the continuing history of the people of God. My book Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church was one extended attempt. But I’ve taken numerous impulsive swipes at it on this site, most recently in “Narrative rules. But which one?” A number of other posts are listed below. So this is just one more attempt—it won’t be the last—to explain how the major plot elements of creation, new creation, election, salvation, kingdom, mission, etc., do not merely work together but remain responsive to the facts of historical experience. 

Narrative #1: There is an overarching narrative about creation and new creation. It affirms three fundamental points: 1) that the one true living God has created all things; 2) that humanity—as a whole—is irremediably alienated from the Creator God; and 3) that the Creator God will finally make all things new—he will have the last word over sin, injustice, suffering, Satan and death. The third point features much less prominently in scripture that we might like to think—not at all in the Old Testament and only on the periphery of the New Testament.

Narrative #2: There is a second narrative according to which the Creator God has chosen a people for his own possession, beginning with Abraham but with an open-ended future. It is a story not of salvation but of election: Abraham is not saved, he is called. If there is a missio Dei at work here, it is that the original blessing of creation should be recovered and preserved in this chosen people, in microcosm, and mediated secondarily to the surrounding nations. But because this people shares in the “sin” of humanity generally, it turns out to be an extremely fraught and traumatic project.

Narrative #3: Within this second narrative, we might say, is a third, which has to do with the problematic historical existence of Israel, as God’s chosen people. Essentially, when Israel sins or rebels against the Creator, as humans always do, the nation becomes subject to other kingdoms and other gods: Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome. Because this is a political quandary, any action on God’s part to remedy the situation is both an act of salvation and an act of kingdom.

So the expectation arises in the prophets that the salvation of Israel from the consequences of its rebellion will necessarily entail the victory of YHWH over the empires that have dominated the Ancient Near East—this is the point of the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 7. The outcome will be that YHWH will be acknowledged as the one true living Creator God, not by his people only but also by the pagan nations which had formerly opposed him. To my mind, this is the overriding missio Dei in scripture, it is YHWH’s primary intention: to rule the nations.

Narrative #4: Jesus fits into this story within a story within a story. His death for the sins of his people saves the descendants of Abraham from a “final” destruction. But more importantly, he is raised from the dead, exalted to the right hand of the Father, and given the authority to judge and rule over the nations. So the outcome foreseen in narrative #3 is achieved through the faithfulness of God’s Son. This is the storyline of Philippians 2:6-11, culminating in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the pagan nations, as prefigured in Isaiah 45:22-23. This achievement can be viewed “missionally” insofar as God sent his Son ultimately for this purpose—and we can include the “salvation” of Gentiles as part of the process. But it is a narratively constrained mission, belonging to a particular moment in history.

My contention is that this extraordinary development should not be spiritualized or de-politicized. The story about kingdom has in view specifically the overthrow of idolatrous, pagan Rome and the establishment of YHWH’s empire, his rule over the nations of the ancient world through his Son and because of his Son. This is the concrete, historical vindication of the God of Israel and of the suffering churches. This finally is the coming of the kingdom of God, the climax to the long and arduous journey that began when Jesus entered Galilee, proclaiming to Israel that the kingdom of God was at hand.

This is as far as the New Testament narrative takes us, but history doesn’t stop there. Over the last couple of hundred years the nations that constituted Christendom have switched their ultimate allegiance. They no longer acknowledge the supreme authority of the one true living God but serve instead a modern pantheon of Reason, Secularism, Progress, Pluralism, Technologism, Consumption, and others.

Although Jesus remains seated at the right hand of God for the sake of his people so that the church does not need to fear for its future, to all intents and purposes we are in narrative #2 again. It remains the purpose of the one true living God to retain a people for his own possession, to bless them with the original blessing of creation so that, or with the result that, they might be a blessing to the nations and cultures of the world. In other words, the controlling motif after Christendom should be neither salvation nor kingdom but election for the purpose of being God’s blessed new creation people. God invites people indiscriminately to become part of that people, and if they accept the invitation, they are “saved” and share in the new creation blessing. I would happily call that the missio Dei, but it’s perhaps not what is usually meant by the term.

Comments

Do you think that it is legitimate to say that the church of the 21st century has a role in some sense similar to that of Jesus vis a vis imminent crisis? The C1 crisis being the end of national Israel; the C21 crisis (crises) being a range of things: environmental collapse, the nuclear threat, the stalling of capitalism (and its necessary demise) etc.

Yes, I do think this is the case. Ironically, while the narrative-historical hermeneutic in many regards distances the modern reader from the New Testament, it also highlights the fact that we are facing an “eschatological” crisis similar to that faced by the people of God in the first century.

On the one hand, the future of the church in the secular west is as uncertain as the future of the people of God in the first century—hence the title of my book on Romans: The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

On the other, as you point out, we live in a world that is arguably as much liable to divine disapproval—to couch it in theological terms—as the pagan civilization of Paul’s time.

Interesting piece. Two things come to mind

(1) I’m not sure if pre-modern governments were as godly as you suggest. The modern, Enlightenment-and-forward nations have veered away from God, but the old days weren’t that much better.

(2) Your return to narative #2 sounds quite a bit like a delayed version of replacement theology. Instead of #4 being #2 right away, with the Church swapping in for a Christ-rejecting Israel two millennia ago, the Church gets whittled down to a faithful remnant in the modern day.

I’m not suggesting at all that pre-modern governments were godly. All I’m saying is that the nations of the empire exchanged the old pagan gods for the God of Israel. They stopped worshipping in temples and started worshipping in churches. They regarded themselves in political-religious terms as Christian. The theological mindset inclines us to look for ideal outcomes. My argument is that although the prophetic language of scripture often expresses transcendent expectations, it has primarily a realistic historical frame of reference. In that regard, I think that Christendom was much the same sort of political arrangement as ancient Israel, only on a different scale.

I’m not sure I see what you’re getting at in your second point. I think that the New Testament is ultimately ambiguous about the replacement of national Israel, for the simple reason that Paul was writing before AD 70. But my main argument is that the people of God has always oscillated over long periods of time between (relative) stasis and crisis. Christendom was a period of stasis that has been thrown into crisis by secularism. The church is left as a marginalized religious phenomenon, which, as I replied to Al, means it is much close to the early church, which emerged from the collapse of national Israel.

Yes it is interesting, except as one of those half-baked evangelicals, I don’t accept at all that the stories are as separated as you say. But this has been an on-going issue of difference between us.

Two things you mention at the end of this piece are questionable to me. You say that over the last 200 years, “the nations that constituted Christendom have switched their ultimate allegiance” and “no longer acknowledge the supreme authority of the one true living God”. That’s a very broad-brush outline of history, and very questionable in my opinion. It assumes that the nations were under the authority of the one true living God under Christendom (in Europe anyway). A more perceptive analysis of history might dispute this.

You also say that the current purpose of the people of God is to be a blessing to the nations. I wonder what on earth that might mean? Also that people are invited indiscriminately to become part of this people. How are they invited, and under what terms and conditions? The issue fo half-baked evangelicals is that the sin of Adam in those invited, in addition to their own sins, presents just as much a problem to their participation in the people of God as it did for Israel, requiring the same means for the entry to be expedited.

That’s a very broad-brush outline of history, and very questionable in my opinion. It assumes that the nations were under the authority of the one true living God under Christendom (in Europe anyway).

I don’t think it’s any more broad-brush than Daniel 7, say. Of course, if we zoom in, things look much more complex, but if we are going to attempt to develop a narrative understanding of scripture and its continuation, I think we are bound to risk making sweeping statements. You’re welcome to offer something more perceptive. But my argument does not assume that the nations were “under the authority” of God, only that they professed allegiance to the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s a profession that was built into the whole political, cultural, intellectual and indeed physical landscape. It’s the whole history of Europe until the modern era.

Your comment about the sin of Adam is beside the point. Membership in the people of God presupposes forgiveness of sins, the repudiation of other gods, the putting off of the old person and the putting on of a new humanity. All I’m saying is that personal salvation, however we wish to construe it, is not an end in itself but for the sake of the continuing existence and witness of God’s chosen new creation people, which is the core narrative of scripture.

Thanks for the extended response here Andrew. Without the space to delve into all the important nuances reflected here, I think it’s safe to say that I couldn’t be more with you! I think that where I am coming from in my question (and my dissertation) has to do with the development of a framework that would seek integrate the narratives you identify as strands/dimensions/aspects of a (narrative-historical) “missional soteriology.” That is, the proposal that we ought not have to decide between the grand narrative of the Bible as being oriented toward the kingdom as opposed to salvation, but rather oriented toward God’s “kingdom mission” as inherntly savific - God is savingly at work in these narratives, inviting us to join him in them and God’s salvation as inherntly missional and kingdom-oriented - our salvation consists of surrendering and aligning ourselves with the narative-historical mission of God.

That’s a lot of words and concepts that necessiate unpacking, but I am wondering how they jive (or not) with you.

As you say, it needs unpacking. Terms like “missional” and “kingdom-oriented” are so loaded that it is very difficult to make them work the way you want them to without careful qualification. But if I understand you rightly, then yes, I think we are in agreement. I like the emphasis on salvation as aligning ourselves with the narrative-historical mission of God. Generally speaking, I think that a major part of the renewal of theology, church and mission consists in patiently rethinking and retelling the story of God’s people in history.

I have just re read ‘Re:mission’ and continue to find your narrative of the task ‘post-biblical’ mission fascinating and encouraging. You identify Jesus’ healing ministry as being intrinsically linked with the forgiveness of Israel’ sins. What place might prayer for healing have within post-biblical mission? I ask as this is a conversation we are having within and between churches in Harrow.

Thanks, James. You can read my response here. I wonder whether the churches of Harrow will get it though!