Goaded by a comment to the effect that my Christmas story “doesn’t preach as well” as the traditional sentimentalized God-in-a-manger version, I want to try to develop in a few posts some thoughts about preaching from a narrative-historical perspective. The basic problem is this: the more we confine the biblical narrative and its associated theology to its own historical context, the less direct relevance it has for the modern reader or congregation.
Usually the historical distance has been overcome by reducing the complex narrative of scripture to a universal argument about God and humanity and allegorizing as much of the detail as possible. The basic error of interpretation made by modern evangelicalism is to think that the story of scripture can be translated into a sequence of theological abstractions—creation, fall, redemption, final judgment—which then provides the frame for every personal story: we are sinners in need of Christ’s atoning death if we are to escape eternal death or worse.
This allows us to place ourselves in the biblical story, but at a cost: we have to read scripture as something other than what it really is; and we forfeit the ability to make sense of our own historical circumstances in the way that scripture makes sense of the historical experience of Israel.
The narrative-historical approach, by contrast, affirms what should really be obvious—that the Bible gives us the troubled history of a people, running from Abraham through to the crisis of the New Testament period and whatever future is envisaged beyond that. A central task of biblical preaching and related activities is simply to tell that story, not as theology dressed up as narrative but as theologically interpreted history.
We relate to that history now primarily on the basis of the continuation of the narrative. Scripture is meaningful for us, and formative for the church, because we are part of the same story—it is our story. More needs to be said about this, clearly. Here I simply want to outline the story again. More or less this argument is set out in my book Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for the Post-Biblical Church (see below).
God is the creator before anything else.
The people of God was brought into existence in Abraham to be a new-creation-in-microcosm in the midst of nations, cultures, and civilizations which do not know God, which foolishly worship creatures rather than the creator. That gives us the fundamental raison d’être even for the church today.
Almost everything else in scripture is the story of the historical existence of this new creation people. What we call “theology” is a form of reflection on the historical narrative.
The story begins in the shadow of the tower of Babel, and its course is mostly shaped by Israel’s traumatic relationship with the great powers of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Greeks, and lastly the Romans.
Reflection on this historical experience gave rise to something like the following theological narrative: 1) Israel fails to keep the Law; 2) God punishes Israel by the agency of an imperial power; 3) God restores his people out of faithfulness to his promises; 4) God will judge and rule over the nations.
In scripture the final iteration of this pattern during the period of Rome’s ascendancy is decisive. It will culminate in a final judgment on pagan empire and the establishment of God’s rule over the nations. It is essentially the story of how the kingdom of God comes about.
The New Testament relates how this victory over pagan empire is to be achieved, not by the sword—or the Kalashnikov—but through the faithful suffering of an eschatological community, chosen and empowered by God for this purpose. Much of the telling is futuristic, prophetic, apocalyptic.
First, the parable of the tenants in the vineyard is a clear and straightforward statement of the fact that Israel’s rebellion against YHWH is coming to a head. For a long time the owner has been sending his servants to get the fruit to which he is entitled, but the tenants assaulted and killed them. Finally, he sends his Son, whom they also murder. In response the owner will “come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mk. 12:9).
Secondly, Jesus warns his people that most of them are on a broad road leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans as YHWH’s final judgment on second temple Israel.
Thirdly, by his radical faithfulness as the “Son of God” Jesus opens up a way of survival for the family of Abraham, but the path leading to life is a narrow and difficult one, and he expects few to have the faith to travel along it. Crucially, however, he has gone before them in his suffering and death. He has been raised from the dead by his Father; he has been given authority over whatever powers in heaven and on earth may threaten the life and mission of the eschatological community, including death; and he will be with them until the completion of their task.
Finally, the apostles are sent out into the world in effect to claim the empire on behalf of the God of Israel, who has elevated his Son to his right hand to judge and rule over the nations on his behalf. Just as Jesus achieved his goal through suffering, so the churches across the Greek-Roman world will fulfil this political-religious missio Dei through faithful suffering.
Gentiles are included in the eschatological community because they believe that the God of Israel is taking control of events in this way and to this end. When God eventually judges the nations, Gentile believers will be justified because they had this faith in a radically new future for the world.
The Holy Spirit is poured out on the eschatological community to enable it to fulfil its calling. The Spirit gives “life” to people who have “died” to a world which is passing away. The Spirit gives prophetic vision and boldness to proclaim a different future for the nations of the empire. The Spirit strengthens the weak in the face of opposition and suffering.
The height of the apocalyptic vision is judgment on “Babylon the Great”, the deliverance and vindication of the eschatological community, and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the formerly idolatrous nations.
This sets the stage for the next “age” of the historical existence of the people of God, which is the Christendom age. And after that we get to us….