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Ethnocentrism, universalism, and new creation: an overstated salvation-historical paradigm

I said last week that I would expand on my critique of Donald Hagner’s diagrammatic representation of Old Testament salvation history in his The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction. As he sees it, the biblical story plays out against the backdrop of the “reality of a fallen world” after Eden. With Abraham God “begins to work to counteract the fall and its effects”, which is the beginning of salvation history (13-14). The three main covenants with Israel (Abrahamic, Sinaitic, and Davidic) culminate in the hope of an eternal kingdom, but with the prophets an apocalyptic perspective emerges which has in view “a transformation of the entire created order that will affect all humanity” (19). This eschatology needs to be challenged. The argument that in the prophets we see a two-fold development from ethnocentrism to universalism and from “national-political expectation” to “a transcendent expectation” is, I think, overstated.

Ethnocentrism to universalism?

Hagner says that “The story of salvation was… always meant to be bigger than the story of Israel” (20). Whether the story of salvation was always meant to extend beyond Israel is a moot point—there’s precious little evidence prior to the exile that the nations were to be saved. But more importantly here, I don’t think that the passages from the prophets that Hagner lists support the idea of a development from ethnocentrism to universalism. I’ll work through them briefly.

  • In a vision “concerning Judah and Jerusalem” Isaiah foresees a day when the nations will come to Jerusalem to learn the ways of the God of Jacob. When nations are in dispute with one another, he will judge between them, bringing about peace so that they will have no further need for their weapons (Is. 2:1-4).
  • The task of the chosen “servant” of Isaiah 42:1-9 (probably Cyrus) is to enact a particular judgment among the nations—the liberation of the exiles from their captivity. He will “bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7). This act of liberation will be a light for the nations, it will open the eyes of peoples who have not yet seen the power of Israel’s God. Isaiah 49:6 belongs in the same context. 
  • “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Is. 45:22) is, in the context of YHWH’s dispute with the pagan nations, an invitation to the nations to abandon their idols and serve the living God. Isaiah expresses the conviction that the nations of the ancient world will eventually bow the knee and swear allegiance to the God of Israel.
  • When the Jews return from exile, surrounding nations and kings will celebrate the event; they will bring tribute to the God of Israel in acknowledgement of the fact that he has saved his people; they will help to transport the exiles to Jerusalem, and some of them will become priests and Levites (Is. 60:3; 66:18-21). 
  • After the return from exile Babylon will be defeated, and “many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day” (Zech. 2:11). These nations, however, remain separate from Israel
  • Israel has profaned the name of the Lord, but the Lord’s name will be “great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name” (Mal. 1:10-11).

What the prophets envisage, therefore, is a time when the reputation of the God of Israel will reach beyond the borders of Israel and the nations will respond positively as nations, by coming to YHWH for judgment, by supporting and celebrating the return from exile, and by abandoning their idols and setting up a cultus for the God of Israel. The arrangement is a geopolitical one. Israel, saved from exile through the intervention of Cyrus, remains YHWH’s chosen people but is surrounded by nations that have renounced their hostility to YHWH and now serve him in these characteristically political-religious ways. Ethnocentrism remains in place, and arguably Jerusalem becomes the focal point not of a universal “salvation” but of a regional re-orientation towards the God of Israel.

New creation is a metaphor for the restoration of Israel

The other part of the argument is that with “the emergence of an apocalyptic perspective… the goal of God’s purposes is broadened to the transformation of the created order: a new heavens and a new earth, a world where the effects of sin are fully removed” (20). Again, the evidence does not support the transcendent perspective.

  • Hagner understands “He will swallow up death forever” (Is. 25:8) as referring to a final and absolute defeat of death, as John envisages it in Revelation 20:14; 21:4. But the statement is part of the narrative of the restoration of Jerusalem after punishment. It looks back to Isaiah 22:14: “Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die”; and forward to 26:19: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”
  • At a number of points Isaiah depicts the restoration of Jerusalem after the return from exile as a renewal of creation. In a “year of recompense for the cause of Zion” Edom will be made desolate, but the wilderness of Judah will burst into bloom and streams will flow in the desert, and the “ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing” (Is. 34:8-35:10; cf. 51:3). The restoration of Jerusalem will be as though God is creating new heavens and a new earth—“the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Is. 65:17). New creation is a metaphor for a new beginning for God’s people after judgment. Death has not been eradicated (Is. 65:20).

So there is no “transcendent expectation” in Isaiah. The prophets entertain a more expansive, international vision, but we are kept firmly within a narrative of “national-political expectation” having to do with the place of Israel among the nations. The language will be put to different use in the New Testament in light of Jesus’ resurrection, but even then I would argue that the sort of “transcendent expectation” that Hagner has in mind arises only at the periphery. Most of the New Testament is taken up with the same sort of argument about the place of God’s people amongst the nations that we find in Isaiah. The difference is that the New Testament knows how that political narrative will be brought to a conclusion—in the nations’ confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God of Israel (cf. Phil. 2:9-11).

The New Testament is more like the Old Testament than we might think

Hagner’s “salvation-historical” model assimilates the Old Testament prophets to a reductionist New Testament soteriology. Israel’s story is no more than the “preparation of a meaningful context for the central redemptive act of God in Christ for the salvation of the world” (25). I think that this hermeneutic should be reversed—that we should allow the New Testament to settle back into the narrative world of the Old Testament. So we would end up with something more like this: 

  1. The family of Abraham is intended to be God’s new creation in microcosm, a creator-affirming alternative to the “world”.
  2. This new creation people takes on the role of a priestly people through which the recovered blessing of creation—its goodness and God-relatedness—is mediated to the surrounding nations. Salvation is not part of the paradigm.
  3. In the narrative of Israel’s clash with successive pagan-imperial powers (notably Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Roman), the driving argument is that the nations will be judged and ruled in history by the one true living creator God, who is YHWH, the God of Israel.
  4. Throughout this narrative Israel is “saved” from its enemies—and from the consequences of its own failings—on a number of occasions. The new political-religious situation envisaged is also seen as a “salvation” of the nations.
  5. YHWH’s rule over the nations is understood to be dependent upon the judgment and restoration of his own people, for which the exile and return from exile comes to be seen as paradigmatic.
  6. The saving significance of Jesus lies in the fact that through his death and resurrection he becomes the one—seated at the right hand of God—by whom YHWH will definitively judge and restore his people.
  7. Because the God of Israel intends to judge and rule not only his own people but also the nations, Gentiles are included in the new creation family of Abraham; they become part of a “saved” people and will be justified by their belief that Jesus has been made Lord when God judges the pagan oikoumenē.
  8. With the conversion of Rome the narrative of Israel’s clash with successive pagan-imperial powers comes to an end—an eschaton. Jesus is confessed as Lord not by small isolated communities of Gentiles only but by the nations, to the glory of the God of Israel.
  9. The advent of Christendom broadly—and imperfectly—conformed to the biblical expectation. The outcome of the judgment and restoration of God’s people between AD 30 and 70 was the church spread throughout the Greek-Roman world. Because of the faithful witness of these communities to their exalted Lord the nations abandoned their idols and converted to the worship of the one true living creator God.

Comments

Good stuff.

It does seem that the OT vision of the nations coming to Yahweh involves them as nations distinct from Israel with Israel at the head.  Also, none of those visions seems to anticipate the removal of Torah, so you’re always going to have Jews and Gentiles no matter what you do under that rubric.

What do you think are the functional differences, if any, between distinct nations turning to Yahweh versus the post-Resurrection paradigm of one, new people of God?

What do you think are the functional differences, if any, between distinct nations turning to Yahweh versus the post-Resurrection paradigm of one, new people of God?

I hinted at a possible answer to this question right at the end of the piece:

The advent of Christendom broadly—and imperfectly—conformed to the biblical expectation. The outcome of the judgment and restoration of God’s people between AD 30 and 70 was the church spread throughout the Greek-Roman world. Because of the faithful witness of these communities to their exalted Lord the nations abandoned their idols and converted to the worship of the one true living creator God.

Just as Israel according to the Law was envisaged as a nation set apart in the midst of independent nations that had come to appreciate the glory of YHWH, so the church according to the Spirit was a people scattered amongst indpendent nations which would—as nations—come to acknowledge that YHWH is the only true God. The church is now drawn not from the Jews only, but it nevertheless remains distinct from the nations as political entities. Under the Christendom arrangement the church is a priestly-prophetic people for the sake of the right public worship of the nations.

And, just for my own understanding, your thoughts would be that the Christendom paradigm is more or less (new creation excepted) the state of affairs at the end of the NT prophetic scope?

And that then frames the challenge for today as Christendom is fading in our rear view mirror - the church has to figure out how to be the church in the nations when producing “Christianized” nations a la the Roman Empire is not really an option.  Am I putting those pieces together correctly?

Exactly. So I suggest that the church in the West today faces two broad challenges.

There is a fundamental faith challenge: do we believe that the church has a viable future. This is where I think Romans is so useful, as you know—hence the title of my underrated book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.

And there is the practical missional challenge: how do we position ourselves on the margins of a post-imperial, increasingly supra-national, global secular culture?

I have that book.  It’s in the Perriman Commemorative Wing of my library.

Ok, that helps me understand better.  There are Christians who believe that establishing Christian nations in a form similar to Christendom is not only possible, but still our mission as a church.  I don’t think that way, myself, but how would you respond to that view?

Good luck to them. From the European perspective it looks like a pipe dream, but Americans no doubt see things differently. Ok, from my European perspective. I would argue, I think, that in a global secular culture decisions about belief are simply no longer made at a national level or on a national scale. This does not mean that the Christian story or message cannot be publically influential, just that in the world to come it will be in very different terms. But this is all very much off the top of my head.

Andrew,

Thank you for your post.  Your thesis is quite persuasive.  My only problem is that it seems to confine the Judeo-Christian enterprise within a western modality.  That makes me a bit uncomfortable.  Maybe it shouldn’t.  Maybe that’s just how it is.  Where would you place eastern religious world views within this context?

Billy

I suppose, really, I would place eastern religions beyond the historical horizons of the New Testament, along with Islam, western secular-rationalism, the conquest of the Americas, and the moon landings.

I’m not sure though that we are confining “the Judeo-Christian enterprise within a western modality”. The enterprise came from outside, or at least from the fringes, of the Greek-Roman world, and is now being forced back to the fringes of western secular society. For a long period of time Christianity was mostly a European religion—this is the problem of particularism—but that is no longer the case. History is what it is, unless we want to say that we have somehow badly misread it.