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

The proclamation of the gospel is the “narration of past history” (Hengel)

I’m currently teaching an Introduction to the New Testament class at St John’s Nottingham. I started last week with a quotation from Martin Hengel: “There cannot… be any proclamation of the gospel which is not at the same time a narration of past history.” That can be taken in different ways, but if we are going to make “gospel” a defining factor in what we are here for, our mission, then to connect it closely in this way with the narration of past history seems to me exactly right. Perhaps we can even put it the other way round: the narration of past history is the proclamation of good news. It certainly was for the early church.

What I will try to show in this introductory course is that the historical material is not just more-or-less-optional background to the self-sufficient content of the New Testament. It is the whole point of the New Testament. If we don’t slot the story of the New Testament into the story of Israel as it was being remembered and experienced in the first century, we will misunderstand Jesus, his mission, and the message of the early church about him.

Today I used this simple little diagram—not quite as successfully as I’d hoped, perhaps—to explain how I understand the core argument or narrative or trajectory of the New Testament.

We begin with a sense that something is profoundly awry. I like the reference to Ezekiel 36:22-23 because it’s presumably the sort of thing that Jesus has in mind when he teaches his disciples to pray, “Our father who is in the heavens, may your name be hallowed…” (Matt. 6:9):

Therefore, say to the house of Israel, This is what the Lord says: I do not act for you, O house of Israel, but rather on account of my holy name, which you profaned among the nations, there where you entered. And I will sanctify my great name, which was profaned among the nations, which you profaned in their midst, and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, when I am hallowed among you before their eyes. (Ezek. 36:22–23)

There are other ways in which we could encapsulate or explain the dilemma—not least, we could tell the story of the last three centuries since Alexander the Great set off to conquer the east, which we did today. But it comes down to the fact that the name of Israel’s God was not hallowed amongst the nations.

The place to get to—the end that the story has in view at this juncture—is identified by Paul. It is that the idolatrous nations will turn to the God of Israel to be “saved”, that every knee will bow and every tongue will acknowledge that YHWH has given all authority to his Son (cf. Phil. 2:9-11; Is. 45:22-23 LXX). The “every” is not hyperbole, but neither does it mean that every individual will personally convert in our modern sense. It is a political statement. It means that nations or societies will abandon the old gods of Greece and Rome and will collectively worship instead the God formerly associated exclusively with the small and distant nation of Israel. As Paul says, this radical political-religious realignment of the ancient world will be to the glory of God the Father—in other words, the name of YHWH will be hallowed amongst the nations.

What the New Testament then gives us is the historical process that bridges the gulf between widespread contempt for the name of YHWH and the confession by the nations that Jesus Christ is Lord. In the immediate context of Philippians 2 it is the story of Jesus’ renunciation of the model of pagan kingship, his acceptance of humiliation and suffering, his execution by the Romans, and his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God.

But this story about Jesus is inseparable from the story about Israel. His ministry is an engagement on all fronts with Israel over its historic destiny. His death anticipates the dreadful suffering that will be inflicted on the Jews by Rome. His resurrection and ascension give assurance of the future vindication of his followers, who believe that he will rule over Israel in the age that will follow God’s decisive judgment of his people. The “Christ-hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11, if that is what it is, is precisely a celebration of the part that Jesus played in the bigger political-religious drama, in repudiating one form of kingship and embracing its antithesis.

It is, therefore, the whole crisis of Israel in the first century that eventually brings about the justification of YHWH—the demonstration of the rightness of Israel’s God that Jesus had in mind when he taught his disciples not to pray in the manner of the Gentiles. Memories of brutality and desecration are part of the story. The impotence or invalidity or folly of other Jewish reactions to pagan domination are part of the story. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple is part of the story. The faith and faithfulness of the disciples and the churches are part of the story. Jesus is pivotal to all of this, of course, but there is no “pivot” apart from the mechanism that hinges around it. It is by means of the whole drama that that YHWH achieved his purposes.

Comments

So far so good, I think. But the proof of the pudding will be in the coming weeks on the Synoptic narrative, Acts and Paul’s mission in particular.

That’s great! I’m very interested in how this plays out in an actual class, so I hope you have more occasions to post about it.

Do you also teach the distance learning Intro to NT module? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d pay the $350 USD to take it.

I think you probably recognise that I am, relatively speaking, something of a convert to your principal thesis, although not being a “NT scholar” as such myself, there are so many nuances and details that simply escape me in terms of their significance (hence my appreciation of the kind of meta-articulation of it, above).

Where I would be particularly glad to ‘catch up’ with an aspect of your thinking, Andrew, relates to the tension between the obviously historically-rooted aspect of the NT (as told in posts such as the “extraordinarily narrow world of Jesus” etc) AND the introduction of the eternal, “cosmic” Christ, as developed by Paul in his letters, John in his gospel etc. (does this relate to Jesus’ proclamation of “Before Abraham was, I am”? Or is there a more ‘historical’ explanation of that?)

I remember at some time, not so far off, you began to refer to this aspect of things and the tension between them and, if I remember correctly, you seemed to imply this was a strand that you would explore / develop / articulate at some point. I wondered if you’d done that at all?

It’s a good question, John, but I’ve had to put it on one side for the time being. You could see if anything stands out from this list, though. 

In other words, the gospels are indeed the sory of How God Became King : an excellent read, Andrew, and thank you for commending it to me.

Glad you enjoyed it!

I hope it was an enjoyable experience with the class at St John’s. I found a great deal to agree with here, except for the conclusion that the story in view by Paul (eg in Philippians 2:9-11) …

means that nations or societies will abandon the old gods of Greece and Rome and will collectively worship instead the God formerly associated exclusively with the small and distant nation of Israel. As Paul says, this radical political-religious realignment of the ancient world will be to the glory of God the Father—in other words, the name of YHWH will be hallowed amongst the nations.

The kingdom of God works like yeast working through the dough, or like a mustard seed becoming a large shrub - which suggests to me something different, and which is as true of nations and societies as well as of governments, but I’m not sure it is to be identified with political systems and structures.

The problem with such an identification is the question of the relationship between governmental systems which belong to the order of the old creation (which would include Israel as well as Rome) and the nature of the order of the new creation which is introduced through the church as God’s renewed people and the kingdom of God as God’s rule expressed through them.

Even in the switch which came about in the Roman Empire from idolatrous paganism to state sponsored Christianity, such a distinction between old and new order would have been obvious to Paul, had he been alive to see it. The mistake which Christendom made was to think that kingdom of God and empire could become co-terminous, with the supreme pontiff and emperor illustrating in the main the fallacy of the whole edifice.

Paul’s mission would have been to show that kingdom of God can influence empire and church from within, but would always remain over, above and beyond it. The concrete reality of the old creation still awaited the conrete reality of the new creation to come, in which church would always only be a sign, pointing forwards, an incomplete and partial expression of what is to come, but nevertheless powerfully influential in the now.

Jacques Ellul envisaged for today “small, mutually supportive communities of Christians committed to living out the Christian story … under the rule of God in a secular and sometimes hostile world”. I think this was no less true under ‘Christendom’, whether it favoured or persecuted such communities. Walter Brueggemann defines evangelism as “the invitation to re-imagine our lives … an invitation and summons to ‘switch stories’ and therefore to change lives”. I agree with this, but would also want to add it’s not just about stories, but new life through the life of God within us. New life makes sense within the story, and the two need each other.

I think you may have misunderstood my argument.

The kingdom of God is not identified with political systems and structures. It is when God judges and rules, first with respect to Israel, then with respect to the nations. The apocalyptic vision of the Old Testament is that eventually the nations will be ruled not by the oppressive pagan empire but by the people of the saints of the Most High (Dan. 7:27), which gives us the political shape of God’s rule over the nations. I think that vision is carried over into the New Testament, to the extent that once idolatrous Rome has been judged, Jesus subjugates the nations of the empire and rules them with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:15; cf. Ps. 2:9).

My suggestion then is that in biblical terms the role of the church was to be a priestly people on behalf of the nations, mediating between the social-political structures of the former pagan empire and their new God, holding the nations accountable to their profession of faith in Jesus as Lord. The church, therefore, should have combined—by analogy—the functions of priest and prophet in ancient Israel in relation to the king and the other structures and functions of the state. Things may not quite have worked out this way, but I think it makes good theological sense, and it maintains the critical distinction between church and state.

Your argument about Ellul seems to me to make too little of the fact that Europe had abandoned its pagan past and converted wholesale to a different religious system. Historically, that was a massive transformation. You are—almost explicitly—retrojecting the experience of the church under post-enlightenment secularism on to the old Christendom arrangement. I think that is a failure of historical imagination. We shouldn’t judge the ancient world by our own yardstick.