Adams and Wright: beyond worldviews?

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Samuel Adams argues—continuing my piecemeal critical review of his stimulating and exasperating book The Reality of God and Historical Method—that Wright’s historical method cannot deal adequately with the reality of God. Wright’s is not a thoroughgoing “methodological naturalism” because he ‘allows the “supernatural” as part of the worldview of the people who claim such an event to have happened’ (209). As a historian Wright evaluates the super-natural aspects of the New Testament witness not according to an Enlightenment worldview (Reimarus, Paulus, et al.) but according to a first century Jewish worldview (Jesus, Paul, et al.). That’s an improvement on a lot of historical Jesus research, but it remains an essentially naturalistic enterprise. It is a development of the Enlightenment framework, not a departure from it. So here, according to Adams, is the heart of the question:

Did something new happen in the arrival of Jesus the Messiah that, although present enough in time and space to be interpreted in terms of first-century Judaism, nevertheless required an acceptance of something, or the gift of perception, that challenged that worldview from outside any conceivable worldview?

So it appears to be the prerogative and task of theology to discover and articulate what this “from outside” is: it is God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus, it is the incarnation; it is the personal knowing of God made epistemologically possible by the saving event of the cross; and it is a knowing that comes through participation in the relationship between the Son and the Father. Chapter two of Adams’ book is an account of this task based on the scientific theology of T.F. Torrance and the subjective epistemology of Kierkegaard. Then we head off into apocalyptic in search of a theology of history….

The phrase “present enough in time and space to be interpreted in terms of first-century Judaism” has an oddly docetic ring to it. How much is “enough”? How present does Jesus have to be in time and space to qualify for authentic historical existence? [pullquote]It looks like one of those philosophical puzzles that theologians love to devise just to give themselves something to do.[/pullquote] 

But it’s the suggestion that we can posit the intrusion of a novelty from “outside any conceivable worldview” that is truly baffling. All human thought presupposes a worldview, and even our most elevated and necessary theological constructs are not exempt from this rule. The incarnational model emerged under a worldview that was prepared, or compelled, to abandon the apocalyptic narrative about the future coming of the kingdom of God, which had driven the incursion of the church into the Greek-Roman world, in favour of something more or less Platonic.

Adams’ “apocalyptic” development of the paradigm appears to owe something further to mid-twentieth century existentialism translated by Bultmann and Barth into a theological idiom.

I am oversimplifying—and, of course, ranting—but the idea that at the heart of Christianity is the response of the individual to the self-revealing God cannot be taken as an unmediated, universal given. It is worldview-dependent. It comes to us unavoidably through the closed narrative world of scripture.

The theological model may have critical significance within the worldviews that generated it, but I don’t see how it can possibly claim to have epistemologically privileged interest in a notion of revelation that transcends “any conceivable worldview” and is beyond the reach of historiography.

And I don’t see why it should be allowed to pull rank over history when it comes to reading the biblical texts.

As I argued with respect to Matthew’s use of the Immanuel prophecy, not content with taking over responsibility for worldview construction, the theological approach has taken it upon itself to rewrite the historical meaning of the text. Why? Because that’s how it demonstrates its power over historical context, I suspect. That’s how it shows who’s boss. It bullies the text into submission. Or as J.R. Daniel Kirk says, it colonises interpretation.

I think we have another example of this in Adams’ discussion of two examples from scripture of the “knowing relation” between God-revealed-in-Jesus and the believer. He argues first that:

At the heart of the church’s proclamation… is the actual relation between the event of God’s self-revelation in and as the person of Jesus and the church’s witness to this event. (214)

So here we have the theological gospel: the individual can know God through Jesus, which is roughly the popular modern gospel of personal salvation. It’s not an abstraction, Adams insists, because it is rather “the relation itself, and theological reflection on it is a deeper penetration into its concrete particularity”.

Adams suggests that the knowing relation can be modelled on Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:13-17 or the personal call to Peter to follow in Mark 1:17. But then we have another one of those baffling statements about worldviews—unless I am completely missing the point:

These two examples directly apply to the present subject since the grounding of the disciples’ knowledge about who Jesus is and the obedient call to follow him are not rooted in Peter’s worldview (although the events could certainly be interpreted that way) but rather in the personal reality of the questioner and the call.

Why? How? Because the relation “introduces something new, brought to it from the outside, as it were, by the one who is God with us”. A sociology of knowledge—or presumably Wright’s historical method—could explain these texts, but only by “subjecting them to the precondition of an existent or possible worldview”. But, Adams asserts, the incarnation “is not one of these possibilities”. 

The concern is that otherwise the possibility of knowing God will be trapped within the particular worldview of first century Judaism. “Where is this continuing personal presence of Jesus in Wright’s historiography?”

There are problems, it seems to me, with this whole line of thought.

1. The gospel in the New Testament is not about the revelation of God in Christ to humanity. It is the announcement of imminent future events, consisting principally of judgment on Israel and the nations, the vindication of the righteous, and the rule of YHWH over the nations. In that historical process God is certainly revealed, but that is entailed in the narrative. It is not correct to say or insinuate that the story of Israel is merely the vehicle of divine revelation.

2. I see no basis for the presumption that at issue in these texts is a knowing of Jesus or of God that can somehow be detached from a narrative determined by worldview. Even if Peter had declared, “You are God incarnate”, this would not be a “knowing relation” that can be replicated by people in other places, at other times. It is context bound. But what Peter actually says is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” which immediately is part of a narrative about the suffering not only of the Christ but also of his followers for the sake of salvation of Israel. The Johannine notion of the Father revealed in the Son has no bearing here. The question the passage answers is given to us in Psalm 110: How will YHWH come to rule over the nations? How will his enemies be defeated.

Similarly, the call of Peter and the others to follow is not an acted parable of existential encounter with the self-revealing God. It has meaning only in the context of the eschatological crisis looming on Israel’s horizon, which is a narrative, and the narrative is part of a worldview. The disciples are not called to know the God who reveals himself though the incarnation. They are called to proclaim to Israel that the kingdom of God is at hand.

3. The New Testament does not ground the “continuing personal presence of Jesus” in the idea of incarnation—not even in the idea of the Word having been made flesh and dwelling for a while among his people. It is grounded in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father and in the outpouring of the Spirit on his followers. It is the risen Christ who says to his disciples, “Behold, I am with you every day through to the end of the age”, though I take this to be a reference to the end of the age of second temple Judaism.

This is a narrative argument that cannot be understood apart from the sort of historical-apocalyptic mindset that Adams so casually dismisses. It doesn’t need the supra-temporal theological notion of the God who continually reveals himself to people in the person of Jesus. Salvation is personal only secondarily. The machinery of biblical thought does not revolve around the relationship of the autonomous individual with God. It is the story of a people, and the New Testament tells the story of the salvation and transformation of that people under particular historical circumstances—and only under particular historical circumstances. The fate of individuals, now as then, is determined by our response to that narrative. The classic incarnational model, whatever its value and inevitability at a later stage, under different worldview conditions, is of little help for understanding that narrative.

Andrew, you wrote: “It is the risen Christ who says to his disciples, ‘Behold, I am with you every day through to the end of the age’, though I take this to be a reference to the end of the age of second temple Judaism.”

I hope I’m not annoying you by asking the same question after various posts, but I am really curious to know if you think Jesus’ presence with his disciples until the end of the age of second temple Judaism accounts for the miraculous gifts that were distributed by the Spirit and exercised by the disciples prior to 70AD. It seems to me God stopped distributing gifts such as healing, tongues, prophesy, etc. after 70AD.

Also, on an unrelated note, can you direct me to a post of your that tells what you think will happen to God’s holy people who are living on this earth after Gog and Magog are destroyed (Rev. 20)?


Hi, Peter. No annoyance. I was planning to address your question about the Spirit in a separate post.

I haven’t written anything here about Gog and Magog. The way I read the end of Revelation, the thousand year period follows judgment on Rome, during which the martyrs reign with Christ and Satan is imprisoned in the abyss. In effect it must be the rest of world history. It culminates in a final outbreak Satanically inspired hostility against the people of God. Gog and Magog presumably are symbols for this hostility. It’s all over rather quickly, and then we have a second resurrection and final judgment of all the dead—including, presumably, non-martyred Christians—followed by the appearance of a new heaven and new earth.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks, Andrew.
So do you suppose all who survive these hostilities will be destroyed in the fire from heaven that destroys this earth (2 Peter 3:10)?

@Andrew Perriman:

on interpretation being colonised I was accused of speaking heresy for insisting that Mat. 28 could not have been understood as a ‘great commission to all the world’ by the actual recipients of it because it took a threefold revelation to Peter just to go visit one. Protestants need to acknowledge they gloss every bit as bad as Rome used to, but without the myth of apostolic succession to authorise their opinion.

If Jesus is coming back why is their still sin outside the city?

Andrew Perriman | Tue, 05/10/2016 - 17:59 | Permalink

In reply to by phillip mutchell

@phillip mutchell:

Perhaps they initially understood it as a mission to proclaim Jesus to Jews in the diaspora. In fact, maybe Jesus actually intended it in that sense and the impulse to proclaim the resurrection to Gentiles arose independently.

@Andrew Perriman:

Possibly, but the fact that Paul was raised up as an apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter’s role was to be a reliable witness to their inclusion would seem to militate against it.

@Phillip Mutchell:

But that distinction only arose after Acts 9. Perhaps Peter’s sense of having been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (Gal. 2:7) only developed along with the controversy. After the resurrection Jesus sends Peter and the others to make disciples from amongst Jews of the diaspora in the period leading up to the “end” of the age. But then the Spirit throws a spanner in the works.