The basic thesis of Greg Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology is i) that the Old Testament gives us the story of how God “progressively reestablishes his new-creational kingdom out of chaos”; and ii) that this storyline is transformed in the New Testament inasmuch as Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have “launched the fulfillment of the eschatological already-not yet new-creational reign” (16, italics removed, statements abbreviated, other caveats may apply).
In short, he aims to develop a more or less comprehensive biblical theology controlled by a story oriented towards the “goal of new-creational kingship” (179). Note the merging of “new creation” and “kingdom”—I’ll come back to that.
I think that Beale is broadly right to say that “the doctrine of eschatology in NT theology textbooks should not merely be one among many doctrines that are addressed but should be the lens through which all the doctrines are best understood” (18). That sounds a bit like Greg Boyd’s reductionist insistence that everything needs to be interpreted in the light of the cross—the “lens” metaphor doesn’t help in that respect; but at least eschatology in principle brings the whole story into play.
The question is: how do we understand the whole story?
Beale defines his eschatology as “new-creational reign”, but what is the scope of that term (178-79)? Does it have reference specifically to the “apocalyptic notion of the dissolution and re-creation of the entire cosmos”? Is it about the end of the world, in other words? Or is it a more abstract “theological construct”—a container for hope in a general sense? Or are we talking more narrowly about Israel’s future and the characteristic set of expectations that went with it: vindication, return from captivity, judgment of the nations, etc.? The answer is all of them. He uses the phrase “new-creational reign” to refer to the “entire network of ideas that belong to renewal of the whole world, of Israel, and of the individual”. That sounds a bit indiscriminate for a start.
He then further refines his definition of eschatology by referring to N.T. Wright’s discussion of Israel’s idea of election in the New Testament and the People of God (259-60). Wright thinks that election operates on three levels, and Beale argues that this categorisation advances our understanding of “already-not yet eschatology”. I have to say, I’m not sure I follow his line of thought here, but that shouldn’t affect the critical points that I want to make.
According to Wright, Jewish covenant theology, especially in the second temple period, functioned as the “answer which was offered to the problem of evil in its various forms”. This worked at three levels; in Wright’s words:
1. At the large-scale level, creation has rebelled against the creator, but God “has called into being a people through whom he will work to restore his creation”.
2. At a smaller-scale there is the story of Israel’s sufferings and the faithfulness of the creator to restore his people.
3. At the individual level, which cannot be isolated from the other two, the “sufferings and sins of individual Jews may be seen in the light of the continual provision of forgiveness and restoration”.
I think this differentiation between narrative levels is very helpful. It provides a clear methodological corrective to what I see as the basic failing of the current fashion for narrative theologies, which is that our modern, post-Christendom, globalising perspective blinds us to the mid-level narrative about Israel and the nations. The problem is that we assume that Israel’s story was fulfilled in Jesus and therefore the political-historical narrative came to an end. It doesn’t reach as far as the twenty-first century. So we have to jump to the higher level cosmic narrative and read everything on that basis. The story of Israel gets assimilated into the story of creation.
As I say, very helpful. But I think there are problems with the way the model is used—by Wright to some extent, but certainly by Beale.
1. I still don’t see how the first level argument about salvation works. Where in the Old Testament do we find the idea that YHWH will use Israel to restore his rebellious creation? For that matter, where in the Old Testament do we find the idea that God will restore his creation by any means? Abraham is not called to save the world. He is called to be the beginning of a people who will in theory walk in God’s ways and not rebel against the creator, who will serve God as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:6). The nations will be blessed incidentally by the blessing of faithful Israel (cf. Joseph in Egypt), but there is no programme of cosmic salvation.
2. It seems to me that “kingdom” is not a cosmic but a historical-political category. My main complaint regarding Beale’s book is that he assimilates the kingdom argument about Israel and the nations into the cosmic new-creation category. The story of Israel is acknowledged but it has no real narrative or eschatological significance in its own right; it merely serves the large-scale story of the restoration of creation. I think this gets the biblical argument precisely back-to-front.
3. The dominant narrative in the Old Testament is the smaller-scale one—the story about Israel struggling to preserve and live up to its covenant relationship with YHWH in the midst of generally hostile nations. This is a political story: it has to do with the government of the people and with international relations. It is also, obviously, a historical story: it happens over a long period of time. But Beale seems to go out of his way to downplay the political-historical aspect. For example, in his discussion of the eschatological significance of Daniel 2 and 7-12 he merges the four kingdoms of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream into one so that they stand not for distinct political entities but for humanity in general, and he sees no reason to mention Antiochus Epiphanes (107-112, 191-94).
4. It is at the intermediate level that it makes sense to talk about elevated eschatological outcomes. Briefly put: Israel is punished for its rebelliousness, Israel is forgiven and restored, and YHWH will establish his rule over the pagan nations from Jerusalem, exercised by the king whom he has seated at his right hand. This is an extraordinary development, but it is a political development and it happens in history. It does not entail a transformation of the cosmos. The New Testament should be read as a continuation of this story: judgment against Israel, renewal of the covenant, and the rule of YHWH over the pagan nations, exercised by the king seated at his right hand. But by this stage apocalyptic Judaism has developed the conviction that there will be an ultimate vindication of the creator, beyond the fulfilment of the kingdom narrative, and John appends this hope to his narrative of judgment and vindication.
Finally, I think that it is important for evangelism, mission and discipleship today that we address the question of individual response and behaviour in relation to the full narrative of the existence of God’s people running right through to the precarious existence of the church in the secular West today. We are much to prone to talking in theological abstractions. We need to deal with our place in history.