p.ost

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

More on history and the drama of scripture

Daniel Hoffman makes an important point about my argument that salient events in the history of the church could be said to have the same level of theological significance as events in the Bible:

I sympathize with this in theory—it sounds right, but it seems to me the obvious difference, at least as far as the conscious life of the church is concerned, is that we have no divine revelation/canonical scripture interpreting the post-New Testament developments. It may be that historically considered, the “collapse of Christendom” is as significant for the people of God as the exile, but the later comes with an inspired and canonical description and interpretation and the former does not.

I think this may actually highlight a serious problem with the five act play model of biblical authority. In what sense does the history of the church since the New Testament period constitute a continuation of the biblical narrative?

If Wright only means that the church goes about being church for ever and ever—serving, worshipping, loving, witnessing, praying—there is not much improvisation involved.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a story on a level historically with the events narrated in the Bible, can it really be characterised as a group of competent actors intentionally, creatively and faithfully plotting a fifth act?

After all, we don’t read the Old Testament as though the chief actors in the story were consciously and creatively making it up as they went along. It is rather the history of a people working itself out—driven by the usual social-political forces and somewhat constrained by the terms of the covenant, but still just history in process. Why should the story of the church be any different?

I have frequently argued that we should read both scripture and our own post-Christendom context narratively, but that is a retrospective reading. The most perhaps we can say is that in the light of the preceding storyline we can develop a faint prophetic sense of where we need to go next, what the next twist in the narrative should be. Is that what Wright means?

In any case, it still seems to suggest that if the fifth act—the story of the church—is to be a proper continuation of the drama given to us in scripture, it has to be of the same narrative-theological character. Just as the biblical witness is a prophetic interpretation of the tumultuous historical journey of the community, so our continuing self-understanding must be a prophetically interpreted response to the salient facts of our history—“the war against Rome, the conversion of the empire, the Wars of Religion, and the collapse of Christendom”, and so on.

But how does the inspiration of scripture come into this?

A major part of my general argument is that “historically considered” is exactly how we should read scripture. It’s not so much a question of whether we can raise history to the level of scripture as of whether we can “lower” scripture to the level of history without losing its directive and transformative power.

Scripture speaks of historical events such as the return of Jews from exile or the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist, but more importantly, in a way, it is the product of a historical community that needed to tell its story in this way.

Protestantism has given supreme authority to the Bible, but—again thinking historically—it is the community that has ontological and epistemological priority. As I wrote in piece discussing Peter Enns’ views on evangelicalism and historical criticism, “we place far too much reliance on scripture for our raison d’être and far too little on the historical existence of the people of God as a called and inspired community”:

The community is not determined by scripture. The community is determined by the sovereign decision of God to have a people for his own possession. Scripture is a by-product of that calling.

We could also then say that the canonisation of scripture was a historical development, a complicated decision made by Judaism and Christianity in the first centuries of the common era. Historically, we decided to make these texts normative and have ascribed to them an authority above other texts. But it is also true, it seems to me, that neither the authors nor the canonisers had resources available to them that we do not have today: they spoke, wrote, and redacted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Arguably, the canonisation of the New Testament was simply an act of historical-critical discernment: this particular body of texts constituted the fullest and most reliable witness to the historical origins of Christianity. That is a judgment that has stood the test of time remarkably well. But otherwise, the documents are as much part of history, and of historiography, as the Maccabean writings, the apocalyptic literature, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of Josephus and Tacitus, and so on.

Daniel asks finally: “if current events are just as important to the history of God’s people, why don’t we have any more prophets delivering inspired, canonical scripture?” That’s a good question.

I’m inclined to regard the canonisation of scripture as itself an “accident” of history and for the sake of history. What the New Testament does is give us a pretty good idea of the significance of Jesus’ life and death and of how the church got underway in the first few decades. It doesn’t need to do any more than that. But I do think that the post-Christendom church in the West needs a coherent prophetic perspective on the crisis that it faces.

The reason why we lack the prophetic perspective is that we don’t know how to tell our story. Modernism has detached itself from history. Modern evangelicalism is so myopic that it cannot see beyond the short representative “history” of the individual: a sinner in need of salvation. But scripture consistently tells large scale narratives about the past, present and future of the historical community, and out of that storytelling emerges the prophetic voice, interpreting, warning, and offering hope.

So if we learn to tell our story—our historical story—better, I think we will recover the capacity to speak prophetically about the place of God’s people in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world.

Comments

Andrew, thanks for taking the time to respond. I have to say I find the response far from satisfying, however. Frankly, you articulate a far lower view of Scripture than I would have suspected after having followed your blog for quite some time.

I am definitely on board with the general project of placing a far greater premium on the narrative and the immediacy of the New Testament’s eschatological outlook, as well as pushing back against the tendency to flatten the church’s post-NT existence. But you seem to be relegating Scripture to a status far below its own self-witness. You say, for example,

“Protestantism has given supreme authority to the Bible”

But I don’t see how any self-respecting Protestant could put it this way. What Protestants recognize - what was indeed a driving force behind Protestantism, was that Scripture has inherent authority and primacy by virtue of the fact that it is the very word of God written, in distinction from any other writing or body of writing. To speak of “giving” authority to the Bible is a sentiment that is far more Roman Catholic than Protestant, and more importantly, I think pretty clearly goes against the Bible’s testimony about itself. Paul speaks of the Old Testament as the “oracles of God” which were given or committed to Israel (Rom. 3:1-2) - not as an accidental product of the community. I’m thinking of Jeremiah’s calling for example, where God places his words in Jeremiah’s mouth; the giving of the covenant code inscribed by the finger of God; the New Testament writers who consistently and repeatedly appeal to the Old Testament to interpret and defend New Covenant events and circumstances; Paul’s express statements about his writings carrying binding authority, etc.

Basically, I like your general project, but it does create the question in my mind about the role of the Bible in relation to it. And a solution that would relegate the Bible to *merely* a by-product, a body of writing that is ascribed authority by a community without regard to any inherent merits it possesses as God’s actual word, strikes me a solution that would do it dishonor and would ultimately backfire. As I suggested earlier, it would seem to lead to a kind of Roman Catholic approach wherein the church (as represented by whom? An infallible Pope? ) is the real authority and the text is merely an ultimately expendable resource.

I’m wondering if we can still think through the significance of post-NT history without diminishing the value of the Bible in the process. I think it would be too high a price to pay. I would have trouble giving “ontological and epistemological priority” to the community over the word of God - even in its written form. I don’t see how that could result in anything but epistemological confusion and anarchy. It’s true of course that “the community” preceded the written Scriptures in order of time, but the community does not precede the word of God itself - and until someone can point to a genuine prophet or apostle on par with Isaiah or Paul, the Bible is the only word of God that we now possess.

Anyway, I’m commenting again because I still want to interact and hear your thoughts and think through this, not to rebuke or lecture.

Thanks, Daniel. Challenging stuff. This is a lengthy response, but it won’t answer all your questions.

What Protestants recognize - what was indeed a driving force behind Protestantism, was that Scripture has inherent authority and primacy by virtue of the fact that it is the very word of God written, in distinction from any other writing or body of writing.

To be sure, that is one way of talking about the authority of scripture, but in any remotely historical sense it is an over-simplification that masks the complexity of the interaction between text and context. 

  • The authors of the Old Testament historical books were not simply transcribing the word of God. They were chronicling Israel’s history with a particular historical-political bias, etc. The relation between YHWH and the community over time was interpreted according to the outlook and interests of the community, not merely recorded. Writing was bound up with history.
  • The prophets offered complex and disordered responses to the circumstances of history—“disordered” to the extent that it is very difficult to know how the parts of the texts relate either to each other or to historical context. That doesn’t make them any less the “oracles of God”—the prophets spoke powerfully into Israel’s historical situation. But the word of God is in the first place the spoken or written word of the prophet to ancient Israel, to which we have access only by way of history. 
  • The Gospel writers are not self-consciously writing down the word of God, they are doing their best to construct out of their limited literary and historical resources (cf. Lk. 1:1-4) a coherent account of the life of Jesus.
  • Paul writes passionate, urgent, aggrieved, reactionary, inventive letters to the small communities of believers in Asia Minor and Greece (I was in Thessaloniki yesterday, Philippi a couple of days ago). They presuppose a shared outlook on the future that is not ours.

This is all the stuff of history, and in the light of that the theological claim that this is “the very word of God written, in distinction from any other writing or body of writing” looks like a very reductionist way of asserting biblical authority.

My point is that by treating scripture as a “by-product” (I said that the canonisation of scripture was an “accident” of history) of history we in no way diminish its authority or capacity to instruct and direct the church today.

The history of Israel is not driven by scripture; it is driven by the calling of a community, beginning with Abraham; it is driven by the dynamic relationship between God and his people throughout the changing circumstances of history.

Scripture is a critical means by which that relationship is interpreted and maintained—the Spirit directed Luke to tell the story of the expansion of the early church in the way that he did so that people would understand what was going on. But the Acts of the Apostles came after, not before, the acts of the apostles.

This is not, by the way, the Roman Catholic model. I am not granting the church a formal institutional authority to determine what is true or authoritative—after all, Protestantism has been no less guilty of that, so too historical criticism. It’s about the relation between text and historical community.

My view is that if we are going to read scripture as the historical narrative of the people of God, sooner or later we will have to revise our model of the authority of scripture to take into account its character as historical testimony. That may not exclude “higher” level theological accounts of scripture as the word of God, but I think the more appropriate approach would be to elevate our sense of the power of historical testimony.

To my mind, the narrative-historical hermeneutic gives us a high view of scripture, just not in the same terms.

As for the relation between the New Testament and post-NT history, what sets the New Testament apart in terms of authority is that it tells the story of a decisive transformation of the people of God. It tells us that Jesus died for the sins of his people, was raised from the dead, was given all authority and power, and that the Spirit of the new covenant was given to the people in place of the Law.

In that respect, it functions the same way as the exodus narrative: it tells us how God took control, liberated his people, guided them through a difficult period, and gave them a way of living in relation to him. But it is the historical experience that has epistemological priority: the text is an interpretation and transmission of the “event”.

There is no “confusion and anarchy” here. Israel was a people brought out of slavery in Egypt and given the Law of Moses. The church is a people saved from historical destruction, given Jesus as Lord and the Spirit as the source of life. The trajectory of our continued historical existence is determined by the foundational narratives, but I don’t think that conflicts with the argument that subsequent historical events have theological significance comparable to the exile or the attack of Antiochus Epiphanes on Jewish faith.

It’s true of course that “the community” preceded the written Scriptures in order of time, but the community does not precede the word of God itself - and until someone can point to a genuine prophet or apostle on par with Isaiah or Paul, the Bible is the only word of God that we now possess.

But the “word of God” that preceded the community was not scripture. It was the call of Abraham or the commissioning of Moses or good news to devastated Zion or the invitation of Jesus to his disciples or the sending of Paul by the risen the Lord. We are still primarily, before anything else, a called people, not readers of scripture.

We are also, inalienably in my view, a prophetic community. We have been called by the living God and given the Spirit of prophecy (amongst other things) in order to interpret and communicate the ways of the creator to the world. Telling the biblical story is a crucial part of that, but we do not interpret and communicate a living God to the world if we daren’t venture beyond the end of the first century AD.

Thanks again for the reply and clarifications.

The authors of the Old Testament historical books were not simply transcribing the word of God. They were chronicling Israel’s history with a particular historical-political bias, etc. The relation between YHWH and the community over time was interpreted according to the outlook and interests of the community, not merely recorded. Writing was bound up with history.

I fully agree, but this does nothing to change the status of the canonical Scriptures as verbally inspired in a way that is distinct from other human writing. Just because God was speaking through the writers in a very specific and limited context does not change the fact that the words are on a different level from merely human words.

This is all the stuff of history, and in the light of that the theological claim that this is “the very word of God written, in distinction from any other writing or body of writing” looks like a very reductionist way of asserting biblical authority.

Again, I agree about the historical situatedness (is that a word?) of the writings - But that doesn’t lessen or mitigate the distinctive status of the word, just forces us to think carefully about how to rightly appropriate it.

My point is that by treating scripture as a “by-product” (I said that the canonisation of scripture was an “accident” of history) of history we in no way diminish its authority or capacity to instruct and direct the church today.

Agreed. But my original question had to do with the *uniqueness* of Scripture in light of the post-NT history which is, supposedly, on a level with the major historical events that Scripture records. I’m still on board with that - but the question remains, why no more universally (or near universally) recognized authoritative writing? The closest we could come up with post-NT would probably be something like Augustine’s City of God or even C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

My view is that if we are going to read scripture as the historical narrative of the people of God, sooner or later we will have to revise our model of the authority of scripture to take into account its character as historical testimony. That may not exclude “higher” level theological accounts of scripture as the word of God, but I think the more appropriate approach would be to elevate our sense of the power of historical testimony.”

Fair enough.

[The NT] functions the same way as the exodus narrative: it tells us how God took control, liberated his people, guided them through a difficult period, and gave them a way of living in relation to him. But it is the historical experience that has epistemological priority: the text is an interpretation and transmission of the “event”.

I’m uncomfortable with this way of putting it, but I’d need to think through what would be better. It strikes me as a bit of a false dichotomy. The word of God has creative power - think Jeremiah’s call, where God’s words placed in Jeremiah’s mouth gave him, in an apparently causative sense, the power to “build and tear down, pluck up and plant” nations and peoples. Or also, Jesus’ statements about doing things and things “must” taking place *because* “it is written.” Inscripturation comes later, but it would seem that from the divine perspective its all of a piece with the events themselves. Perhaps you would discount the “divine perspective” as having no real hermeneutical value, perhaps not.

Anyway, thanks for the clarifications. I have less of a problem now than I did with the initial response.

I guess my basic response to your leading concern here would be either that it is unnecessary to assert the theological uniqueness of scripture or that it coincides with the historical uniqueness of scripture.

The only historically credible account of Christian origins that we have is the New Testament. There is some historical evidence outside the New Testament, but it is negligible, and I think that there are good enough historical reasons for rejecting the “apocryphal” Gospels.

So the New Testament is unique in that it is the only story that the first century told about Jesus and the activity of the apostles. The question of whether it is of a different status to other historical documents is moot. It is not in competition with any other first century accounts of Christian origins.

Then it becomes a question of whether—or to what extent—we trust this testimony. We can answer that question theologically by asserting that the New Testament is the revealed word of God and therefore must be true. Or we can answer it historically, relying perhaps on a critical realist hermeneutic to lead us between Scylla of rationalist denial and the Charybdis of fundamentalism.

But either way, it remains the story that the early church told about itself, and it seems to me that that is an important perspective to recover.

As for whether later texts might be elevated to the level of scripture, I would say again that no later texts can do what the Bible does, which is bear direct testimony to the historical experience of the people of God in the period between the call of Abraham (or at least the exile) and, say, the persecution of the churches under Domitian.

The word of God has creative power - think Jeremiah’s call, where God’s words placed in Jeremiah’s mouth gave him, in an apparently causative sense, the power to “build and tear down, pluck up and plant” nations and peoples. Or also, Jesus’ statements about doing things and things “must” taking place *because* “it is written.” Inscripturation comes later, but it would seem that from the divine perspective its all of a piece with the events themselves. Perhaps you would discount the “divine perspective” as having no real hermeneutical value, perhaps not.

But I don’t understand what it means to say “from the divine perspective its all of a piece with the events themselves”. We could say that the words of Jeremiah and Jesus were causative or contingent—they brought something about in particular historical contexts. The later inscripturation and canonisation of the words of Jeremiah and Jesus had a different effect under different historical conditions. It recorded and consolidated a particular narrative about the experience of Israel. The church rather unhelpfully or confusingly called this the Word of God. It is not the same word that was spoken direct by Jeremiah and Jesus, but I suppose we could still regard it as a decisive act of divine communication for the sake of the emerging identity of the church.

My point, though, is that this is still being construed historically rather than theologically.