Matthew Bates’ book Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King is just one straw in a strong wind blowing out of biblical studies, driving us away from theological towards narrative constructions of Christian identity and purpose.
In my view, this is an exhilarating and necessary development, but Matthew’s book, for all its merits, has highlighted a fundamental shortcoming. Because evangelicals naturally want to retain the direct practical application of the “gospel”, evangelical narrative theologies exhibit a consistent tendency to leapfrog history. I would put Greg Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology and J. Richard Middleton’s A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology in the same category.
Let me explain.
The Bible presents us with three narrative contexts: a small one, a medium-sized one, and a big one—rather like Goldilocks and the three bears, only that’s another metaphor.
The dominant narrative is the historical one about the people of God, which comprises the whole of scripture bar eleven chapters at the beginning and two at the end.
It begins with the call of Abraham in the shadow of Babel. It runs through the patriarchal migration, the period in Egypt, the exodus and conquest, the rise and division of Israel as a kingdom, defeat by empires, exile, return from exile, the clash with aggressive Hellenism, Roman occupation, Jesus’ attempted messianic coup, the mission of his followers to the nations, and the war against Rome. It climaxes in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the pagan empire. From the exile onwards it is essentially the story of the coming kingdom of God.
That large-scale narrative always impacts individuals: Peter had to decide whether to follow Jesus, Pilate had to decide whether to have Jesus executed, the Philippian jailer had to decide whether Jesus really was as powerful a Lord as the apostles claimed him to be. But the individual decisions are next-to-meaningless without the large-scale historical narrative.
Similarly, the story of God’s people from Babel to the fall of “Babylon the great” is bookended by the confession that the God of Israel created all things at the beginning and will recreate all things at the end. But these confessions gain their importance from the historical narrative. It is the catastrophe of exile that elicits the confession that YHWH is “the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Is. 40:28). It is the threat of annihilation by Rome that gives rise to the conviction that the last enemy will ultimately be destroyed. The cosmic story serves the historical story.
So there are personal, historical, and cosmic dimensions to the biblical narrative, but it is the mid-level narrative that gives us the controlling shape and direction of biblical thought—and tells us how to understand “gospel”.
The problem in the modern era has been that the church has felt the need—rightly or wrong—to focus almost exclusively on the personal dimension.
The modern “gospel” is the message that the church must proclaim to the world about salvation through Jesus Christ. This gospel sits on the small lily pad of the individual person’s life story. It shines a light on the person’s sinfulness, which separates her or him from a holy God, and it presents a solution to the problem: believe that Jesus died for your sins and you will be reconciled to God and will enjoy eternal life. Everything else is only vaguely interesting background.
The evangelical-narrative reaction against this has, as I say, leapfrogged in excitement over history and landed on the great big cosmic-level argument about the renewal of creation.
History has been a helpful transitional phase but of limited application—no one’s really interested today in the “good news” that the God of first-century Israel triumphed over pagan Rome. So the historical reading of the New Testament remains inconsistently and fitfully grasped, half-baked, having been hastily superseded by a cosmic narrative that suits much better the global perspective of the modern church.
Given the concerns of our age, there is a lot to be said for recovering the cosmic dimension to scripture. But it still doesn’t help us to do what the biblical narrative does so well, which is to address the particularities, contingencies and complexities of the immediate historical circumstances faced by the people of God.
So I maintain, both for reasons of biblical interpretation and for the sake of the integrity and mission of the post-Christendom church, that we need to put the frog of the gospel back on the mid-size lily pad of the historical narrative.