What I rather grandly call the narrative-historical method works on the assumption that the Bible is essentially a story told by a people about its historical experience and should be read from that perspective. The historical existence of this people was not merely religious or spiritual; it was political, it was shaped by political events. The Bible tells the story of the troubled and troublesome presence of this people in the midst of powerful and at times hostile nations over a long period of time. For this reason I argue that the central and guiding theological argument is not the one about incarnation and redemption but the one about kingdom, which culminates in the expectation that the God of Israel would eventually come to rule over the nations of the ancient world—in practice over the nations controlled by Rome. The New Testament story about Jesus tells us how this goal would be achieved.
Because it is a political story about the struggle to maintain a viable corporate identity in the real world, in a tumultuous region, in tumultuous periods, it is a story of violence: the exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the land, the wars against the Philistines, the establishment of David’s modest empire, the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom, the Babylonian invasion and destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the exile, the clash with expansionist Hellenism, and finally Roman occupation.
At one level this is simply what happened, or at least what the Jews thought had happened—history gets less reliable the further back we go. But the Biblical story also consistently interprets the events theologically. Israel was God’s chosen people in the midst of the nations, its life thoroughly determined by the Law that YHWH gave to Moses, so whatever happened to Israel in the course of history, for better or for worse, YHWH must have had a hand in it.
The basic theo-logic does not go unchallenged or untested (eg. Job), but it survives intact right through to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. If Israel is obedient, YHWH will defeat its enemies and ensure the material prosperity of the nation. If Israel is disobedient, YHWH will, in the end, summon a more powerful nation to punish his people. The argument is found throughout the Law and the Prophets. Daniel for example, inspired by Jeremiah, laments the “desolations of Jerusalem”; Israel sinned, failed to keep its side of the bargain, but YHWH upheld the Law and inflicted calamity on Jerusalem:
All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him. He has confirmed his words, which he spoke against us and against our rulers who ruled us, by bringing upon us a great calamity. For under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what has been done against Jerusalem. As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this calamity has come upon us; yet we have not entreated the favour of the LORD our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth. Therefore the LORD has kept ready the calamity and has brought it upon us, for the LORD our God is righteous in all the works that he has done, and we have not obeyed his voice. (Dan. 9:11–14)
If, however, the instrument of violent judgment exceeds its mandate, that nation will in turn suffer the wrath of God. As Habakkuk explains to the Chaldeans: “The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory!” (Hab. 2:16).
The Old Testament theo-logic of sin and violence needs careful definition. It is not arbitrary and vindictive; it is contained by convictions regarding the righteousness and justice of God; it cannot be separated from covenant faithfulness, forgiveness and renewal; it is a crucial means of affirming the sovereignty of YHWH in the face of overwhelming pagan aggression; and visions of an end to war repeatedly surface, with Zion reimagined as a city of peace at the hub of a transformed, theocratic imperialism. But the violence cannot be erased from the script.
The theo-logic is still in place when we get to the Gospels, where a last act of violent devastation is in view—a great eschatological storm that will sweep away the house that Israel has built on sand. Both John the Baptist and Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by an invading Roman army as an act of divine judgment on the current “evil and adulterous generation”. The seriousness and finality of the matter is captured in Jesus’ words to the scribes and Pharisees:
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matt. 23:34–36)
A cruciform people
The cross undoubtedly casts the whole sin-and-violence narrative in a different light, but it cannot be used as an apologetic device for reinterpreting the involvement of YHWH in Israel’s violent history. The cross does not abrogate the violent wrath of God; on the contrary, in biblical terms, it presupposes it. It is precisely because YHWH intended to punish his people that Jesus had to take the path of suffering. The cross brings into sharp focus a theme that goes back through the suffering of the Maccabean martyrs and Daniel’s vision of one like a son of man who is the persecuted saints of the Most High to Isaiah’s servant who suffered because of the sins of the people. When Israel is subjected to violence as a consequence of sin, redemption is found in the suffering of the righteous.
The cross did not mean that YHWH would no longer punish rebellious Israel, and certainly did not mean that the early Jewish church was led to revise its conception of God. Even after the resurrection the apostles continued to believe that God would violently punish unrepentant Israel and that only those who called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:19-21, 38-40; 13:38-41).
There is no cruciform God in scripture, only a cruciform people.
What the cross meant was that YHWH’s eschatological purposes with respect to his people and the nations would be achieved, despite the destruction of national Israel and its institutions, through the faithful suffering of Jesus and his followers. It is specifically in the context of the eschatological mission, first to Israel, then to the nations, that the New Testament church adhered to an ethic of non-violence. In the end, they would be publicly vindicated—found to be in the right, righteous, justified—neither by works of the Law nor by force of arms but by their faithful, persistent witness to the fact that God had raised Jesus from the dead and given him authority to rule in the midst of his enemies.
So I think we can say that Jesus suffered as part of the end-game of the old covenant: his death anticipated the violent punishment of Israel, and to this extent I think we can probably make some use of the language of “penal substitutionary atonement”. But his resurrection inaugurated a radically new state of affairs, which came in two stages—a “now” and a “not yet”.
In the period leading up to the parousia and the conversion of the nations—however long that would be—the churches were called to witness to the coming reign of Christ in a Christlike fashion. This was the long, but not open-ended, “now” of the coming of God’s rule over the nations. Only by demonstrating a radical trust and integrity and a willingness to face death, believing that they would be raised from the dead, would they overcome the pagan-imperial Roman order.
That, I think, is pretty much the extent—and certainly the focus—of the New Testament’s moral vision. Of course, if Christians departed from that calling, they might still have to reckon with divine violence in some form or other:
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Rom. 13:3–4)
Now for some idle historical speculation…
The “not yet”
If I am right to argue that prophetic expectation regarding the kingdom of God always had historical outcomes in view, we have to ask about the relation between God and violence in the political-religious arrangement that we know as Christendom.
My assumption is that under this arrangement the church should have functioned as a priestly-prophetic body, replacing the old pagan priesthood, mediating between the one true living God and the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, holding the state accountable to its confession that Jesus Christ was Lord.
This was still the real world, so everything was bound to be flawed and messy, but in the biblical narrative the rule of YHWH over the nations from a restored Zion was conceived as one of justice and peace, with the nations coming to learn from YHWH how to stop fighting each other:
He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. (Is. 2:4)
This, I suggest, should have been the operative eschatological vision of the Christendom church. It was never going to be fulfilled, but part of the responsibility of the priestly-prophetic church would have been to seek to embody such a vision in its own life and, by whatever means of persuasion were available to it, to urge the nations in this direction. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of Christendom to the modern world, for all the ironies surrounding it.
The story of the God of Israel, bound to his people by the covenant with Moses, had been brought to an end. He had finally judged his people, he had established his rule over the nations through the obedience of his Son. For fifteen hundred years he would be, instead, the God who invited the nations of Europe to learn peace and walk in his ways. According to the eschatological narrative of scripture he was no longer a God of violence but a God of peace.
That was then, this is now (again)
In the modern era things have changed again—and in a way unforeseen by scripture. The imperfectly realised empire of YHWH has collapsed under intense competition from secular humanism, and its “priesthood” has been made largely redundant. The church in the West, and probably globally, is struggling to construct a new paradigm—a way of carrying out its priestly-prophetic task, as servants of the living God, in an increasingly uncongenial cultural environment. It’s hard work, and we’re not exactly all pulling in the same direction.
But what do we now have to say about God?
Not that he must remain faithful to a covenant that puts before his people a way of life and a way of violent destruction (cf. Deut. 30:15-20). Nor that he is the God of a just and peaceful empire—global secularism has put an end to that theology. To that extent, history has taken us well beyond the theological purview of scripture. We are having to reimagine God.
I think that what this narrative has suggested is that we must speak about the creator God, who made the heavens and the earth, according to what we expect him to do—he was the God who would resolve the problem of Israel through invasion and destruction; he was the God who would gain glory for himself among the pagan nations through the obedience of his Son and the faithful testimony of his followers.
So as we continue to tell our story as the historical people of God, facing the massive challenges of the modern era, we cannot speak adequately about God without some sense of a relevant and credible eschatology.
It may be enough to affirm that in the end he will make all things new, that the God who is systematically denied—or at best treated with condescension—by our secular cultures will finally vindicate himself as creator.
But I think that the Bible also teaches us to look for more immediate, historically relevant outcomes. We need an eschatological horizon comparable to the destruction of Jerusalem or the conversion of the nations or the collapse of Christendom. What do we expect the one true living creator God, whom we serve as a priestly-prophetic people, to do within our historical horizon? It is on that basis that we may begin to reimagine the reality of God for our own “age”.
If you’re wondering, finally, why we can’t just say that God is love, I think that that is just treading water in a warm, foamy sea of individualism, amid the floating plastic detritus of our consumerist culture, because we can’t decide which direction to swim in. The biblical God is a God of history. He is on a journey, and we need some sense of where he is taking us.