The argument runs something like this….
The church began as a movement within first century Judaism. Like any other historical movement, its character and purpose were shaped by its historical circumstances. It was a product of its time and place. It was part of an ancient story.
The church presented itself, in the first place, as the solution to a concrete Jewish problem: how would the covenant people survive the foreseen disaster of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple? It then discovered that the solution to this problem—the way of Jesus—opened up a further quite stunning horizon. The judgment and salvation of Israel would lead eventually to the judgment and salvation of the Greek-Roman world.
This two-stage argument about the future of God and his people was explained by reference to the Jewish scriptures, as the climax to a complex but persistent narrative that could be traced back through the historical experience of foreign oppression and exile to the promise of YHWH to David that his throne would be established forever (2 Sam. 7:16).
From history to theology and back again
As the church settled in the Greek-Roman world, however, this thoroughly Jewish narrative-historical self-understanding was replaced by a theological system designed to provide comprehensive meaning for a pagan empire that was willing to let go of its gods but not of its philosophers. The Jewish scriptures came to be read not as a multifarious account of historical experience and expectation but as a massive allegorical prefiguring of a universal redemptive event.
I quite like what Richard Hanson had to say about Clement of Alexandria’s adoption of Philo’s method of exegesis—I came across it in Wes Howard-Brook’s Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected (2nd - 5th Centuries), 131, more on which later:
The temptation to use this tradition for much the same purposes as Philo used it, to introduce into the biblical text a philosophical system which is not there, was too great for him. He is the first Christian writer to use allegory for this purpose, and he provided an example which Origen followed with deplorable eagerness….
As far as the church was concerned, eternal truths were in control. The unruly Jewish scriptures were to be tamed by allegorisation. History had come to an end.
Fifteen hundred years later history got its revenge.
In the modern era historical criticism, with some help from the natural sciences, has largely destroyed the public credibility of the Christian theological worldview.
Until fairly recently the only option the believing church had was stubbornly to defend the theological system—by fair means or foul—against the powerfully corrosive forces of critical reason. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is a misguided and unsustainable strategy. So my argument here is that the church must learn to embrace “history” as the interpretive frame both for our reading of scripture and for the development of a viable “biblical” response to the current crisis. Historical criticism has severely undermined the theological interpretation of scripture, but in the process it has exposed the dynamic presence of God where scripture itself locates him—in the tumultuous flow of history.
History, I argue, is not an enemy but a friend to “evangelical” interpretation. History will save us from history.
Where the action is
There are three levels at which the church may attempt to read the biblical story: the cosmic, the personal and the “political”. The theological mind reads at a cosmic level and at a personal level. It takes from scripture an overarching story of creation, fall, incarnation-redemption, and final judgment, and addresses the condition of every individual in terms of that story.
The modern evangelical preoccupation with the salvation of individual people has been somewhat corrected in recent years. There has been a concerted attempt to find room in the evangelical programme for social and environmental concerns by refocusing on the creational-cosmic dimension. But this remains within the static, ahistorical paradigm.
History, on the other hand, gives us a “political” reading of the Bible as the story of the troubled existence of Israel and its relation to more powerful neighbouring nations. What marks the story out in particular is its prophetic character: it is always driving towards real historical outcomes interpreted as acts of God. In the New Testament we are approaching a climactic moment in the long story of Israel. How things will turn out is of the utmost importance.
Creation forms the backdrop to this story: the God of Israel is also the God of the whole earth; Israel sins because it shares in the sinfulness of all humanity; and so on. Individuals—primarily individual Jews—have to make personal decisions in response to the prophetic narrative. If a person believed and confessed that YHWH had given his “Son” supreme authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations, that had to have life-changing repercussions. But the “theological” content of the Bible—righteousness, mission, judgment, gospel, salvation, discipleship, etc.—has to be understood with reference to the mediating political story of Israel and the nations. This is where all the action is.
There is no universal salvation in the New Testament, only salvation as part of the story of Israel and the nations of the Greek-Roman world. If we want to offer salvation today, we must first work out how to tell the story that has brought us to where we are today—and where that story might be taking us.
Time to move on
I think that we have pretty much exhausted the theological mine in our search for resources to sustain the church in the post-Christendom context. We can keep patrolling its dark tunnels in hope of recapturing something of the industry and purpose of old, but I fear we will be wasting our time. I think we have to abandon the theological mine—leave it for the archaeologists and tourists—and start walking boldly down the road of history again, into our own uncertain future.
So this blog—for want of a better word—is an attempt 1) to develop and describe what I call the “narrative-historical” method for reading the Bible, 2) to explore its manifold implications for interpretation, and 3) to ask how the method might serve the church in the West as it sets about the challenging task of reimagining how it might fulfil its ancient calling to be a priestly people in an increasingly hostile—or worse, indifferent—secular culture.