What I say is: a narrative theology ought to be able to account for the whole experience of the people of God, not just the beginning, middle, and end of it—creation and fall, redemption, final judgment. We may give some sort of priority to the early biblical sections of the narrative, but the story doesn’t stop with the events of the New Testament—even those future events which are foreseen in the New Testament. We are still part of that story, and so is our future.
One way to think about the comprehensive narrative is as a series of historical tests. An idea or project is launched with the calling of Abraham, but the narrative theology which it generates over time takes shape and evolves because it is challenged, threatened, put under pressure, tested.
The main thing to say about these tests is that they need to be passed, otherwise the story will come to an end, and there will be no people qualified to bear witness to the reality of the good creator. But the tests are also means by which the witness and service of the people of God is developed, refined, extended, deepened, and perhaps most importantly, adapted to new historical circumstances. Both aspects determine the shape of the “good news” that emerges at each stage, with each test.
The God who is creator
The first test is set against the backdrop of the religious environment of the Ancient Near East.
The Atra-hasis myth says that after the creation of the world the lower gods (the Igigi) protested against having to do all the hard work for the high gods (the Anunnaki), and threatened to go on strike. Humans were created as slaves to do the work of the lower gods (“Create primeval man, that he may bear the yoke!”), but they disturbed the peace of the gods with their noise, and the god Enlil, after several failed attempts to remedy the situation, decided to destroy humanity in a great flood. The plan was leaked, however, to Atra-hasis, who built a boat to save humanity. The gods accept the situation but measures are put in place to keep the noise levels down: miscarriages, high infant mortality, and a large number of cultic virgins.
The descendants of Abraham are bearers of a radically different version of that story and others like it—essentially a monotheist-ethical retelling that emphasises, on the one hand, the goodness of the one creator God (or the unity of the great God in divine council), who creates humanity in his own image to rule over and manage the earth, and on the other, the defiance and wickedness of humanity. God calls Abraham from the shadow of proto-Babylonian empire to be the beginning of a new creation in microcosm in the Land that he will give to his descendants.
The climax to the testing comes with the exile (prefigured in the Eden story) and the renewal of the vision of the Land as a new creation:
Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Is. 51:1–3)
The priestly, witnessing people of God has narrowly scraped through the first test, by the mercy of God. The “good news” is that YHWH will redeem Jerusalem and restore its waste places, and all the ends of the earth will see this dramatic act of salvation (Is. 52:7-10).
The God whose Son is king
The return from exile more or less brings the Mesopotamian cycle of stories to an end. A new chapter begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BC and the vigorous Hellenisation of the region. Whereas the first test centred on possession of the Land as a sign of the presence of the one, true, living creator God, the second test has to do with disputed government of the Land. First the Greeks (notably Antiochus Epiphanes), then the Romans forcibly impose their rule on Judea.
The Jews fail this test: ill-advised revolt against Rome leads to the catastrophe of the war of AD 66-70, massive loss of life, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
A small number of Jews, however, believe that Jesus, the prophet-messiah from Nazareth, predicted this judgment but has provided a narrow path leading to a renewed new covenant life for the family of Abraham in the age to come after the age of second temple Judaism.
This is the crucial lesson that Israel learns in the Hellenistic period—that YHWH will bring about his purposes through the faithful suffering of his people, or of at least one from his people.
That gives us the redemptive part. More importantly, Jesus is believed to have been installed at the right hand of God as judge and ruler not of Israel only, but also of the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. This is not thought of as a spiritual abstraction. It represents a realistic political-religious hope: sooner or later the nations of the empire will abandon their worship of the old pantheons and serve the living creator God, confessing his Son as Lord above all powers in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (Phil. 2:9-11).
So the descendants of Abraham pass the second test, but only because the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel was faithful unto death, even death on a Roman cross. This is how YHWH brings down the mighty from their thrones and exalts those of humble estate in their place (cf. Lk. 1:52). Through the faithfulness of Jesus and the imperfect but ultimately faithful witness of his followers, the satanically inspired kingdom of idolatrous pagan Rome is overthrown, and the kingdom of the world becomes the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15; cf. 12:10). That was the “good news” (cf. Rev. 14:6-11) that emerged out of the second great historical test of the witness of the people of God.
The God who is three in one
The next challenge faced by the followers of the Jewish prophet-messiah Jesus, as they settle and establish themselves across the continent of Europe, is to devise a worldview, a polity, a way of life for a Christian empire. We are beyond the prophetic-apocalyptic outlook of the Bible here, so this becomes a different type of exercise in story-telling.
The necessary self-reinvention of the church is a massive task, and to what extent it can be regarded as “good news” is much debated. But at its intellectual core it entailed the accommodation of the Jewish apocalyptic narrative about the kingdom of God (the rule of the resurrected Jesus at the right hand of God) to the other Greek storyline about the rational God of the philosophers. The doctrine of the Trinity, as I see it, was an intellectually outrageous collapsing of the biblical story into a rational metaphysics, but it was necessary, right and good under the circumstances.
The people of God passed this third test, though hardly with flying colours. They constructed a civilisation that survived for 1500 years, and which was successfully exported to large parts of the world outside Europe. At the time it seemed like a good idea. But then it began to be devoured by its own offspring.
The God who is
The demise of Western Christendom brings to an end the arc of the main biblical narrative—from the formation of a people in the Land, who must bear witness to the truth of the creator God, through the clash with European empires, to the vindication of the faith of the early church in the conversion of Rome, and then to the eventual collapse of that concrete historical expression of the rule of Israel’s God over the nations.
The people of God finds itself now facing what is probably its most severe test: to maintain a credible witness to the God of this narrative on the margins of a secular-humanist civilisation that threatens either to annihilate or ignore it. The existence, and certainly the social usefulness, of the one creator God, whose Son ruled over the nations for 1500 years, is now very much in doubt.
If we are going to find “good news” or “gospel” in these circumstances, it will have to begin with the conviction, which is an ancient biblical conviction, that the one true living creator God has chosen a priestly, witnessing people for himself and will sustain that people, come what may, for the sake of his own “glory”—or perhaps better “reputation”. The whole struggle to re-form the church in the West, over the last couple of centuries and no doubt into the next century, is explained by this. It is the faith by which we will be justified.