Testing times: a narrative framework for the renewal of the Western church

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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.

Andrew, why do you think contemporary Christians for the most part insist on seeing the the kingdom of God as a “spiritual abstraction”?

I find it is striking how similar the New Testament story as you’ve organized it corresponds to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan. In both cases a people is preserved by faith through historical crises that result in the collapse of the current political order (Egypt/Canaan and Rome). In both cases this faithful people inherits the authority these powers once maintained. 

@Alex :

I’ve wondered that myself, Alex, about why the commitment exists to the kingdom of God as a more or less purely spiritual entity.

What I think is the idea “the kingdom of God” is functionally equated with “new heavens and earth.”  In other words, the kingdom of God is supposed to be more or less perfect and everlasting.  We can debate the validity of that equation, but I’m pretty sure much of Christianity has made it.

When that state of affairs did not happen in the timeframe Jesus seemed to suggest it would, we need an explanation besides “Jesus was wrong.”  So, the kingdom of God comes as spiritual event primarily in people’s hearts.  This is an “already” condition that will someday give way to a more holistic “not yet” element which will involve new heavens and new earth, destruction of death, the bodily return and reign of Jesus, etc.

In short, what Christians expect out of the kingdom of God didn’t happen, so there needs to be theological reasoning to explain it, and certainly the easiest way is to relocate the kingdom into something transempirical.

And I have to admit, sometimes Jesus’ language lends itself to this way of seeing things, like “my kingdom is not of this world” and “the kingdom of God has come among you” and “people will say, there it is, or there it is” etc.  It can fit a spiritual narrative a little too well.

When we compare this way of seeing things to OT hopes, it seems like this is a somewhat discontinuous way of understanding the kingdom of God, and your commitments sort of define how you feel about that.  If you’re an evangelical, then yes, it’s an unexpected fulfillment of OT hopes that took everyone by surprise because they were all expecting an earthly, political fulfillment and got a spiritual one, instead.

I just think it’s people’s alternative to the idea that Jesus was a failed prophet, but a lot of the failed prophet option depends on a concept of the kingdom of God that might not have been right in the first place — specifically, one that can be equated with new creation.

@Phil Ledgerwood:

Thanks Phil, I think that is certainly one of the pressures that moves us towards a spiritual kingdom.

But there also seems to be some aversion toward the idea of a physical/political kingdom in general—even one established at the end of history. The political expectations of the prophets (or the political ‘interpretations’ of those hopes) become the very ideology Jesus came to undo. Christianity is spiritual, Judaism is earthly and physical. 

Even partial preterists, those most willing to acknowledge the political ramifications of apocaylptic speech (AD 70 as the Son of Man’s judgement), stop short of the concrete kingdom that Andrew posits. 

What do you make of those texts that lend themselves to the spiritual kingdom narrative? They seem to be greatly outnumbered by imminent political kingdom texts. 

@Alex :

There may be different reasons for that depending on what historical period in church history we’re looking at.  I’m no expert, but I’d think some of the contemporary resistance to the idea comes from the bad things that happened when Christianity was an Empire.  We (rightfully) can point to atrocities that seem to have very little to do with a just and compassionate kingdom and, given the historical precedent, it seems like those manifestations ended up about as far from Jesus as you can get.  Ergo, that can’t have been the kingdom he was looking for.

Do you think there’s a lot of Christian reluctance about the idea of a physical kingdom established at the end of history?  I haven’t run across that reluctance, but that may be because of the faith communities in which I find myself (American, generally evangelical, and basically Reformed).

In some cases, maybe it’s the identification of the kingdom with the end of history that rules out the idea that Jesus was looking for an earthly kingdom at the time.  -Now- it’s spiritual, but it will one day (at the end of history) be physical, and history hasn’t ended yet, so….

What do you make of those texts that lend themselves to the spiritual kingdom narrative? They seem to be greatly outnumbered by imminent political kingdom texts.

I would agree and argue that those texts should be understood in a manner commensurate with an imminent political kingdom.  It’s true that this kingdom does have a spiritual component to it (a repentance and return to faithfulness to God) and seems to be envisioned as something that started small and eventually grew into fulness, and I’m ok with all that.  When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” I see that as Jesus talking about the origin and enactment of the coming kingdom — it’s not something that an earthly power and earthly armies and earthly allies will bring him or carve out, but rather a divine act originating in God’s will that will radically transform the world system.  This is why his servants fighting as “Jesus’ army” to save him will never bring the kingdom about.

At the same time, some in the early church used that same text as a civil defense against charges of sedition.  They should not be seen as rebels because the kingdom was not of this world.

Maybe it just comes down to deciding on a controlling paradigm for those texts, which is something we all do about everything in the Bible, really.  We all decide what the controlling texts/ideas are, and we understand more problematic texts in light of the ones we’ve determined clearly teach a thing.  The debates about eternal torment vs. annihilation vs. universalism aren’t really about who’s ignoring Scripture; it’s a clash between controlling texts/paradigms that get used to understand the verses that seem to indicate something else.

If one is precommitted to the idea that the kingdom is spiritual, then they will find that everywhere, and verses that seem problematic in that rubric will get interpreted accordingly.

@Alex :

It seems to me that “the wrath of God” was converted from concrete historical reality into “spiritual abstraction” (the notion of post-mortem punishments) long ago. It shouldn’t surprise us that other things, like “salvation” and “Kingdom” have been similarly reconceptualized.

I think it’s unfortunate that the Gospel of John, written after the destruction of Jerusalem and likely 60-65 years after Jesus’ death, became the lens through which to interpret the earlier synoptics and by extension, the entire Bible. Earthly kingdom becomes heavenly kingdom, and the resurrection of the faithful is pushed off to a distant judgment day.

It seems these changes were necessary to keep Christianity alive, but at what point can we say you cannot just reinterpret EVERYTHING when prophesied events don’t come to fruition? 

I feel that we either wrestle with the views Jesus expressed in the synoptics, or we capitulate, accept the GoJ (and the theology built upon it by the Gentile Early Church Fathers) as our marching orders, and wait for judgment day. Obviously, Christianity opted for the latter, but I’m not so sure.     

[1] The doctrine of the Trinity, as I see it, was an intellectually outrageous collapsing of the biblical story into a rational metaphysics, [2] but it was necessary, right and good under the circumstances.

[1] How do you “see” the doctrine of the Trinity?

[2] What are the “circumstances” that made the doctrine of the Trinity “necessary, right and good”?

Thank you.

P.S. Don’t you think that your narrative approach, whereby a strictly national Israel is replaced by (minimally) Jewish and (mostly) Gentile “Israel” is supersessionist through and through?

@Miguel de Servet:

1. You mean you’re unable to “see” it?

2. The Platonist/neo-Platonist intellectual conditions of the Greek world. Under those circumstances, it was necessary, right and good.

3. It’s complicated. I think Jesus foresaw a Jewish future, perhaps with a few Gentiles in attendance. I think Paul feared a future for the family of Abraham from which Israel was excluded—or excluded itself. And as things turned out, his fears were justified.

@Andrew Perriman:

1. It is the Irish that are known for answering a question with a question :) My question was perfectly clear: it is you who have to say how you “see” the Trinity, not me.

2. So, are you saying that it was more important for Christianity to adapt to the “Platonist/neo-Platonist intellectual conditions of the Greek world”, rather than stick to the Biblical notion of God? If so, why? In any case, please explain why the adoption a “trinitarian” notion of God would have been “necessary, right and good”.

3. In spite of all the links to your other posts, you haven’t really made clear your position regarding supersessionism. BTW, the “shift in meaning” of the word “Israel” between Rom 11:25 and Rom 11:26, alleged by N. T. Wright, is a huge exegetical stretch, as Larry Hurtado rightly pointed out.

@Miguel de Servet:

1. I see the doctrine of the Trinity as an attempt to translate the apocalyptic narrative about the reign of Jesus over the nations into a metaphysical grammar that at least the intelligentsia of the nations would understand.

2. I see this as an inevitable assimilation, and like any other cultural assimilation, it changed the assimilated cultural object as much as the assimilating culture. If you see what I mean. I think it’s unlikely that Christianity would have succeeded in Europe any other way. It may seem not to have been such a good idea to us now, because we are not Platonists, and we are finally taking seriously the historical character of the New Testament. But clearly the church at the time thought it necessary, good and right. And who am I to disagree?

3. I think that the New Testament is equivocal on the question of whether Israel qua Israel would repent of its rebellion against YHWH and confess that Jesus had been made Lord and Christ. Historically speaking, Israel did not repent and believe. Christendom was premised on the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Perhaps in the post-Christendom context there is the possibility of revisiting the relationship between Israel and the church, but according to Paul Christ’s reign at the right hand of God will continue until the last enemy has been destroyed (1 Cor. 15:24-28). I don’t see how that ceases to be problematic. I agree with you about “Israel” in Romans 11:25-26.

@Andrew Perriman:

1. I think yours is a rationalization of a process that, from Justin Martyr’s “original sin” (Philonic) of “another God and Lord” (theos kai kurios eteros), holding “second place” (deutera chōra), through Tertullian’s and Origen’s (subordinationist) “trinity”, eventually and inevitably led to the fully fledged (co-equal, co-eternal, tri-personal) Trinity, the invention of the Cappadocian scoundrels, so as to preserve, somehow, the Oneness of the Biblical God, albeit in a mysterian, totally incomprehensible way.

The “trinity” of Plato and Plotinus at least, somehow made sense, especially the latter, within its emanationist “chain-of-being” backdrop. The Christian Trinity is pure dogmatic nonsensical mumbo-jumbo. See this famous “masterpiece”:

No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One.  When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest.  When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light. (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration XL, on Holy Baptism, § XLI, @ ccel.org)

2. Let’s assume that the “trinity” was the result of a “necessary cultural compromise” (as such neither right nor good) with the predominant Greek cultural world. Why was it passed on with the Christianmessage to populations and cultures for which Greek culture meant absoutely nothing? Even more relevant, why should we steel retain it today? Someone called the Doctrine of the Trinity “Christianity’s self-inflicted wound”. It certainly is smoke that the ALL Christian elites (not just Catholic hierarchies) still resort to, throwing it in the eyes of the masses of the faithful to confuse them, and to retain power over them.

3. So, your “historical-narrative” radar has failed to register the relevance of the (partly secular, partly religious) movement of the aliyah, and the consequent reconstitution of and independent Israel.

I don’t see how you can read Romans 11:25-26 other than in the sense of the final conversion of Israel to Jesus as their Messiah, more as Son of God, more, as God’s incarnated logos.

By doing that, you leave that theme entirely in the hands of (Baptist, Evangelical) fanatical preachers of “third temple” and  “red heifer”.

How can you fail to see the situation of Jerusalem as God’s test for Judaism, for Christianity, for Islam and the whole world?

@Miguel de Servet:

I don’t see how you can read Romans 11:25-26 other than in the sense of the final conversion of Israel to Jesus as their Messiah, more as Son of God, more, as God’s incarnated logos.

Paul makes the re-ingrafting of Israel into the promise made to the patriarchs dependent on repentance: “And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23).

And what does Paul know “God’s incarnated logos“?

By doing that, you leave that theme entirely in the hands of (Baptist, Evangelical) fanatical preachers of “third temple” and “red heifer”.

Not at all. I leave it in the hands of historians.

How can you fail to see the situation of Jerusalem as God’s test for Judaism, for Christianity, for Islam and the whole world?

Because Jesus rules as king from a Jerusalem which is above.

@Andrew Perriman:

Paul makes the re-ingrafting of Israel into the promise made to the patriarchs dependent on repentance: “And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again” (Rom. 11:23).

Precisely! As you put so much stock in history, you are obviously awere that this never happened for the overwhelming majority of members of historical Israel.

Is what Paul says in Romans 11 a mere flight of fancy?

Do you see any reason why it should not happen in the future?

And what does Paul know “God’s incarnated logos“?

That notion is only found in John’s gospel. So? Does that make it any less relevant?

The real test for Christianity is if and when the Jews accept Jesus with all that the New Testament says about him, but simply refuse to accept the God-the-son babble.

@Miguel de Servet:

I am aware that it did not happen. I don’t think it’s a flight of fancy. It was Paul’s earnest wish that his people would be saved from obsolescence. But I think that in the context of Romans 11 as a whole, the statement in verse 26 is effectively the apodosis of a conditional construction: if all Israel repents, all Israel will be saved. If Israel decides that it was wrong to crucify the son sent to the vineyard, then Israel will be regrafted into the root of the patriarchs, from which blessing derives. What the quotation from Isaiah 59:20 adds to this is the expectation that repentance would come, if it comes at all, after judgment rather than before.

It seems to me highly unlikely that modern Israel will repent in this way, but you never know. A recovered apocalyptic account of the Jewish, rather than Platonist/neo-Platonist, significance of Jesus might well make things a bit easier for the Jews.

@Andrew Perriman:

1. Paul does not make the “grafting back” of Israel conditional ONLY on repentance. He prophetically projects it on a remote (and in Paul’s time unforeseable) time: “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11:25). Unless you believe that Paul’s prophecy is by now, after Christendom expired and was replaced by Secular humanism, “past sell-by date”, if it is still valid, then we are closer to its fulfillment today than in Paul’s times.

2. You speak of “recovered apocalyptic account of the Jewish, rather than Platonist/neo-Platonist, significance of Jesus”.

I say, once again, that a big shift may come from the abandonment by Christianity of trinitarian mumbo-jumbo and of God-the-son babble.

The only alternative is the adoption (however disguised) of secular humanism .

@Miguel de Servet:

1. That’s true. But why should the fulness of the Gentiles coming in belong to a “remote” and unforeseeable future Paul could have thought of it happening in the next ten years, say. Actually, yes, I do think the prophecy has expired. Israel did not repent following the “judgment” of AD 70. I would assume that Paul’s argument presuppose a realistic historical outlook.

2. I have some sympathy for your viewpoint, but I don’t see why the only alternative is the adoption of secular humanism. I think the church may still confidently affirm that it has been called to serve the living creator God in the power of the Spirit and under the lordship of the risen Lord Jesus.

@Andrew Perriman:

1. What would not be “realistic”, would be to assume that Paul expected the condition “until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in” (Rom 11:25) to be fulfilled “in the next ten years”. Why that arbitrarily short time-span? This time-contraint is your invention.

2. How do you harmonize a “recovered apocalyptic account of the Jewish, rather than Platonist/neo-Platonist, significance of Jesus” with the call for the Chistian Church to “serve the living creator God in the power of the Spirit and under the lordship of the risen Lord Jesus”. The latter does NOT require any eschatological perspective.