This is an attempt to address, at least in part, some difficult questions raised by Tim Peebles and Kevin Holtsberry in response to my recent reviews of books on coronavirus by Piper, Brueggemann, and Wright. The criticism seems to come down to two basic questions:
- Is coronavirus—even if we agree that it prefigures greater environmental disorder to come—as significant theologically as I have made it out to be?
- Is it appropriate to use the language of “judgment” to speak about the part played by God in the prophetically interpreted narrative? Doesn’t this just play into the hands of the fundamentalists? Does such theological language have any viability in the modern era?
I should say first that, from my point of view, this whole discussion around coronavirus and climate change is a tentative or experimental shot at propounding a consistent narrative-historical hermeneutic. Tim says that he finds the narrative-historical interpretation of particular biblical texts more or less persuasive, much less so the attempt to extend it into our own context. I feel pretty much the same—it’s much easier to work with historical texts, paradoxically, than with contemporary perspectives. But we are left with an oddly truncated hermeneutic.
Jesus and history
The narrative-historical interpretation of the texts works because there is a constant, self-correcting back-and-forth between the parts and the whole, between the texts and the large prophetic-apocalyptic storyline about Israel.
But that storyline is tied to a closed corpus of historical texts, so it has to stop somewhere. Most evangelicals think it stops at Pentecost. Wright would perhaps let it run through to AD 70. I think it ends, in effect and with hindsight, with the conversion of the nations of the Greek-Roman world. However we spin it, though, we then have a long hiatus until we get to a sudden flurry of events right at the end of history as we know it.
So the question then is whether in order to be true to the essential form of the biblical witness we need to keep the story going and write the sequels that will demonstrate the continuing engagement of God with his people in history. I think we should, and I think that in very simple terms it might look something like this, though I’m more concerned about the principle of the thing—the hermeneutics—than whether climate catastrophe really is the next event of “biblical proportions” on the horizon.
In the background are the dominant civilisational curves that have risen and subsided over the millennia: 1) the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians to the east of Israel, 2) the Greeks and Romans to the west, 3) the long period of Christian supremacy in Europe, which has now given way to 4) secular modernity, and how long that will last is anyone’s guess—some will say it’s already on the ropes.
Tom Wright seems to think that once we get to Jesus, the line essentially flattens out (the dotted arrow). The fall of Jerusalem to the armies of Titus belatedly brings the chaotic history of biblical Israel to a depressing end, more or less as predicted, and from that point on it’s just Jesus. Major historical processes and events that have impacted the church since then have no prophetic or theological significance.
The early periods of crisis—the exile, the attempt made by Antiochus Epiphanes to suppress Jewish religious practice, Roman occupation and the destruction of Jerusalem—provoked anguished reflection, evidenced in the Old Testament and in the abundant literature of second temple Judaism. The suffering was seen as punishment for sin but also, from the servant texts in Second Isaiah onwards, as the means by which God’s people would be redeemed and restored. The new age would come not despite suffering but because of suffering. The New Testament interpretation of Jesus’ death lies on that trajectory.
The post-biblical storyline
But what about subsequent low points in the narrative—let’s say, the massive collapse of Christian faith in Europe, since that’s the one that has impacted us most? Are we not bound to see in that a recalibration, a resetting of things, a rectification—a “judgment”? Do we not have to admit that in various ways the church was at fault, that it failed to keep up with a changing word and deserved to be sent into exile by a powerful humanist culture with strong libertarian and rationalist instincts? Are we not having to learn some painful but necessary lessons in humility and integrity in the course of this epochal shift?
And is there any reason not to think that the living God, who has always judged and renewed his people for the sake of his promise to Abraham and his own glory, has had a hand in this?
Isn’t there a risk of diminishing God if we take him out of history? Isn’t that what deism is? What is the logic of a theology that says that God is an actor at the personal level and at the cosmic and ultimate level but not at the level that makes the biggest difference to human life, namely the “political” level? As Brueggemann warned, God will not be mocked.
Of course, to ascribe theological meaning to natural disasters is another matter. But arguably coronavirus and certainly environmental degradation with risk of catastrophe are the product of human behaviour. The moral logic is not so different from that at work in the collapse of Christendom or in the older biblical disasters. Things are reaching breaking point, we are due for a seismic reordering of the world.
If so, then it seems to me a very constructive and credible argument to make that the pandemic is a small scale prefiguring—both positively and negatively—of the disruption that climate change is likely to bring. Just as Jesus’ warnings of catastrophe were underpinned by a sociological realism, so the prophetic imagination now is supported by growing scientific opinion—or vice versa.
The church can lament and pray and serve, but biblical faith requires us to affirm (this is the heart of Paul’s argument about justification by faith) that, in a time of crisis, God will keep his promise and preserve and restore his people. It is not the individual who walks the road that runs through Romans; it is God’s people in history. So “faith,” which is of the essence of what it means to be Christian, has to be experienced and articulated historically.
So why not acknowledge that God is in the “setting right”, in the rectification, even if we are not at all sure how to say it? Why not follow through on the implications of biblical lament and ask why this happened and what comes next? Why not invoke the obscure Old Testament idea of an enforced Sabbath rest for the land (Lev. 26:1-13) and wonder whether lockdown has not become a sign that the natural world has been put under too much stress?
Or, rather than praying the Lord’s prayer, formally or informally, as a matter of liturgical performance, why not recapture something of the urgent eschatological relevance that it had on the lips of the disciples and make it a live prayer that God would restore his reputation (“hallowed be your name”) as history again hastens towards a major end-game?
Why not consider the possibility that a climate catastrophe must figure in the storyline as a great and terrible “day of the Lord”—a day of the Lord, not the day of the Lord?
We don’t have to go down this road. We can take the easier and safer option of an honest and—in the best sense—short-sighted piety. But I find it very difficult to read the New Testament as a narrative about historical experience and not ask what it would mean to tell a comparable story about the dynamic presence of the God of history in our own day and in a recognisably biblical idiom.
That brings us to the question about language….
Joined up story-telling
I agree with Tim Peebles that the rise of the modern western worldview constitutes a decisive watershed or fracture in the timeline; and perhaps all theologising over the last two hundred years has been a struggle to come to terms with that.
I take it, too, that the transition must be reflected in the storytelling—for example, in how we now make sense of the normalisation of same-sex relationships in the light of a radically different understanding of “nature.” This is why I think the Shakespearian historical trilogy model is better than Wright’s single five act play model.
So one of the key questions for a consistent narrative-historical methodology is how do we tell this as one story—or first whether we can tell this as one story.
It’s a bit like the question of whether there is continuity between the Old and New Testaments. We used to think that Jesus was only incidentally a first century Jew and that Christianity was a wholly novel development. We are now more likely to think that the New Testament events were a continuation of, or at least a climax to, the story of Israel. We have found a way of splicing the frayed ends of the narrative threads together—thanks, not least, to Tom Wright.
But if we repair the break between the story of Israel and the story of Jesus, we open up the gap between the New Testament and the orthodoxies that came to dominate as the church settled in the European context. The conceptuality and language of western Christendom is very different to that of the Jewish and Jewish-Christian scriptures. It’s much harder now than it used to be to mount a New Testament defence of the doctrine of the Trinity.
The New Testament expected the fulfilment of the kingdom vision on much more Jewish terms, but at least we can say, I think, that Christendom constituted a direct historical realisation of the “hope” that Christ would rule over the nations (e.g., Rom. 15:12). Secular modernity, however, was not definitely foreseen; it was a wholly new development, for which the church was biblically and theologically unprepared. As I said, we are still catching up.
We have had to revise our understanding of “creation” and the mechanics of the cosmos in the light of modern science. We have, often unwittingly, revised our ethics in the light of modern libertarian-egalitarian ideals, which stipulate, for example, that a woman’s body is her own and that people are free to choose how they express their sexuality. None of this modernisation has been easy.
We have also had to accommodate a critical historical consciousness, in two key respects. First, we have had to take much more seriously than European orthodoxy did the peculiar historical character of the New Testament witness. Secondly, we are having to come to terms with the fact that our own history has run well beyond the scope of the Bible.
So to go back to Wright, we have two major turning points in the Christian story and neither is the death and resurrection of Jesus, who remains firmly part of Israel’s story. The first is the relocation of the people of God in Europe and the translation of the Jewish story into Hellenistic categories. The second is the collapse of the Christendom worldview and the rise of secular humanism.
Assuming that this is a plausible analysis, I want to suggest that one of the chief intellectual tasks confronting us is to repair the damage done to the rope of the narrative, as far as possible. We cannot pretend that the disjunctions did not happen, but my sense is that there is real “apologetic” value in rethinking our history as a single prophetic narrative. And if it is “prophetic,” then I think it must also address our uncertain future.
Such an undertaking is bound to change the way we think and speak. The narrative-historical approach challenges contemporary theological perspectives on both sides. It finds fault with theologies on the right—the fundamentalist-conservative theologies that lift the Bible out of history, and the evangelical theologies fixated on personal salvation. But it also finds fault with theologies on the left that have wound the historical narrative tightly around a spindle of ethical concerns. A plague on both their houses, so to speak!
What I think I’m trying to say here is that the conceptual translation will have to go both ways.
Yes, it’s necessary to validate the modern outlook: “those things we take to be obvious—about nature, human nature, political nature, divine nature,” as Tim puts it. But if this is going to remain in any good biblical sense “evangelical”, we also need to work out how to retain and reanimate key elements of biblical discourse—something which I think Brueggemann does rather well. Why? Because this may be the best way to keep the God of the scriptures involved in the story.
So, for example, it may be appropriate to speak of the climate emergency, if it comes to that, as a “day of the Lord”—a day when the church at least, if not the world generally, has to reckon with the God of history.
Within that broad eschatological frame there are debates to be had about the nature and extent of this divine “intervention.” Is it to be construed as punishment or as a systemic resetting? How do we apportion blame? Are we all at fault, rich and poor alike? Should a “day of the Lord” be fair? Does a climate crisis relativise or marginalise other social injustices and iniquities—racism, for example? What is an appropriate personal response? What new meaning would repentance, faith and baptism acquire under such conditions?
All good questions. Lots to talk about.