One of the objections most forcefully raised against a consistent narrative-historical reading of the New Testament is that it makes the texts more or less irrelevant as a source of teaching and inspiration for the church today. Peter Wilkinson expressed this objection in a recent comment in no uncertain terms:
Hereon in we are in uncharted, post-biblical waters, and left to sink or swim, to put it crudely, according to our own devices. There is no biblical matrix left in which we can locate ourselves. That’s a huge problem with your approach, and whenever the issue arises of what now for the church, you don’t have a lot to say. I find this inevitable conclusion of your approach, as it currently stands, rather incredible.
What I have attempted to show on this blog and in my books is that the core elements of New Testament theology have a very precise, particular, and in certain important respects limited significance in the historical frame within which they were originally conceived and articulated. Let me give some examples:
- The “gospel” is not a standardized message of personal salvation but a public announcement to Israel that decisive events are about to take place, or to the Gentiles that the Law no longer stands as an impediment to their participation in the people of God.
- Jesus’ death on the cross is understood, in the first place, as a death because of the sins of Israel and only marginally and in a qualified sense as a death for all humanity.
- The resurrection of Jesus is both actually and symbolically the resurrection of Israel on the third day following judgment (cf. Hos. 6:1-2); as part of this narrative it also anticipates the vindication of the martyr communities in their “contest” with both the Jewish authorities and with pagan imperialism.
- The Spirit is given at Pentecost as a continuation of Jesus’ prophetic witness against Jerusalem—a whole charismatic community now gives notice of a coming day of the Lord, when judgment will come on a “crooked generation”.
- The language of future judgment, restoration, vindication, the symbolic language of a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, etc., has in my view (see The Coming of the Son of Man) reference to foreseeable historical events, which turned out to be, roughly speaking, the Jewish war of AD 66–70 and the eventual conversion of pagan Europe.
- The whole argument about justification by faith presupposes these eschatological horizons: it is the church insofar as it trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus, and not Law-based Israel, that will be concretely “justified” as the people of YHWH—shown to have been “right” all along—when he “judges” the ancient world, the Jew first, and then the Greek (see The Future of the People of God).
- The “teaching” that we find in the New Testament—the Lord’s prayer, for example—is aimed at equipping the Jesus movement to live out a specific eschatological narrative that would culminate in the confession of Jesus as Kyrios by the pagan world.
All that brings out—sharply and coherently, to my way of thinking—the narrative-historical significance of New Testament theology. With it, I think, we make some major gains in terms of exegetical and historical integrity. But does it mean that the New Testament has nothing left to say to the church today? No, of course not.
In the first place, the traumatic narrative that runs from the preaching of John the Baptist through to the defeat of Greek-Roman paganism does not end at that point. It leaves us with an intact people of God, a viable continuation of the family of Abraham, no longer subject to persecution, vindicated for having put its faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead under such difficult circumstances. This is now a transnational people reflecting the ethnic make-up of the whole of the old pagan empire, no longer constrained by the various socio-religious boundaries imposed by the Law. The family of Abraham has in this way and to this extent inherited the world, and is therefore a fitting representative of the God of the whole world. But my point here is simply that a radically contextualized New Testament theology still leaves us with the critical component of God’s dealings with his creation, namely a people with a compelling sense of having been chosen for his possession and for his purposes.
The biblical narrative as a whole teaches us that this people was always intended to be new creation, a creational microcosm in the midst of the nations and cultures of the world. This template in itself establishes certain fundamental responsibilities and tasks; it may be used to define the “mission” of the church, as I have attempted to show in Re: Mission. A new creation people is in restored relationship with the Creator, expressed through worship, trust and service; it must work out the consequences of that core identity in its concrete social existence as a matter of tangible righteousness; it must express through its own creativity something of the good creativity of God. The post-eschatological church is still a model of restored humanity, a prophetic and priestly people, that embodies, articulates, mediates, the reality of God to a God-less world.
In that respect, much of the “substance” of our self-understanding—much of the material for teaching and praxis—may still be summed up in the words of Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8). Or in Jesus’ précis of the Law as love for Israel’s God and love for neighbour. These are minimalist formulations, but there is more than enough in them to keep preachers and teachers going for a while.
Clearly, however, the people of God has been radically changed by the events described and anticipated in the New Testament—by the narrative of judgment, restoration, and public vindication. Most importantly, it is now a people that has been “saved” from the consequences of its inescapable human sinfulness by the death of Jesus. It is a people that is no longer subject to the condemnation of the Law; it, therefore, no longer lives in fear of judgment, destruction, irrelevance, or death.
That is a freedom that is experienced by all those who individually make the transition, in response to the call of God, from the old humanity to this new creation, who leave behind a corrupted existence and enter into the irrepressible corporate life of the people of God. If Jesus had not died as an atonement for the inveterate rebelliousness of Israel, there would have been no community of new life. At least in that precise narrative sense—perhaps there is more to be said here—he died for everyone. So there is still a need for teaching about sin, repentance, forgiveness, baptism, and discipleship.
What guarantees the integrity and security of the people of God now is that authority and kingdom have been given to the one who fulfilled the symbolic role of “Son of Man”, who suffered out of loyalty to YHWH at a time of political-religious crisis, who was raised, who was vindicated, and who reigns throughout the coming ages. Jesus is now the king who will “judge us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:20). There is no power at work in the world that can ever thwart or defeat or depose him. I suspect that we are currently a long way from fully understanding the implications of Christ’s lordship for the existence and witness of the church as we struggle to recover from the collapse of Christendom.
New heaven and new earth
This imperfectly realized new life is a prophetic anticipation—a sign to the world—of a final making new of all things, a final justice, when sin and death will be defeated and destroyed. The church lives between the ontological novelty of Jesus’ resurrection and what I have tended to refer to as the third eschatological horizon of the new heavens and the new earth. There is an abundance of “substance” in that inherently New Testament account of our existence.
Whereas the new creation existence of national Israel was defined and regulated by the Law, the new creation existence of the post-eschatological people of God is defined and regulated by the Spirit. In some respects we can learn directly from the New Testament church’s experience of the Spirit. In other respects we have to make adjustments because the circumstances of the post-Christendom church are very different to the circumstances of the New Testament church. A crucial part of the present task is to understand what the Spirit of God is doing in the church today as it comes to terms with the devastating consequences of rationalism, secularism, globalization, and environmental degradation.
Finally, I think we need to recover the simple power of story-telling. Modernity has taught us to extract truth forcibly from living narratives, process it, package it, and serve it up for popular consumption. Post-modernity is giving us the opportunity to let the narrative speak for itself and qua narrative shape the self-understanding and purpose of the people of God.
Peter bemoans the lack of a “biblical matrix… in which we can locate ourselves”. But “matrix” is only one type of metaphor for our relationship to scripture. I think that there are, in fact, ways to locate ourselves in the “matrix” of scripture. For example, it seems to me that the post-Christendom church is in an insecure transitional situation much like the exodus or the exile or the difficult journey that the New Testament communities had to make before they inherited the pagan world; and we are having to exercise a similar trust in God that we have a meaningful future. There is much that we can learn from such “analogies”.
But the Bible is actually much more like a narrative than it is like a “matrix”. It fundamentally tells a story. All I am suggesting is that we learn how to live in relation to scripture for what it actually is—not a textbook of theology, not a compendium of beliefs, not a work of quasi-Gnostic myth-making, not a static “matrix” in which truths are embedded, but a very Jewish historical narrative.
There is some truth in Peter’s claim that a narrative that culminates in the conversion of the Greek-Roman world leaves us now in “uncharted, post-biblical waters”. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. I disagree with Tom Wright about how the New Testament narrative is to be reconstructed, but I think his well known Shakespearian play analogy is helpful. The first four acts are found in the Bible. The undetermined fifth act is being written by the actors:
Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.1
The play cannot be properly finished simply by repeating act four. There are ways of living in the narrative that allow us genuinely to walk with God into the unknown, in proper continuity with the narrative trajectory of scripture—not least because we have to keep moving towards the final vision of a new heaven and new earth. It undoubtedly calls for an exceptional wisdom and creativity and faithfulness, but that should not be beyond the working of the Spirit of the Creator God who dwells within us.
- 1N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 140 (his italics).