I regard myself as an evangelical, but the social and intellectual structures that have sustained and made sense of modern evangelicalism are disintegrating, and it is not at all clear that modern evangelicalism can or should survive their collapse. My broad aim as a theologian is to endeavour to renew the biblical framework within which a new, transposed ‘evangelical’ commitment might emerge, one that might provide self-understanding and motivation for the church as it confronts an uncertain future. The key to this undertaking, in my view, is first to recover the contingent historical perspective of the New Testament as it imagined its own future – a programme which will, in fact, get us to the heart of New Testament theology; and then to set about the creative and adventurous task of re-imagining new futures for ourselves consistent with that critically, realistically, and faithfully reconstructed narrative. If you like, this constitutes a rough manifesto for this website.
It is misleading, in my view, to think of the whole of human history as being hinged theologically around the death and resurrection of Jesus. The mechanism is more complex than that. The story of the people of God is hinged (even then not in a straightforward manner) around the death and resurrection of Jesus; but the place of that story within the history of humanity cannot be defined merely as the emergence and expansion of a true religion of personal salvation through Jesus. Theology should not flatten scripture into dogmatic abstractions and generalities. Theology should seek to follow, and sympathetically narrate, the tortuous journey of faithfulness as it picks its way across the complex, broken, mountainous landscape of history.
The New Testament presupposes, describes, and predicts a long, tumultuous transition in the history of the people of God, running from the initial summons to Israel to repent in the face of imminent judgment and national destruction (John the Baptist) to the eventual displacement of the institutions and worldview of classical paganism and the recognition of Christ as sovereign over the empire and beyond (Constantine). Jesus’ death and resurrection constitutes the key redemptive event in this historical process, by which the people of God are saved from complete destruction and granted a new lease of life – the life of the age that was to come. On the outskirts of the New Testament’s vision of the future (but of much greater eschatological relevance to the church today) is the hope of a final judgment and making new of all things.
The ‘good news’ at the heart of the story begins as an announcement to Israel that its God is about to act both to punish and to restore his people; but (precisely on this basis) it becomes the announcement to the empire that God is no longer willing to overlook its idolatry, immorality and injustices. Paul’s gospel is that God will sooner or later ‘judge’ (in the characteristic biblical sense) the Greek-Roman world by a man whom he has appointed, and that this historical transformation will finally vindicate the refugees from Judaism and the growing numbers of Gentiles who have attached themselves to this Spirit-driven renewal movement. This moment of vindication, when Christ will receive the nations as his inheritance, will mark the beginning of a new age, when he (and the martyrs) will reign at the right hand of the Father over and on behalf of God’s people.
The story of Jesus includes and anticipates the story of the early believers who had to follow him along a difficult and narrow path leading to life. The New Testament in the first place, as a set of historical documents, describes the life and vocation of an eschatological community, scattered across the whole oikoumenē, which in its supra-national and ecumenical nature, in its solidarity, in its holiness, in its confession of Christ, in its experience of the eschatological Spirit, in its faithfulness and willingness to endure the most severe opposition, represented the claim of Israel’s God to be sovereign over all the gods of the nations.
From our perspective, looking back, the new age that began with the instatement of Christianity as the religion of the empire (as a consequence of the faithful witness of the Christ-like martyr church) appears to have finally come to an end: Christendom as both a social and an intellectual phenomenon has collapsed. The challenge now is to deconstruct the Christendom paradigm, which is both ecclesial and theological and within which we are still to a large degree ensnared, and ask what new paradigm, what new way of existing in the world, might emerge for the post-Christendom, post-imperial, post-modern church as it seeks to be loyal to the original calling in Abraham to be an authentic new creation.