A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament, which I strongly advocate, perhaps too strongly at times, makes the straightforward assumption that the theological content of the New Testament—its proclamations, arguments, instructions, doctrines, etc.—cannot be properly understood apart from the historical narrative by which, explicitly or implicitly, this material is framed.
This means that in order to understand what the New Testament is saying about God or Jesus or salvation or mission we have to take into account the past, present and future of the texts: i) the past story of Israel as interpreted through the Old Testament and other Jewish writings; ii) the present circumstances of the emerging communities that produced and read the texts; and iii) the foreseen future of these communities, their historical horizons. The future dimension still gets consistently overlooked, even in narrative approaches such as Tom Wright’s, which is remarkable given the thoroughgoing apocalyptic character of so much of the New Testament.
One basic consequence of the narrative-historical approach is that what we find in the New Testament is not primarily a gospel of personal salvation or teaching about how to live a good Christian life. What we find is the story of a people going through a protracted and traumatic historical crisis, a crisis which is radically reinterpreted in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The theological content of the New Testament all belongs to that reinterpretation: “wrath” has reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of pagan imperialism; “gospel” is the announcement that God is about to transform the status of his people vis-à-vis the nations; Jesus’ death is an atonement for the sins of Israel, the means by which the people of God would escape complete destruction; “justification by faith” has reference to the historical vindication of those who believed that Israel’s God would make his Son, Israel’s king, Lord of the nations; and so on.
But where does that leave us as Christians today? What’s in it for me? Well, the simple answer is that we are the people that went through the eschatological crisis that is narrated in the New Testament—and, indeed, a number of other crises, not least the collapse of Christendom, since the overthrow of pagan imperialism and the conversion of the empire. We bear the scars. We live with the consequences of the transformation that was brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, just as Old Testament Israel lived with the consequences of the exodus as a defining redemptive event.
For evangelicals today, however, conditioned by their history, theology and culture to prioritize the interests of the individual, this way of relating to the New Testament sounds much too detached and depersonalized. We have become theologically reliant on a paradigm that makes personal salvation the unmovable centre of Christian thought. It requires a considerable leap of the imagination to shift from a universalizing, concentric, synchronic theological model to a particularizing, linear, diachronic historical model, but it has to be done. Certainly it has to be done for the sake of an intelligent and consistent understanding of the New Testament, but I would also argue that in the long run the personal dimensions to our theology—pastoral and evangelistic—should also be reconstructed in keeping with the narrative-historical reading.
This imperative simply reflects the fact that our intellectual culture has moved beyond the Christendom mindset that has dominated since the Jewish-Christian movement was first Hellenized. A major element in the breakdown of the Christendom mindset was the rise of a critical historical consciousness; but I think that the critical historical consciousness, having undergone some post-modern adjustments, is now working for us rather than against us, guiding us towards a much more robust and cogent way of constructing our theology.
So what does it mean in practice to live with the consequences of the eschatological transition described in the New Testament? In a comment a couple of days ago I put together a rough and ready list of ways in which we might begin to speak of personal application consistent with the narrative-historical approach:
Under the narrative-historical reading, if you enter a transformed people, you have to be transformed…. You have still to deal with the legacy of personal sin. You have to trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God. You have to reckon with the supreme lordship of Jesus over the forces that rule the old creation. You have to deal with the indwelling, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. You have to stand in worship before the creator God. You have to learn a new type of obedience to righteousness.
In the next two posts I will try to unpack these thoughts a bit further, beginning with personal sin and the death of Jesus. I do not think that the narrative-historical hermeneutic leaves us without a viable practical theology for today.