What was God's "eternal purpose"?

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I recently argued that Frank Viola’s definition of “beyond evangelical” captures some important, healthy emphases but does not do justice to the “narrated existence of the people of God”. Frank’s response was that the narrative component comes under the fourth note of the “eternal purpose” of God; he has developed the argument elsewhere, notably in his book From Eternity to Here: Rediscovering the Ageless Purpose of God and in a “flagship” talk. The phrase comes from Ephesians 3:11 (“This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord…”), which Frank interprets it as a reference to the centrality of the church in the intentions of God:

Behold the towering passion of your God: The church, the ekklesia, is His ultimate passion. She is His central thought. She is His eternal purpose. This glorious woman is in Him, by Him, through Him, and to Him. God’s grand mission is to obtain a bride who passionately loves His Son. Any missional endeavor, therefore, that doesn’t put the church front and center falls short of God’s central thought. (From Eternity to Here, 128)

Frank’s approach in From Eternity to Here is certainly narrative but it cannot be said to be historical. It is essentially a retelling of the biblical story as a divine “romance”, in places as little more than an allegory of the relationship between God and the church. Consider, for example, this statement:

All said, Babylon is not your native habitat. It’s a counterfeit of the house of God. If we learn nothing else from the Babylonian captivity, let us learn this: Many of God’s people are living in Babylon today…. (186)

In many ways, rhetorically speaking, it is a very effective retelling of the biblical story. But it is not—and doesn’t pretend to be—an attempt to grapple with the historical dimension to the New Testament, with the contingency of its outlook and teaching. This is the heart of my critique, not simply of Frank’s book but of a progressive evangelicalism that does no better than its modernist antecedents at articulating the political-religious dynamic that drives the New Testament and, importantly, grounds it in human social reality. I highlighted similar concerns over A Jesus Manifesto.

To illustrate the point, let’s consider what Paul says in Ephesians 3:11. Frank’s argument, if I’ve understood him correctly, is that the church was a fundamentally new and glorious thing, hidden throughout the ages though foreshadowed in the Old Testament, particularly through the typology of marriage (24). But for Paul the “eternal purpose” of God is not that his Son should at last have the church as his bride but that Gentiles should be included in the commonwealth of Israel. This is what he has been commissioned to proclaim to the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. The “mystery” hidden throughout the ages up until that moment has now been revealed: through Christ, whose death broke down the dividing wall of the Jewish Law, Gentiles are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (3:6). What is the reason for this? So that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10).

This, I think, gets at the “purpose of the ages” (prothesin tōn aiōnōn), which had been God’s intention all along: this new international community of redeemed Israel would be the means by which the “God who created all things” would at long last justify himself before the powers that controlled the ancient pagan world. This is the historical—or eschatological—frame of reference for Paul’s argument at this point, and it is missing from Frank’s retelling of the story. My view is that evangelicalism cannot afford merely to construct its truth narratively. It has to learn to construct its truth narrative-historically.

peter wilkinson | Mon, 06/18/2012 - 22:17 | Permalink

In the passage immediately surrounding Ephesians 3:11, there is no mention of Paul’s message as the Gentiles becoming part of the commonwealth of Israel (a statement which comes earlier, and is itself contingent to Paul’s argument at that point). This is not Paul’s primary message — that should be obvious from almost everything else he says in the letters, and everything he says elsewhere about Israel.

The “manifold wisdom of God” preceding 3:11 is something that is preached through the church, not primarily the church itself. The manifold wisdom of God, and Paul’s primary focus, is “to preach to the gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” - 3:9.

Once we have Christ as the primary focus and passion of Paul, everything else falls into place. The inclusion of the gentiles in the gospel was not a response to what God had done primarily for Israel, but the fufilment of the narrative in which God promised blessing to the nations through the descendant(s) of Abraham, and one descendant in particular. This itself was God’s plan to restore creation, in which the call of Abraham plays so significant a part.

Taking this interpretation, the apparent divide between a narrative-historical which locks things up in history, and an existential Jesus of faith which ignores history, is reconciled. Jesus is the source of personal and corporate transformation now, because he is the centre-piece of a narrative in history, which extends into the present.

This is the only way in which a narrative historical interpretation can, in my view, reconcile the five points which as yet remain unaddressed as criticisms of the supposedly contingently historical viewpoint being advanced by this blog.

In the passage immediately surrounding Ephesians 3:11, there is no mention of Paul’s message as the Gentiles becoming part of the commonwealth of Israel (a statement which comes earlier, and is itself contingent to Paul’s argument at that point). This is not Paul’s primary message - that should be obvious from almost everything else he says in the letters, and everything he says elsewhere about Israel.

Peter, I don’t think that’s correct. Paul is addressing “you Gentiles” (3:1) who have been incorporated into the commonwealth of Israel because Jesus’ death resulted in the abolition of the dividing wall of the Law (2:11-22). The “mystery” or “mystery of Christ” was revealed or made know to him and to other apostles and prophets, though it had been hidden from previous generations (3:3-5). It is this revelation to the “apostles and prophets”, moreover, which constitutes the foundation of the new temple (2:20)—Paul’s argument here is again tied closely to the 2:11-22. The mystery is that the Gentiles are “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise… through the gospel”, which clearly recapitulates the argument of 2:11-22 (3:6). What Paul makes known is not simply Christ but the extraordinary fact that through Christ Gentiles had come to share in the promises made to the patriarchs.

Paul has been chosen to preach specifically “this gospel” to the nations and to “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things”—the same “mystery”, of course, that he mentions in 3:6 regarding the inclusion of Gentiles. In other words, his apostolic task, as he accounts for it here, is to tell the Gentiles that because of Christ there is now no dividing wall of the Law to keep them from participation in the people of God (3:7-9). To what end? Not simply so that Gentiles might be saved—and even then, salvation by faith (2:8-9) means inclusion in the people of God—but so that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). That is, the inclusion of the Gentiles is, at least in part, for the sake of a political-religious challenge to the ruling powers. What the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God demonstrates is that the creator God is not God of the Jews only but of the whole world—that is the essence of the political-religious challenge (cf. Rom. 3:28-30). It is also the essence of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.

I addressed your five points in a series of posts beginning with The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1. You’re very welcome to disagree with me, but I’m not going to go over it again here.

Thanks Andrew. I sometimes think that disagreements between us can seem like counting the number of angels on pinheads, but Paul’s arguments are usually very finely balanced, and if we push a position too far in one direction, it distorts Paul’s thinking by ignoring counter arguments he  is making elsewhere.

This balance is true of what Paul has to say about the gentiles being included in the commonwealth of Israel, which is true in some senses, but not in others. You press one side of the issue, which becomes distorted by ignoring the other. Balance is also true of what Paul says about the “manifold wisdom of God” being “made known to the principalities and powers”. The final phrase sometimes has a political meaning, but in Ephesians has a further meaning, since Paul adds: “in heavenly places”. Your phrase Political-religious seems a  strangely evasive way of capturing this.

As far as addressing my five points are concerned, no such response to them by you was made. You stepped aside from pursuing a response simply to restate your own position — as I indicated here. The five points remain unaddressed, and I think they continue to pose serious questions about the credibililty of your overall interpretation.

You may think it’s about counting angels. I think it’s about identifying the central argument of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. That is not a trivial matter. I don’t see at all how the point I made in this post distorts Paul’s thought elsewhere. It seems to me that Paul’s thought elsewhere is entirely consistent with this narrative-historical reading—not least in Romans, as I argued in The Future of the People of God, which you haven’t read.

I also wish you would stop accusing me of being evasive. Of course en tois epouraniois has reference to spiritual realities. That is why I used the phrase “political-religious”. I considered saying “political-spiritual” but felt it sounded incoherent. But the point is that the two dimensions are not finally to be separated, as they have been by modern evangelicalism. We see something of this in Philippians 2:9-11:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven (epouraniōn) and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The background in Isaiah 45 makes it clear that this is a question of which God is sovereign over the nations. That is unquestionably a political-religious issue.

I think “political-spiritual” would have been fine, and better than “political-religious”. I’m certainly not accusing you of being evasive -  but “The narrative historical reading - Parts 1,2 & 3” did not at all address the questions I was raising, which still remain, and I think point to fundamental problems with your interpretation. This is not meant discourteously, accusingly, or even obsessively. I’ll leave it at that.


Like many here I have enjoyed the dialogue between yourself and Andrew and I do believe it has helped to hone the message Andrew is presenting.  Thank you for that.

However your constant need to keep trying to make it about you and your ‘five key points’ is getting a little tired.  You have clearly made a very pointed decision to not agree with what Andrew presents.  Why not leave it at that?  Or better yet create your own platform!

I can envision a great blog title for you;

‘Neo Post-Postost: Five reasons a narrative historical approach to scripture is flawed’.  :D

Could it be that the eternal purpose of God was to move synogogue services from Saturday to Sunday, flip the leadership from Jewish to Gentile hands, and change the name from synagogue to church?  What more can modern Christianity reasonably claim for itself? 

The eternal purpose of God is found in Christ and the church is too busy focusing on itself to find Christ, much less the eternal purpose of God to be found in Him.

“It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.”  Col 3:24

I’m quite happy to insist that the church needs to find Christ. But the issue here is what Paul was saying in Ephesians 3. “Eternal purpose” is not a good translation of the phrase prothesin tōn aiōnōn. It refers to the intention of God throughout the preceding ages, when people were ignorant of the fact that at some point Gentiles would be included in the people of the creator God.

Paul Robbins | Sun, 07/20/2014 - 03:16 | Permalink

Strangely enough I was studying and felt compelled to see who if any were looking at Eph 3:11 as was I. I stumbled on Frank Viola’s blog. Though I agreed with much of his perspective, I thought he fell flat on the “eternal purposes of God”, mainly because he excluded the obvioius. That is, the unusual natural, supernatural union between the Jew and Gentile in Christ.

No surprise that he would overlook that. It is still a mystery to most even though that is what Ephesians builds up to and Paul crescendos with “For this reason I bow my knees…” If that is not the reason and love not the power to birth and sustain, what is?

Thank you for seeing differently the obvious. The serpent has spent millenia in creating and sustaining an “enmity” that can only be crushed by the power invested in a new creation. What an incredible story that regrettably, the world still awaits. I have seen it repeatedly in the world I live in as a Jewish Believer with friends who were once radical Muslims.

Please consider my blog and my first book by the same name; themilkmanstory.com