I have been goaded, against my better judgment, into responding to Peter Wilkinson’s persistent complaint that I have not answered the five points that he raised against the narrative-historical reading that I have been determinedly advocating here. His arguments have to do not so much with the inner coherence of the historical reading as with its supposed failure to do what modern evangelicalism does so well—that is, account for the salvation and sanctification of the individual believer. So at the risk of repeating myself, here is my response to his five points, mostly a recapitulation of what I wrote in a series of posts, beginning with The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1, intended to address precisely the concerns that he raised.
There is no adequate dealing with the legacy of sin for those outside Israel in the 1st century in your account.
Second, in your account there is no basis for the continuing work of the Holy Spirit (also important for transformation) in the life of the believer outside 1st century Israel.
Third is the question of the relevance of Jesus’s and the apostles’ teaching in the NT. If it was for believers in the unique circumstances of the 1st century alone, on what do we base subsequent and current belief or practice?
Fourth: if the church worldwide had got it so wrong from, say, the 2nd and 3rd century to today, how did we or anyone come to faith, since what we were told was based on a complete misconception, and how do we account for a worldwide faith based on this misconception?
Because once the eschatological victory over paganism had been gained, the Jewish apocalyptic narrative lost relevance. European Christianity—the fruit of the victory over paganism—reconceptualized the whole story, probably rightly, certainly unavoidably. But now that Christendom has come to an end, we are thrown back on the New Testament as a historical text in order to reground our identity. The other point to assert, however, is that the narrative-historical reading simply gets the New Testament right—more or less—and the modern evangelical reading, for all that it has contributed to the life and work of the church, doesn’t.
There is no direct encounter with Christ in relation to his death, since that was intended for them, nor for us nor anyone else.
This begs the question. It assumes what actually needs to be demonstrated—that the New Testament conceives of Jesus’ death as a direct personal saving event for each individual sinner. I don’t think it does. I disagree with the individualistic evangelical metaphysic here. The essential apocalyptic argument of the New Testament is that Jesus died so that a people might live and not be swept away by the coming wrath of God. That people still exists. It is still a redeemed people—that is, it is not subject to the deadly consequences of its constant failings and disobedience, it lives by grace. Anyone who becomes part of this people shares in the corporate benefits. It is not how evangelicals typically view matters, but it cannot be said that Jesus’ death has no practical relevance for people today.
Perhaps an analogy will help, although it is an oversimplification. A ship is in danger of sinking in a storm because the feckless crew have not carried out proper maintenance. One of the passengers tries to warn the crew that they face a catastrophe, but they ignore him. In the end he goes down into the bowels of the ship and makes the necessary repairs himself, but loses his life in the process. So the ship and its passengers and crew are saved from sinking—and let’s suppose that the dead man comes back to life and is installed as captain. The ship sails on to pick up other passengers to take them on their planned cruise of a lifetime. These passengers do not benefit directly from the death of the man who carried out the repairs—they were not on the ship at the time. But there would have been no ship for them to board if he had not made that sacrifice. They would have missed out on this cruise of a lifetime. They have every reason, therefore, to be personally thankful to the captain for his self-sacrificial action.