In what sense are we "bound to what the New Testament teaches"?

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I don’t want to make this too much a Q&A type blog, but when good questions come up in the comments, it seems a shame to waste them. This one from Mitchell Powell gets at a problem which is often reckoned to be the Achilles heel of narrative-historical approaches to the New Testament, though perhaps from a different angle to usual.

So I suppose what I am asking is this: if you repeatedly challenge doctrinal conceptions (e.g. hell, penal substitution fixation, etc.) on the basis of the New Testament, it would seem you consider the church in some sense to be bound to what the New Testament teaches. To what degree is this so? In what sense, if any, do you believe that “Scripture cannot be broken”?

What I find interesting here is that to Mitchell’s way of thinking the narrative-historical approach carries the implication that the church is subject to the authority of scripture. To my mind that is a rather astute observation, and ironic, given the common assumption that narrative-historical readings, simply because they are historical, have nothing to say to the church today.

The first point to make is that I think we need to get away from models of biblical authority that can be reduced to a policy of being “bound to what the New Testament teaches” or even to Jesus’ assertion that “Scripture cannot be broken”.

Jesus’ insistence that the scripture cannot be “relaxed” (luthēnai: John 10:35) is found in the context of a controversy with the Jews, who thought that he was claiming to be God. It served his polemical purpose to point out to them that it is written in their Law (though it is actually Psalm 82) that those to whom the word of God came were “gods”. What Jesus himself appeals to in this argument, however, is not the Law but his “many good works”, which should have been compelling evidence for the Jews that he was doing the work of the Father.

We have a similar argument in Matthew 5:19:

Therefore whoever relaxes (lusē) one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

The Law will remain in force for Israel “until all is accomplished” (5:18), which I take to mean until the end of the present age of second temple Judaism. But in any case, Jesus does more than confirm the continuing validity of the Law during this period of eschatological crisis. He insists that righteousness must be expressed internally as well as externally: “You have heard it said…. But I say to you….”

What I would draw from this is that there were—and may still be—good reasons for insisting that “Scripture cannot be broken”, but that this should not be how we primarily frame or construct biblical authority. For Jesus it is not the Law that comes first but the narrative—specifically the eschatological narrative about judgment and restoration.

I think we should take a leaf from his book. The church, insofar as it thinks of itself as “evangelical”, ought to relate to the New Testament primarily as narrative—as the definitive account of what happened, or would happen, to our “ancestors”, as family of Abraham, in the historical period envisaged, which, in my view, is the period from the birth of Jesus to the defeat of pagan imperial Rome and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations. The Bible is authoritative because it tells the story of how the God of Abraham came to be God of the nations, with implications for the whole of creation.

Once we get this historically plausible and biblically defensible narrative in place, impressed on our minds, embedded in our collective subconscious, it will be relatively easy to work out the details of what to believe and how to behave. But the simple point I would make here is that we are “bound” to the New Testament not as a body of authoritative rules, instructions, propositions, guidelines, doctrines, beliefs, etc., but as a trustworthy narrative of who we are and why we are.

Mitchell Powell | Thu, 07/12/2012 - 19:29 | Permalink

Walking about with a girl through a street crowded with rowdy college kids, I somehow got on my postmodernist soapbox about the word-games which, for better and worse, underly “everything.” (I’m a PK, and for us word games are no laughing matter.)

Being the sort of girl she is, she responded that surely love must not be based on word games, to which a forlorn-looking man with a guitar and too much booze in his system shouted in an anguished voice, “Of course love is about word-games! Especially love!”

And yet somehow I, lecturer on word-games, missed the fact that Jesus used the “scripture cannot be broken” bit in the context of some highly important word-games. Thanks for the reminder, and for the well thought-out response. There’s a lot to chew on here, but if I had to sum up the entire exchange in two lines, it would go like this (let me know if I’m getting the gist of what you’re saying wrong):

So, AP, how does a narrative guy treat Scripture’s authority for the church?

AP: We are to treat Scripture as the church’s authoritative narrative.

Chris | Fri, 07/13/2012 - 05:52 | Permalink

In reply to by Andrew Perriman

@Andrew Perriman:


Would you say the NT acts for the church today the same way the OT acted for the Jews of the 1st century? The OT was the authoritative narrative of who they were and how they became who they were. But also, it determined how they should live as the people of God. So should the same be true for us today?If so, we not only look back to narrative and what it tells us about our past but it also will tell us how to live faithfully today.

Andrew Perriman | Fri, 07/13/2012 - 09:33 | Permalink

In reply to by Chris


Yes, that’s a nice straightforward way of putting it, though working out “how to live faithfully today” from the narrative may not be so straightforward. On the one hand, we live by the Spirit and not by the Law. On the other, the story continues: how we live faithfully today is also a function of our own narrative context—where we are now in the story of the family of Abraham in relation to the nations and cultures of the world.

Mitchell Powell | Sun, 07/15/2012 - 09:03 | Permalink

The terrible thing about opinions is that you can’t change just one. Let’s say (a little bit hypothetically and mostly really) that I buy the idea of a narrative-historical approach to Scripture and a bunch of associated ideas as you present them (Jesus’ Gehenna was more about his historical context, inerrancy as the primary control on how we read Scripture is misleading, the gospel is a historical announcement rather than good news about avoiding perpetual torture). If this is so, then I’ve got another question about the church.

What is the church’s raison d’etre? If, as you say, the ekklesia as Jesus spoke of it was a group dedicated to announcing the almost-here kingship of God as it would manifest itself in history through the crushing of national Israel and the vindication of Jesus’ followers, and if for Paul the ekklesia was the Jewish followers of Jesus plus Gentiles grafted into the body of Israel in order to await the announce defeat of the evil world-order and victory of Christ as king over all the nations, then what is the church’s raison d’etre?

My background understanding was formed first as a Left-Behind-Style premillennialist, and the church’s reason to be was that we needed to get as many people off the sinking ship before it all crashes into hell on earth and then hell in hell afterwards. Later, some writers made me aware of inherit-the-earth style postmillennialism, in which the church’s reason for being was, firstly, to save sinners, and, as a secondary role supporting the first, to spread the reign of Christ throughout the earth and transform all the world into God’s spiritual kingdom both religiously, culturally, and politically.

And now you tell me that there’s no heaven above and no hell beneath. What’s to stop all the people from living for today and going for “no religion too”? I hate to be such an econ student about this, but without the positive incentive of heaven and the negative incentive of hell, is there any reason that it is imperative that people join the church? Is post-Christendom the time for the church to wither away, having already accomplished its mission?

I’ll stop now. I want to avoid writing more on this blog than you do, though I’ve probably got enough questions to do so for a while.

@Mitchell Powell:

…without the positive incentive of heaven and the negative incentive of hell, is there any reason that it is imperative that people join the church? Is post-Christendom the time for the church to wither away, having already accomplished its mission?

That might actually be a good way of putting it. The church is dead. Long live the people of God!

The whole point of the eschatological crisis in the New Testament is that the creator God remains true to his promise to Abraham regarding the future of his people and to David regarding the future of his throne. The death and resurrection of Jesus has secured both, so whatever subsequent crises the people of God faces, we may assume that these promises hold good.

But I would strongly urge us to think of our vocation in new creation terms. We are motivated, on the one hand, by the call of God to embody in our corporate life the possibility of creation made good again, and on the other, by the hope of the final renewal of all things. I join the family of Abraham, therefore, whose king is and always will be Jesus because I believe that I have been called by the creator God to participate in this narrative of new creation for the sake of the world and for the sake of his glory.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, you have stated it very well!

I would only add that readers be sure to recognize that “the people of God” in this age refers to all people.  The great benefit of the perspective you’ve given here is forfeited if we hive ourselves off from our fellow human beings and call ourselves the people of God while saying they are not.

For once they were not a people, but now — in the new creation — they are the people of God.  We are all the people of God.  His ransom was sufficient.

@Mike Gantt:

Mike, I think that that way of construing the people of God is out of the question biblically speaking. I do not see how the family of Abraham can be anything other than a people called apart, willing to live under an unnatural—or supernatural—régime, for the “glory” of the one creator God. This is the foundational premise of scripture, and it never changes. I think that there is something to be said for the idea that the church is set apart as a priestly people for the sake of the world—and  not simply a privileged people saved out of a world. But I don’t see any way round the basic vocational character of our relationship with God. There has to be some response, some buy in, an obedience, a willingness to serve.

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew, you are right that “there has to be some response, some buy in, an obedience, a willingness to serve”  You are also right that this vocation is a “priestly” one, wherein we act in service to others.    However, we needn’t consider people as other than our  brethren in order to fulfill this calling.  Nor should we consider ourselves as qualifying to be the people of God because we do that which we ought to do.  Our Savior has qualified us all.

When Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the others others prayed for their kinsmen according to the flesh, they did not pray that those relatives would become Israelites.  Rather, they prayed that their fellow Israelites would become repentant and obedient.  Likewise we who hear the voice of God pray that all our brothers and sisters might hear and obey as well — for they are the people of God in the new creation just as we are.

When we fulfill the role of Levites and priests for our fellow human beings it proves that we are all Israelites in the new covenant, wherein God speaks to every human heart (Rom 2:5-16; Jer 8:31-34) and judges accordingly.  Consider the difference between John the Baptist and the Pharisees.  John saw the pursuit of holiness as a means of serving his brethren while the Pharisees saw it as a means of distinguishing themselves from their brethren.

Our message to those who do not believe and obey the Lord Jesus Christ is not that they should become the people of God, but that they should live up to the calling they have been bequeathed.  In this new order, all things are in Christ — all things!  This is why Jesus said that of all the prophets who ever lived, John was the greatest; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.  Never before has repentance brought such benefit!

@Mike Gantt:

…John saw the pursuit of holiness as a means of serving his brethren while the Pharisees saw it as a means of distinguishing themselves from their brethren.

I’m afraid I’m not following your line of argument, Mike. John called the covenant people to repent and set themselves apart from the unrighteous because God was about to act to redeem his people. The Pharisees called people to obey the Law and set themselves apart from tyhe unrighteous in the hope that God would take note of their obeidence and redeem his people. The difference between them is not great.

If we are to emulate John at all, we should call the church to repent in preparation for a coming event of judgment and renewal.

@Andrew Perriman:


For you to say that the difference between John the Baptist and the Pharisees “is not great” puts you at odds with Jesus who gave John the greatest imaginable encomium in Matt 11 and gave the Pharisees the greatest imaginable denunciation in Matt 23.  The difference between John and the Pharisees could not be more stark.  One preached a righteousness in the sight of God and the other a righteousness in the sight of men.  This makes all the difference in the world.  

If God is judging the hearts of all men in this age, we have no cause to make distinctions among ourselves, and, in effect, absolve some of the need to repent.  Because judgment is upon us all, repentance is the solution for us all.

@Mitchell Powell:

Mitchell: Good question. Serious bible students inevitably are confronted with the fact that the bible writings don’t teach what they have been taught they teaches.

The authors lived in a different world with different concerns. They were all Jews whose concern was Israel. They believed in a narrative in which an imminent earthly kingdom of Israel was right around the corner, so to speak. They didn’t give much (or any) thought to the things that concern us — personal salvation, eternal souls and the like.

Which is natural enough. We’re not Jews, so we’re not obssessed with Israel’s fate. We don’t expect a supernatural overthrow of the evil world power because, well … we ARE the world power and we’re righteous.

The strength of the narrative approach is that it does come a lot closer to interpreting the authors’ original intent, in a way that the “Left Behind” movement is totally in left field.

The problem is, of course, how are the idiosyncrasies of ancient Jews a prescription for modern living? And how do we reconcile the yearning for the kingdom with the fact that it didn’t come as expected? Do we just recalibrate our expectations? Do we recognize that they were wrong?



Your line of thinking is actually a good one except that the Jews of whom you speak were expecting a spirtual — not a physical — kingdom.  Similarly, Albert Schweitzer got it all right — except for the fact that the prophesied kingdom did actually come.  

Consider, for example, how in 2 Thess 1:6-10 Paul contrasts the effects of the coming of the Lord by whether or not one believes.  And, in this regard, how could the Lord’s coming be like a thief in the night (1 Thess 5 and elsewhere) unless it was to escape the notice of some?  Consider also how in 2 Thessalonians 2 Paul assures his readers that the day of the Lord had not yet come not by asking “Isn’t it obvious, fellows?” but rather by reminding them that it must take place in the midst of significant apostasy (in accord with the Lord’s timetable laid down in Matt 24 and as confirmed as having occurred in the Johannine letters).  Remember also that in Luke 18:8 the Lord wondered if He would find faith when He came — an attribute hardly necessary if His coming was a physical cataclysm as obvious to unbelievers as to believers.

A historical-narrative reading of the Bible opens up possibilities for understanding that transcend the narrowed focus of traditional evangelicalism.  But that new perspective will be of limited good to you unless you are prepared to believe that He who promised is faithful.  “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”  The Lord and His apostles did not speak to no effect.

You should ask yourself “Which is more likely: that the Lord and His apostles misunderstood the timing of the coming of the Lord or that we have misunderstood the nature of the coming of the Lord?” 

@Mike Gantt:

Andrew — thanks for the input. I see a lot of potential among what we might call the emerging-church people, but it looks like there’s still a ton of work to be done.

Corcoran — I’ve found the process of trying to put myself in the shoes of the biblical writers, and then tracing the progression of Jewish and Christian thought from ancient times, then through medieval and modern times to be very helpful. But I can see why someone might disagree.

Mike — I’ve never seen any reason to believe that any first-century Jews, or any Jews in earlier centuries for that matter, ever anticipated the establishment of a spiritual, non-physical kingdom of any kind. I’m open to correction on this one, but I think you’ve got an uphill path to take if you want to make a convincing case for your assertion.

@Mitchell Powell:


It’s apparent from the biblical narrative that the disciples had to be nursed from a physical to a spiritual orientation regarding the promises of God.  Just to take one example: consider Peter’s initial repulsion but then ultimate acceptance of the necessity of Messiah’s crucifixion (Matt 16:22 cf. Acts 2:23).

As for supporting my assertion, I gave rationale by means of several scriptural references in the subsequent paragraph.  If you don’t want to engage what I offered there I don’t know that it makes sense for me to provide more.

@Mitchell Powell:


I think you misunderstood Mike.

Corcoran stated: The authors lived in a different world with different concerns. They were all Jews whose concern was Israel. They believed in a narrative in which an imminent earthly kingdom of Israel was right around the corner, so to speak…

Mike was correcting Corcoran.  The authors of the NT were not looking to an imminent physical Kingdom as Corcoran stated.  The authors were looking to a spiritual Kingdom just as Christ preached and taught.  Of course this is also where Andrew too goes wrong, but that is not relevant.

I think you were understanding Mike to be saying that all Jews in the 1st century were expecting a spiritual kingdom.  At least that is what I understood Mike to be saying.  You may be right, in which case, I would agree with you.  The Jews (not the Apostles) of the 1st century were looking for a physical kingdom.



Yes, generally speaking, first-century Jews were expecting a physical kingdom.  This by and large accounts for their inability to digest Jesus of Nazareth as Israel’s Messiah.  However, those Jews who did embrace Jesus, which certainly includes His apostles, to whom the New Testament documents can be traced, were haltingly but eventually won to Jesus’ conception of a spiritual kingdom which would rule humanity from the inside out, not the outside in.  Thus my references to New Testament passages which support the idea of a coming spiritual kingdom — one which would escape the notice of the unbelieving.

@Mike Gantt:

This has been debated on this site far too often to get into here, but the idea that the disciples were eventually won to a spiritual conception of the kingdom is just not so. It enables moderns to avoid uncomfortable facts, and justifies our lack of belief in Jewish thinking. But as I said, this has been beaten to death here.



I’m relatively new to the site but I have found it friendly to the idea that the Bible is nothing if not a product of Jewish thinking.  Granted, Jewish thinking has diverse strains that include, for example, Caiaphas at one end and Simon Barjona at the other.  Appropriately, that diversity is on display in the New Testament when we see some Jews insisting on physical kingdom and others, more sensitive to the direction Jesus Christ was leading, seeking a coming of the Lord that only the sanctified would observe (Heb 12:14).

Nevertheless, if you’ve been here long enough to see the subject  “beaten to death,” why did you make your drive-by assertion? 


Thanks for the input, Rich. I wasn’t sure exactly how many Jews Mike was referring to, but my understanding was that, as he saw it, at least some first-century Jews, including at least some biblical authors, looked forward to a spiritual, non-physical kingdom. And still, I have not yet seen any convincing evidence that any first-century Jew was looking forward to such a thing. If I had to guess, I’d bet a first-century Jew, including any author of Scripture, would see a non-physical kingdom as an oxymoron.

@Mitchell Powell:


As long as you continue to ignore the evidence put before you (in this comment to Corcoran as referenced in this comment to you) I think you will continue to be able to say that you “have not yet seen any convincing evidence that any first-century Jew was looking forward to” a spiritual kingdom.

Similarly, the Pharisees probably dismissed Jesus’ spiritual conception of the kingdom in Luke 17:20-21 as oxymoronic.

Unbelief never sees.  It is spiritual blindness.

@Mike Gantt:

Mike: The fact that the Messiah would be crucified is a far cry from evidence that his triumph would be non-physical. Your assertion about the passage simply doesn’t follow from the passage itself. Ditto for your other passages.

Of course, if I really am down with a case of “spiritual blindness,” then there no real point in arguing with me, is there?

@Mitchell Powell:


I’m surprised that you don’t think public execution of the putative king is problematic for a physical kingdom.  

As for spiritual blindess, be advised that we have a Lord who can cure it (2 Cor 3:16).

@Mike Gantt:

I’m having trouble keeping track of just what it is you’re trying to prove, Mike. And the more you insist on characterizing our disagreement as the result of my alleged spiritual defects, the less interested I become.

@Mitchell Powell:


This comment from you is what launched the interaction between us:

Mike – I’ve never seen any reason to believe that any first-century Jews, or any Jews in earlier centuries for that matter, ever anticipated the establishment of a spiritual, non-physical kingdom of any kind. I’m open to correction on this one, but I think you’ve got an uphill path to take if you want to make a convincing case for your assertion.

Perhaps re-reading it will help you follow the train of thought between us.  

You seem more bound to your position than your initial comment indicated.  That being the case, I agree that continuing the back and forth would be unfruitful.

@Mike Gantt:

I have to say, I’m with Mitch here. I don’t see Jesus’ death as problematic for a “physical” kingdom, if by that we mean the real world impact on earth—relating to the political existence of the people of God—of Jesus’ reign in heaven.

@Andrew Perriman:

Then you are defining differently the spiritual/physical distinction. What you are calling physical, I would call spiritual. 

The dilemma for churches in our generation is that they must appeal to the New Testament for legitimacy, yet none can demonstrate conformity to the church described in the New Testament.

Perhaps the most notable difference is that the New Testament church, while buffetted from within and without by doctrinal error and behavioral sin, especially in its last days, was apostolic and unified.  That is, there was a body of Christ, and apostles labored incessantly to preserve its integrity.  Today there are only bodies.