God, theology and history

Read time: 6 minutes

In response to my attempt to correct the impression that the narrative-historical approach to reading scripture has an “ultimate weakness”, Justin and his brother Daniel kindly explained that I had got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The problem that they highlight is not so much that firmly locating the New Testament in its own historical context renders it powerless to address the situation of the church today. Their concern, driven by a serious personal consideration, is that it leaves us with a portrait of God far removed from modern conceptions—as Daniel puts it, “ontologically at odds with” the God articulated by such modern methods as Process theology or Radical theology. I appreciate the concern they have to take the narrative-historical approach seriously and have some rather disconnected thoughts in response. Please keep in mind that modern philosophical theology is not really my thing.

1. The problem of how we speak about God still looks to me like a specific instance of the general hermeneutical problem that I highlighted in the previous post. A historical reading of the New Testament necessarily gives us a historical—and therefore “outmoded”—understanding of God. It’s what a small group of people used to believe. The question is whether we are to accept the biblical portrait as normative. Can we adjust our understanding of who God is, what he is like, how he acts, in the light of the intellectual developments that make modern western culture what it is?

2. The biblical picture of God is not uniform or homogeneous. It is developmental and multifaceted. It can be argued, for example, as by Pietersen, that we move from violence to non-violence, or that monotheism only comes into focus with the exile. Is the God revealed in Jesus the same as the God revealed in Moses? If the people which owns Jesus as Lord continues to debate and rethink the nature of God in the light of changing cultural and intellectual circumstances, arguably that is simply a continuation of the narrative. We keep struggling to make sense our calling to be the people of the true and living creator God. The question, of course, is how do we set the parameters to this theological struggle?

3. Certain parameters seem pretty clear cut for a biblical people: one, true, living, creator, covenantal, God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, etc. But perhaps the most important condition for defining our God is that he is revealed in historical narrative and historical narrative is always messy. I think that the God of the Bible is purposeful but not deterministic. He is bound up with the chaotic process of safeguarding the integrity of his new creation people in the world.

4. I would guess that what attracts people to constructs such as Process theology or Radical theology is partly the domination of modern American religion by the Fundamentalist-Reformed axis, which in its turn was a reaction against secular rationalism or liberalism, which was a reaction against… and so on. Our responses, our intuitions, our prejudices are always conditioned, always contextual. My preference for the narrative-historical hermeneutic is, in part, a reaction against a sort of bland uncritical evangelicalism that refuses to let scripture speak for itself. In other words, we are part of a narrative, with a past, present and, hopefully, a future.

5. What I think we need to resist, if we are going to deal effectively with the tension between the diachronic and the synchronic dimensions of our self-understanding, between the past and the present, between the historical and the existential, is the temptation to subsume one under the other.

That cuts both ways. It is a mistake to let biblical categories overrule modern responses, as though the biblical worldview were simply reproducible in the modern context. That is a common error—if not a defining error—of conservative religion. If I  am an unflinching advocate of reading scripture in its historical context, it is not in principle to the exclusion of philosophical theology or, for that matter, of other ways of reading the Bible. The tension is a necessary and healthy one.

But it is also a mistake to force modern categories on the historical responses that we see in scripture. Modern ways of talking about God also need to be subject to critical review in the light of scripture—otherwise we are not a biblical people. They are part and parcel of our present engagement with the world and have emerged for good reasons, but they are not necessarily superior just because we feel more comfortable with them. The narrative-historical approach, better than any other, preserves scripture as critically other.

For example, whatever value Girard’s theories may have as an anthropological grounding for a critique of American political culture, that does not entitle us to superimpose them on biblical accounts of sacrifice or of the death of Jesus. All that says is that we don’t trust scripture and are not prepared to let it speak on its own terms. It’s no better than the modern evangelical error of reading the Bible through the lens of a personal relationship with a loving God. It is not a bad thing that we are shocked sometimes by the antiquity of scripture.

6. If the historical approach uncovers something that leaves a bad taste in the mouth, then I think we have to be honest interpreters and allow it to stand in its historical context. The theme of punishment through violence runs right through the Old Testament and into the New Testament. Jesus dies under the curse of the Law, subject to the terms and conditions of the Law. In that specific regard, in relation to first century Israel, his death has to be interpreted as a matter of penal substitutionary atonement. But the narrative-historical constraints have to be kept in place.

7. My own view is that we don’t need models of the atonement—or perhaps, more realistically, that we need a historical rather than theological-philosophical model of the atonement. Jesus’ death changed things at a critical juncture in the history of God’s people. It was interpreted at the time in certain historically appropriate ways in relation to Judaism and in certain historically appropriate ways in relation to the nations.

In the post-biblical period it has been re-interpreted in relation to successive metaphysics, right up to the present day. But it is much easier for us now to suppose that these various theories are culturally conditioned, historically relative, than that any one of them provides a final or absolute account of the atonement. That is what it means to be postmodern. For this reason, I think that we are better off reading and constructing our theology historically—bearing in mind, of course, that historiography is itself a historically conditioned undertaking.

phil_style | Wed, 11/21/2012 - 23:39 | Permalink

your point 7 is, I thin, the first time I’ve ever seen this idea penned in such a concise and undertsrandable way. thanks.

Over the past few years I’ve increasingly become more Girardian in my approach to atonement. I think the literary basis for this is intruiging. I would also suggest that the specific historical developments int he 1st to 3rd centuries within christian faith provide some corroborating evidence for Girard’s thesis (not embracing voilent power structures, and the rejection of sacrificial scapegoating).

Do you think Girard has legs in this area (that is, in some kind of agreement with what you’re syaing in point 7)?

Phil, thanks. I’m not going to risk talking off the top of my head at the moment about Girard’s understanding of atonement. The only point I would make is that whatever value it may have as a modern anthropological or historical or scientific explanation of the fact that Jesus’ death was believed to have redemptive value, it does not necessarily correspond to the interpretation placed on his death by the mostly Jewish authors of the New Testament.

To give an imprecise analogy…. We know that the planets go round the sun, etc. and interpret their movements in the light of that modern understanding. The ancients did not know that and interpreted the same phenomena according to whatever alternative models they had in their heads. The modern account and the ancient account are two different things and should not be confused.

I see it as the particular task of a narrative-historical hermeneutic first to elucidate how Jesus and his followers understood what God was doing, etc., in the context of the crisis of first century Judaism.

peter wilkinson | Thu, 11/22/2012 - 09:32 | Permalink

I haven’t caught up with earlier comments/responses yet, but in the first place, it’s interesting to find out more about Justin and co. I enjoy ‘meeting’ (perhaps ‘overhearing’ would be more accurate) people I would not normally meet in the coffee-houses and saloon bars I frequent here.

In response to the post above, for what it’s worth:

I disagree with Andrew in 1., since I think the model he is presenting has significant flaws in the foundation, and is not the best historical reading of the NT

I agree with 2., but only in the sense that the biblical picture is polyphonic (to mix metaphors), but not like a room full of people having furious arguments with each other (Jeffrey John)

I broadly agree with 3.

I agree with the sentiments underpinning the points in 4. & 5.

I agree with 6., broadly

The problem with 7. is that Andrew substitutes one theological philosophical model for another — but it’s still theological philosophical. It’s just a historical theological philocphical model.

I simply come to a quite different view of what a historical reading provides — on preciely the same terms which Andrew is advocating.