On second thoughts, the five act play model doesn’t work

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I wrote a piece recently offering my revision of Tom Wright’s five act play model of biblical authority. The aim was to take account both of the realistic character of biblical eschatology and of the historical experience of the church. This was my proposed narrative structure:

  • Act 1 The people of God and the land
  • Act 2 The clash with pagan empire
  • Act 3 Jesus and the coming of the kingdom of God
  • Act 4 The people of God and the nations
  • Act 5 The people of God and global secularism

Now, I’m reading Scot McKnight’s book Kingdom Conspiracy: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church, and this statement stood out:

If kingdom mission flows out of the kingdom story, and if Jesus’ kingdom theology was shaped by his context, then his mission was also for that context—fair enough for Jesus and undeniable for us too. Kingdom mission today only works when tied to our context as we seek to live out Jesus’ kingdom vision in our world. Kingdom mission was, is, and always will be shaped by a context and for a context. (43)

I’m curious to see how he will develop the point—it’s as far as I’ve got. But the principle is exactly right, and in passing I would suggest that McKnight’s focus on kingdom is more useful, with respect both to interpretation and mission, than the new creation theme associated with Tom Wright.

It’s a very good book, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is trying work out how to translate a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament into missional practice.

But McKnight’s stress on context made me think that the five act hermeneutic may not do justice to the narrative distance between the biblical part of the story and our own situation.

The question I would ask is whether we can reasonably pretend to be part of the biblical drama at all.

My point is that the drama of scripture is really a very coherent, circumscribed and self-contained one. It belongs to a particular time and space, just as Macbeth was set in eleventh century Scotland.

The question I would ask is whether we can reasonably pretend to be part of the biblical drama at all.

The stage setting gives us the basic cosmic premise for the story that will be told. This is God’s world. He started it. He will end it.

The biblical story begins with the call of Abraham to be the father of an obedient people which will know the blessing of the creator God and mediate that blessing to the nations.

Because of disobedience it becomes a story of conflict with the nations, and so the hope emerges that eventually God will do two closely related things: 1) he will deal with the inveterate disobedience of his people; and 2) he will judge and rule over the nations.

The New Testament tells us how these two goals were achieved.

First, Jesus’ death is put forward as an act of atonement for the long catalogue of Israel’s sins; by his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God he is instated as Lord and King to govern this renewed people; and the Spirit is given in place of the Law as the means by which the people bear the fruit of righteousness.

Secondly, by the same token, it is expected that the exalted Lord Jesus will sooner or later judge and rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. Within the historical frame of the biblical argument this expectations is focused on Rome, Babylon the great, as the supreme and final manifestation in the ancient world of beast-like idolatrous and unrighteous empire.

So the final act, which is not depicted but is prophesied, is the painful witness of the churches across the empire to the imminent victory of Jesus over Caesar and the gods, culminating in the conversion of the nations, the confession of Jesus as Lord as a matter of new political-religious allegiance.

The stage setting reminds us that this is all taking place in a creational context: this is God’s world, and he will not ultimately be thwarted. But the biblical drama comes to a spectacular end with the marriage supper of the Lamb, following the overthrow of pagan Rome, which is the final vindication of the martyrs and the suffering churches and the celebration of their victory. Satan is confined to the abyss, bringing to an end the history of conflict between the beasts of Daniel’s vision and the people of God; and the martyrs are raised to reign with Christ throughout the coming ages.

There we have the climax to the biblical story, the great dénouement, the grand finale. The actors take their bows. The curtain descends. There is a happy-ever-after: the reign of Christ with the martyrs for a thousand years.

In literary terms we should leave it at that.

But, of course, it’s not the end of history, it’s not actually the end of the story. The marriage of the prince and his bride is both an end and a beginning. There is more drama to follow.

Happily, Shakespeare provides us with a simple solution to the problem—significantly in the historical plays. History doesn’t like having to stand still for too long. Just as we have two parts to Henry IV and three parts to Henry VI, I suggest that it would make good sense to add sequels to the story contained in the biblical texts rather than trying to cram the whole story of God’s people into one play:

  • The People of God, part I: The coming of the kingdom of God
  • The People of God, part II: Christendom: the rule of God over the nations
  • The People of God, part III: After Christendom: the struggle to bear witness in a secular age

I would guess we’re only into Act Two of this third part, making it up as we go along, as Wright suggests. Act One would be the Crisis of modernity: the end of the reign of God. There’s still a lot of story to be told.

In literary terms, we probably should leave it at that.

But the facet that complicates matters is, in the biblical writings, it’s a reasonably common phenomenon that the faithful in one historical context use the stories of another historical context to provide meaning to their own.

The Babylonian exile is in Jesus’ rear view mirror, but he will use those historical situations as descriptors of his own specifically for the purpose of importing that past meaning into Jesus’ different historical context.

Maybe I’m just clinging to the last vestiges of traditional hermeneutics, but it seems to me that we can use those stories in our current context, not in the sense that they speak directly to our situation, but in the sense that they have meaning that we can use in our context to explicate its meaning as well.

I feel like I can responsibly say, “Passage X is not -about- Modern Situation Y, but if we understand the actual situation behind Passage X, and that meaning can be used to communicate about situation Y, it’s appropriate to do so.”

Is that not a good idea and, if it isn’t, why isn’t that appropriation of those stories… um… appropriate? Has it always been inappropriate?

@Philip L Ledgerwood:

Your comment has me asking the question “What now?”  What I mean is, if the act we find ourselves in historically is not something the ancient texts of scripture speak to, but yet we are still as the church called to be a witness, what source(s) of guidance can we look to moving forward?  Reason?  Experience?  Tradition?  I think evangelicals park themselves so much in the scriptures that they forget God is also speaking and working in other ways in order to communicate the story of scripture.  Don´t we need to listen to these other channels in our contemporary church context especially if the biblical writings have little if nothing to say to us now about our mission and ministry?  I am also wondering what a narrative-historical interpretive model would look like in an environment where the scriptures certainly play a role, but not the central role that they play among evangelicals — but that might be a different conversation altogether.