Theology and history: is the dam about to break?

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Here’s one way of framing my “thesis” at the hermeneutical level—that is, at the level of how we interpret the Bible and make use of it as church.

For various complex reasons the church is coming under pressure to switch from a theological way of thinking to what I think is most concisely and most accurately termed a narrative-historical way of thinking. In my view that is a good thing and should be encouraged. It may even, in the long run, save the church in the secular West from obsolescence.

It comes down to the question of how we explain or talk about or define the new state of affairs that began with Jesus—the phenomenon that we call Christianity.

The traditional understanding has been that the incarnation-death-resurrection event gave birth to a new way of salvation for humankind. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. People who believe in him will not perish—or, worse, go to hell—but will have eternal life. These saved people come together to form the community of the church, whose life and mission are described and determined by a comprehensive belief system. The belief system carries all the information and instructions necessary for the church to know what it is, why it is here, and what it is supposed to do.

The raw content for the belief system is provided by the Bible, but the church has had to interpret, process, systematise and apply that raw content. That is the work of theology in the broadest sense.

There are different ways of doing theology, but the point to make here is that a fundamental objective is to bring order, clarity and stability to the chaotic biblical material. We do this by examining the biblical material and sorting it into the standard systematic categories (revelation, christology, soteriology, etc.), or by reducing it to summary doctrinal statements, or by organising it around some core principle or other: the incarnation, personal salvation, the kingdom of God, social action—like rose beds arranged around an ornamental centre-piece.

So here’s the metaphor…

Theology is like a great concrete dam—a massive piece of intellectual infrastructure—that holds in place the reservoir of biblical material. Sluice gates are used to control the flow of biblical “truth” to irrigate the land and sustain life in the regions below the dam, where the church has been settled for the last nearly two thousand years.

But we might ask ourselves: how is it that we have this reservoir of biblical material that needs to be kept in place by the dam of theology? Where has it all come from?

The answer is that there was a river flowing through the landscape of history. That river was the story of the people of God—not the people itself but the story that was being told, from one generation to the next, from age to age.

The story was not like a static pool or lake or reservoir. It was dynamic, changing, at times meandering gracefully across flood plains, at times a white-water torrent cutting through mountains. There were rapids and waterfalls, confluences, cliff faces, shingle beaches, river caves, and overhangs.

The story began with Abraham and the patriarchs. It ran through the long stay in Egypt, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the emergence of the kingdom, the division of the kingdom, invasion and exile, subjection to empires. It surged into the New Testament, becoming the story of the movement of revolution and renewal initiated by Jesus from Nazareth…

But the church decided fairly early on—perhaps some time in the second century—that the story of Israel had been brought to its predicted and inevitable “end”. So they gave up story-telling, closed the canon of scripture, and recruited some of the best philosophically trained minds of the time to devise a system behind which the vast body of biblical truth could be safely stored for future generations.

So the lively river of the biblical narrative ran up against the unyielding barrier of theological orthodoxy, and the waters rose, and became a great immutable lake.

Of course, the original design and construction of the theological dam were matters of great controversy; and it has been subjected to poorly managed redesign and repair over the centuries. But it has stood for a long time—a monument to the theological prowess of the ancients. The scheme has proved extremely effective.

Hasty repairs have been done in the modern era, cracks have been cemented over, but it may only be a matter of time before the theological dam gives way and the river of the story of the people of God begins to flow again.

In recent decades, however, our perspective has begun to change.

Researchers have headed back upstream and have remapped the relation between the tumultuous river of the Jewish narrative and the landscape of history. As a result we have become much more aware of how unlike the original story the placid reservoir of managed biblical truth acually is.

It has become apparent that the story that came after Jesus—the war against Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the protracted contest with paganism, the conversion of the nations, and so on—was submerged under the rising waters of the reservoir. Eschatology was the surging force that drove New Testament belief, but for the theologians it meant instability and disorder and needed to be staunched.

Concerns have also arisen regarding the structural integrity of the dam. It was badly shaken by the earthquake of the Enlightenment and a series of aftershocks. Hasty repairs have been done in the modern era, cracks have been cemented over, but it may only be a matter of time before the theological dam gives way and the river of the story of the people of God begins to flow again.

This is the really challenging and exciting part of a narrative-historical hermeneutic. It’s not just that we have recovered the narrative shape of biblical truth, the historical horizons of New Testament thought. We are also beginning to sense that theology itself is subject to history, it’s part of the story—whether or not the damn dam stays in place.

The management of truth as static system does not serve us well in the post-Christendom era. There is too much happening, too much change going on. The future is too uncertain. We need to learn again to make sense of who we are as the historical people of God—empowered by the Spirit, answerable to Jesus as Lord—by telling our story.

I wrote most of this before I read in the news this morning that nearly 200,000 people have been evacuated from areas downriver of the Oroville Dam in northern California. Heavy storm rains and damage to the emergency spillway have combined to pose a risk of catastrophic flooding. The dam is not about to break, and water levels are dropping, but it is a reminder that our best efforts are not always enough to hold back the forces of nature—or the forces of history.

This is a terrific summary. I’m sending it to everyone. Or at least a person or two. This very much captures the essence of some conversations I’ve been having, recently.

There’s a part of the narrative-historical hermeneutic that’s still not clear to me. Jesus told the Jews that if they were faithful until his return they would not be destroyed like the unfaithful. (I believe this was a big part of the gospel, right?)

But looking back on history, it seems most of the Jews who survived the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans were not Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah.

Do we just say, “That’s how prophesy works; it’s not very exact”?


Yes, I think the issue here is how prophecy works. But I suggest that the point is less that it is inexact than that the prophet, or Jesus in this case, speaks primarily with reference to communities, sections of society, rather than numbered individuals. So Jesus can differentiate between a broad section of Jewish society on a road to destruction and a small group of followers on a difficult path to life, without being held accountable for the fate of every individual in those groups. Yes, we get stories of individuals in either group along the way—Caiaphas, Zacchaeus—but in the narrative they have a representative function.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks, Andrew. That’s helpful.

So the weakness I see in your method is now primarily how you interpret Revelation. I realize this book is notoriously difficult to make sense of; however, the way you chop it up and say Chapters 1-20 refer to past events but the last two chapters, with the exception of the last part of chapter 22 (vv.6-21), refer to future events comes across as special pleading or eisegesis.

It seems to me most New Testament scholars believe Revelation was written after the fall of Jerusalem (Jesus return?). If that’s true, why would the writer of Revelation end the book by saying “Come, Lord Jesus”? Was he unaware of Jesus’ return, looking forward to a third visit, or something else?


I’m sure there are more weaknesses in my method than that!

And yes, special pleading, eisegesis, over-interpretation, under-interpretation, etc., are always a risk. But that’s not a reason not to attempt a comprehensive and coherent interpretation of the text, just to see if it holds together and works in its literary-historical context.

I think that Revelation has in view judgment both on Jerusalem (first horizon) and on Rome (second horizon), in keeping with Old Testament and second temple prophetic-apocalyptic narratives.

Let’s suppose that the book was written in the 90s. That would mean that the prophecy of judgment on Jerusalem was ex eventu, but the proclamation of the fall of corrupt, idolatrous, Satanically inspired Rome, notwithstanding some of the details, was genuinely prophetic.

The temporal differentiation between judgment on the pagan enemy (second horizon) and a final great judgment and renewal of creation (third horizon) is not found in the Old Testament but it appears in the second temple writings. So there is nothing improbable, in my view, about the continuing narrative following the fall of Babylon the great: a final judgment and renewal of all creation after a symbolic thousand period.

Whether Revelation 21:9-22:5 belongs to the final new creation vision or reverts to the historical perspective doesn’t make too much difference.

But I do think that the statements about God as the Alpha and Omega and Jesus as “the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” coming soon (Rev. 1:5, 8; 22:7, 12, 20) has in view not the final judgment but the horizon which was of overriding concern to the original readers of this book in Asia Minor, which was the defeat of imperial paganism and the establishment of YHWH’s rule over the nations.

The dam is already broken. We can find vibrant life and living waters in places where the water flows freely, like a mountain stream cascading down the hillside. Concrete bunkers create stagnant pools that grow bugs, slimy algae and water that is totally unfit for drinking.

david brainerd | Sat, 03/11/2017 - 00:59 | Permalink

There is no real difference between the teo approaches in practice. Because both assume the NT text is inspired of God, and its just not. What needs to be realized is thr NT is a lying systrm built on thr moronic invention of hell and a Messiah and a general resurrection by the Pharisees. The Sadducees were right. What we ought to be is Sadducees minus the ritualism, not Christians nor rabbinical Jews, because afterlifes and Messiahs is Babylonian comic book nonsense not really found in the OT minus the fake Pharisee book of Daniel.