A major part of my general argument is that the modern church thinks of the New Testament as theology (or beliefs) set in a historical context and thinks that the historical context is of much less importance than the theology. My contention is that the New Testament gives us the opposite: history set in theological context, or theologically interpreted history; and that the history is of central importance. The defectiveness of our common understanding of the New Testament can be illustrated rather well by means of a couple of diagrams from Donald Hagner’s book The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction.
The first diagram presents the salvation-historical timeline of the Old Testament (15). We begin, naturally, with Eden and the fall, and then the chart splits between the up-and-down historical experience of Israel and an idealized trajectory which culminates in prophetic visions of a renewed creation that transcends history.
I think there are some problems with the chart. For example, I disagree with the popular argument that the answer to the fall is anticipated in the statement in Genesis 3:15 about enmity between the descendants of the serpent and the descendants of the woman. There are narratives beyond the exile that are of considerable importance for the New Testament which should be included, notably Daniel’s account of the crisis provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes. Lastly, the prophets do not envisage a return to paradise. They address what is going on in the lower part of the chart—the fall of the northern kingdom, the fall of the southern kingdom, the exile, the return from exile, and subsequent events. I will argue in my next post that this apparent language of transcendence has new creation in view only in a metaphorical sense. There is an ascending trajectory, but it does not escape the gravitational pull of history in the Old Testament. It climaxes in the rule of YHWH over the nations following the decisive restoration of his people—that is, in the kingdom of God.
But it’s the contrast between this detailed diagrammatic summary of the Old Testament story of kingdom and the simplistic chart which Hagner uses to explain Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God (75) that I think is really telling.
When we get to the New Testament, history has disappeared and has been replaced by an enervated eschatological schema. The clear assumption is that the historical narrative of the people of God no longer counts for anything. All we need is a flimsy two-age structure in which nothing happens any more. It’s just the church waiting for the eschaton, for ever and ever, amen.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans and the conversion of the empire were much bigger historical and theological events than anything that happened in the Old Testament. The New Testament is no different from the Old Testament in that it narrates both past events and future events. Just as the Old Testament foresaw the exile, the return from exile, the defeat of Hellenism, so the New Testament foresees judgment on Israel and the overthrow of classical paganism. The New Testament chart should look like the Old Testament chart—a series of decisive events, moving into the future, interpreted theologically, culminating in the historical event of the coming of God’s reign over the nations—and whatever comes next—with the new heavens and new earth way off in the distance.