New year, new attempt to explain what this blog is all about

Read time: 5 minutes

The argument runs something like this….

The church began as a movement within first century Judaism. Like any other historical movement, its character and purpose were shaped by its historical circumstances. It was a product of its time and place. It was part of an ancient story.

The church presented itself, in the first place, as the solution to a concrete Jewish problem: how would the covenant people survive the foreseen disaster of the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple? It then discovered that the solution to this problem—the way of Jesus—opened up a further quite stunning horizon. The judgment and salvation of Israel would lead eventually to the judgment and salvation of the Greek-Roman world.

This two-stage argument about the future of God and his people was explained by reference to the Jewish scriptures, as the climax to a complex but persistent narrative that could be traced back through the historical experience of foreign oppression and exile to the promise of YHWH to David that his throne would be established forever (2 Sam. 7:16).

From history to theology and back again

As the church settled in the Greek-Roman world, however, this thoroughly Jewish narrative-historical self-understanding was replaced by a theological system designed to provide comprehensive meaning for a pagan empire that was willing to let go of its gods but not of its philosophers. The Jewish scriptures came to be read not as a multifarious account of historical experience and expectation but as a massive allegorical prefiguring of a universal redemptive event.

I quite like what Richard Hanson had to say about Clement of Alexandria’s adoption of Philo’s method of exegesis—I came across it in Wes Howard-Brook’s Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected (2nd - 5th Centuries), 131, more on which later:

The temptation to use this tradition for much the same purposes as Philo used it, to introduce into the biblical text a philosophical system which is not there, was too great for him. He is the first Christian writer to use allegory for this purpose, and he provided an example which Origen followed with deplorable eagerness….

As far as the church was concerned, eternal truths were in control. The unruly Jewish scriptures were to be tamed by allegorisation. History had come to an end.

Fifteen hundred years later history got its revenge.

In the modern era historical criticism, with some help from the natural sciences, has largely destroyed the public credibility of the Christian theological worldview.

Until fairly recently the only option the believing church had was stubbornly to defend the theological system—by fair means or foul—against the powerfully corrosive forces of critical reason. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that this is a misguided and unsustainable strategy. So my argument here is that the church must learn to embrace “history” as the interpretive frame both for our reading of scripture and for the development of a viable “biblical” response to the current crisis. Historical criticism has severely undermined the theological interpretation of scripture, but in the process it has exposed the dynamic presence of God where scripture itself locates him—in the tumultuous flow of history.

History, I argue, is not an enemy but a friend to “evangelical” interpretation. History will save us from history.

Where the action is

There are three levels at which the church may attempt to read the biblical story: the cosmic, the personal and the “political”. The theological mind reads at a cosmic level and at a personal level. It takes from scripture an overarching story of creation, fall, incarnation-redemption, and final judgment, and addresses the condition of every individual in terms of that story.

The modern evangelical preoccupation with the salvation of individual people has been somewhat corrected in recent years. There has been a concerted attempt to find room in the evangelical programme for social and environmental concerns by refocusing on the creational-cosmic dimension. But this remains within the static, ahistorical paradigm.

History, on the other hand, gives us a “political” reading of the Bible as the story of the troubled existence of Israel and its relation to more powerful neighbouring nations. What marks the story out in particular is its prophetic character: it is always driving towards real historical outcomes interpreted as acts of God. In the New Testament we are approaching a climactic moment in the long story of Israel. How things will turn out is of the utmost importance.

Creation forms the backdrop to this story: the God of Israel is also the God of the whole earth; Israel sins because it shares in the sinfulness of all humanity; and so on. Individuals—primarily individual Jews—have to make personal decisions in response to the prophetic narrative. If a person believed and confessed that YHWH had given his “Son” supreme authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations, that had to have life-changing repercussions. But the “theological” content of the Bible—righteousness, mission, judgment, gospel, salvation, discipleship, etc.—has to be understood with reference to the mediating political story of Israel and the nations. This is where all the action is.

There is no universal salvation in the New Testament, only salvation as part of the story of Israel and the nations of the Greek-Roman world. If we want to offer salvation today, we must first work out how to tell the story that has brought us to where we are today—and where that story might be taking us.

Time to move on

I think that we have pretty much exhausted the theological mine in our search for resources to sustain the church in the post-Christendom context. We can keep patrolling its dark tunnels in hope of recapturing something of the industry and purpose of old, but I fear we will be wasting our time. I think we have to abandon the theological mine—leave it for the archaeologists and tourists—and start walking boldly down the road of history again, into our own uncertain future.

So this blog—for want of a better word—is an attempt 1) to develop and describe what I call the “narrative-historical” method for reading the Bible, 2) to explore its manifold implications for interpretation, and 3) to ask how the method might serve the church in the West as it sets about the challenging task of reimagining how it might fulfil its ancient calling to be a priestly people in an increasingly hostile—or worse, indifferent—secular culture.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 01/03/2018 - 22:28 | Permalink

Useful to touch base and be reminded of what this is all about. I’m no further forward with how we work out whatever relevance Jesus may have for us today. Maybe that’s the whole point.

Peter Enns says this: “Paul transforms a tribal story, of kings, land, and the purity of one group of people, into a global story of God’s grace and peace to all nations.” (The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It”).

I think this is where I’m at in viewing scripture as a whole, the revolutionary impact of Jesus on all history (including our own times), and the creative ways in which NT authors read meanings into OT scriptures which were certainly not there in their original contexts.

Happy New Year to you and all your visitors in the blogosphere, and as Tiny Tim said in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol: “God bless us all!”

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, the issue I have with Enns (and with most Progressives) is they say stuff like, Although most of the Bible is mythology created by ancient ignorant people, the part about Jesus is what really matters since he was God incarnate who changed everything! 

But then if you push them to explain why this part isn’t mythology, they say, It’s a matter of faith. And if you ask them what Jesus’ huge impact was on the world, they say things like, He came to end religions and teach us all to love each other.

It all comes across as very arbitrary and over-hyped.

Like Andrew, Progressives recognized the problem and put forward a solution, but their solution is simply a watered-down theology bolstered by a few cherry-picked verses and an emphasis on loving others.

I’m all for loving others but a theological system based on selective faith (when it’s convenient) offers no real grounding and no intellectually honest way forward. (Andrew’s post on Tim Keller vs. Rachel Held Evans did a good job in adressing this.)

@Peter Simmonds:

Peter (Simmonds) — I think this is rather a mangled version of what Enns is saying. I don’t know who ‘most Progressives’ are. I think Enns says that much of the OT is history adapted to meet the needs of the present (at the time it was written). This, he says, is also true of how the NT authors also adapted and reinterpreted the OT, and indeed the story (stories) of Jesus himself. He also says that the OT is essentially ancient tribal history, similar in many ways to the stories of other ancient tribes in the NME. It’s how they saw God. It’s actually quite far removed from how Jesus reflected God, though the usual practice is to cherry pick OT passages that harmonise with the NT picture of God as presented by Jesus and ignore the rest.

I haven’t read Enns saying that Jesus came to end all religions, though he does say that Jesus was the concluding chapter in Israel’s story (which is hard to refute from the NT). I haven’t even heard Enns say that Jesus came to teach us all to love each other, though that would be a revolutionary idea in itself, is the consistent message of Jesus in the gospels and in the letters, and might be worth a try some day.

I don’t think Enns can be accused of cherry picking a few verses, or an emphasis on loving others, or even a watered down theology. Despite the vernacular style of the book I referred to, it is extremely carefully thought out and structured, and reflects the views of an academic, not a populist.

I’ve also read the Tim Heller vs. Rachel Held Evans post, and while Andrew has an interesting way of subverting the entire assumptions on which the debate is conducted, I don’t find his alternative any more convincing, not least for the very simple problem I highlighted in the comment to which you have replied.

And my apologies Andrew: I’m hi-jacking your blog yet again.

@peter wilkinson:

Hi Peter, I wasn’t referring to any book by Enns, just what I’ve learned of his views from interacting with him over the years. Although he has more knowledge of ancient cultures than many, I find the way he handles the NT very haphazard, similar to others who call themselves Progressives. (And I am lumping him in with other Progressives, so the characterization I gave is a compilation view—some have emphasized some aspects more than others.)

I also don’t find Andrew’s view completely convincing but I do find it uses a consistent hermeneutic that tries to make sense of the whole of scripture. I appreciate that. :)

@Peter Simmonds:

Thanks Peter. I agree that Andrew is consistent, as far as he can be. Something else Enns says is that the bible is not the centre of God’s purposes, but Jesus is. Which is quite a statement coming from him. But this is the bible’s own testimony, and should remind us that the NT points to an experience of God before it provides a coherent explanation. Commentators of all stripes, myself included, would do well to remember this, since God is constantly upsetting our presuppositions about who he is and how he should behave. Which is how God constantly does things in the bible. Beware supposedly watertight systems of any kind is how I would summarise what the bible says about God. He seems to have an aversion to being put in a box.

@peter wilkinson:

Just correcting myself: Enns says that the bible is not the centre of the Christian faith, but Jesus is. (I had ‘centre of God’s purposes’). Slight but significant difference. Everything else remains the same.

Richard Worden… | Fri, 01/05/2018 - 06:29 | Permalink

I often wonder, when reading and considering various theological discussions, whether having or adopting a faith perspective more like that of Jesus, the apostles, and even Paul, wherein there is the active belief that Yahweh God was and is the determinative agent in initiating, structuring, executing, maintaining, and inspiring the most true and productive interpretations of what becomes established as the biblical narrative and the theological interpretations of the events that constitute that narrative, might actually be the most accurate mode of understanding what the narrative is all about. The idea that “Paul transforms a tribal story, of kings, land, and the purity of one group of people, into a global story of God’s grace and peace to all nations,” for instance, just seems to ignore the ideas evident in the OT and the teaching of the (other) apostles that God’s purposes were and are for “all nations.” Similarly, the reductionistic focus on the teaching of Jesus being mostly or only about the restoration of the political historical kingdom of Israel just seems to ignore so much that is actually in the New Testament. Yes, that is a push back on the contorted, somewhat distorted, historical/theological oddities of Andrew’s interpretation of the New Testament. Detailed criticisms might be more to the liking of many readers here, but perhaps a bigger picture challenge might be more helpful.

@Richard Worden…:

Richard, I actually think Andrew gets the big picture narrative right. I don’t think the narrative is about or for all nations. I think the narrative is a Jewish narrative focused on God’s chosen people—the descendants of Abraham. Through their obedience all nations would be blessed, but they would be blessed through their interactions with the nation of Israel.

I blame the Gentile Early Church Fathers (many of whom were anti-Semitic) for hijacking the Jewish scriptures and transforming them into this universal theological system we call Christianity.