Chris Wright’s The Mission of God’s People is methodologically one of the best books on a biblical theology of mission that I have come across. I will be recommending it in the workshops that Wes and I will be doing at the Communitas staff conference later this week. Wright argues that mission arises out of the whole story of the people of God told in scripture and that mission must engage the whole life of the people of God, and I agree with him. The book is a careful, thorough, scholarly, but very readable exposition of the thesis.
But I think that Wright misses an important dimension to the biblical story and as a result overlooks a crucial aspect of the missional task today. The point can be illustrated by considering this diagrammatic representation of the biblical story, which I have adapted from the book (40). It is fairly typical of evangelical narrative theologies. Creation, fall and new creation are the enclosing sections of the biblical story; the large space in the middle is filled with “Redemption in History”. Click for a larger version.
Wright presents the biblical story in just a single chapter, so there is bound to be disagreement over details, and the story gets filled out in the subsequent chapters as Wright explores the implications for the mission of the church. Fair enough. But it seems to me that there are two glaring problems with the narrative, specifically with the characterisation of the main biblical story as “redemption in history”. First, is this really history? Secondly, is it really about redemption primarily?
Is this really history?
If we look carefully at the diagram, we notice that the “history” is all to the left of Jesus. To the right we have the events of the two month period between the death of Jesus and the pouring out of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Then we have the mission of the church. Then it all comes to an end with the parousia, the resurrection of all the dead, final judgment and new creation.
But nothing worth mentioning actually happens between Pentecost and the parousia. There is no “history” comparable to the series of massively significant events that we find on the other side: exodus, Sinai, monarchy, exile and return—to which we should add the traumatic experience of Hellenisation following the conquests of Alexander the Great (Dan. 7-12), and, beyond the horizon of the Old Testament, the violent incursion of Rome into Israel’s world. Even the word “history” occurs only on the left hand side. How bizarre is that! It appears that history is operative up to Jesus and the beginning of the mission of the church, and then it stops. Why would that be?
Well, you might say, the reason is obvious. The future hadn’t happened yet.
But with the possible exception of some of the minor epistles (Philemon, 3 John?), every book of the New Testament is explicitly, solidly and centrally oriented towards future outcomes of immense theological significance: the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven, the vindication of the faithful, the defeat of the man of lawlessness, the punishment of the persecutors of the churches, the outpouring of the wrath of God, the fall of Babylon the great, which is pagan Rome, the resurrection of the dead in Christ, the rule of Christ over the nations, and so on.
These events are not just aspects of the final judgment and renewal of creation. Some of them at least can be associated with actual historical events. The impression is given that these apocalyptic narratives would play themselves out within a realistic and foreseeable future, a good part of it within the lifetime of the disciples.
In Wright’s schematic, however, all we have is the parousia as one of the end-time events, with no reference to it in the index—something to worry about when we get there, I suppose. The pervasive and urgent prophetic-apocalyptic outlook of the New Testament simply doesn’t feature in this narrative theology.
Why? Presumably because it doesn’t fit the traditional evangelical model, which still wants to make this a history of redemption, with the cross right in the middle. I understand the reasons for doing this, but I think it gets the basic storyline wrong.
First, Abraham was called for the purpose of blessing the nations not of redeeming the world. There is no “redemption” of the world in the Old Testament. Rather, the redemption of Israel results in the realignment of the nations around a restored Zion. The nations are not “redeemed”, just brought under the just and peaceful governance of YHWH.
The clearest echo of the promise to Abraham is found in Zechariah 8:13: “so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing” (Zech. 8:13). God redeems his people, and then “Many peoples and strong nations shall come to seek the LORD of hosts in Jerusalem and to entreat the favour of the LORD” (Zech. 8:22). Abraham is not, as Wright argues, God’s solution to “the problem of humanity—sin and division”. He is the solution to the problem of Babel, which is first Babylon and finally Rome in the biblical narrative. Abraham is God’s response to the problem of empire.
Secondly, there is not one “redemption in history” narrative, there are multiple redemption-in-history narratives, the more significant ones being: the rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, the return from exile and rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple; the deliverance of God’s people from complete destruction by Rome; the inclusion of Gentiles in this redeemed people. I sincerely hope that today God is in the process of redeeming the church in the secular West from irrelevance and obsolescence.
Thirdly, there is something more important going in the biblical narrative than redemption, which brings me to the second glaring problem.
Is it really about redemption?
Oddly, there is no place for the “kingdom of God” in Wright’s diagram. Jesus came to save his people from their sins, to look for the lost sheep of the house of Israel, to give his life as a ransom for many in Israel. But this theme, surely, is subordinate to the proclamation of the kingdom of God, the significance of which is encapsulated perhaps most sharply in Jesus’ words to Caiaphas: “I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
Israel is redeemed, Gentiles are added in for an eschatological purpose: for the sake of the new order that will arrive in a foreseeable future when the churches will inherit the world, when the root of Jesse will rule over the nations (Rom. 4:13; 15:12).
In Wright’s account, the kingdom of God is only the immanent action of God “in the words and deeds of Jesus and the mission of his disciples”, which “changed lives, values and priorities, and presented a radical challenge to the fallen structures of power in society” (42). This is too weak in historical terms. When reference is made to the coming of the kingdom of God, what is in view is not a progressive transformation of individual lives but certain political events that would profoundly and decisively alter the status of God’s people vis-à-vis the nations.
We have the political disaster of the Babylonian invasion and exile on the left, but we do not have the greater disaster of the war against Rome on the right. We have the triumph of YHWH’s deliverance of his people from their captivity to pagan Babylon on the left, but we do not have the much great triumph of YHWH’s annexation of the nations of the pagan Roman empire on the right.
The story of the people of God from the exile onwards is the story of how the most fearsome beastly empire would be judged, overthrown, destroyed, and dominion over the nations would be given to “one like a son of man”.
Wright’s narrative paradigm can do nothing with the persistent eschatological hope of second temple Judaism, which was that the hostile nations that made up Israel’s world would re-organise themselves around a restored Jerusalem, would bring tribute to Israel’s king, would come to do obeisance to Israel’s God and learn his ways—or something along those lines. Why should this thoroughly political vision be so abruptly abandoned when we get to the one who, by his resurrection from the dead, became the Son of God in power and gained the nations as his heritage?
Obviously, the war against Rome put an end to any hope that Jerusalem would be the glorious capital of YHWH’s new empire. But the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament, nevertheless, was precisely that the crucified Jesus would judge and rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world from his position at the right hand of YHWH in the “Jerusalem above”.
It makes nonsense of the Old Testament as history to reduce this to the mission of the church transforming lives. The proclamation of the gospel and the transformation of lives was the means by which the historical outcomes would be achieved.
Same today—only different historical outcomes.
If we are going to introduce “history” into our narrative theologies, then we have to take history seriously. History is not the predetermined movement of a few symbolic pieces across the playing board of a biblical theology. History is what goes on in the real world. History is what impacts, shapes, and threatens the existence of the new creation in Abraham. A narrative theology is how we make sense of that relentless, disruptive experience, how we tell our story.