Roger Olson discusses what he calls a “paradigm shift in Christian theology” in the modern era. The largely novel thesis is that Jesus is the full and perfect revelation of God. There is no other God “lurking behind Jesus with a different character, disposition, than the one revealed in the person of Jesus Christ”. Or in the words of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey: “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.” For theologians like Greg Boyd this means, in particular, that the seemingly violent God of the Old Testament has to be reinterpreted through the lens of the crucified and “pacifist” Jesus.
Olson notes the statement in the Epistle to Diognetus (2nd century AD) that “Violence has no place in the character of God” (7:4) and argues that the “immediately surrounding context indicates strongly that this strange statement is based on the person of Jesus Christ as the perfect manifestation of God”.
This is a little misleading. The writer is speaking only about the manner in which God sought to save people; he is not making the crucified Christ the hermeneutic for rereading the Old Testament:
When he sent him, he did so as one who saves by persuasion, not compulsion (biazomenos), for compulsion (or “violence”: bia) is no attribute of God. When he sent him, he did so as one calling, not pursuing; when he sent him, he did so as one loving, not judging.
The next sentence seems to affirm a future judgment:
It is also of great significance that the writer has almost no interest in the Jewish story leading up to Jesus. The Jews had at best a superstitious and deficient knowledge of God. The pagans had no knowledge at all. So Jesus constituted to all intents and purposes a fundamentally new revelation of the true God:
For what person had any knowledge at all of what God was before he came? … No one has either seen or known him, but he has revealed himself. And he revealed himself through faith, which is the only means by which one is permitted to see God. …after conceiving a great and marvellous plan, he communicated it to his child alone. Now as long as he kept it a secret and guarded his wise design, he seemed to neglect and be unconcerned about us, but when he revealed it through his beloved child and made known the things prepared from the beginning, he gave us everything at once, both to share in his benefits and to see and understand things that none of us ever would have expected. (Diog. 8:1, 5-6, 9-11)
Here we see how, at a very early stage, the idea developed that Jesus could be understood theoretically as the definitive revelation of God apart from the narrative-historical arrangement of scripture. This is the beginning of the triumph of theology over history. This is the first and decisive paradigm shift in Christian theology.
Once the point has been established, it becomes routine to read the Bible backwards: we start with the Greek Trinitarian construct, read the New Testament narrowly on that basis as a Christian text, and hammer and hack at the Jewish Old Testament until it fits the Procrustean bed of our orthodoxy.
Olson goes so far as to say that one of the implications of the doctrine that Jesus is the perfect revelation of the character of God may be that “our Bibles should begin with the New Testament”. He has on occasion encouraged his students to “read the Bible backwards”.
To make the point, he asks them: “If you could only translate one book of the Bible for a people group without the Bible in their language, which book would it be?” Most of them answer the Gospel of John, which is hardly surprising, because they have all been theologically preconditioned.
These are interesting questions.
To start with, there are other ways we might reorganise the canon—arrangements that would give us a better impression of its historical character. I would suggest, for example, that the New Testament story really begins with Daniel 7-12. It is the clash with European pagan empire in the second century BC that determines the apocalyptic arc of the hope that was placed in Jesus, culminating in the judgment on Babylon the great and the establishment of the kingdom of our God and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15; 18:1-20:6).
Or more simply, why not dispense with the distinction between the two “Testaments” altogether and just have a unified set of texts telling the story of the God of Israel and the nations, with the Gospel of John tacked on the end as an afterthought?
So in light of that, which one book of the Bible gives us the best understanding of the Christian message?
John’s Gospel may well portray Jesus “most clearly as the perfect revelation of the character of God”. But that should leave us wondering whether the rest of the New Testament really has to be understood as a rather muddled and unclear attempt to make the same point. Perhaps John is an oddity, an exception, an outlier, an anachronism. Perhaps it’s actually the least helpful book for understanding what God as up to in the first century AD.
I would propose, instead, either Acts or Revelation. In their very different ways, they both tell the story of how the God of Israel reformed his own people, put a greater son of David on the throne to rule throughout the coming ages, and set about the long arduous task of taking control of the Roman Empire through the faithful witness of men and women who believed that Jesus now reigned at the right hand of the Father.
The crucifixion of Jesus was part of this process. As John the Seer puts it, only the Lamb who was slain was able to open the seals of judgment on Israel and the pagan nations (Rev. 5:9-10). But the story as a whole reveals YHWH as the God who bends history to his own purposes and for his own glory.