I am arguing on this site for a major shift in the way that the church reads the New Testament and presents its significant content. Most churches today start from a theological tradition and, wittingly or otherwise, read the New Testament for the purpose of explaining, elaborating upon and defending that tradition. In the case of evangelicals the tradition is multi-faceted: it might take the shape of the formulations of classical patristic orthodoxy or Reformed dogmatics or nineteenth century pietism or modern salvationism. These theological lenses, however, in their different ways, invariably distort the content of the New Testament: they obscure the political significance of Jesus, they blank out the historical context, they over-personalise the language of faith, they diminish the apocalyptic dimension, and so on.
The alternative is to read the New Testament historically, in the light not of theological tradition but of the numerous debates that currently make up the field of New Testament studies. What this means, most importantly, is that the story about Jesus and the mission of his followers is reconnected with the story of Israel and read under the constraints imposed by a first century perspective.
A quick reconstruction of the story
The sort of narrative synthesis that I think emerges from this alternative approach runs roughly thus:
- Israel was in a state of moral and religious crisis, and, in the words of John the Baptist, the axe was already laid to the root of the trees;
- Jesus was the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel, at this critical historical moment, to proclaim the imminent intervention of God to judge and reform his people;
- he gathered a group of followers with the specific purpose of continuing his prophetic mission;
- he was opposed and killed by the leadership of Israel;
- it was proclaimed that he had been raised to the right hand of God, in the expectation that within a generation he and his followers would be vindicated by events (the war against Rome is firmly in view);
- it dawned on the early church fairly quickly that the salvation of Israel in this remarkable fashion would have sweeping implications for the nations of the Greek-Roman world;
- the message then was that in due course God would also judge the pagan nations, which would finally recognise his unique deity and glory and confess his Son as Lord;
- the apocalyptic climax is described in Revelation: the overthrow of idolatrous and reprobate Rome, the marriage supper of the Lamb as a celebration of the faithful witness of the churches, the confinement of Satan to the abyss, and the resurrection of the martyrs to reign with Christ, the first martyr, throughout the coming ages;
- the story concludes in a remote and transcendent future with a final judgment of all humanity and the remaking of heaven and earth.
So this is principally an account of a massively significant sequence of “political” events in the history of God’s people, spanning the first three centuries of the Christian era. Of course, few New Testament scholars would agree with me that the apostles had anything as worldly and flawed as European Christendom in view when they proclaimed the coming rule of the root of Jesse over the nations (cf. Rom 15:12). But I think that if the method is consistently applied, that is an inevitable conclusion.
But how do modern evangelicals, who have been trained to read the New Testament very differently, through the various lenses of theological interpretation, adjust to this quite radical change of perspective?
A while back I was sent three questions by a young woman who has been wrestling earnestly with just this challenge. The questions get at the heart of an evangelical self-understanding. They aim at the key beliefs or convictions or practices that we fear may be at risk if we venture to shift from theology to history. No one wants to fall between two stools. Others will have different ways of organising their priorities, but I think that the questions are broadly representative of the dilemma that evangelicals face when confronted by the narrative-historical alternative.
1. How am I saved from my sins?
The narrative-historical argument about salvation is, first, that Jesus died for the sins of Israel, and secondly, that his death abrogated the Law that for centuries had reserved membership of the people of God for circumcised descendants of Abraham and their families, plus a few proselytes. Jews who believed in Jesus were saved from the destruction that was coming on second temple Judaism; Gentiles were saved from a wicked, Godless, and obsolescent paganism. Both groups now had a share or inheritance in the life of the age that would come, when Jesus would be revealed to the nations.
My answer to the question, therefore, is that because Jesus died for the sins of Israel, I am free to become part of the redeemed and transformed historical people of God. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness to the point of death on a Roman cross, God is prepared to forgive my sins and give me his Holy Spirit if I too make the confession that Jesus is Lord, seated at the right hand of the Father, sovereign over history.
So the key to my “salvation”, I think, is the connection between Jesus’ obedience to the Father in his mission to Israel, which resulted in his death, and the Father’s willingness to forgive the sins of those who believe in his Son in the context of the whole prophetic-apocalyptic narrative—not because of anything that they have done to merit it but because of what Jesus did.
I accept that, for convenience, we may still want to reduce that rather complicated statement to the formula “Jesus died for my sins”, but that should not be at the expense of a deliberate and full rehearsal of the larger narrative.
2. What is our mission today?
If we consider the whole biblical story, it seems to me that the mission of the church cannot be reduced either to proclaiming the kingdom of God or to saving people from their sins. The New Testament expectation that God was about to act as king to judge his people and defeat his enemies belongs to history. The salvation of individual people is not an absolute existential business. It is determined by the larger story and is secondary to the fundamental mission of the church, which is to serve the interests of the creator, as a priestly-prophetic people, throughout history.
That Jesus sent out his disciples to proclaim the coming kingdom of God to Israel and the nations, that Paul carried the good news of a radically different future across the Greek-Roman world, from Jerusalem perhaps as far as Spain—these are past missions, for particular historical purposes. Something needed to be done. They did it.
What is our mission today? I would say two things. First, we are still that priestly-prophetic people, entrusted with the task of representing, defending, mediating through our corporate existence the reality and glory of the living God in the world. When we say the Lord’s prayer, we focus far too much on the petition “Thy kingdom come”, which is now out of date, and too little on the leading petition “Hallowed be thy name”, which is absolutely the problem in the secular West.
Is social activism part of our mission as the church? Yes, if it demonstrably brings glory to the living creator God. Is personal evangelism part of our mission? Yes, if it sustains an effective priestly-prophetic community under the present circumstances, which brings me to the second task.
Especially in the Western context, we are called to work out how to serve the living God well after Christendom, under the sway of an increasingly self-confident secular humanism. If a person is “saved” today, he or she must receive that gift on the understanding that it burdens them with the distinctive contemporary missional task.
3. What is the most important belief?
I take this to mean, “What belief most critically defines the Christian identity of the church as the priestly-prophetic servant people of the living creator God?” That may not have been quite how it was intended, but that’s how it makes sense to me.
The answer seems to me pretty obvious: not that Jesus died for my sins; not that Jesus is God, which may be true but not in any sense clearly envisaged by the New Testament; it is that Jesus is Lord. His lordship is no longer recognised by the nations, but the fact remains that he is still at the right hand of the Father, sovereign above all earthly powers, directing and defending his body, which is the church (cf. Eph. 1:20-23). This is the conviction that drove the witness of the early church, and I think that we need to recover the force of it as we face our own crisis of credibility and relevance.
So where’s the downside?
My view is that we lose very little from this change of perspective and gain a great deal. We keep all the theological content, we just reorganise it. The controlling belief is not that Jesus came into the world to die for the sins of humanity; it is that God intervened through the agency of his Son in the history of his people to save them from destruction, vindicate himself in the eyes of the pagan nations and Rome in particular, and establish his own reign in place of the old so-called gods.
The key theological components—gospel, wrath, salvation, faith, justification, substitutionary atonement, resurrection, evangelism, lordship, new creation—continue to be operative but as part of the historical narrative. I would insist that the patristic doctrine of the Trinity was a legitimate part of the historical narrative as it unfolded in the period after the New Testament.
I also think that many of the traditional practices remain valid: worship, prayer, the Lord’s supper, acts of compassion, community building, prophetic speech and action, proclamation, and so on. What has changed is the story that we tell about who we are and what we do.
So I think that what needs to be done is less to run around correcting standard evangelical doctrine or look for new and exciting things to do that will get people back into church, and more for teachers, pastors and writers to tell the biblical story as it presents itself to us—that is, as a close, dense engagement with, and interpretation of, the realities of ancient history. It is only on the basis of that story, in the long run, that we serve the interests of the living God as a priestly-prophetic community.