p.ost

(how to tell the biblical story
in a way that makes a difference)

Evangelicals and the narrative-historical method: three questions

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.

The questions 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.

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.

Comments

This is very helpful; thank you!

From my (former) perch in US Evangelicalism, I would suggest that, at least in that context, it would be important to carefully re-think what the churches communicate when they use the language of “the wrath of God.” This is very central to Evangelical self-conception, at least in US context. US Evangelicalism thinks of “wrath” almost exclusively in terms of post-mortem punishments/ECT, and the horror of that seems to motivate its focus on “getting people saved”/”individualistic salvationism”, to the exclusion of many significant real-world concerns that would fall under “serving the interests of the Creator” (for example, wisely stewarding the planet He has entrusted to our care).

An illustration of your assessment that the Scriptures are read through the lens of, and with the (perhaps unarticulated) agenda of supporting, theological tradition is that (US) Evangelicals tend to get their doctrine of salvation/justification from Romans but their doctrine of what we are saved/justified from (“wrath”) from (an IMO tendentious interpretation of) Jesus’ “gehenna” sayings and the fiery lake scene in Revelation 20.

But if one were to reverse the sourcing, and get one’s theology of wrath from Romans (where “wrath” is thoroughly “under the sun”) and one’s theology of justification from the Gospels (where it is primarily “by works”), one gets a theology that looks completely different. I have been moving in the direction of suspecting that the alternative “sourcing” of memes might be more nearly true to the original intent of the writers.

Thank you. An excellent analysis. Personally it’s always seemed to me easier to establish the “under the sun” interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna than of Paul’s doctrine of “wrath”. Paul is a more abstract thinker and he’s having to deal with a less precisely conceived eschatological outcome. But your point is well made.

I appreciated your thoughts prompted by Andrew’s post, and found them helpful, as well as Andrew’s short response to you.

Thank you, Andrew. My perspective on Question #1 “How am I saved from my sins?” differs from yours.

I’ve consistently attempted over the decades to remove theological paradigms, whilst trying to hear what the text really reveals. From that labour of love follows my current answer to Question#1: albeit whispered in humility.

The overarching and inescapable premise is that God declares that He does not change. Hence, the God of Moses, is the God of Paul, and the God of all of us in the 21st Century.

The next inescapable reality is that we have unambiguous declarations in the Old Testament, and confirmed by the words of Jesus, that e.g. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive and well in God’s presence (Exo 3:6; Mrk 12:26f).

We also need to acknowledge something systemically misrepresented in Evanglicalism, namely the false notion that Jews think that their obedience to the 613 Commands/Mitzvot is going to buy them a place in Heaven. Not a single Jewish soul things that. Even the opening pericope of Psalm 119 makes this very clear.

Our Jewish brothers also know, and Jesus confirms, what the Lord requires: Micah 6:6f makes this very clear. It’s not by the sacrifices.

Thus salvation in OT times was neither by obedience to the Law (as a checklist obedience), nor through the sacrifices.

This leaves us with the question of How people like Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, Moses, David, Micah, and so forth were saved, and the answer is “by Grace.” And they knew it.

But that Grace had to be based on something… or rather: Someone. Christ’s death thus stands in the epicentre of human experience. With God living above time, it was Christ’s sacrifice which enable our Holy God to initiate, and maintain relationship with an unholy humanity.

If we add to this the fact that Jesus exclusively taught Torah, and in multiple places emphasizes obedience, even to the point of explicitly stating: “Not those who say, Lord, Lord, but those who do the will of my Father…,” things start to warm up.

Add to this Revelation’s references to the karakter of the adversary, and the karakter of the Father, and we’re left with the conclusion that we are to resemble/reflect the character of God in our lives. And this requirement applied to Abraham, to Moses, the Micah, to Peter, and to each of us.

I the LORD do not change.

What changed is that we have a greater revelation: We have a complete Torah, a complete Tanakh or Old Testament, a complete New Testament, the role-model of Christ, and of the Saints through the ages. And with that greater revelation, as Paul ascerts in Romans 11:21, comes a greater obligation to reflect that character of God in our lives.

In closing, I can never deny the massive transformation in my own life (relative, obviously, to my past… so no claims here) the moment I surrendered to the LORD on a specific day/time decades ago. Thus there is a special annointing, a special additional revelation for those who yield in an explicit way to God. Where I have to say, that the yielding was most definitely not by my doing: God worked all the circumstances, and it was God who grabbed me in the neck and places me on my knees. I can brag of nothing, except a growing longing to know Him more.

So how are we saved from our sins? By the blood of Christ. And this has not changed in all of mankind’s history. It is the autonomous work of God.

Where does faith come in? In reflecting God’s character. Faith/pistis being a relational term. Living by an attitude of humility, and always seeking to align oneself with what is right, true, noble, and to the edification of the other and of society. By what plumbline? The Word of God, the life of our Savior, the role-model examples of those who went before us.

As for declaring Jesus is Lord? Even the demons do that (James 2:19).

Our Evangelical tradition needs much more humility. Much more respect for people of different traditions, and–above all–much more respect for God. Romans 3:4 Let God be true. God’s judgment on me, on you, and every soul on this planet will be a Just judgment. And what that judgment is, is absolutely none of my business. That’s God’s responsibility, and He is faithful.

The overarching issue for me is: What is MY responsibility before God. I can leave the Salvation question to Him. But… what am I to do, today, in the life I live. How can I be a faithful steward of the life and the talents given me. How is my life to be lived. Those are questions which challenge me, and I find lots of answers in the Torah for that (even as taught by Christ himself), and lots of answers by the exemplary lives of so many people of so many different traditions–even traditions outside of faith.

@ Andrew

A quick reconstruction of the story

A quick bulleted list of comments, in reply

  • “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” => OK
  • “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” => If God judges, then He absolves or condemns: not easy to fit the “reform” category here
  • “he gathered a group of followers with the specific purpose of continuing his prophetic mission” => But his followers considered him the Messiah, even after his earthly mission apparently failed: to affirm that the “followers [were charged by Jesus, even after his death] with the specific purpose of continuing his prophetic mission” means to accept that that mission was only/mainly to Israel. Not the way things turned out.
  • “he was opposed and killed by the leadership of Israel” => OK, with a “little help” from the Romans …
  • “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)” => You omit even to mention the Resurrection, which, for the Apostles and then for Paul was the turning point. As for the “vindication within a generation”, it is your peculiar (biased) reading and to construct the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem into a “vindication” seems embarrassingly anti-Semitic.
  • “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” => What actually happened can in no way be called “the salvation of Israel”, not even in a “remarkable fashion”, not even in a metaphorical sense, not even appealing to “God’s mysterious ways”, and certainly not without resorting to a massive dose of theology: on the face of it, it was simply a catastrophe, שואה, shoah.
  • “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” => What do you have in mind in particular, in the way of “message”? 1 Corinthians 6:2?
  • “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; => Does really Revelation depict the “overthrow of idolatrous and reprobate Rome”? Seems something that Ernest Renan may have insisted on, including Nero as 666 …
  • “the story concludes in a remote and transcendent future with a final judgment of all humanity and the remaking of heaven and earth” => The expression “transcendent future” seems an oxymoron to me …

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.

Is this not a fully theological interpretation, and rather overloaded, for that matter?

I accept that, for convenience, we may still want to reduce that rather complicated statement [the previous paragraph] 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.

This is, indeed, Protestant theology through and through.

His [Jesus’] 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 (…).

How does Jesus’ lordship differ, in practice, form his kingship?

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.

Care to legitimize this statement for your readers?

It is only on the basis of that [biblical] story, in the long run, that we serve the interests of the living God as a priestly-prophetic community.

Amen to that, if we believe that “that story” is the Word of God.

You omit even to mention the Resurrection, which, for the Apostles and then for Paul was the turning point.

Well, yes, it’s all rather condensed, but “raised to the right hand of God” was a reference both to the resurrection (“raised”) and the ascension (“to the right hand of God”).

As for the “vindication within a generation”, it is your peculiar (biased) reading and to construct the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem into a “vindication” seems embarrassingly anti-Semitic.

You don’t think Jeremiah would have felt vindicated by the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of the city, and the exile of the Jews? Or is Jeremiah also “embarrassingly anti-Semitic”?

What actually happened can in no way be called “the salvation of Israel”, not even in a “remarkable fashion”, not even in a metaphorical sense, not even appealing to “God’s mysterious ways”, and certainly not without resorting to a massive dose of theology: on the face of it, it was simply a catastrophe….

I think that Paul, writing before the catastrophe, still hoped that Israel qua Israel would be saved, with a number of Gentiles grafted in. He hoped that his people would repent and confess Jesus as Lord if not before, then after the day of God’s wrath.

What do you have in mind in particular, in the way of “message”?

Romans 1-2; 15:12; 2 Thessalonians 2; Revelation 14-19; among others.

The expression “transcendent future” seems an oxymoron to me…

Can’t see why. We British are currently contemplating a very non-transcendent “future” after Brexit. What’s your problem?

… “raised to the right hand of God” was a reference both to the resurrection (“raised”) and the ascension (“to the right hand of God”).

OK

You don’t think Jeremiah would have felt vindicated by the Babylonian invasion, the destruction of the city, and the exile of the Jews? Or is Jeremiah also “embarrassingly anti-Semitic”?

There is a difference. Jeremiah limits in time the rule of Babylon, which will be subjucated in turn to “seventy years” (Jer 25:11-12). I don’t see an equivalent glimmer of hope for Jerusalem in Jesus prophecy about the Temple’s destruction. Things get more and more dramatic, until the final denouement. (Matthew 24)

I think that Paul, writing before the catastrophe, still hoped that Israel qua Israel would be saved, with a number of Gentiles grafted in. He hoped that his people would repent and confess Jesus as Lord if not before, then after the day of God’s wrath.

I have read your linked post, Will all Israel be saved? Hurtado and Wright. What matters in it, for me anyway, is not the contrastiing views of Larry Hurtado and Tom Wright, but what your write:

“… they will repent after judgment comes upon Israel (…) this is a salvation and restoration that will happen after God has judged his people.”

Unlike you (and Wright, it seems), far from dismissing it as an “American obsession”, I take seriously the reconstitution of a national Israel in 1948. However unlikely that may seem, now they have a second chance, as a nation, of recognizing Jesus as Messiah. See Matthew 23:39 (cp. Luke 19:38; Luke 13:35 - all quoting Psalm 118:26)

[“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”] Romans 1-2; 15:12; 2 Thessalonians 2; Revelation 14-19; among others.

  • I see no relevance of Romans 1-2
  • Romans 15:12 and other preceding verses (Rom 15:9-11) are OK
  • 2 Thessalonians 2 speaks not so much of judging or ruling, but of parousia.
  • Revelation 14-19: only if you take Babylon as a code-word for Rome, which is by no means a given.

BTW, why don’t you even mention 1 Corinthians 6:2, or agree with my citation?

We British are currently contemplating a very non-transcendent “future” after Brexit.

Is your reference to the Brexit supposed to be taken as a joke, or light relief, or what?

Perhaps “transcendent future” is a rather unusual reference to “the beyond” or to the “general resurrection”?

BTW, you have skipped many of my points, including key ones.

I see no relevance of Romans 1-2

One of the things that Paul asserts in Romans 1-2 is that there will be wrath against the Jew first, then the Greek. Like the Paul of Acts 17:30-31, he believes that the God of Israel will sooner or later judge the idolatrous Greek(-Roman) world through a man whom he has appointed.

2 Thessalonians 2 speaks not so much of judging or ruling, but of parousia.

Seriously?

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thess. 2:8–12)

Yes, I think 1 Corinthians 6:2 is part of this. Either the martyred saints with Christ in heaven (cf. Rev. 20:4-6), or the living saints on earth, will judge (govern, rule over) the pagan nations.

As I said before, I can’t keep up with everything you write. So I focus on the points which seem most relevant or worth responding to. But things will inevitably get missed. Sorry. And if your agenda really is “to confront them with the weaknesses, absurdities, inconsistencies and plain contradictions of their positions”, then I’m not sure there’s much point in persevering. That doesn’t sound to me like a very constructive attitude. Your comment on the Ethiopian eunuch post was vacuous and sarcastic. It doesn’t get us anywhere.

Thank you for the correction on Romans 1-2 and 2 Thessalonians 2.

You seem to be unintrested (or oblivious) about the historical-theological relevance of the survival of the Israelites for nearly 2000 years, without a national homeland. In your post Will all Israel be saved? Hurtado and Wright, you dismiss the historical-theological relevance of the present day State of Israel as an “American obsession”.

You use this expression twice …

Are you sure that this is not a point “worth responding to”?