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

Testing times: a narrative framework for the renewal of the Western church

What I say is: a narrative theology ought to be able to account for the whole experience of the people of God, not just the beginning, middle, and end of it. We may give some sort of priority to the early biblical sections of the narrative, but the story doesn’t stop with the events of the New Testament—even those future events which are foreseen in the New Testament. We are still part of that story, and so is our future.

One way to think about the comprehensive narrative is as a series of historical tests. An idea or project is launched with the calling of Abraham, but the narrative theology which it generates over time takes shape and evolves because it is challenged, threatened, put under pressure, tested.

The main thing to say about these tests is that they need to be passed, otherwise the story will come to an end, and there will be no people qualified to bear witness to the reality of the good creator. But the tests are also means by which the witness and service of the people of God is developed, refined, extended, deepened, and perhaps most importantly, adapted to new historical circumstances. Both aspects determine the shape of the “good news” that emerges at each stage, with each test.

The God who is creator

The first test is set against the backdrop of the religious environment of the Ancient Near East.

The Atra-hasis myth says that after the creation of the world the lower gods (the Igigi) protested against having to do all the hard work for the high gods (the Anunnaki), and threatened to go on strike. Humans were created as slaves to do the work of the lower gods (“Create primeval man, that he may bear the yoke!”), but they disturbed the peace of the gods with their noise, and the god Enlil, after several failed attempts to remedy the situation, decided to destroy humanity in a great flood. The plan was leaked, however, to Atra-hasis, who built a boat to save humanity. The gods accept the situation but measures are put in place to keep the noise levels down: miscarriages, high infant mortality, and a large number of cultic virgins.

The descendants of Abraham are bearers of a radically different version of that story and others like it—essentially a monotheist-ethical retelling that emphasises, on the one hand, the goodness of the one creator God (or the unity of the great God in divine council), who creates humanity in his own image to rule over and manage the earth, and on the other, the defiance and wickedness of humanity. God calls Abraham from the shadow of proto-Babylonian empire to be the beginning of a new creation in microcosm in the Land that he will give to his descendants.

The climax to the testing comes with the exile (prefigured in the Eden story) and the renewal of the vision of the Land as a new creation:

Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Is. 51:1–3)

The priestly, witnessing people of God has narrowly scraped through the first test, by the mercy of God. The “good news” is that YHWH will redeem Jerusalem and restore its waste places, and all the ends of the earth will see this dramatic act of salvation (Is. 52:7-10).

The God whose Son is king

The return from exile more or less brings the Mesopotamian cycle of stories to an end. A new chapter begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BC and the vigorous Hellenisation of the region. Whereas the first test centred on possession of the Land as a sign of the presence of the one, true, living creator God, the second test has to do with disputed government of the Land. First the Greeks (notably Antiochus Epiphanes), then the Romans forcibly impose their rule on Judea.

The Jews fail this test: ill-advised revolt against Rome leads to the catastrophe of the war of AD 66-70, massive loss of life, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

A small number of Jews, however, believe that Jesus, the prophet-messiah from Nazareth, predicted this judgment but has provided a narrow path leading to a renewed new covenant life for the family of Abraham in the age to come after the age of second temple Judaism.

This is the crucial lesson that Israel learns in the Hellenistic period—that YHWH will bring about his purposes through the faithful suffering of his people, or of at least one from his people.

That gives us the redemptive part. More importantly, Jesus is believed to have been installed at the right hand of God as judge and ruler not of Israel only, but also of the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. This is not thought of as a spiritual abstraction. It represents a realistic political-religious hope: sooner or later the nations of the empire will abandon their worship of the old pantheons and serve the living creator God, confessing his Son as Lord above all powers in heaven, on earth, and under the earth (Phil. 2:9-11).

So the descendants of Abraham pass the second test, but only because the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel was faithful unto death, even death on a Roman cross. This is how YHWH brings down the mighty from their thrones and exalts those of humble estate in their place (cf. Lk. 1:52). Through the faithfulness of Jesus and the imperfect but ultimately faithful witness of his followers, the satanically inspired kingdom of idolatrous pagan Rome is overthrown, and the kingdom of the world becomes the “kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ” (Rev. 11:15; cf. 12:10). That was the “good news” (cf. Rev. 14:6-11) that emerged out of the second great historical test of the witness of the people of God.

The God who is three in one

The next challenge faced by the followers of the Jewish prophet-messiah Jesus, as they settle and establish themselves across the continent of Europe, is to devise a worldview, a polity, a way of life for a Christian empire. We are beyond the prophetic-apocalyptic outlook of the Bible here, so this becomes a different type of exercise in story-telling.

The necessary self-reinvention of the church is a massive task, and to what extent it can be regarded as “good news” is much debated. But at its intellectual core it entailed the accommodation of the Jewish apocalyptic narrative about the kingdom of God (the rule of the resurrected Jesus at the right hand of God) to the other Greek storyline about the rational God of the philosophers. The doctrine of the Trinity, as I see it, was an intellectually outrageous collapsing of the biblical story into a rational metaphysics, but it was necessary, right and good under the circumstances.

The people of God passed this third test, though hardly with flying colours. They constructed a civilisation that survived for 1500 years, and which was successfully exported to large parts of the world outside Europe. At the time it seemed like a good idea. But then it began to be devoured by its own offspring.

The God who is

The demise of Western Christendom brings to an end the arc of the main biblical narrative—from the formation of a people in the Land, who must bear witness to the truth of the creator God, through the clash with European empires, to the vindication of the faith of the early church in the conversion of Rome, and then to the eventual collapse of that concrete historical expression of the rule of Israel’s God over the nations.

The people of God finds itself now facing what is probably its most severe test: to maintain a credible witness to the God of this narrative on the margins of a secular-humanist civilisation that threatens either to annihilate or ignore it. The existence, and certainly the social usefulness, of the one creator God, whose Son ruled over the nations for 1500 years, is now very much in doubt.

If we are going to find “good news” or “gospel” in these circumstances, it will have to begin with the conviction, which is an ancient biblical conviction, that the one true living creator God has chosen a priestly, witnessing people for himself and will sustain that people, come what may, for the sake of his own “glory”—or perhaps better “reputation”. The whole struggle to re-form the church in the West, over the last couple of centuries and no doubt into the next century, is explained by this. It is the faith by which we will be justified.

Comments

Andrew, why do you think contemporary Christians for the most part insist on seeing the the kingdom of God as a “spiritual abstraction”?

I find it is striking how similar the New Testament story as you’ve organized it corresponds to Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and conquest of Canaan. In both cases a people is preserved by faith through historical crises that result in the collapse of the current political order (Egypt/Canaan and Rome). In both cases this faithful people inherits the authority these powers once maintained.

I’ve wondered that myself, Alex, about why the commitment exists to the kingdom of God as a more or less purely spiritual entity.

What I think is the idea “the kingdom of God” is functionally equated with “new heavens and earth.” In other words, the kingdom of God is supposed to be more or less perfect and everlasting. We can debate the validity of that equation, but I’m pretty sure much of Christianity has made it.

When that state of affairs did not happen in the timeframe Jesus seemed to suggest it would, we need an explanation besides “Jesus was wrong.” So, the kingdom of God comes as spiritual event primarily in people’s hearts. This is an “already” condition that will someday give way to a more holistic “not yet” element which will involve new heavens and new earth, destruction of death, the bodily return and reign of Jesus, etc.

In short, what Christians expect out of the kingdom of God didn’t happen, so there needs to be theological reasoning to explain it, and certainly the easiest way is to relocate the kingdom into something transempirical.

And I have to admit, sometimes Jesus’ language lends itself to this way of seeing things, like “my kingdom is not of this world” and “the kingdom of God has come among you” and “people will say, there it is, or there it is” etc. It can fit a spiritual narrative a little too well.

When we compare this way of seeing things to OT hopes, it seems like this is a somewhat discontinuous way of understanding the kingdom of God, and your commitments sort of define how you feel about that. If you’re an evangelical, then yes, it’s an unexpected fulfillment of OT hopes that took everyone by surprise because they were all expecting an earthly, political fulfillment and got a spiritual one, instead.

I just think it’s people’s alternative to the idea that Jesus was a failed prophet, but a lot of the failed prophet option depends on a concept of the kingdom of God that might not have been right in the first place - specifically, one that can be equated with new creation.

Thanks Phil, I think that is certainly one of the pressures that moves us towards a spiritual kingdom.

But there also seems to be some aversion toward the idea of a physical/political kingdom in general—even one established at the end of history. The political expectations of the prophets (or the political ‘interpretations’ of those hopes) become the very ideology Jesus came to undo. Christianity is spiritual, Judaism is earthly and physical.

Even partial preterists, those most willing to acknowledge the political ramifications of apocaylptic speech (AD 70 as the Son of Man’s judgement), stop short of the concrete kingdom that Andrew posits.

What do you make of those texts that lend themselves to the spiritual kingdom narrative? They seem to be greatly outnumbered by imminent political kingdom texts.

There may be different reasons for that depending on what historical period in church history we’re looking at. I’m no expert, but I’d think some of the contemporary resistance to the idea comes from the bad things that happened when Christianity was an Empire. We (rightfully) can point to atrocities that seem to have very little to do with a just and compassionate kingdom and, given the historical precedent, it seems like those manifestations ended up about as far from Jesus as you can get. Ergo, that can’t have been the kingdom he was looking for.

Do you think there’s a lot of Christian reluctance about the idea of a physical kingdom established at the end of history? I haven’t run across that reluctance, but that may be because of the faith communities in which I find myself (American, generally evangelical, and basically Reformed).

In some cases, maybe it’s the identification of the kingdom with the end of history that rules out the idea that Jesus was looking for an earthly kingdom at the time. -Now- it’s spiritual, but it will one day (at the end of history) be physical, and history hasn’t ended yet, so….

What do you make of those texts that lend themselves to the spiritual kingdom narrative? They seem to be greatly outnumbered by imminent political kingdom texts.

I would agree and argue that those texts should be understood in a manner commensurate with an imminent political kingdom. It’s true that this kingdom does have a spiritual component to it (a repentance and return to faithfulness to God) and seems to be envisioned as something that started small and eventually grew into fulness, and I’m ok with all that. When Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world,” I see that as Jesus talking about the origin and enactment of the coming kingdom - it’s not something that an earthly power and earthly armies and earthly allies will bring him or carve out, but rather a divine act originating in God’s will that will radically transform the world system. This is why his servants fighting as “Jesus’ army” to save him will never bring the kingdom about.

At the same time, some in the early church used that same text as a civil defense against charges of sedition. They should not be seen as rebels because the kingdom was not of this world.

Maybe it just comes down to deciding on a controlling paradigm for those texts, which is something we all do about everything in the Bible, really. We all decide what the controlling texts/ideas are, and we understand more problematic texts in light of the ones we’ve determined clearly teach a thing. The debates about eternal torment vs. annihilation vs. universalism aren’t really about who’s ignoring Scripture; it’s a clash between controlling texts/paradigms that get used to understand the verses that seem to indicate something else.

If one is precommitted to the idea that the kingdom is spiritual, then they will find that everywhere, and verses that seem problematic in that rubric will get interpreted accordingly.

It seems to me that “the wrath of God” was converted from concrete historical reality into “spiritual abstraction” (the notion of post-mortem punishments) long ago. It shouldn’t surprise us that other things, like “salvation” and “Kingdom” have been similarly reconceptualized.

I think it’s unfortunate that the Gospel of John, written after the destruction of Jerusalem and likely 60-65 years after Jesus’ death, became the lens through which to interpret the earlier synoptics and by extension, the entire Bible. Earthly kingdom becomes heavenly kingdom, and the resurrection of the faithful is pushed off to a distant judgment day.

It seems these changes were necessary to keep Christianity alive, but at what point can we say you cannot just reinterpret EVERYTHING when prophesied events don’t come to fruition?

I feel that we either wrestle with the views Jesus expressed in the synoptics, or we capitulate, accept the GoJ (and the theology built upon it by the Gentile Early Church Fathers) as our marching orders, and wait for judgment day. Obviously, Christianity opted for the latter, but I’m not so sure.