It’s summer in the northern hemisphere, and there’s not much happening, so I was doodling and came up with a little diagram to show the difference between traditional evangelical thought and the approach that I take on this blog. For many readers it will be familiar, but if you’re new here, it may blow your mind. Or maybe not.
1. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of reading the New Testament. We can read it theologically, or we can read it historically. The theological approach has dominated the history of interpretation and remains vigorous today—notably in the form of the Theological Interpretation of Scripture (TIS). The historical approach only really got going in the 18th century with the work of rationalist critics such as Reimarus.
2. The dominant theological tradition has read the New Testament according to an incarnational-redemptive paradigm or rule of faith. Its main purpose has been to proclaim, explain, and defend the central proposition that God entered the world as man to save sinners. Interpretation of the New Testament was subordinated to this task. Modern evangelical theology is defined, in the first place, by its relation to this historic (as opposed to historical) paradigm.
3. The modern historical method began as a re-evaluation of the tradition on the assumption that the truthfulness—or otherwise—of the New Testament witness is to be determined not by ecclesial authority but by critical enquiry. The New Testament was subjected to the acid rain of a zealous anti-religious scepticism, leaving it shredded and lifeless.
Scholarship came to the conclusion that the documents could not be trusted as a source of information about events associated with the supposed figure of Jesus—basically, the church had made the whole thing up, there was very little worth keeping. It is this reductionism, largely, that has provoked the distrust of historical methods that lies behind the Theological Interpretation of Scripture.
So modern conservative evangelical theology is defined both by its loyalty to the tradition and its opposition to destructive rational enquiry.
4. There is, however, a different type of historical question to ask about the New Testament texts. Not: is the New Testament true? But: what does the New Testament mean? What were Jesus and his followers trying to say? This is a much more constructive question. We still find ourselves at odds with the theological method but in a different way.
To cut a long story short, I think that the universal incarnational-redemptive paradigm is displaced by a Jewish exaltation-kingdom paradigm: the story of how God resolved the “political-religious” crisis faced by his people in the early first-century, and how through that resolution he established direct rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world, through the Son whom he had raised to his right hand.
5. Evangelical thought has taken on board elements of the history-as-meaning model. We now hear more about the Jewishness of Jesus, the latent anti-imperialism of Paul’s gospel, and the overarching redemptive story that runs from creation to new creation.
But this is really only a selective accommodation of history to the powerful and complacent modernism that controls evangelical thought. It can hardly be regarded as a serious attempt to read empathetically from within the trenches of first-century Jewish thought, with all the constraints of practical concern and prophetic vision which that entails.
6. The “narrative-historical” approach that I argue for here is an uncomfortably rigorous attempt to discover and articulate this perspective. It cannot be done apart from more traditional historical-critical concerns, but its “truthfulness” is found not in any particular claims made by the text but in the more or less indisputable fact that a Jewish-Christian community in the first century told this story about itself. The other challenge is to show that an uncomfortably rigorous historical reading of the New Testament still has relevance for the church today. To my mind, the narrative-historical method is inherently evangelical.