This post is a response to some questions put to me by a young Christian who is exploring his faith, as he puts it. He writes: “I’ve been absorbed in your blog for the past couple of hours as I haven’t seen anything like it. It’s very different, and I’m sure you can sympathize with any feelings of disorientation I have!” I’m quite pleased with that. Disorientation in not much more than two hours!
He’s certainly grasped the basic argument about Jesus’ saving death in that short time, and he wants to push back in a couple of places.
First, I will summarise my proposal regarding how Jesus’ death as an act of atonement fits into the narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.
- The narrative premise of a post-Christendom theology
- The narrative-historical method—an outline
- 10 good reasons to switch to a narrative-historical hermeneutic
The biblical story is not about humans in general, separated from God and in need of salvation. It is about Israel as a historical people in a difficult relationship with its God, over a long period of time—rather like a troubled marriage.
The premise of the New Testament is that Israel has consistently failed in its vocation to serve its God, as a righteous priestly-prophetic people, in the midst of the pagan nations of the ancient world. Israel, therefore, stands condemned by its own Law and faces destruction, historical obsolescence. The marriage is on the rocks, heading for a nasty divorce.
Jesus’ death is presented as an atonement for this history of disobedience and rebellion—a history which would culminate in the final rebellion and faithlessness of the war against Rome in AD 66-70. Because Jesus was obedient and faithful, even to the point of death on a Roman cross, God was prepared to forgive and not finally destroy his people, if they repented of their defiance and believed that he had made his Son judge and ruler of both Israel and the nations.
In the end, only some Jews repented and believed, not the nation as a whole, despite the best efforts of the apostles. These Jews remained heirs to the promises made to the patriarchs, and indeed to the whole priestly-prophetic vocation. But they did so on the basis of a new covenant, centred on the indwelling Spirit, and under the transcendent rule of Jesus as David’s greater Lord.
But this death for the sins of Israel fundamentally changed the conditions of membership in the community of eschatological renewal. The Spirit of prophetic witness and of the new covenant was given not to those who kept the Law, were circumcised, maintained ritual segregation, observed certain religious days, etc., but to those who believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, had seated him at his right hand, and had made him heir-apparent to a new future over the nations.
So Jesus’ death for the sins of Israel had the secondary effect of removing the Law as a condition of membership of the covenant people (cf. Eph. 2:11-22). On the strength of the apostolic witness, a growing number of Gentiles were becoming convinced that sooner or later the risen Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē, and they were enthusiastically expressing that pistis—that faith, belief—through the power of the Spirit of God.
Jesus’ death saved the descendants of Abraham from destruction, but it also raised the political stakes dramatically. For YHWH to forgive and restore his people was one thing; for him to annex for himself the nations of the Greek-Roman world was a massive step-up in eschatological ambition.
So that’s my argument about the death of Jesus in a nutshell. Now for the questions.
First, why do we have to limit Jesus’ death to the historical salvation of Israel? Why can’t it have a “double meaning”? Isn’t it the case that the Old Testament prophets understood historical events as foreshadowings of a final “day of the Lord” at the end of history? “Why does that history not point towards higher meaning accessible to everyone? How can you be sure Christ did not have salvation in mind for us too?”
This is a matter partly of exegesis, partly of hermeneutics.
On the one hand, the Synoptic Gospels, which were written in the second half of the first century, show no interest in attributing universal saving significance—or even regional saving significance—to Jesus’ death. The saying about giving his life “as a ransom for many” belongs to an argument about rule over Israel (Mk. 10:37; cf. Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30), which must be very different to Gentile rule (Mk. 10:35-45). If it also echoes Isaiah 53:10-12, then Jesus speaks of his death as an atonement for the sins of a wicked generation of Jews.
It may well be that Mark thought that the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1) was a direct challenge to the supremacy of the emperor as the Son of God, for example. But this is a gospel of Christ’s lordship, not of his atoning death. His death had atoning significance for Israel, his resurrection had “kingdom” significance for the nations.
On the other hand, it is not the New Testament which asserts the presence of higher or further levels of meaning, beyond the historical. Rather the church subsequently developed a hermeneutic that validated the discovery of surplus meaning for theological and pedagogic reasons.
I would also argue, though the point can hardly be demonstrated here, that the Old Testament prophets did not consciously present historical events as foreshadowings of a final day of the Lord. What they sometimes do is use cosmological or “new creation” language to bring out the theological significance of the historical event. I doubt, personally, that there is any reference to an end of history in the Old Testament.
But the main point to make here is that the New Testament provides its own way of extending the benefits of Jesus’ saving death to Gentiles. How? By highlighting the response of some Gentiles to what YHWH was doing in and for Israel. This crucial narrative distinction is sustained throughout the New Testament, at least until we get to the Johannine literature.
The pattern is established in Isaiah. Good news is proclaimed to Zion about the coming sovereign intervention of YHWH to redeem Jerusalem and restore his people. He will make the desolation of Jerusalem “like Eden”—a new creation. The nations will see this historical act of divine mercy towards Israel and in response they will abandon their idols and turn to the living God (cf. Is. 45:22-25; 51:1-3; 52:7-12).
I think we find the same logic in the New Testament. God acts through the obedience, faithfulness, death and resurrection of Jesus to save and restore his people. When Gentiles hear about this and see the effects, they are amazed by the goodness and power of Israel’s God, and they abandon their ineffectual idols and turn to serve the living God of Israel (cf. Acts 14:15-17; 1 Thess. 1:9).
I place a lot of weight here on Paul’s argument in Romans 15:8-13:
- Jesus became a servant to the Jews to demonstrate YHWH’s commitment to the promises made to the patriarchs;
- therefore, the Gentiles rejoice over what YHWH has done for his people;
- and begin to put their hope in Jesus as the future ruler of the nations.
So the sensus plenior approach is unnecessary. Worse, it demonstrates a lack of trust in the God of history, the God who engages with his people in history.
Perhaps we see the beginnings of a theological rationalisation of Jesus’ death in John’s “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29; cf. 1 Jn. 2:2), but I would argue that mainstream New Testament testimony preserves the narrative structure: Jesus dies for the sins of Israel; Gentiles are forgiven because they believe in the implications of what God did in Israel; and they are incorporated into the saved people of God because Jesus’ death had the corollary of removing the Law as an entry requirement.
Does this mean that I am “sacrificing a more dynamic and living truth by restraining everything to a historical, eschatological narrative”? No. I think that what I am doing is exchanging one dynamic truth for another.
Under the regime of modern evangelicalism the personal narrative has taken centre stage, and the personal narrative pivots around the death of Jesus for my sins.
I think this makes poor sense of the New Testament. In the New Testament it is the political narrative that takes centre stage, and the political narrative pivots around the death of Jesus for the sins of Israel and, more importantly, the installation of Jesus at the right hand of God as judge and ruler of the nations.
I think that the task of the church today, both exegetically and missionally, is to recover the power of the historical dynamic. The inclusion of alienated people in a community that was radically transformed two thousand years by the death of Jesus remains a powerful, challenging and exhilarating personal option. But when the church in the West is facing its own historical crisis, it is the historical dynamic that should drive mission.