It sometimes happens that a response to a comment takes on a life of its own, which is the case with this attempt to address the excellent points made by Ted Hopkins about certain areas of disagreement and the tension between history and theology. I’ve omitted the reference to a “strong creator-creature distinction” because I’m not sure what he was getting at. Arianism? Perhaps he will come back and explain. In the meantime, these are the main issues that he raised:
In terms of disagreement, I had in mind the deity of Jesus…, the degree to which AD 70 is in mind in the eschatology of the New Testament, and the role of theology as a hermeneutical tool in relation to history.
The “theology of the cross” came up only in passing at the end, but I have used it as an example of how the narrative-historical approach may change our perspective on things.
The deity of Jesus
The phrase the “deity of Jesus” strikes me immediately as a theological imposition. In the New Testament it is not the deity of Jesus that is explicitly and urgently affirmed but overwhelmingly the authorisation, empowerment, and enthronement of Jesus as the Son appointed to rule at the right hand of God over the nations. We do not understand the message and mission of the early church if we allow later theological conclusions to obscure this apocalyptic storyline. The confession is that Jesus is Lord, not that Jesus is God.
- Every knee shall bow: the question about Jesus and God
- Not all who say, “Lord, Lord”, know what they’re talking about
- “Jesus is Lord” before (and after) Trinitarian orthodoxy
- Is Jesus included in the “divine identity” in 1 Corinthians 8:6?
- “My Lord and my God”
- Jesus is God or Jesus is Lord?
Secondarily, there is the idea that the creative word or wisdom of God found a place to be dynamically and effectively active in the person of Jesus.
The conceptual reduction and conflation of these two largely distinct but very Jewish strands of thought by the later church were inevitable and right and part of the continuing story of the people of God under very different intellectual conditions. The outcome remains a key component of our heritage. A narrative-historical hermeneutic helps us to preserve the distinctions without denying their contingent and progressive validity.
The war against Rome
My argument is that AD 70 constitutes the eschatological horizon of Jesus and the early church in Jerusalem. This is when the leaders of Israel would see the vindication of Jesus as the persecuted Son of Man, seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the cloud of heaven (Mk. 14:62).
Once we get out into the wider world, it is the no less realistic, though less sharply conceived, judgment on Greek-Roman civilisation, eventually with a focus on Roman imperialism (Rev. 13-19), that determines the looming horizon of prophetic vision. A consistent historical hermeneutic is likely to conclude that the conversion of the empire under Constantine and his successors effectively fulfilled this expectation.
What we have, therefore, is a New Testament eschatology that bears upon its own foreseeable future. We no longer have to allow for a massive hiatus between the Easter-Pentecost events and either our own time or a congested and barely meaningful end-of-the-world scenario. There is a final judgment and renewal of all things in the New Testament (Rom. 8:21; Rev. 20:11-21:8), but it’s not what believers in Jesus were mainly concerned about. Other more immediate matters, having to do with the reputation of Israel’s God and the status of his people in the ancient world, were far more pressing. Kingdom and new creation—this really should be obvious—are not the same thing.
It’s also worth stressing here that eschatology and christology are inseparable. Jesus died and was raised and exalted because the axe was already laid to the root of the trees of Israel, because the hour of God’s judgment was not far off. But as far as the New Testament goes, these outcomes needed Jesus to be messiah, judge, deliverer, Lord, King of kings and Lord of lords, not the second person of the Trinity.
The theological interpretation of scripture
I have set my face firmly against the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, partly for the sake of maintaining exegetical integrity, as best one can, partly out of curiosity to see whether a consistent historical reading of the New Testament can serve a modern evangelical (with a very small “e”) self-understanding and mission. I think it can. See my book on same-sex relationships and the narratives of evangelical mission, for example.
But I recognise that this latter task entails a “hermeneutic”, and I like the notion of theology—in Ted’s words—“as the hermeneutical interplay, requiring constant repair between the scriptural world on the inside and the real world on the outside”—except that I would change it from inside/outside to then/now, from a synchronic to a diachronic ordering. That makes it much harder for us, but it gives due weight to history.
A narrative-historical theology of the cross
Ted mentions that Luther’s theology of the cross is key to his thinking, and this may be worth considering as an example of how the shift in hermeneutics works.
A theology of the cross (like any theology of the whatever) is concentric in its structure: the cross is deliberately made the organising centre of all theological thought, the “inside” that helps us to think about the “outside”. At the 1518 Heidelberg Disputation Luther stated: “He deserves to be called a theologian… who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.”
The hermeneutic determines how we understand God: he is revealed in weakness rather than in power. It determines ethics and discipleship: faith is an expression not of glory or superiority but of selflessness and compassion. And so on. Such a refocusing of priorities often comes to prominence for contemporary polemical or political reasons—as, for example, a ground for resisting ecclesiastical power.
The narrative-historical approach, however, orders things not concentrically but linearly.
The cross was an event in history—in fact, in Jewish history. It led directly to the resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation to the right hand of God. That was taken to mean: 1) that he was Israel’s “Lord and Christ”, who alone could save this “crooked generation” of Jews from the coming destruction (Acts 2:37-40; 3:24-26; 4:11-12); and 2) that he would sooner or later be confessed as Lord by the nations—that he was the “root of Jesse” who would arise to rule over the nations, in whom the nations were slowly beginning to hope (Phil. 2:11; Rom. 15:12). The cross was a means to these ends. Its purpose was not to pre-empt or forestall them. Future outcomes mattered enormously.
So I have no problem with affirming a “theology of the cross” as part of a narrative that never loses sight of the fundamental objective, which is that YHWH’s anointed king would rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē.
The theological and ethical implications
1. Theologies of the cross are heavily dependent on an incarnational paradigm. God is identified with the suffering of Jesus to the extent that we may even speak about the crucified God. I think that it is very difficult to account for this in New Testament terms.
The miraculous conception of Jesus is a sign that God is with his people both to judge and to deliver. God sends his Son, as he earlier sent the prophets, to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant. He gives him authority, as the Son of Man, to heal the sick, cast out demons, and proclaim the forgiveness of Israel’s sins. God abandons him on the cross. He raises him from the dead. He puts Jesus forward as a propitiation for the sins of Israel.
This narrative seems to differentiate quite clearly between the sovereignty of Israel’s God and the faithfulness of Jesus.
There is also, as I said, a secondary “incarnational” christology in the New Testament, which is the idea that the creative word or wisdom of God became flesh and lived among his own people.
These two narrative trajectories serve different purposes, and I don’t think that the New Testament makes much of an attempt to join them up: the word or wisdom of God becomes flesh, the anointed Son becomes Lord. It was the later church which decided to merge them into a single redemptive storyline, in which the eternal Son became flesh as God incarnate to redeem mankind.
In sum, the cross belongs to the primary storyline about Jesus who becomes judge and king, but this storyline lacks the sort of incarnational emphasis that would permit the inference that the weakness of Jesus on the cross is the weakness of God. The New Testament itself certainly does not say this.
2. Jesus told his followers that anyone who wished to be his disciple would have to take up his or her own cross and follow him (Mk. 8:34). He meant this in quite a narrow and unrepeatable sense: they would have to walk the same painful road of rejection and persecution, but they would be repaid when the Son of Man was revealed in glory at the judgment of this “this adulterous and sinful generation”.
Again, as the communities of eschatological witness moved into the Greek-Roman world, the horizon of kingdom and vindication expanded. But this theology of participation in the cross of Jesus remained operative. The apostles, notably, carried in their physical bodies the dying of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:10); Paul earnestly desired to share in Christ’s sufferings in the hope that he would also share in the resurrection of Christ (Phil. 3:10-11); and so on. Baptism into the death of Christ (e.g., Rom. 6:3-5) was in principle the symbolic expression of the believer’s willingness to be martyred for Jesus’ sake, in the expectation of being raised with him at the parousia.
This is why Paul makes so much of the cross even though his “gospel” was the announcement that the appointment of Jesus as Son of God in power would have far-reaching ramifications for both Jews and Greeks. The churches would function as reliable and credible witnesses to this new future only if they were Christlike in their attitude towards suffering.
Understood in this sense, the theology of the cross belonged to a unique moment in the history of God’s people—that time when Jesus and his followers suffered for the sake of the coming kingdom of God.
That has some more or less direct relevance for persecuted believers today, though I don’t think we should be telling the same story about an imminent coming of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven.
But what about the rest of us?
We can make the cross of Christ the controlling paradigm for the Christian life, but it is then only really a figure for the sort humility and selflessness that ought in any case to characterise a people chosen to serve the living creator God. In some contexts it will shift the balance too far in the direction self-denial, away from the abundance of life. God’s people are not aways in need of reform, and not always in the same direction.
More seriously, from my point of view, we obfuscate a narrative about faithful suffering, vindication and resurrection, going back to Daniel, which must contextualise, if not relativise, the cross of Jesus, who after all, as Paul says, was only the “firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29).
In the end, the choice of theological centre remains arbitrary and is bound to distort as much as clarify. Only history can makes sense of history.