The witness of scripture is not primarily to the personal relevance of God but to the political relevance of God. It has to do with the rule or kingdom of God in the world. Witness operates at large scale national-civilisational levels of narrative meaning sandwiched between cosmological-geological narratives and local-personal narratives. There we have our multi-storied theological universe.
The witness of the church today suffers, I think, from the fact that it has inverted this narrative structure. Theological priority is given overwhelmingly to the story of the individual who finds faith and lives it out in the context of a local church community. The cosmological story, at the outer reaches of the narrative spectrum, explains why this is important. We are all implicated in the disobedience of Adam and are in need of a redemption from outside—a Son sent into the world to die for the sins of humanity. But history is only the context in which people live out their faith in God.
This means that the layers of narrative meaning that dominate not only scripture but also the modern consciousness are excluded from traditional “evangelical” theologies. It makes the witness of the church theologically unstable, hollow, liable to implode.
The multi-storied universe of scripture
What makes the Bible so remarkable is the sheer historical comprehensiveness—the depth and complexity—of its account of what it meant for an ancient people to pursue a unique priestly vocation over a long period of time. The graphic shows the six narrative levels, revolving in time from left to right: cosmological, geological, civilisational, national, local, and personal.
The cosmological story arcs from creation to new creation but is mostly the affirmation, at all times, that there is one true God, who made the heavens and earth and all that is in them. Into this arc we could perhaps insert the resurrection of Jesus and the martyrs as an anticipation of a final cosmic renewal, though really it is a kingdom event at the national-civilisational boundary.
The story of the flood is probably the only event in scripture that could be said to have narrative significance on anything like a geological scale.
I suggest that there are two major civilisational shifts in the Bible, which need to be treated not as historical background but as integral and determinative for biblical theology.
The first shift is narrated historically, in real time, as it happened. It is the transition from the dominance of eastern Mesopotamian empires (Assyrian and Babylonian) to the dominance of western European empires (Greek and Roman). The moment is captured dramatically in Daniel’s vision of a two-horned ram charging westward to be defeated by a one-horned goat charging eastward (Dan. 8:3-7). Gabriel explains: “As for the ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. And the goat is the king of Greece” (Dan. 8:20–21; cf. 11:2-3). Notice that the angels of God take history very seriously.
The second shift is narrated prophetically and apocalyptically. The New Testament takes up Daniel’s vision of a transfer of power from the beasts of pagan empire to the community of righteous Israel, represented by a figure in human form who is seen coming with the clouds of heaven (Dan. 7). It is a two stage process. In the Synoptic Gospels the “son of man” vision stands for the transfer of authority over Israel to Jesus and the penitent righteous in Israel. In the letters of Paul and John’s apocalyptic vision it stands for the vindication of the Gentile mission and the rule of Christ over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē or civilisation.
The story of Israel, through into the late second temple period, is the story of a national struggle to maintain identity and purpose as a priestly people, dedicated to the one living God, under intense pressure from its more powerful polytheistic neighbours.
In relation to the first phase of the civilisational story the challenge is primarily to maintain the political and religious integrity of the people in the land. But the experience of exile and later conquest by the western powers engenders a much more ambitious programme—the conversion of the nations to worship of the true God, under the rule of Israel’s king. The belief of the early church was that this goal would be achieved through faithful and persistent witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and his enthronement at the right hand of YHWH.
There are, of course, countless personal and local stories throughout the Bible, but they are mostly included in order to highlight or illustrate what is going on at the national and civilisational levels. The story of the Syrophoenician woman is a good example—a deeply personal story, in a peripheral location, told because it sheds important light on the limits of Jesus’ mission (Mk. 7:24-30). Zacchaeus is not just a sinner who meets Jesus and is saved. Like the woman with a “disabling spirit,” the prodigal son, and the beggar Lazarus, he represents the reconciliation of the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” to Abraham. These people are Israel’s future.
The multi-storied universe of the modern world
We can construct a similar narrative universe for our own times, but for our theology it is important not to miss the continuity—or rather the dis-continuity—with the biblical storyline. Here is my core argument: the witness of the church today is shaped by the same lively and contingent storytelling as it was in the biblical periods; it is a witness to the abiding reality of the living creator God who, through his relationship with his people, has become irrevocably the God of history.
The long period of European Christendom was dominated by national and civilisational narratives, the tattered tail ends of which still wag in frustration from time to time. But this period also saw a third major civilisational shift with the rise of rational, secular modernity, which is where the discontinuity comes from. We are now in a post-bibical narrative world.
The sovereignty of the scientific method has generated intense debate in some quarters about the early stages in the cosmological and geological narratives. But in practical terms the new cosmology is largely uncontested, and arguably more important for the witness of the church is not what happened in the geological past but what is happening in the geological present. I think that the idea that the planet is moving into a new geological era is important for out theology.
The cultural context in which the church in the West exists today is shaped by a number of powerful national, civilisational, and even geological narratives: the tension between national and regional or global interests; the radical reconfiguration of sexual ethics and the revision of traditional anthropologies; the eradication of residual colonial personal attitudes and institutional structures; redress for slavery and the oppression of black communities; the drive for technological mastery; the crisis of global capitalism; the need to rebalance humanity’s relationship to the environment, highlighted by the current pandemic; the threat of massive ecological disruption posed by climate change; and so on.
It seems to me, in fact, that national narratives as guiding myths, as generators of meaning, have largely collapsed under the weight of globalism—global possibilities, global threats.
Christian nationalism still rears its head from time to time—in Russia and parts of Europe, and of course, notoriously, in the US recently. But this simply proves the point that the modern consciousness—our sense of where we are in a story—is now dominated by civilisation-level concerns. The narrative at the national level is largely pragmatic, having to do with fair and efficient management of the economy, health care, security, international relations, and so on.
Modern evangelical theologies mostly eschew the national, civilisational, and geological layers of theological storytelling. The alignment of American evangelicalism with the nationalist agenda of the political right is the obvious exception—that and the lingering fundamentalist commitment to a literal creation account. But otherwise, the focus is on the personal story, embracing family and local church community, against a backdrop of creation, fall, cosmic redemption, final judgment, and new creation.
This is changing, thankfully. Evangelical thinking is slowly encroaching—from the cosmic inwards, from the personal outwards—on the vast expanses of social meaning that lie between. But we are reluctant to let go of the theological prioritisation of the personal. Until we reverse the inversion and recover a meaningful way to speak about the God of history, the church, I think, will struggle to maintain a credible witness.