For reasons which I won’t disclose, I have been working through a doctrine course of a distinctly Reformed hue. If the church is convinced that it needs such a thing as a “doctrine course”, Reformed or otherwise, then this is by no means a bad one. But for me it has highlighted again the fact that so much theological activity puts the cart before the horse.
Let me give an example. The section on the Trinity lists a number of biblical texts as “evidence” for the belief that Jesus is God. The assumption is that the doctrine or belief is a given fact and basically beyond dispute; biblical prooftexts may be adduced as evidence for it, but this is merely a formality and certainly does not require anything as troublesome as exegesis.
That is very different to reading Matthew 9:4, say, and considering how Jesus’ insight into the thoughts of the scribes is to be explained, from which it is unlikely that we would draw the conclusion that he is omniscient and therefore God. It is very different to reading Matthew 9:1-8 and asking about the significance of the fact that authority has been given to men to forgive sins—the passage virtually rules out the conclusion that Jesus was God.
I should stress that I am not making an argument here against a high Christology; I am making an argument for a high view of scripture. The problem is that a “doctrine course” is bound to end up subordinating the organic, contextual argumentation of scripture to the rigid requirements of a theological system that has forgotten how to read historical texts.
So I am very much in agreement with Daniel Kirk when he says in a recent post on theological interpretation:
…I am convinced that there are better ways to conceive of the theological task than traditional systematic, confessional, and dogmatic theology. There is a theology that trades in the diachronic and polyvalent nature of scripture itself, and that continues to embrace such inevitable change and diversity as the church itself continues to speak over time.
Daniel has been writing some very thoughtful and stimulating stuff recently about theology and history and about how the believing church and the (unbelieving?) academy respectively understand Jesus. It ties in well with my history of biblical interpretation. The argument in Daniel’s series of posts zig-zags backwards and forwards rather, and it is difficult to know quite where the dialectic is going to land on any particular issue—which is another way of saying that I may be missing the point in what follows. But this section in a piece on The Church’s Jesus and Israel’s God raised a couple of questions in my mind, and if nothing else, they provide an excuse for some off-the-cuff reflections on the relation of Jesus to Israel’s story:
But the church’s Jesus is not merely a historical religious phenomenon.
The church’s Jesus is the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people. And so, when we go to study the church’s Jesus we find that each of the four Gospels demands of us that we interpret the Jesus story as the culmination of the Israel story.
Why can’t church and academy tell the same historical story?
The first question has to do with the idea that the church’s Jesus is “not merely a historical religious phenomenon”. Why not? If the church’s Jesus is “the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people”, why is that not simply a “religious historical phenomenon”? Why is “religious historical phenomenon” a reductive category?
To put the question differently, was the Jesus of the New Testament communities anything more than a “religious historical phenomenon”? Israel’s existence was historical; the promises to Israel were embedded in historical texts; Jesus was a historical figure; his death and resurrection were historical events in one way or another; and the subsequent unpacking of the implications of his death and resurrection in the life of the community was a historical process.
Why cannot the academy, therefore, take seriously the historical self-understanding of the early church that it existed as a result of a major eschatological transformation of the status of the people of God? After all, it was the academy, roughly speaking, that encouraged us to explore this new contextualized perspective on the New Testament in the first place. By the same token, why cannot the church even today find its identity in the story of the historical-eschatological transformation of the people of God?
So Daniel’s question—”Do you see how the Gospels take us into an interpretive field that can never be entered by the academy?”—seems to me to admit an unnecessary dissociation of the two spheres. The academy may draw the line at confessing the active involvement of God in the historical process; but as far as interpretation goes, it seems to me that in principle there is nothing to keep the church and the academy from telling the same story. That Jesus was a “man attested by God” is part of the story. Whether the academy chooses to believe it is another matter.
What is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination?
We come to the second question. What exactly is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination? Reformed and evangelical theologies will insist that this is a story of salvation, but again I think that this is letting the tail of a particular theological tradition wag the dog of scripture.
Jesus is clearly a saviour figure. He “saves” the story from premature termination. But that does not mean that the story is all about salvation. The historically limited meta-narrative of scripture, bookended by creation and new creation, is the story of how an insignificant people, chosen to represent the one good creator God, chosen to be new creation, finally got the better of pagan imperialism and inherited the world (cf. Rom. 4:13; Rev. 11:15). From Babel to Babylon to “Babylon”. This is why Philippians 2:6-11 concludes with the confession that Jesus is Lord rather than that Jesus is Saviour. The church stands in need of further correction here.
So if the academy has helped the church to return Jesus to his narrative context, it may also help us to take what seems to me to be the next critical step in understanding the narrative. The church has learned from the general New Perspective approach to see Jesus as one who marks the culmination of Israel’s story. But the evangelical assumption is that the story effectively stops there—that there is nothing more to be said that isn’t somehow encapsulated in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and perhaps Pentecost as a direct consequence of the resurrection, and perhaps, at a stretch, the destruction of Jerusalem, though we’re not entirely sure why that should matter.
But I think it is a mistake to suppose that Jesus is, in effect, the end of history. The priority of national Israel in the story—centred on Jerusalem and the temple, governed by the Law—came to an abrupt and brutal end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. But the story itself continued. If Jesus sums up what went before, he also anticipates what is to come.
This future of the narrative is partly foreseen in the New Testament—judgment on Israel, the vindication of the persecuted churches, the radical transformation of the ancient world. The biblical narrative is always concretely prophetic, forward-looking—arguably more forward-looking than backward-looking. But if we are to be true to our narrative-historical convictions, we also have to learn how to narrate what falls beyond the victory of Israel’s God over the forces of European paganism—and now, ironically, beyond the collapse of the Christendom worldview. Jesus is the end of one story but the beginning of others.