On this blog and in the books I have written in the last few years I have argued for an evangelical self-understanding that expresses its fidelity to scripture by means of what I think is most usefully classified as a narrative-historical hermeneutic. What I mean by this is that the theological content of the Bible, and of the New Testament in particular, in its various forms, is primarily meaningful—and sometimes only meaningful—in the context of the unfolding but circumscribed story of a people that claimed to be heirs of the promises made to Abraham.
The theological content of the Bible, therefore, is not a body of free-floating abstract truth that means the same now as it meant then. Even at its most generalized it represents, in the first place, a dynamic engagement with history and is subject to the contingencies and constraints of history. The bulk of the New Testament story stretches from Jerusalem to Rome geographically and from Jesus to the conversion of Rome temporally. Correspondingly, the bulk of New Testament theology operates within the same narrative space.
The narrative framework determines the literal sense—the sensus literalis—of the New Testament. It is what the New Testament is fundamentally about; it establishes what is addressed and the scope of what is addressed. Reading communities that lie outside the narrative framework, such as the church today, are therefore addressed only indirectly or secondarily.
Let me try and push some exegetical stuffing into this floppy rag doll of a hermeneutical principle.
A narrative-historical hermeneutic advises us that we are likely to miss the sensus literalis of Jesus’ parables if we suppose that they have a simple, direct, and universal applicability for all Christians at all times. Rather they have direct relevance for first century Israel and for the community of his disciples that would have to continue his prophetic, reformative ministry.
The parable of the good Samaritan, for example, in its “literal” sense, is not a general allegory about religious hypocrisy and irreligious compassion, though it can easily be read to such effect. Jesus’ point was much more precise and much more political: establishment Judaism had failed in its calling to embody—among other things—the compassion of YHWH; indeed, the Jews were likely to be put to shame by the righteousness of the Samaritans. It is one of the ways in which Jesus explains his conviction that establishment Judaism would soon find its house left desolate. Paul was to make the same argument in Romans: the Jews of the diaspora should have set a shining example of ethical-religious rectitude throughout the pagan world; instead, they would be put to shame on the day of wrath by the instinctive righteousness of Lawless pagans.
Evangelicals understandably feel uncomfortable with this approach because it appears to undermine the cardinal principle of the immediate relevance of the New Testament to people in need of salvation today. My view is that modern popular evangelicalism is built on rather shaky foundations and that its objective of being true both to scripture and to its missional vocation is better established on other grounds.
On the one hand, I think that the the narrative-historical approach gives us a much more cogent and credible understanding of the New Testament—the texts simply make much better sense when they are restored to their natural historical environment. They are like plants that never should have been dug up and put in pots on a balcony. On the other hand, I think that this hermeneutic has the potential to strengthen rather than weaken the western church as it struggles to come to terms with its diminished status following the triumph of secular rationalism. But how does this work? How does pushing the New Testament back into the past help us to make it more relevant for the church today?
The question that I think the hermeneutic leads us to ask is this: What does it mean to be a people that has gone through the wringer of the crisis described in the New Testament? How did that historical experience change things?
Let me suggest a topical analogy. One imagines that the many young Norwegians who survived the tragedy on the island of Utøya will be deeply affected—changed—by their experience; it is likely that its impact will stay with them throughout their lives. But they will be different not because in the years to come they are compelled literally to relive the horror but because there is simply no escaping the fact of the past experience. They will naturally remember the event, and the act of remembering will reinforce the deep sense of having been changed. But the memory should not be confused with the event itself.
In the same way, the people of God was profoundly impacted, transformed, reconstituted, by the protracted crisis of the early centuries—from the first announcement to Israel that the sovereign intervention of God was at hand, through the apparent disaster of Jesus’ death and the extraordinary reversal of his resurrection, through the transformative experience of the Spirit, through the persecution of the Christian communities in Judea, through the catastrophe of the Jewish War, the failure of Israel to repent following judgment, through the sporadic attempts by Rome to suppress this audacious revolutionary movement, to the eventual world-changing confession of Jesus as Lord across the empire to the glory of Israel’s God. All that left its mark on the historical community that claimed to have inherited the promises made to Abraham.
So to start with, I would suggest that what we do in general terms when we read the New Testament—and quite specifically when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper—is remember the transformative experience and thus reinforce its impact. We do not pretend that this was our experience; we do not read ourselves into the New Testament under the fond illusion that history came to an end with the resurrection. But we strengthen those corporate characteristics that are the consequence of the fact that the people called in Abraham to be new creation had to live through the crisis that began with John the Baptist’s warning of coming judgment and concluded with the vindication of the early churches for having defied not only apostate Judaism but also idolatrous Rome.
The next task, of course, would be to specify those characteristics. In what particular ways was the people of God different for having gone through the historical crisis that saw YHWH’s anointed king eventually confessed as Lord across the empire? What have been the lasting effects of this dramatic coming of the kingdom of God? How has it changed the way that we—as community—relate to God, deal with failure, respond to evil, embody righteousness, live amongst the nations, articulate hope? These practical questions are immediately generated by the narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. They will encompass the core concerns of modern evangelicalism, but they will also, I think, provide access to a much more compelling grasp of the historical existence of the people of God.