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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Christendom: fulfilment or false start?

In a perceptive comment in which he recommends consideration of Abraham Heschel’s “theology of Pathos”, Mark Nieweg draws attention to what he sees as a fundamental dilemma or paradox at the heart of the consistent narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament.

I have actually been more accepting of your challenges in the Trinitarian posts than those that see the triumph of Christ over paganism in the empire and therefore allowing the “success of the apocalyptic narrative.” I see this more as a “false start” with tremendous consequences to the understanding of the church in the world than anything else.

This is important because in my view, as far as understanding the New Testament is concerned, the apocalyptic question is much more significant than the question of whether Jesus was God. The Trinitarian question is an engagement with philosophy. The apocalyptic question is an engagement with history.

It seems to me unquestionable that there is a central narrative in scripture which runs from failure through suffering to vindication and victory. Traditionally we have postponed the vindication and victory part—it is much easier to handle that way. All the eschatology gets dumped at the end of the world. But that is an evasion of history.

I don’t think scripture allows us that easy option. I think we have to understand the whole narrative historically—excluding the cosmological bookends of creation and new creation—so that the concrete, public vindication of Jesus and of the faithful communities of disciples, which is anticipated throughout the New Testament, turns out to be the eventual conversion of the Greek-Roman world. The ends of the earth turn to YHWH and are saved; every knee bows, every tongue confesses; the offspring of Israel are justified and glorified; and the pagan gods go into captivity (cf. Is. 45:22-46:2). At the name of Jesus.

This vindication and victory was achieved through the suffering of an obedient community, prefigured or preempted in the suffering and vindication of the martyr Jesus, the firstborn of many brothers (Rom. 8:29). This is the argument of Philippians 2:6-11: the defeat of the pagan gods is gained by way of the cross, by a way of pathos. Suffering in the New Testament is not an end in itself—it is a means to an end. Once that end is achieved, once the nations confess Jesus as Lord and persecution is ended, we have a very different state of affairs—and a different set of sin-generated problems to contend with.

The historical significance of the exile in this regard is highlighted by Peter Leithart in [amazon:978-1608998173:inline]:

Yahweh scattered citizens of His empire among the nations for a reason, not just to teach Israel a lesson but to begin forming a martyr-people whose faithful resistance would remake Gentile empire. (22)

If we are going to put Jesus back in his Jewish context, we have to deal with some Jewish presuppositions that may seem alien to our own more diffident, apolitical, abstract modern outlook. One of those presuppositions was that the God of Israel would eventually come to be acknowledged by the idolatrous nations which for centuries had opposed and oppressed his people. The Psalmist says, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Ps. 82:8). Again, Leithart gets it right:

The conversions of Sergius Paulus and Cornelius were portents of the future: If they can believe, why not the emperor? Why can the whole Roman empire not enter into the shade of the imperium of Jesus? Why can Rome not come to Zion to be instructed in God’s law and to learn to beat swords into ploughshares? Is that not what the prophets would lead the early Christians to expect? (44)

Now part of Mark’s argument is that Greek philosophy distorted the biblical idea of God. Jewish and Christian theologians have been embarrassed by biblical references to divine pathos (“emotion”, “suffering”) because they have been influenced by—in Heschel’s words—“a combination of philosophical presuppositions which have their origin in classical Greek thinking”. So in this regard Christendom is not a victory but a failure, a false start, a deviation from the biblical conception of God.

Paradoxically, Mark is happy with my assertion of biblical narrative over classical Trinitarian conceptuality, but he is unhappy with what appears to me to be the unavoidable outcome of that narrative—once it becomes apparent that the Jews are not going to repent en masse and believe in Jesus—which is that the people of God became a Greek-Roman culture. Here is my latest attempt to capture the rollercoaster of the history of the people of God. The green patch represents the part of the track covered by the New Testament. Maybe I’ll try and explain it in another post.

The very Jewish notion of divine pathos cannot be separated from the very Jewish ambition to be the head and not the tail (cf. Deut. 28:13). The pain of Israel’s God is bound up with the failure of his people to walk in his ways, which is why Israel is oppressed by the nations. But the hope is repeatedly expressed that Israel will be restored and the nations will come to Zion to acknowledge that YHWH really is the true God. What the New Testament adds to this, in effect, is the belief that this acknowledgement will come about by virtue of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

I agree that Christianity was radically transformed by its assimilation into the Greek-Roman world and not necessarily for the better. But if this was an inevitable outcome of the Jewish-Christian apocalyptic trajectory, it seems to me more cogent to argue that Christendom as a political-religious-intellectual phenomenon was a proper outworking of the narrative than to dismiss fifteen hundred years of the church’s existence as a false start. It’s painful to admit it, but I would suggest that somewhere in that admission is precisely the recognition that the God of Abraham and of Jesus and of Constantine engages passioniately in the historical existence of his people.

It is all to easy for us to judge the ancient world according to our own standards—and that includes according to our recently recovered appreciation of the historical particularity of the biblical texts. For this reason I would not simply dismiss the translation of Jewish narrative categories into Greek philosophical categories. It seems to me that the church was perfectly entitled to do that sort of contextualization.

We no longer share the Christendom worldview, and we cannot help but relativize historical perspectives. That is what it means to be post-modern. We can see that the New Testament works on Jewish presuppositions and is in many respects at odds with the later formulations of the Greek-Roman church. We can see, too, that Christendom was captive to a set of presuppositions which were largely alien to the biblical worldview and increasingly alien to our own. So we have to think things through again with those qualifications in mind.

Comments

Abraham Heschel’s “theology of pathos” as reflected in the linked article is something I incorporated into my understanding of God long ago. It’s impossible to read the bible, from Genesis through the prophets, without seeing clearly that God experiences intense emotions: pleasure, joy, disappointment, pain, frustration, and even conflicting emotions, in response to His creation. This is also very evident in Jesus. The notion that God does not experienced pain or pleasure in this way is the dotrine of ‘impassibility’, which apparently is attributed to Augustine, Luther and Calvin amongst others. I’ve never really researched it; it just seems to fly in the face of all the evidence.

I couldn’t quite see how this related to Andrew’s apocalyptic interpretation of the biblical narrative, as compared with, say, a Trinitarian interpretation. The latter portrays, in my view, the profoundest depths of pathos in the Father/Son relationship when Jesus died on the cross, and emotional engagement between members of the trinity as well as in response to creation. Nowhere does this run counter to a a narrative or apocalyptic interpretation.

I’m not wanting here to engage with Andrew’s ‘apocalyptic’ outline of biblical history, which would only lead to endless conflicting points of view, but just to comment on three possibly questionable associations made in the presentation of the argument.

One of these is:

The Trinitarian question is an engagement with philosophy. The apocalyptic question is an engagement with history.

If we are talking about a trinitarianism based on a high Christology, the tide is running in favour of a very early high Christology, and therefore, inevitably, a very early trinitarianism. Scholars supporting this position and mentioned on Larry Hurtado’s blog are: David Capes, Wendy Cotter, Jarl Fossum, Larry Hurtado, Donald Juel, John R. Levison, Carey Newman, Pheme Perkins, Alan Segal and Marianne Meye Thompson. Others who associate themselves with early high Christology, mentioned on the same blog, include Clinton Arnold, Loren Stuckenbruck, James Davila, Charles Gieschen, Richard Bauckham, Martin Hengel, April DeConick, Karl-Wilhelm Niebuhr and Jörg Frey. James Dunn believes in a high but not early Christology. Maurice Casey does not have a high Christology – as you might expect. By “early” is meant shortly after Jesus’s crucifixion, ie long before Tertullian, Irenaeus or the Greek controversies.

Whatever this means, it cannot be justifiable to say that “the Trinitarian question is an engagement with philosophy”. A high Christology is proposed before there was time or even the envirnoment to engage with philosphical ideas.

The corollary is that while “the apocalyptic question is an engagement with history”, this does not mean that a trinitarian question is not an engagement with history.

Another questionable association is suggested here:

It seems to me unquestionable that there is a central narrative in scripture which runs from failure through suffering to vindication and victory. Traditionally we have postponed the vindication and victory part—it is much easier to handle that way. All the eschatology gets dumped at the end of the world. But that is an evasion of history.

I don’t know of any eschatological framework that “dumps” vindication and victory at the end of the world, if that is what is meant by “traditionally we have postponed the vindication and victory part”. Healthy eschatological frameworks say that Jesus was vindicated and proven victorious at his resurrection and ascension, and especially that his outpoured Spirit was a breaking-in of the powers of the age to come (ie the completion of new heavens and new earth) into this age (ie the age we now live in). Healthy frameworks say that there is a great deal more of this “breaking-in” to be appropriated than we have yet experienced.

Finally, there is:

This vindication and victory was achieved through the suffering of an obedient community, prefigured or preempted in the suffering and vindication of the martyr Jesus, the firstborn of many brothers (Rom. 8:29). This is the argument of Philippians 2:6-11: the defeat of the pagan gods is gained by way of the cross, by a way of pathos.

This suggests that Jesus was no more than a proto-martyr, an exemplar for his followers. Of course he was this, but Philippians 2:6-11 suggests that he was very much more, and certainly more as “firstborn of many brothers” than simply one who went ahead and provided the martyr’s example for others to follow.

Or have I misread you here?

Whatever this means, it cannot be justifiable to say that “the Trinitarian question is an engagement with philosophy”. A high Christology is proposed before there was time or even the envirnoment to engage with philosphical ideas.

I’m quite happy to go with a very early high christology. The question is how it is formulated and how much got lost or distorted as Christianity moved from a predominantly Jewish worldview to a predominantly Hellenistic worldview. The language of “trinity” is neither Jewish nor biblical, so it is very debatable what it actually refers to.

I don’t know of any eschatological framework that “dumps” vindication and victory at the end of the world, if that is what is meant by “traditionally we have postponed the vindication and victory part”.

As you know, I don’t think the public vindication of Jesus was established in his resurrection and ascension—that was for the benefit of his followers. The parousia of the Son of Man motif refers to a public-political vindication, which is only really fulfilled when the nations confess him as Lord, that is, when the empire is converted. But what I had in mind here was the vindication and victory of his followers—typically we defer this to an end-of-the-world scenario. My view is that the followers of Jesus were also publically vindicated when the nations confessed Jesus as Lord.

I think we generally underestimate the extent to which the early suffering church expected to share not only in the sufferings of Jesus but also in the vindication and reign of Jesus at the right hand of God.

I’m quite happy to go with a very early high christology. The question is how it is formulated and how much got lost or distorted as Christianity moved from a predominantly Jewish worldview to a predominantly Hellenistic worldview.

This doesn’t work. A very early high christology means that very shortly after his resurrection, the disciples were worshipping Jesus as God. This belief informs the gospels and Acts, as well as the letters. It then affects the entire narrative. Jesus was bringing the entire biblical narrative to its climax, and, in himself, its conclusion. In other words, a divine Jesus brings a different narrative into play than a political Jesus who overthrows a pagan empire and sets up a Christian empire.

As you know, I don’t think the public vindication of Jesus was established in his resurrection and ascension—that was for the benefit of his followers. The parousia of the Son of Man motif refers to a public-political vindication, which is only really fulfilled when the nations confess him as Lord

I didn’t know this, but it’s helpful you have said it. In that sense, yes, the vindication of the followers of Jesus would be at the end of the world (as we see it). But actually, the vindication of the followers of Jesus comes in many ways much earlier than this, and is seen in the manifestations in their lives of the Spirit, bringing into present realities things which will be completely true in the age to come, such as new life, community, presence of God in His people, healings, deliverances, raisings from the dead, the gospel preached with power, and so on. These are the concrete vindications of the people of God in history.

On a final note, a divine Spirit is added to a divine Father and Son as the operative person of God on earth, bringing the divine realities to earth referred to above as the vindication of the people of God in history. A divine Spirit is glimpsed in the gospels (I’d say more than glimpsed), accentuated in Acts (at Pentecost especially - as God poured out by God through the agency of God - Spirit - Father - Son), and exposed in the epistles (my own alliterations).

This does not take us into the realm of hellenistic thinking, whatever that may be, but is a Jewish explanation of how God’s culminating work was brought about in history by Jesus, and continues to be concretely active in history to this day. There’s so much concrete here, affecting the personal, spiritual, social, political, and ethical life of nations and individuals, it’s akin to motorway and housing construction concreting over vast tracts of the UK since the 1960s. My mother-in-law’s father built Waterloo Bridge and the ‘Post Office’ tower in London out of reinforced concrete, as well as numerous roads and factories, but the company became insolvent through cash-flow problems brought about chiefly by the UK government. So we know all about concrete in our family. He was also Danish.

Hi Andrew,

I have to admit that I was not ready for this post, since so much activity was (is!) still going on with your previous one. Unlike that post, this one does not seem to be a topic that garners the concerned attention of the defenders of the faith, That is why I decided to wait a bit, to confirm a question that nags me when engaging the theoblogs in general: does anyone really care about how faithfulness is expressed today, especially what that looks like in relationship to how the world perceives us when they actually read our gospels and see a disjunction between Jesus’ authority in what he commands, and the church’s virtual ignoring of it? It brings to mind Paul’s rebuke of his fellow Jews in relationship to the Gentiles in Romans 2:23-24. I realize my questions are poorly expressed and would receive pushback, as I know that Ed and Cherylu would take their challenges to you as being that “faithfulness.” It is usually this arguing over orthodox doctrine that overshadows my question that I am expecting to be answered in terms of the ways and means of Jesus rather than church creeds and statements of faith. Now, with your blog focusing on looking at scripture narratively in its historical context, the question for me becomes what does faithfulness actually look like now, given a certain narrative-historical take on the scriptures?

If you were to go back to where you reference my comment in which you began this post, you will see that right below my question to you I tried to answer a question Cherylu posed to me, asking if I would explain the correlation I made between “orthodoxy” and “fruit” (http://www.postost.net/comment/3685#comment-3685). There you can see that my concerns are defined through a certain Anabaptist lens that interprets what you call apocalyptic success as “Constantinian Shift,” a term attributed to John Howard Yoder. Given my predisposition, that shift and the fruit it has born would be anything but success to my mind. I don’t know if Cherylu read my attempt to answer her questions or not, but the silence, in stark contrast to how she engages immediately with others when it comes to Jesus’ ontology, continues to confirm my conviction of the misdirection of the church regarding its mission to represent what God has done (and continues to do) for the sake of the world that came about very uniquely in a crucified and vindicated through resurrection Messiah, which I think will always be a “scandal to Jews, and foolishness to Greeks” no matter before or after Constantine. My inclination, based on much experience among my fellow believers, is that the Greek world the church found itself in that culminates with Constantine’s religious liberty stumbles right here when it gets to wield power - no matter what faction carries the day (case in point: Arian versus Orthodox).

Given all the above, with respect to what you were engaging Ed and Cherylu with, I can echo your statement:

This is important because in my view, as far as understanding the New Testament is concerned, the apocalyptic question is much more significant than the question of whether Jesus was God. The Trinitarian question is an engagement with philosophy. The apocalyptic question is an engagement with history.

It has been the contrast of behavior between the pre-Constantinian church (recognizing the state of the church was not monolithic before or after him) and what happens afterward that drives my predisposition, I admit. In going back over some of your posts, particularly of Leithert’s books, I do believe I need to temper this to some extent. I don’t want to slander a man just because he serves as a marker in history. But more than the past, it is the current thinking of so many of my fellow American brethren in light of current events and the behaviors that come of it that seem so reminiscent of that post-Constantinian “shift” at its worst. My engagement with those outside the American church (as you will see below) has actually made my predispostion all the more acute - sometimes to the point of desparation since I am in the thick of it. I certainly cannot turn for help from those in Cherlu’s or Ed’s camp - by far the most vocal constituency in America - by getting bombarded in an apologetic onslaught. I gave Cherylu an example of explaining the narrative-historical way of the scriptures among Muslims. Again, her silence in contrast to her reactions to you is an example of how deaf the church is to these considerations. Therefore, I would like to think I could work this out in relationship to what you have posited Andrew.

While I might still dispute with you over whether I am in fact “dumping all my eschatology at the end of the world,” or that
my understanding of living faithfully in history would entail the “cosmological bookends of creation and new creation without regard to vindication and victory in history,” I would still think that my certain hope demonstrated through following Jesus today, as well as so many others’ hope in doing the same in the various dangerous situations they find themselves throughout the world, would need some kind of final vindication of that faithfulness that lay with our own resurrection - similar to Paul’s yearning in Philippians 3:10-11. I don’t think by what you are emphasizing is a negation of that; but that is probably where I am seeking clarity. If that horizon of vindication and victory has passed where we see the call to “patient endurance unto death” of the church in the New Testament, how do we proceed, especially in a world that time and again still sets its face against Yahweh and His Messiah? More to my point and experience, what do I do when I get most of the flack from my fellow believers? In America, I have a better chance of being killed by my fellow Christian than a Muslim when stressing a discipleship of self-sacrifice for the sake of the enemy. Preserving America at all costs is primary. It recalls the cold war when it was accepted that we could “nuke the world” for the sake of a way of life (one that homeschoolers understand as “Christian” in its foundations). Imagine that: nuking God’s world for a way of life! Was God consulted about this?

Suffering in the New Testament is not an end in itself—it is a means to an end. Once that end is achieved, once the nations confess Jesus as Lord and persecution is ended, we have a very different state of affairs—and a different set of sin-generated problems to contend with.

I think it is right there in that last sentence that I am beginning to see you are not tossing aside my questions concerning faithfulness Andrew. (The first part I understand you in light of that apocalyptic success, but still leaves my question of how to proceed today when new horizons arrive in much the same way as back then). Your acknowledging that there is “a different set of sin-generated problems” could probably sway me to reconsider my description of that apocalyptic success as a “false start.” Given my current state of understanding of what you are getting at, maybe the phrase “apocalyptic conundrum” would best fit for me! Or, since you mention “paradox” regarding how I am processing things, perhaps “apocalyptic enigma”? It only becomes this because of the fall of the church into those “sin-generated problems” you mention, not the success over paganism itself.

So I will assume I can see that success as the defeat of paganism in the Roman Empire. But like all success, a new set of temptations arise. For example: how to use worldly power responsibly now that I possess it; or should it be used at all if that success over paganism came by faithfulness in the same way Jesus chose powerlessness, a powerlessness that unmasks and thereby defeats the powers, revealing their true nature? (you can see the influence of Hendrik Berkof on me). Something like that I can get on board with, since it calls me to a very clear “way” that Jesus would still call for his “body” to follow today for the same very important reasons as before.

I see you quote from Peter Leithart’s new book “Between Babel and Beast” where he focuses on America and Empire. I was thinking of that book when trying to figure out how I might get across my concerns. Is Constantine’s empire like America I asked? I remember when you reviewed his book “Defending Constantine” that I visited Amazon’s website to see what others were saying about it. I saw this quote by William Cavanaugh that I think gives an important challenge that needs to be answered by people like me:

“If the Holy Spirit did not simply go on holiday during that period, we must find ways to appreciate Christendom. Any worthwhile political theology today cannot fail to take Leithart’s argument seriously.” (William T. Cavanaugh, Research Professor, Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, DePaul University, Chicago )

What you say is “painful to admit” I admit. And I do recognize “that the God of Abraham and Jesus and of Constantine engages passionately in the historical existence of his people.” I just have to wonder what God thinks of those who dispense of part of His people by way of exile or murder. In this vein I did have a little bit of a problem the way N T Wright spoke of the Leithert’s book:

“All will benefit enormously from this challenge to easygoing received ‘wisdom.’” (N. T. Wright, University of St. Andrews, Scotland )

I think the words “painful” and “easygoing” would fail to register with those who looked at the apocalyptic success as “Constantinian Shift,” who’s pain was not so easygoing when they were tried, tortured, and burned at the stake for differing about their understanding of what Jesus’ church should look like.

Yes, the experience of those of the past who endured under the results of the success - Christians, pagans, Jews, etc. - are always in my purview when trying to deal with these kinds of discussions. I find it difficult to dissociate myself from consequences or implications of decisions made in history when lives are affected so drastically like they have been with Christendom. Yet if these are what you would call the “sin-generated problems” that should be dealt with and repented of, then I can certainly see more clearly what you are getting at.

I know all this can color my perspective inordinately. Ted Grimsrud - who I was happy to see is acquainted with your posts (http://www.postost.net/comment/3379#comment-3379) - does a much better job critiquing Leithart than I could ever do, especially in regards to Yoder’s project. His review on Amazon is worth a read (http://www.amazon.com/review/R1ZW042HZJFK4Q/ref=cm_cr_pr_cmt?ie=UTF8&ASIN=0830827226&linkCode=&nodeID=&tag=#wasThisHelpful.

As for Leithert’s new book, the reviewer over at Englewood Review of Books - Branson Parler - is appreciative of his insights. But he does bring out the same concerns I try to express here, as I live in the American context that Leithert’s book addresses:

“Leithart’s book showcases his interdisciplinary strength. He is at ease whether in the realm of biblical studies, history, or political theory, and he brings these together with great insight. The survey of biblical material and analysis of Americanism is well-written and accessible to non-specialists. Because of this, Leithart’s book serves as a good introduction to a theological critique of nationalism in general and Americanism in particular. The book makes clear that Leithart’s last book, Defending Constantine, should not be taken as an unqualified defense of America or Americanism. Leithart makes clear that the church advances God’s imperium by martyrdom, not violence. At times, however, Leithart still sounds overly-optimistic about the notion that war and force was “de-sacralized” because it was “de-sacrificized” (40). I am still unconvinced that Constantine’s sacrifice of his enemies is somehow qualitatively different from America’s sacrifice of hers.”

Andrew, the concerns I have expressed come out of a context that is getting pretty extreme here in America. We are part of a Muslim community, learning about Islam at their invitation by attending their children’s Arabic/Quran school. The mentality of the evangelical church here regarding this “unorthodox” approach pretty much drove me away from them (they seem to be well content to get their discipleship/understanding of the world from Fox News). My wife wears the hijab out of respect for the community at the school and when we are participating in public events. We notice the snears made by drivers in their cars, and people at restaurants look disparagingly at us, or rudely confront her and her friends. She’s had her small pocketbook totally torn down at security posts (the school’s field trip to the Smithsonian) while other women pass through with huge sacks without nary a look. We’ve gotten the chance to experience the fear Muslims feel. My wife wonders if she will get shot in the head by passers-by. Her Muslim friends express the same worries. She maintains herself their courage in solidarity with them. While those who behave this way would claim they are Christians due to a long history of Christendom, we have to distance ourselves from this expression for these reasons. Muslims in America are a minority trying to find a way to commend themselves as good citizens in the midst of their fellow citizen’s fear and paranoia. And I think a crucified Messiah that is faithful to death, with a vindication that only comes through death by way of resurrection, thereby defeating death, can be commended to them - and to us - in how we deal with our fears, particularly those related to preserving identity through security and/or significance. I don’t expect America as a nation to understand this; I don’t expect Muslims to understand this either; I do expect my fellow Christians to understand. But if they are the ones expressing the most fear, particularly of “losing America” as they’ve known it, and causing others to fear as a result of their mentality, then something is drastically wrong with their faith.

I worry that Christendom created various parochialisms that continue to be based on self-preservation, the exact opposite of God’s act in Christ.

In all this, I’ve got to wonder if there isn’t an apocalyptic horizon for us, more along the lines of God’s judgment on Israel, for nurturing unfaithfulness. And with that, maybe the concept of “remnant” could serve to fill in that history that we can only see as Christendom. After all, Jesus does make distinctions in his challenges to the churches in Revelation. Paul, in the disappointment of being abandoned, says “The Lord knows those who are his.” In previous posts where you respond to me, you mention the need for the church to listen to its prophets. I had a hard time seeing Anabaptists as prophets to Christendom when they were claiming the whole enterprise is done wrong, attributing that to Constantine. Maybe I can see what you mean now.

At any rate, I see Ed has bowed out on the previous post. No, wait! Jaco has again entered the fray, drawing Ed back in. Cherlyu has commented once again as well. I get the feeling that under Christendom, neither of us would fair too well in expressing anything that might actually get the church back into the heartbeat of scripture (even if we don’t see eye to eye on exactly what that is). Jaco probably wouldn’t either.

Mark,

Just so you know, I did read your comment to me. Maybe it was too late and I was too tired when I read it or something, but I came away from it feeling confused and not at all sure of what you were saying. Maybe I need to go back and read it again.

But at any rate, it seems to me that different folks in the Christian community are greatly concerned with different issues. It is obvious that you are vastly concerned with the issues involved with the Muslim community in our country. Very frankly, here in rural America where I live, I do not know of one single Muslim. If there are any here, they are not obvious to the rest of the community in their dress, etc.

On the other hand, I have personal experience with doctrinal issues in the church that have flooded in and are causing problems big time. The Bible is very concerned about true doctrine, and proper action. Neither is left out, both are important. But because of my personal experiences, (and probably other factors too) this issue of doctrine has become extremely important to me and I will continue to defend what I believe to be the truth of God’s Word.

Hi Cherylu,

I appreciate you responding to me. In no way would I want you to represent a “catch-all” for issues that am dealing with. And like I said to you in that previous response , I would not expect you to do anything different than what you are doing given your convictions.

I do want to say that the Trinitarian doctrine does have a certain intersection with my involvement with Muslims, as I relate in that response too. When I am with them, I have to admit most Christians cannot articulate and understand the actual creedal formulation. And I also try to get them to understand why the conflicts did occur that caused the church to try to pin it down. It is here when I thought the best way to get them to appreciate what was going on was to work it through again myself. The history is checkered, and scholars are not in agreement as to how uniform the church was in how they thought of Jesus in terms of deity or agency. This excludes the obvious outliers. So there was some debate going on within accepted Christianity.

My question became, if there was a certain fluidity within boundaries, maybe my Muslim friends could work in that vein as well if they were at the moment scandalized by Trinitarianism.

That is when I found a link recommended by Jaco on Andrew’s site.

Working through that showed me I had no “trump card” in this matter. While I could understand and even accept Trinitarian doctrine myself, I could no longer proclaim that these others were outside of salvation. These people are not denying Trinitarianism because of some kind of deliberate deception. They are seeing an emphasis in scripture and the terms usually taken to commend Trinitarianism, and seeing something else going on with them.

So, I see the difference between you and me Cherylu as one of just who we would consider a true Christian. Just to allow this on my part would probably ban me from most churches.

Putting myself in Jaco’s shoes for a time helped me to understand that all this is not as obvious as I thought. And so, I try to relate the story of Jesus to my Muslim friends to understand that He was God’s Messiah, that the scripture’s fortold that God’s Messiah had to suffer….you, know, similar to what Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus:

“You foolish people – how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures…” Luke 24:25-27.

Muslims do believe Jesus is the Messiah; they just don’t fill that in with the specific content that defines him as above. I do believe what is above is necessary for salvation, as well as verses that speak of the forgiveness of sins that comes only through him.

The most obvious confession is that of Paul in Romans 10:9

if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Unitarian Christians have helped me understand certain aspects of scripture in different - and legitimate - ways. While I still have questions that don’t allow me to come on board with their certainty, I don’t deny them the fellowship I think the church should extend to them.

Mark

Mark,

I really enjoyed reading your comments above. They remind me so much about my own ministry I had a few years ago, reaching out to Muslims. I fondly remember the great debates, the good and honest questioning and the sincere discovery of hope once I could share with them the good news of God’s Kingdom.

I’ve found that Muslims are very curious to know what the Bible teaches once they’re told that there’s no trinity in the Bible. My reply to the question, “but why do the churches teach the trinity if the Bible doesn’t?” usually was, “does Islam teach everything of the Qur’an and the Hadiths today?” They often get the picture. A single God with a Name(!) and a fully human messiah is the best news to any Muslim who’s search has been impeded by quasi-tritheism.

I’ll never forget the reaction by a Somali man after reading Isa. 11: “my people need this message; this is the truth, and my people don’t have it.”

How do you get around the sonship of Jesus? (I have an excellent trump card myself, but would like to hear yours first…)

Hi Jaco,

I would like to discuss these things with you in some depth if you care to. But would you please email me your email address, to mark.nieweg[at]gmail[dot]com? That way we won’t be off-topic on Andrew’s site :-)

Thanks,

Mark

Mark, this is an excellent reflection, and I hope people will read it carefully.

If that horizon of vindication and victory has passed where we see the call to “patient endurance unto death” of the church in the New Testament, how do we proceed, especially in a world that time and again still sets its face against Yahweh and His Messiah?

Just very quickly, we proceed, I think, in two ways. First, we bring into view a third New Testament horizon of God’s final justice and the renewal of all things. I think that there church is always required to be a concrete and faithful sign of that ultimate hope. Secondly, I think that we need to learn how to narrate our own existence in such a way that allows us to respond prophetically to exactly the challenges that you highlight. This seems to me to be spot on:

In all this, I’ve got to wonder if there isn’t an apocalyptic horizon for us, more along the lines of God’s judgment on Israel, for nurturing unfaithfulness.

My view is that the conversion of the empire was unquestionably the historical vindication of the endurance of the early church, but that does not mean that Christendom ancient and modern is let off the hook. Here I think that the Anabaptists offer important resources for the church.

What I am pushing for here is a theology that takes seriously the historicality of the church’s existence, past and present. Evangelicalism doesn’t do that. It will only work with personal narratives and abstractions. But to my mind this means quite radically contextualizing elements of New Testament thought that we have traditionally understood in much more idealized ways.

Andrew,

I don’t think scripture allows us that easy option. I think we have to understand the whole narrative historically—excluding the cosmological bookends of creation and new creation—so that the concrete, public vindication of Jesus and the faithful communities of disciples, which is anticipated throughout the New Testament, turns out to be the eventual conversion of the Greek-Roman world

I think this is where your assumptions/current understanding causes your eschatology to be incomplete.

You cannot exclude the Bibles two “bookends” because they are directly attached to its eschatology. The assumption that I speak of is this: You assume Genesis is a physical creation account, which logically (and correctly) forces you to assume a physical new creation at the other bookend. This is why you look for a physical “end” in Revelation, which causes you to detach a portion of it from what clearly speaks of first century events. Of course this is true in reverse too. If one assumes a physical “end” in Revelation, he is forced to assume a physical beginning in Genesis. You fall into the first category, based upon all that I’ve read in your writings.

I applaud your consistent narrative-historical approach to reading the New Testament, but I think you’ve have limited it by limiting it to the physical realm. The events that have unfolded in the physcial are outward manifestations of spiritual realities being realized. This is the dimension which is completely missing in your eschatology. Take Christ’s resurrection as an example.

Christ was physically resurrected on the third day. But, was his physical resurrection the true “resurrection”? No! His outward physical resurrection was a “sign” that pointed to something else. A sign points to something and is never the thing itself.

Jesus stated this in Matthew 12:39-40. He stated no “sign” would be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah. A clear reference to Christ’s three days in the grave and his resurrection. The true resurrection was spiritual. Jesus being “born again” into a new Covenant world, the Bible’s new heaven and earth which has no physcial dimensions. A world where righteousness would dwell (2 Peter 3:13). Jesus’ physcial resurrection is not an example that we too will be physically raised. It was never intened to. Nowhere does the Bible teach a physical bodily resurrection of believers.

It’s clear that Isaiah chapters 65 & 66 are directly related to Rev 21 & 22 (which is directly tied to Genesis). Both speak of the New Heaven and Earth (and New Jerusalem). It’s also clear that Isaiah shows physical death, birth, and sin still happening in the new heaven and earth (Is. 65:20), which also holds true for Revelation (Rev. 22:15). On top of that, it’s clear in Rev. 21 that the New Jerusalem is the Church (Christ’s bride) and a “spiritual” reality. One must also consider Hebrews 12:22 where the writer contrast Israel’s Old Covenant world of with the new Jerusalem, which the writter states in the present tense (you have come) as being present then, which removes it from the physical realm. Of course if its not physcial in Hebrews, it isn’t physical in Revelation which means it’s not physical in Genesis. This miss-guided notion of a new physcial creation with some utopia society that Christendom has invented is just wrong.

Genesis speaks of a Covenant World not a physical world, this is why the creation days don’t work in relation to the physical. They are completely out of order (for starters). Christendom’s insistence of a physical reading is why there is mass confusion and a hunderd different views concerning Genesis. It’s an ancient cosmology very closely related to ancient near eastern (ANE) thought and speaks of Israel’s covenant world with YHWH. You can’t read it through our 21st century world view. We think in physical terms, they did not. They thought more in functional terms.

I highly recommend to you all of Brian Godawa’s articles over at Biologos.org, but three in particular are below. I think if you give them a read, your mind will be confronted with a new understanding in the area of cosmology that will directly affect and enrich your understanding in the Bible’s eschatology. I also highly recommend Prof. John Walton’s book, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible. $18 at amazon.com.

http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper.pdf

http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_scholarly_paper_2.pdf

http://biologos.org/uploads/projects/godawa_collapsing_universe.pdf

All his articles can be found here: http://biologos.org/blog/author/brian-godawa

It’s also clear that Isaiah shows physical death, birth, and sin still happening in the new heaven and earth (Is. 65:20), which also holds true for Revelation (Rev. 22:15).

Rich, I agree that death remains part of Isaiah’s “new creation”, which is why I think that it’s a figure for the historical renewal of Israel. But I disagree with your reading of Revelation 21-22. The verse you refer to is not part of John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth. In this final new creation both death and the unrighteous are thrown into the lake of fire, the second death, meaning that they are destroyed (20:14; 21:8). That vision ends at 22:5. Then we revert to the seer’s present, waiting for the coming of the Lord to judge Rome and rescue his followers from their persecutors (22:6-17). In verses 14-15 the contrast is between the redeemed, who are waiting to enter the city, and the unrighteous, who are excluded now and will ultimately suffer destruction.

Andrew,

I agree that death remains part of Isaiah’s “new creation”, which is why I think that it’s a figure for the historical renewal of Israel.

I both understand and don’t understand what you’re say here. I agree the new heaven and earth were a historical renewal of Israel (although not physical in the since of it having physical bounderies such as a nation today [USA or Russia]). I don’t understand your “figure” reference. Are you trying to say that Isa.’s new heaven and earth is not the same one as Revelations or that what transpires in Isa.’s new heaven and earth doesn’t transpire in Revelation’s?

In this final new creation both death and the unrighteous are thrown into the lake of fire, the second death, meaning that they are destroyed (20:14; 21:8)

I agree with this too, however, I understand the “death” being referred to has nothing to do with physical death, which is why physical death remains in the new heaven and earth just as Isa. states. This death has to do with covenant death that started in Genesis against Israel due to her first corporate head’s (Adam) sin when he broke the law (thou shall not eat). This is the “death” Paul addresses thoughout his epistles too. The one he addresses very specially in Romans 5-8.

That vision ends at 22:5. Then we revert to the seer’s present, waiting for the coming of the Lord

I agree the vision end at 22:5 too, and that we revert to the seer’s present but that does matter. What needs to be addressed is the timing of the new heaven and earth and the new Jerusalem. Do you see the new Jerusalem as something independent of the new heaven and earth? The new Jerusalem present now while the new heaven and earth is not present now? The new Jerusalem dwelling within the new heaven and earth, or perhaps both are one and the same?

Something to consider is Matthew 5:18. Do you hold that the Law has passed? Every iota and dot?

I’m not sure how you reconcile this eschatological solution with the narrative-historical approach. As you have pointed out repeatedly, the perspective of the New Testament is very apocalyptic and eschatological. However, the “conversion” of the empire doesn’t fulfill the historical expectation of the apostles or the prophets. They were in the continum of the historical narrative of the prophets in the Old Testament who predicted God coming to physically defeat the nations, dwell in and rule from Zion. There’s no way using this hermenutic that the conclusion of that narrative can be anything other than a physical descendent of David ruling on a physical throne in Jerusalem.

It’s just not possible to make “Christendom” the resolution of the New Testament’s apocalyptic tension without making the text mean something very different than it meant to them which seems like a violation of your hermenutic. This is to say nothing of the apocalyptic salvation of Israel (Romans 11:12, 15, 25-26), that Paul saw clearly at the end of the age or applying the salvation of the nations to a relatively small empire around the Mediterranean. This is where I’m struggling to see how you’re applying the historical narrative approach. Using that approach actually forces us into an eschatological tension where we have to acknowledge the eschatological nature of the New Testament, as you have pointed our repeatedly, and yet live with that fact that the predictions of the prophets and expectatations of the apostles have still not yet come to pass.

They were in the continum of the historical narrative of the prophets in the Old Testament who predicted God coming to physically defeat the nations, dwell in and rule from Zion. There’s no way using this hermenutic that the conclusion of that narrative can be anything other than a physical descendent of David ruling on a physical throne in Jerusalem.

Samuel, it seems to me that the issue in the New Testament is not whether a descendant of David would rule or whether Israel’s God would be confessed as sovereign by the nations. It is how do these historical outcomes come about. So the extensive (as I see it) use of Daniel 7 points to the fact that the Son of Man is given kingdom and glory as vindication for faithful suffering. Peter argues that Jesus has been given authority to rule at the right hand of God because he died and was raised (eg. Acts 2:22-36). He doesn’t rule in Jerusalem but he rules from heaven. More loosely, it is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 through whom the historical transformation envisaged in 40-55 is achieved. It is the Lamb that was slain who is worthy to initiate the process of judgment against Israel and Rome. The conversion of the empire comes about because first Jesus and then his followers were prepared to suffer for the sake of this civilization-changing gospel. Historically, that is what happened.

As for the salvation of Israel, my view (see Will all Israel be saved? Hurtado and Wright and [amazon:978-1606087879:inline]) is that Paul did not expect Israel to be saved before the judgment of AD 70 but he hoped that after that catastrophe they would come to understand that YHWH had made Jesus Lord and Christ and repent en masse—and so all Israel would be saved. I think that is evident from the way he uses the quotation from Isaiah 59:20-21. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, and as far as Paul is concerned, that is the end of the story.

That seems to me adequately to resolve the tension, but let me know if it still doesn’t make sense.

I agree that the Son of Man is given the rule because of suffering. It’s think it’s pretty hard to argue thought that the New Testament doesn’t present Jesus as the Son of David who will rule. Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s letter to Romans both open with the Davidic reference and it shows up especially throughout the gospels. The reason it’s there is to provide continuinity with the narritative. The Davidic king has arrived. I don’t see anywhere in the New Testament where we have liberty to redefine the rule to be exclusively heavenly rather than earthy. Israel’s long story culminates in a Son of David ruling form Jerusalem and no where does the New Testament redefine that expectation. It seven shows up subtly in places like Acts 1 where the angel promises that Jesus will descend again with the clouds in like manner. As you well know, being that they were in the Mount of Olives that would provoke all sorts of prophetic expectation from the Old Testament.

I read your interpretation of Romans 11, but from the passage it’s difficult to argue that Paul is “hoping.” Paul is clearly predicting an entire salvation of Israel. He’s building on the expectation of the Old Testament of a day when all of Israel would be saved, something that had never occurred before but had been repeatedly prophesied. There’s nothing in the text that lets us take it as Paul’s hope. To do so is to admit the failure, both the of the narrative of the Old Testament, and of the expectation of Paul and the apostles.

Paul’s prediction is built on the consistent narriative of the Old Testament that Israel would face unequalled judgment, then sudden deliverance which resulted in all of Israel being saved, and then the judgment of the nations on their behalf. Since AD 70 did not fulfill this storyline, the apocalyptic tension in the New Testament that you so brilliantly execute from the text continues to bear down on the New Testmament community of believers. Considering that, for the first time in 1,900 years we suddenly have a disobedient Israel again poised for a terrible judgment at the hands of an every increasing hostile military precense around them, the fulfillment of Paul’s understanding of prophecy is more alive than it has been since the first century.