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.