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Stephen Burnhope: Atonement and the New Perspective

One of the main arguments that I have been putting forward on this site is that modern evangelicalism needs to shift its weight from the rickety stool of theology or dogmatics, before it collapses, to the much more solid and reliable stool of history. What would this mean for how we understand things? First, we would read the New Testament as a narrative testimony to the historical experience and perspective of a messianic Jewish movement in the first century. Secondly, we would determine the present life and mission of the church not dogmatically—as though a fuzzy, grainy, blotchy and easily misinterpreted snapshot of the first century church could reasonably serve as a template throughout the rest of human history—but as an extension of that narrative.

Why traditional eschatology is a failure of nerve

I want to begin the new year by exhorting “evangelicals”—that is, by my definition, Christians who think that the Bible is to be taken seriously—to get to grips with eschatology. Why not? It’s as good a time as any to pause and reflect on where things are going.

The traditional view is that the events associated with the coming of the Son of Man on the clouds have not yet happened—even though Jesus seemed confident that his parousia would take place within the lifetime of at least some of his followers (Matt. 16:28; 23:36; 24:34; Mk. 8:38; 9:1; 13:30; Lk. 9:27; 21:32). We are still waiting. I think we are waiting in vain. Worse than that, I suggest that by constantly deferring the “end” we are not engaging with the present, and for that reason we are missing the whole point of New Testament eschatology.

When exactly did the Word become flesh?

In the beginning, which may have been either the beginning of creation or the beginning of new creation, or both, the Word was with God, and the Word in some sense was God. This is John’s reworking of a familiar Jewish Wisdom motif, probably with a view to linking it with the prevalent Hellenistic idea that the logos , as “word” or “reason”, underpins reality. All things were made through this divine Word or Wisdom; in it was life, and the life was the light of humanity. This Word-Wisdom-life-light shines in the darkness; it was not extinguished by the dark events that are about to be described in the ensuing Gospel narrative.

Ignorance about the ignorance of the Son

Carlton Wynne is assistant professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary and, therefore, not surprisingly believes that “as the eternal Son of the Father, Jesus Christ possesses the fullness of deity, including the attribute of omniscience”. But how are we to reconcile this dogma, he asks, with Jesus’ claim to ignorance in Matthew 24:36 (cf. Mk. 13:32): “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only”? Jesus knows for a fact that he will judge the nations (cf. Matt. 25:31-34), but he hasn’t been told when.

Wynne’s solution is that “two completely different natures… are united in the one Son of God”—an immutable divine nature, which has no need to learn anything, and a mutable human nature, which was bound to grow and learn. So it can be said that, as a man, Jesus “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favour with God and man” (Lk. 2:52).

Why won’t there be marriage in the resurrection?

What are we to make of Jesus’ saying that in the resurrection people will not marry or be given in marriage? I’ve been looking at Robert Song’s argument for covenant partnerships for gay and lesbian people in his book Covenant and Calling: Towards a Theology of Same-Sex Relationships. Marriage is instituted, he says, “to deal with the problem that people die”. Resurrected people will not die, so the institution of marriage becomes redundant. “Where there is resurrection, there is no death; where there is no death, there is no need for birth; where there is no birth, there is no need for marriage.”

Evangelicals and the narrative-historical method: three questions

I am arguing on this site for a major shift in the way that the church reads the New Testament and presents its significant content. Most churches today start from a theological tradition and, wittingly or otherwise, read the New Testament for the purpose of explaining, elaborating upon and defending that tradition. In the case of evangelicals the tradition is multi-faceted: it might take the shape of the formulations of classical patristic orthodoxy or Reformed dogmatics or nineteenth century pietism or modern salvationism. These theological lenses, however, in their different ways, invariably distort the content of the New Testament: they obscure the political significance of Jesus, they blank out the historical context, they over-personalise the language of faith, they diminish the apocalyptic dimension, and so on.

In the beginning was the Word, etc.

Since John’s christology has been under discussion recently (see “Why did the Jews accuse Jesus of making himself equal to God?” and “Before Abraham was, I am”), and since I will be preaching on the Word which became flesh as the first in an Advent series this Sunday, I’ve scraped together some thoughts on the opening paragraph of John’s Gospel.

Before Abraham was, I am

My assumption has always been that we have a “higher” christology in the Gospel of John than we do in the Synoptic Gospels, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. I argued last week that when Jesus is accused by the Jews of making himself equal to God or making himself God (Jn. 5:17-18; 10:33), his response, in effect, is, “No, I am the Son of Man, authorised by God to speak and act on his behalf”, which is more or less the claim made about him in the Synoptic Gospels. But what about the saying “Before Abraham was, I am” in John 8:58? Isn’t that a barely disguised assertion of divine identity?

Why did the Jews accuse Jesus of making himself equal to God?

I think we have to allow that John’s Gospel differs from the Synoptic Gospels in this fundamental respect: it is not an attempt to remember the historical Jesus; it is an attempt to restate the significance of the historical Jesus from a later theological vantage point, shaped in particular by a bitter controversy with the Jews.

The Synoptic Gospels (and Acts) remember Jesus as the Son sent to the vineyard of Israel, who was rejected and killed, but who would become the cornerstone, the persecuted Son of Man who within a generation would be seen to be vindicated by events, and who would become Israel’s king.

Does the narrative-historical method distort New Testament christology?

My response to deon’s two lengthy and thoughtful comments (see the last piece on Jesus as Alpha and Omega) on how the narrative-historical approach potentially distorts crucial elements of New Testament christology has grown rather long, so I have posted it separately. But it remains a response to comments on another post and may not make too much sense in isolation. It was also done in a bit of a hurry, so it may not make much sense at all. I’ve slightly edited deon’s text.

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