Re:Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical World - A Book Review
There is a story about the ‘off-side’ rule in football (soccer). This is that the rule is so complex, only two people have ever understood it, and of these two, one is dead, and the other insane. Judging from the OST site, I had convinced myself that I was the only person who understood the heart of what Andrew has been saying, apart from himself; first in ‘The Coming of the Son of Man’, and now in this follow-up title – but I see from the back-cover of the book that Scot McKnight probably grasps the main thesis too; of Brian McLaren I am less sure.
To simplify things, the idea is that the entire New Testament, including the principal events in the life and death of Jesus, have only to do with the immediate circumstances of the history of Israel, in which the promises made to Abraham were under threat, and required radical measures to ensure their continuity and fulfilment. It takes some getting used to, but Andrew asserts that almost all the teaching and events in the life of Jesus, and the epistles, relate first to impending disaster for national Israel and how the reconstituted people of God were to survive that disaster. Next, by corollary, the teachings of the New Testament look at disaster coming on the Greek/Roman world, and are an assurance to the same communities across the empire that they would survive, be vindicated, and be assured of their future.
The church’s mission today is therefore ‘post-biblical’; we are “off the map” as far as the bible is concerned (page 148). This takes some getting used to, but grasp it, and things swim along fairly coherently in what Andrew has to say. On the other hand, Andrew is not saying that there is nothing of relevance in the bible for the church and its mission today (hence ‘Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical World’). But it has to be said that his main concern is the underpinning of the argument for the radical relativity of the New Testament to the 1st century church, and we have to get used to words having different meanings from their conventional theological use , especially words like salvation, gospel, lost, kingdom – all of which have a strictly 1st century meaning in Andrew’s argument, and are not for the church’s use beyond that temporal context.
So how convincingly is the argument presented? As with ‘The Coming of the Son of Man’, this is not a light bedtime read, and is packed with biblical reference and allusion, as well as reference to supporting literature in the contemporary biblical world. Andrew has really thought out his position, and has done the groundwork extremely thoroughly.I don’t know whether it was consciously done or not, but I also frequently found myself being reminded of conversations and posts that have appeared on the OST website. Andrew may not have been aware of it, but he has picked up many of the questions I have posed over the years on the site, and woven them into the argument.
Behind the argument is an interest in the role of narratives in the acting out of the biblical drama by its main characters. Two narratives in particular are provided as foundational underpinnings of the main story: the narrative of the promises to Abraham/his faith in God, and the narrative of the Son of Man – vindicated after a period of intense suffering. Both have application and fulfilment in the life of Jesus, and for the church in the 1st century – but not beyond that time.
So what are the consequences of this radical template for understanding the biblical material? The final chapter attempts to chart a way forward – and it is suggested that the church’s role now is not to offer redemption or repair to the world, but “to be an alternative humanity in the midst of things” – p.149. Redemption described what Jesus did for Israel in the 1st century; our role today is to be a renewed creation and to pick up the mandate for concern for creation as a whole. We are to be an “authentic humanity” in the world. Less convincingly, “The Son of Man community will have rest from its afflictions (in the 1st century) and will receive the kingdom for which it has been qualified by its sufferings” – p.134. This can only be true in a very qualified sense. The church had only a few brief years of respite from persecution during the transition to state sponsorship under Constantine, before persecution started all over again for minority sects, and has continued in one form or another across the world until today.
The biblical story therefore is a story in history. It is detached from our world, and although it provides an incentive for faith in the God of Israel, who is also the God of the whole world (although now ‘god’ with a small ‘g’. to signify his less dominating position in the scheme of things), the story is only our story in an indirect sense. (Although it becomes our history too when we attach ourselves to the community of the people of God). It is like a shiny red balloon, which is not intended to expand indefinitely, filling and suffocating everything in the room, but is to be allowed to float upwards, to be observed and admired; a small balloon, but beautifully encapsulating the fulfilment of a story in history which explains why the church has continued to survive to this day. How do we become a part of the new community whose history the balloon tells us about? That is a mystery for which no completely adequate explanation is provided – but it is not by personal response to the actions of Jesus on the cross, nor directly through his resurrection. We may have sins to be dealt with, but the book says very little about this – reflecting, perhaps, the low premium placed on the issue in comparison with our calling to promote the “renewed creation” in the world – of which Andrew provides some examples.
This review does not have the time or space to look in detail at exegetical issues – which will require serious attention, given the depth and extent to which Andrew has done his exegetical research. But to give an example, Andrew exegetes the metaphor of the “cup of judgement” – made to be drunk by Israel, in the OT and AD 70, and the mechanism whereby the nations which God used to mete out judgement on Israel are themselves made to drink of the “cup of judgement” for their treatment of the people of God. But in using this as a support for the idea of eschatological judgement being meted out on Rome for its treatment of Israel in the Jewish Wars of AD 69-70, there is a problem. Had not the centre of gravity shifted, from Israel as a nation to the people of God as the communities reconstituted around Jesus? Did the OT mechanisms of judgement on those who attacked (national) Israel still apply? This, and many other kinds of shifts in meanings and terminology and the narrative itself occurred with the coming of Jesus. One of the issues will be the extent to which we can fasten down an understanding of Jesus’s mission within a strictly 2nd Temple context, and with an equally resolute understanding of key concepts within an OT paradigm, especially where Jesus might have been opening up different horizons of understanding. In a nutshell, the debate will be about the boundary lines between continuity and discontinuity in the OT and NT. Andrew makes his own very stimulating and challenging case – which needs a serious response. Am I convinced? As this review suggests, not entirely; but then neither am I dismissing every facet of Andrew’s approach, which I believe puts us on the right track for a fresh and better understanding of who Jesus is and the place of the 1st century world in shedding light on his mission and ours.