Does the new book really say that the NT has no application
Graham Old (Leaving
Münster) asked this
question in response to some remarks that Peter
Wilkinson made about my book Re:
Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church.
Rather than address the question under the original book announcement I
thought it better to start a new thread. It is the perennial problem of
historical readings of the New Testament that they tend to distance the
narrative from the reader today. We are accustomed to thinking that the
gospel has direct personal relevance to us and to all humanity and we
struggle to see how this can be the case if key categories such as
‘judgment’, ‘salvation’ and ‘forgiveness’ are to be historically
contextualized. The issue under consideration here is not the
whole of the New Testament but the particular question of what it means
to say that ‘Christ died for our sins in accordance with the
scriptures’ (1 Cor. 15:3). This continues the discussion from ‘The death of Jesus in the Gospels’
and ‘The death of Jesus in Paul’.
1. The core narrative of the New Testament is that Jesus chose
a path of suffering and death so that Israel as God’s people might
survive the wrath of God that was coming upon the nation in the form of
war against Rome. That course of action is understood by Paul, for
example, as an act of atonement for Israel’s sins (Rom. 3:25).
2. In a more specific sense he dies and is raised as a
forerunner of the community of his followers that will also suffer and
be vindicated in the course of this eschatological narrative of
judgment and renewal - a narrative which extends to the final
overcoming of pagan Rome as the arch opponent of YHWH and his people.
This is the story of the Son of man as both an individual and as a
3. Because Jesus’ death for Israel was outside or apart from
the Law (Rom. 3:21), the Law no longer interposed a barrier of
necessary works for participation in the ‘commonwealth of Israel’ (cf.
Eph. 2:11-22). So Gentiles found that simply by believing the
announcement that God had saved his people through Jesus they could
experience communion with the God of Israel through the
Spirit. In an article entitled ‘The peril of modernizing Jesus
and the crisis of not contemporizing the Christ’ in the Evangelical
Quarterly (78.4, 2006, 291-312) Michael Bird comments on
Robert Stein’s tendency to universalize the Jesus narrative in his book
Jesus the Messiah: A Survey of the Life of Christ:
Stein moves too quickly to atemporal theological categories.
Stein is quick to point out the universal significance of Jesus’ death
as making available the reconciliation of humanity to God.
Theologically speaking the notion is entirely legitimate, but Stein
bypasses the vehicle which brings it. According to Paul, Luke and John
the inclusion of Gentiles and the prospect of eternal life are possible
only via the story of Christ as the fulfillment of the story of Israel.
In the end it is a transformed Israel that transforms the world. (301)
I have reservations about some of the finer points of this
statement, but I think the basic argument is absolutely right. Jesus’
death brought about the salvation and transformation of Israel, and
that transformation in turn had repercussions for the whole world.
4. The situation of ‘Gentiles’ today is really no different. I
believe that God saved and renewed his ‘new creation’ through the death
of Jesus and that on that basis I can also become a member of that
redeemed community. The analogy with the exodus is helpful: we are not
the generation that was actually rescued from slavery in Egypt, led
through the wilderness, given the covenant, etc., but as a
people we owe our existence to that redemptive event and we
remember it with thanksgiving. Even in an indirect sense, therefore, we
have to say that Jesus’ death has massive relevance for us today. To
quote from the last paragraph of Re: Mission:
mission of the church is to be a creational microcosm, a creative
people committed to the volatile, adventurous task of always extracting
best from the world that God has brought into existence. But we do so
ever forgetting to tell the other story of the long exodus made by the
church, in Christ, through a wilderness of suffering and testing
5. The redemptive event of Christ’s death also shapes the
character of the ‘new creation’. God now reigns over his people in the
place of the corrupt spiritual and political hierarchies that had
oppressed Israel (that is what it means to say that the kingdom of God
has come), but as long as the last enemy death remains operative, he
does so through his ‘Son’, his anointed king, who died and rose again.
I argue in Re: Mission
that there is a shift in the New Testament understanding of Jesus from
a narrative about suffering and vindication to a narrative about being
God’s new creation: the firstborn from the dead becomes the firstborn
of all creation. I would suggest, therefore, that we deal with death
now for most part not in the framework of the
dominant New Testament story about suffering and vindication but in the
framework of an emerging story about the renewal of creation.
6. The big question then is whether it is appropriate to
compress this rather complex, historically shaped
narrative to something much more personal
or even mystical - in Peter’s words ‘that the death of Jesus on the
cross is directly applicable to every
person today, as a means of providing “remission” of sins, and bringing
God’s Spirit into the life of every person who believes’. I’m not sure
we see that taking place in the New Testament. Or perhaps better, I’m
not sure that the New Testament tells the story in that way. For Paul,
undoubtedly, Jesus’ death was an intensely personal reality. But I
would argue that that is because i) he was a Jew and conscious of the
extent to which he personally embodied the ‘sins’ of disobedient
Israel; and ii) he felt himself to be called - in effect as part of the
Son of man narrative - to ‘imitate’ in a very concrete and realistic
fashion the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 9:15; Phil. 3:10-11; Col. 1:24). We do not have the same relation to the
story of Jesus’ suffering and death. That is not to say that it has no
personal significance for us, but I’m not sure we have to frame this in
terms of a universal metaphysical event that somehow transcends the
historical realities of communal existence.
Perhaps what it boils down to is this: Peter tells a story
about the salvation of individuals who secondarily
become part of a community; the New Testament, I think, tells a story
about the salvation of a people, which secondarily
is seen to have implications for individuals - and we distort things if
we try to read the New Testament as though it was really telling a
story of personal salvation. Not least, we are likely to diminish and
marginalize the communal, social and political dimensions of mission.