A pretty ambitious attempt at synthesis of many ideas
Andrew’s image which helps to govern a way of thinking about Christian theology is of the glass door of history: we look at it from one side, but we need to try to approach it from the other side - as the early church went through the process of experiencing events which underlie the N.T. texts.
The glass door image is helpful - because it also suggests how our side of the door tends to reflect back our own historical experiences and circumstances, which may distort our perception of the unfolding events of N.T. history. Similarly, the glass door suggests another image which recurs in Andrew’s approach to N.T. history - something like a governing ‘myth’ - which is the eschatological ‘crisis’ of the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple in A.D.70, and the fall of the Roman Empire in the immediate centuries following. The glass door is the ‘crisis’ which the believing community went through - to emerge into the spacious landscape of - well, what?
The amount of information on the website, particularly in ‘emerging theology’ is becoming bewildering, and I wanted to set out to make some specific comments on posts that now go back 18 months to 2 years, but it’s difficult to locate them, and also I find that different subsections of ‘emerging theology’ seem to link to each other, but are difficult to place because of the way a website works. There is a need to place much of the material Andrew has been producing in a book, where it would be easier to grasp the whole, and flick from one page to another.
I did have a number of observations, which are thinly spread over many different articles in different parts of ‘emerging theology’, but which relate to some central themes which seem to be emerging. Rather than scatter them over the website at large, I’ll try to draw them together here, but at the risk of losing the precise detail of the points which they are seeking to address.
An outline of the main features of our cultural and theological landscape:
1. A broad cultural phenomenon of change from a modern to post modern situation, which affects all aspects of our culture: life-style, scientific understanding, ethical, religious, spiritual and theological
2. Somewhere Andrew uses the phrase ‘flotsam and jetsam’ to describe what is left of the church and its theology in this transfer from the modern to the post modern era.
3. An ‘evangelical’ approach to theology needs to be revisited and deconstructed, in the light of a cultural transition which is taking place. Different points of view about ‘evangelicalism’ emerge - the ‘existential’ dynamic of the good news is not to be jettisoned, but the evangelical ‘Magisterium’ needs to be called into question. By this I understand the tendency of evangelical theology to be all embracing, and have a dogmatic answer for just about everything. Pursued to its logical conclusions, this can lead to some ridiculous assertions.
4. The main ‘engine’ for this deconstruction is a historical approach - especially to the gospels, N.T. texts and life of Jesus. The pioneering work of N.T. Wright, sometimes described as ‘The Third Quest’ (for the historical Jesus), is clearly central to this approach.
5. Andrew has taken Wright’s approach, but pursued it to a greater extent to its ‘logical conclusions’ in a way that goes much further than Wright. This is evident in the assertions that the church now exists in a ‘post eschatological’ situation: ‘eschatology’ being radically identified with events in the early centuries of the C.E.
6. One of the consequences of this approach, for Andrew, is to make the N.T. documents, and gospels in paticular, radically contingent to their historical circumstances. The teaching of the gospels was to prepare the disciples and the early church for the eschatological crisis of the collapse of Jerusalam, the Temple, and the destruction of Rome.
7. The atonement also becomes contingent to historical circumstances: it was provided as a means of averting judgement on the believing community (because it was Jesus standing as representative of the judged Israel), and as a way of ensuring the survival of that community in its transition to being the new ‘reconstituted’ Israel in the post-eschatological world.
8. In principle, those who join the believing community in the post-eschatological world, benefit indirectly from the effects of the atonement. It was primarily Israel’s atonement in history, not in essence, an atonement for the sins of the world.
9. In principle, the teaching of the gospels may not have relevance for the church today. The kind of discipleship which was necessary then may not be the kind of discipleship that is necessary now.
10. The injunction of the ‘Great Commission’ (Matthew 28:19-20) is also historically contingent: it was necessary for preparing a people of God in their transition through the eschatological crisis, and having achieved its purpose then, may not have the same binding requirement now.
11. In fact the requirements placed on Christians now, in the post-eschatological world, may be quite different. We may be called on much more to express our faith through ‘new creation’ works, rather than proclamation or persuasion of a message.
12. Rather than the gospels being paradigmatic for a new creation community, some of the forms and structures of the Old Testament scriptures may have increasing relevance. (This has emerged in a specific context in the discussion about a ‘court of the gentiles’ paradigm for viewing ‘unbelieving’ sexual ethics, and seeing a kind of co-existence of different kinds of ethics between believing and unbelieving communities).
13. The notion of the people of God bringing the ‘blessing of Abraham’ to the world is cited as our purpose, in place of a (presumably) divisive and outmoded method of evangelical proclamation of the ‘good news’.
14. The people of God are to explore new ways of being a ‘presence’ in the world, rather than continuing in structures which tend to keep them apart and distant from the world. These structures in any event are collapsing, floating around like flotsam and jetsam in the post modern sea.
15. In this world, ‘modernist’ theology (and any historic theology after the first centuries of the Christian era) needs to be abandoned in favour of theology being built from the ‘ground up’ - using historical approaches.
Some of this may seem like crude caricature, but I am not intending to caricature; I am trying to identify some central themes and lines of approach in the enquiry which this website is undertaking.
Some of the enquiry I whole-heartedly embrace, and find exhilarating. It’s a breath of fresh air!
But in attempting to crystalise and pin-point things, I also have reservations. Some of these might be:
i. An extreme relativising of gospels and N.T.texts to their historical circumstances. I find it perhaps significant that the historical reconstructions currently taking place around the N.T. and the person of Jesus do not emerge from the documents themselves. The documents are sufficiently historically ‘detached’ to speak to people for all times: not just one historical era. (At the same time the historical reconstructions are hugely valuable in helping us ‘hear’ the documents in a way less conditioned by our own cultural preconceptions).
ii. A similar relativising of the atonement, which, to pursue the historical interpretation to which it is being subjected, may not take sufficient account of other O.T. scriptural narratives (besides the narrative of judgement on post-exilic Israel), such as the Exodus narrative or the creation/fall narrative. Paul seems to have the last much more in view in his understanding of what was taking place when Jesus died on the cross.
iii. The positing of a ‘post-eschatological landscape’ which does not take into account persecution suffered by Christians worldwide through all centuries and especially in the last century. As a Romanian pastor once said, the western church seems to lack a theology of martyrdom. Underlying this is something perhaps even more complex: a calling to the church to challenge and critique the values of the unbelieving world, and call it back to God’s intentions. The response of the world may be various: at times receptive, at times indifferent, at times hostile. We cannot expect to create a way of living out the gospel to which the world will become largely receptive. This is hard work - and it’s also warfare. There is an unseen spiritual power at work opposing God, and opposing this power is a battle - even though the final outcome may already be known.
iv. The particular danger is in the ‘free’ world, where absence of engagement by and with the Christian community may also suggest in a hidden way we are too closely allied with the agenda and values of our world rather than presenting a visible and arresting alternative.
v. In pursuing the ‘historic’ approach to understanding history and the gospels, we may underestimate the value of the accumulated wisdom of the church in its theology and practice over the centuries. There may well be much that needs to be critiqued and re-evaluated for our times, but the Holy Spirit has not been asleep over the centuries!
vi. We may tend to focus too greatly on the ‘written’ content of the message, and feel the need to make it accessible and acceptable to the contemporary world, but what grabs people is not words but life - lived out in people. The gospel is first and foremost a living reality and experience of God transmitted through the lives of living people - not a message in a book or text.
vii. It is also a fact that while some sections of the church seem to be in crisis - and in the UK that is affecting some parts of the ‘new’, ‘charismatic’ church, other parts of the evangelical church are in renaissance: notably in the Anglical church. There is no post-evangelical crisis evident here. It may be said that this is because of a hidden evangelical conspiracy to suppress awkward problems and freedom of rational enquiry. However, most people are probably glad to have a prayer-answering God who helps them in their everyday lives and helps them towards the particular purposes in God’s kingdom for which they were created.
viii. However, I think there is a problem: which is that while ‘evangelicalism’ is good at getting people into the kingdom, it is less successful at showing them how to live out an integrated Christian lifestyle, and does tend to draw them away from the creation for which they were created, and into a sub-culture for which they were not created!
ix. Enter James Thwaites . . .
x. Eschatologically, we cannot escape the reality that whatever we have now is ‘a deposit’, which purely serves to guarantee the full amount ‘which it so to come’. There will and must always be in our lives a yearning towards a more complete state of affairs which will not be realises until Jesus comes with visible power to redeem the entire created cosmos.
This was meant to be succinct and to the point; it has ended up being very much more than that. I look forward to any responses or comments on the summary of what I see, or the comments on what I understand to have been said.
I also very much appreciate that much on the website is ‘work in progress’, and not set in stone. On the other hand, positions which are not questioned today can very easily become the unquestioned dogma of tomorrow.
I also very much appreciate the work Andrew in particular has been doing on this website in getting us to look seriously at different ways of viewing biblical material and our understanding of it in the light of our times. I feel his position is not one-dimensional, and he brings different perspectives in different parts of the website to issues I have tried to simplify here. It’s good to have a wake-up call - which is what he is giving us.