A narrative/historical approach to emergent theology
A vastly expanded attempt to take on board, critique and modify a narrative/historical approach to emergent theology
What is being proposed?
A narrative/historical account of the people of God, and approach to soteriology, in which an understanding of political and historical circumstances relating to Israel and Rome in the 1st century shape the narrative. The people of God are described and defined in relation to Israel’s history at that time.
In this reshaping, in which narrative receives greater attention than doctrinal or ethical formulations and approaches, a theology which is more attuned to postmodern thinking is developed, in contrast with the presuppositions which underlie ‘modern’ thinking. There would be a moving away from a rationalistic, proposition-based faith, with its focus on the individual, and life beyond this life, to a sense of being part of a narrative, a historical continuum, and salvation as a corporate reality with focus on this life.
As part of the historical underpinning of this approach, the significance of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in A.D.70 has played a great influence in understanding the mindset and orientation of salvation as it might have been historically understood by 1st century Christians.
Pursuing this approach, it is possible to make a case for seeing a great deal of the New Testament emphasis as being relative to the A.D.70 events (and beyond – with the decline of Rome).
Puzzling passages in the gospels make sense when seen as applying to the destruction of Jerusalem as a ‘coming’ (parousia) in judgement – to which Jesus was cryptically referring eg Matthew 10:23; Matthew 24:34
Matthew 24 and its parallels in Mark and Luke could be interpreted as entirely relevant to that event.
Parts of the New Testament letters could also make sense within this framework eg Romans 16:20; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-11;
Much of Revelation (up to chapter 15) could also be interpreted as a kind of expanded commentary on this approach to Matthew 24, rather than referring to events in the distant future as yet unfulfilled, or events that were recapitulated throughout church history.
The approach is underscored by echoes of O.T. prophecy. Daniel 7 is a key text against which the ‘coming’ of Jesus can be understood. Instead of a ‘coming’ at the end of time (towards the earth), a ‘coming’ into the presence of the ‘ancient of days’ is the text which provides a means of understanding the N.T. references to Jesus’s ‘coming’. In Daniel, it is a ‘coming’ in which power and authority are vested in ‘the son of man’ figure, transferring power to him from the kingdoms of the earth. This power is shared with the saints of God. (Daniel 7:13-14; 26-27). From this perspective, the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple can be seen as the primary referent of Jesus’s ‘coming’ in Matthew 24 (v. 3, 4, 27, 30, 39, 42, 44, 46, 50). The destruction of the temple (and Jerusalem) is seen as the primary fulfilment of the prophecy of Matthew 24, linked with other references, such as the cursing of the fig-tree (21:18-22), the lament over Jerusalem at the end of the diatribe against Pharisees and teachers of the law (Matthew 23:37-39).
In the Matthew 24 prophecy, the destruction of the temple is seen as ‘the end of the age’ (24:3), not some far distant time. This event provides the focus for the perspective of the four gospels and their teaching and even the ‘great commission’ of Matthew 28:19-20. It is also the event to which N.T. letters are also made relative – especially if they can were written before A.D.70. From this point of view, the case for Revelation being written before A.D.70 also assumes significance.
Consequently, many if not all the N.T. documents can be said to be radically contingent to their 1st century circumstances. The whole enterprise of what it means to be ‘saved’ is related to political and historical events culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem of A.D.70. Jesus’s ministry itself assumes a far more political character, relating to a combination of Jewish eschatological hopes, which were rooted in an expectation for a historical deliverance from oppression, and political circumstances relating the conflict between these hopes and a Roman military dictatorship thinly veneered with the appearance of concessions to Jewish autonomy.
Once the ‘eschatalogical event’ of A.D.70 is fulfilled (followed by the equally necessary eschatological judgement on Rome), the field is left open for the people of God to explore their post-eschatological nature as God’s ‘new creation’. In this field of exploration, the shaping principles of N.T. gospels and letters are somewhat removed, not just by historical and cultural distance (which always required re-interpretation for subsequent ages), but more radically, by the fulfilment of the eschatological events for which they were created. The people of God are now liberated into a more flexible interpretation of how they are to live, and how they are to being ‘good news’ to the world, and perhaps more significantly, how they are to be ‘good news’ in the world.
So what are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? How watertight is the theological underpinning?
First, it seems to me that there are some clear strengths in this theological approach.
1. Perceiving ourselves to be part of an on-going narrative of the People of God rescues us from the world of theological propositions and idealism, which is systematic, but encourages a kind of passivity and distance from the world. The narrative approach is more dynamic, links us with tradition on a human level, and avoids the tendency to make claims to have an answer for everything. Against postmodernism, there is a ‘metanarrative’, but it plays out on a more human level. It is up to us to find our role in the on-going narrative/drama.
2. The historical framework within which the narrative approach rests takes us away from the Jesus of ‘timeless truths’, somewhat disconnected from the life of the normal world, and introduces us to a Jesus whose practices brought him into direct conflict with the politics of his day – both Jewish and Roman. The focus is earthward, not heavenward, in that Jesus came with an agenda for change which was about how the earth was to be run. The immediate threat was to Jewish eschatological hopes, which rested on vested interests in the here and now. The threat became a power struggle, in which the powerful elite was no longer perceived as being at the forefront of God’s redemptive purposes for Israel – be that the Pharisees, or Zealots, or a mixture of both. Jesus threatened the interests of these and the Herodian party, Sadducees, and the guardians of the Temple. Finally he was a threat to Rome.
3. Jesus’s conflict with powerful bodies within Israel was more than an unfortunate hindrance to his programme; it was developing into a conflict with God’s purposes for the nation. The more the Pharisees opposed, the more they were storing up disaster for themselves and the nation. In the end, the judgement which came on the nation was a natural consequence of their refusal to adopt a new way of seeing God’s purposes for the nation. They still assumed that the old way of opposing arms with arms would hold good, and that Rome could be overcome on its own terms, by violence and war. Jesus had come with a new agenda, which involved constituting a new kind of nation. By refusing this, the Jews were on a course to destruction, which came in A.D.70.
4. Much of the gospels and New Testamant needs to be re-read in the light of this political dimension to the Jesus’s agenda and the opposition he incurred. Jesus’s call to repentance was not just a call to turn from private sins (although it certainly was this), but it was part of a greater call to turn to him and follow his agenda, so that the national catastrophe that was coming could be escaped.
5. ‘Sin’ also needs to re-interpreted in the light of the kind of agenda to which Jesus was calling the people. Just as there was ‘sin’ which had led to the exile, there was ‘sin’ which was inviting a coming catastrophe. Behind whatever specific manifestations there may have been of this ‘sin’, there was a hardness of heart which was refusing God and His purposes, and worse, dressing itself up as loyalty to God. It was truly a sin which deceived people.
6. The interpretation takes us away from the gospel as purely individualistic appropriation of salvation, to a salvation which had the aim of creating a new people. Salvation becomes an essentially corporate and historically rooted affair.
7. The focus of this salvation is directed much more to the here and now, to our role and place on God’s earth, rather than as an insurance against risk in the life to come. The burden becomes much more how will we live as God’s people now, rather than waiting for the life to come.
8. Salvation is much more keyed into the world of politics and belief around us – and becomes much more holistic.
9. Salvation is something that will engage much more with alternative, competing ideologies; at the same time it is not so much concerned with the superiority of its arguments to ‘win souls’, but with advancing a narrative towards its conclusion.
However, there are some weaknesses, or potential distortions, in the narrative/historical approach.
1.Whilst seeking to remove theology from the realm of abstract, universal spiritual principles, and to anchor it in the ‘here and now’ of Israel’s 1st century history, the approach may ignore the wider history of Israel itself, beyond the 1st century, and even beyond the post-exile, 2nd Temple period. The broader picture of Israel is of a covenant-keeping God, whose intention was always to be true to His covenant with His people, but to deal with sin. In this sense, everything was provisional in the history of His dealings with His people, until the fulfilment which came through Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of Man. This fulfilment was much more than a solution of a local difficulty for a middle-eastern tribe; it was God’s way of bringing salvation to the whole world, as prefigured in the promises to Abraham, and worldwide promise of salvation in Isaiah.
2. Emphasising salvation as rescue from the destructive events of A.D.70 can fail to give due emphasis to the giving of the Spirit as the reconstituting of the people of God – around the Son of Man. The granting of authority over the nations to the Son of Man figure in Daniel 7, and the sharing of that authority with the people of God, occurred as much with the ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit, as it did with the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem. The last event was as much a conclusion to a process as the fulfilment of Daniel 7 in itself – and even then, not a conclusion, just as the giving of the Spirit was not a conclusion, but anticipatory of a final transfer of power from the nations and supremacy of Christ and his people to come.
3. The granting of the Spirit must be seen as a sign of the covenant, but also the reality of what the covenant promised: a crucial enabling power, identified with the coming of God’s kingdom. Acts 1: 1-3 describes an intensive period of training about the kingdom. The gift of the Spirit (v.4 & 5) and the power of the Spirit (v. 8) are identifiable with ‘the kingdom’ referred to in the first three verses, and in v.6. The disciples asked when the kingdom would be restored to Israel, which can sound like a rerun of Israel as a nationalistic entity. But what would the kingdom look like? Jesus gives clues to the answer in the echoes of Isaiah which are found throughout the chapter (Holy Spirit, power, witnesses, ends of the earth etc – all Isaianic terminology). Isaiah is the prophet of the kingdom (eg Isaiah 32), but Isaiah uniquely described what this kingdom would look like – eg Isaiah 35:5-6; 61:1-3. When Jesus was challenged about his credentials as the one sent from God, it was to this fulfilment of Isaiah that he referred his questioners (Matthew 11:4-6). The restored kingdom was not to be a kingdom like the kingdoms of the earth. It was a kingdom imparted by the Spirit’s activity, ruled over by Jesus. Wherever the Spirit moves, there is the kingdom. Matthew 12:28 also identifies the coming of the Spirit with the coming of the kingdom.
4. Identifying salvation purely with rescue from the destruction of A.D.70 may also fail to give due emphasis to the place of the crucifixion – which was the centre of God’s plan to remain true to the covenant, but deal with sin in His people – and thereby, deal with the sins of the whole world. The cross was more than a substitutionary judgement for the immediate sins of the people of Israel, so that they would not be destroyed by the events of A.D.70. It was the climax of all the narratives which had formed the story of God’s people and contributed to their self-identity: beginning with the Genesis sin/fall narrative, and through the Exodus/Passover narrative. It took a Jew like Paul to take up the significance of the crucifixion as the answer to the sin of Adam - Romans 5:12-21. Paul’s focus is on the consequences of Adam’s sin for the human race, not just the Jews. The ‘gift of righteousness’ is not just survival through disaster, but ‘eternal life’ (v.21).
5. The focus on A.D.70 as the defining eschatological event for Israel (taking up all the references to ‘the parousia’) may ignore a greater, future eschatology, and ‘parousia’ to come. In this eschatology, the greater events are the final ‘return’ of Christ, final judgement and the creation of ‘new heavens and new earth’, as an environment for redeemed humanity in resurrection bodies.
The importance to Paul of this future focus is illustrated in 1 Corinthians, where the chapter on the resurrection, far from being one amongst a number of issues which Paul wanted to clarify to the Corinthians, is the central issue which governs all the other issues. Everything else is relative to this chapter. No resurrection, then everything else, even the cross, becomes pointless. Because of the resurrection, everything else we do in this life gains significance, and helps determine what kind of a resurrection we will obtain.
That a parousia is future, as well as taking place in A.D.70, is inferred by the parables following Matthew 24. The delay in the return of the Son of Man, sketched out in the form of master of the household, bridegroom, master returning from a journey, culminating in the final separation and gathering of his own for ‘the kingdom that has been prepared for you since the creation of the world’ seems impossible to limit to the A.D.70 event – which never seems to have been mentioned or seen by anybody as the final, culminating event.
6. The narrative/historical approach runs into trouble with its radical relativising of gospels and letters to pre A.D.70 circumstances. The giving of the Spirit provides a way of refocusing the heart of the gospel – in its covenantal, kingdom (social) and eternal significance. The Spirit also points us to the new community God was inaugurating, thus providing also a social and cultural relevance for the world at large. The giving of the Spirit as the heart and substance of the reconstituted Israel also provides on-going relevance for gospels and letters as the means whereby the character of God’s people as a community were and are to be shaped.
There’s probably much else to be said – but this provides a few thoughts just to prompt discussion.