The Coming of the Son of Man
Well, I got my copy of The Coming of the Son of Man from Guildford Cathedral bookshop on Monday. Today is Tuesday, and I have done a whistle-stop read-through; it will take me much longer to read the book looking up all the references and footnotes thoroughly. So this is a preliminary response, and like many of my responses, it is subject to change through further reflection.
My first reaction to the book concerns the density of reference and detail. Andrew gives no quarter to the casual reader, and makes no concessions. This book requires serious study. There are no easy paths through the theological undergrowth. It is also hard to see the theological wood for the trees: I thought I knew what Andrew was wanting to say before I started reading, but the book does not make it easy, and I wondered whether this profusion and prolixity of biblical cross-reference and quoting of the LXX and Theodotian translation in English transliteration was partly a defensive effort to deflect any off-the-cuff criticism of the book’s main thesis - the idea maybe being to leave the academic reviewer somewhat confused, puzzling over the map, or even left gasping at the wealth and depth of detail invoked to support the case.
So it’s not an easy or comfortable bedtime read. But the argument is, in fact, laid out logically and systematically, chapter by chapter, section by section, and anyone taking the time to climb to the top of the trees in this forest will get a fine glimpse above the foliage of an orderly panorama laid out in far-reaching vistas. The reader might do well to take the book a few pages at a time, alternating between this and looking at the overall plan and layout.
For myself, the book draws together many of the scattered conversations that have taken place on the OST website over the last two years or so that I have been visiting it, and puts them all in one place. I am now able to see why Andrew holds the views he has expressed on various topics which have arisen on this site, and why they have been defended so vigorously: they all appear in the book. The millennium? It’s the brave new world we have been thrust into following the parousia of AD 70. Condemnation of homosexuality? Possibly an interim judgement which applied prior to AD 70, but not necessarily beyond.
A number of telling comments are made somewhat early on in the book, which provide striking metaphors as lenses through which to view Andrew’s project. One is the idea of the New Testament text being inscribed on glass doors - the glass doors of history. From our standpoint, the text is reversed, and we have already made hermeneutical commitments by which we interpret the text. Andrew invites us on the imaginative exercise of placing ourselves on the other side of the glass doors - where the 1st century church would have been - and reading the text from, as it were, their viewpoint. A great deal of the groundwork for this exercise has been provided by N.T.Wright, especially in his ‘Christian Origins’ series, and ‘The coming’ pushes some of these ideas further. This is an indisputably valuable exercise - provided the context we create thereby is actually approximate to a 1st century context, and that we are then able to make the journey back to our side of the glass doors, with a better way of understanding and applying the text in today’s circumstances.
Another metaphor is provided in the opening sentence - the biblical text being seen as the inner core of a Russian doll - the outer layers being the surrounding historical circumstances of the narrative of the Jews from 166 BC to 135 AD. Already I sense a problem, not for the first time, with the approach. Why should the outer layer begin in 166 BC? Why not go back all the way to the Genesis story of origins? Using this as our contextual starting point, we get a clearer idea of the history of Jesus being the completion of a project, in which the story of the Jews was central, whose relevance was for the whole world. The brief reference that Andrew makes to the atonement on p.228 locates that event in the immediate and local difficulties of the Jewish nation - not making any connection with its significance for the rest of the wider story.
A third crucial metaphor used in the book is the destruction of the temple as the fulcrum which ‘levers’ the narrative. Admittedly, the narrative in question here is the surrounding narrative of the Olivet discourse - drawing attention to which is one of the book’s valuable services (although not a service unique to this book). But it might also be said that the destruction of the temple, and the events of AD 70, are indeed the fulcrum which levers Andrew’s whole approach. For this is not a study of Matthew 24 and the supporting synoptic accounts in isolated detail, but a whole theological package which attempts to determine our understanding of the faith and our relationship to it today. The scope of the project is the entire New Testament. Systematically, gospels, epistles and Revelation are defined in relation to the AD 70 events (and the ultimate destruction of Rome). We are given few if any guidelines as to how these documents might have any application today. (To be fair, this was not the project’s purpose, but it does become a huge overshadowing question).
The theological package leaves, for me, some yawning gaps: the place of the life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension and outpoured Spirit of Jesus in the life of the believer today. These phenomena, central to the history of Jesus, are no longer central. The teaching of Jesus was to prepare the disciples for the crisis of AD 70; likewise the epistles. Revelation provides an account of events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and eventually Babylon/Rome. All exegesis has as its task the interpretation of how text in a historical context can be interpreted with application in a very different culture and context today. There is now a doubly difficult exercise of interpretation to be undertaken - and it may not even be a relevant exercise - by this approach the NT texts may not have been intended to apply beyond their immediate historical contexts. The NT could be entirely a historical exercise.
Again, early on in the book, where Andrew pays tribute to N.T.Wright for opening up the territory which the book explores, the suggestion is made that the new bearings provided in the subsequent remapping of theology will open up a better direction for an emerging theology to serve the needs of an emerging church. The book does not give a clear sense of how this new direction will be so helpful - other than by-passing the above-mentioned events relating to the history of Jesus, which have served not only evangelical theology but the theology of the entire church for the last 2000 years. It remains to be seen whether attaching ourselves to the narrative of a people radically distant in geography, culture and time will provide a fresh impetus for a church freed from the shackles of outdated theological assumptions. The question is whether, in a brand new playground in which all the old toys which we used to play with have been consigned to history, we can imaginatively invent some new ones, which will be the best way of aiding the motor developmental ability of the children of the emerging church.
Meanwhile I intend to return to a more detailed reading of the book, probably aided by helpful interventions and suggestions which arise as a result of this strictly interim comment. I’m grateful to Andrew and congratulate him on writing a book which will challenge everybody to look at the New Testament in a fresh way, and if it challenges our theological assumptions, will require us to provide good reasons why we should hold onto them for a moment longer.
I’d also like to pick some detail from the book for discussion in future comments - maybe not chapter by chapter as John suggests in his review - though I’d be happy to do that also if that’s how others want to make contributions.