According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Friday, August 26, 2011

Biblical Interpretation - History v. Theology

I thought that Andrew has done another fine job in recognizing current trends in evangelicalism that have gone astray from the task of staying to the texts of Scripture. Here, he points out that evangelicalism has separated its dogma from the historicity latent in the biblical texts by elevating systematic theology over biblical theology. Systematics has grounded itself into a-historical, philosophic (or theo-sophic) arguments about God and pet dogmas. Examples: a gospel of personal salvation; a gospel of the kingdom of God pertaining to the gospel of salvation; a gospel for high Christology... none of which are untrue, however, its how these dogmas have been seated outside of the scope of biblical history and into pet dogmatic pronouncements by popular evangelic preaches, schools, and churches.

However, if it is understood and agreed upon that all systematic theology should first be preceded by, and founded upon, what use to be known as biblical theology, which incorporates biblical history into its historical-critical studies, than we have a more proper sense and scope for the work of theologizing Scripture. One that is planted inside of the Bible's historical record and can lead to a fuller, less lop-sided understanding of doctrines such as salvation, kingdom-eschatology, sin, heaven, hell and Christology.

At least this is how I had been taught before evangelicalism as a dogmatic practice succeeded evangelicalism as a movement. To place this within evangelical parlance - the teaching of the Bible is far more important than the teaching of man - and that includes evangelic dogmatic preachers and professors and their students. If biblical theology is the foundation from which systematic theology arises than we have a proper structure. But if it has been turned around (as it seems that it has again) than that structure is building upon sand and soon to stray from the revelation of the Word of God into pet, personal doctrines.

And I believe I stand in good company when reading that current theologic bloggers like NT Wright, JR Daniel Kirk, and Andrew Perriman, all testify to the same necessity to this theologic requisite - that biblical hermeneutics demands a historical-critical method from which must proceed a proper reading of a theology about God, about man, and about ourselves. We need not fear to do less - for God's very Word will lead us. What we do need to fear - is speaking more (or less) than what God would speak through his Word, and thus place the words of men above the sacred words of our Redeemer, Creator, and Lover of men's souls.



History and theology: never the twain shall meet

by Andrew Perriman
Friday 19 August 2011

Murray Rae’s History and Hermeneutics is “an enquiry into how theology and history may be thought together”. This is an overriding concern of contemporary hermeneutics, and the book is an excellent contribution to the debate. But how you think the problem is to be resolved depends very much on where you start from.

At the end of a detailed account of how the conflict between history and theology has been handled by modern scholarship, Rae comes to N.T. Wright’s insistence that the New Testament must be read both historically and theologically, with both a postmodern self-consciousness regarding the reading process and a recognition that “the rootedness of Christianity in history is not negotiable”. But while it should be possible in principle to balance the seesaw, scholars inevitably have to sit at one end or the other. So whereas “Wright establishes base camp in the fields of historical enquiry”, Rae proposes to “set out from certain theological convictions about the self-revelation of God” (45).

The question is whether there is really any prospect of history and theology reaching an agreement.

If you start with history and move towards theology, you end up, as I see it, roughly speaking, with the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father and the concrete outworking of that belief for both Judaism and the pagan world.

If you start with theology and move towards history, you will end up at some abstracted principle, which then becomes the lens through which the New Testament is interpreted. For evangelicals that abstracted principle is likely to be either a gospel of personal salvation or—for the more socially minded—the kingdom of God.

The problem is that neither theological concept—neither gospel nor kingdom—really fits the New Testament narrative as it is interpreted historically.

For Rae—and for many traditionally minded theologians—the abstracted principle is incarnation. He argues that the heart of the Christian concern with history is “the story told in the Gospels of God’s redemptive participation in history by which history itself, turned away from God through human sin, is reoriented to its proper goal in the kingdom of God” (58).
This is the point of the incarnational narrative. In the incarnate life of Jesus Christ, the Word of God and second person of the Trinity graces our history with his own presence, thus confirming its goodness, and showing it to be the medium through which God’s loving purpose is worked out. In Jesus Christ, God’s relation to the world takes the form of his becoming a subject within it. The one through whom and for whom all things were created and hold together (Col. 1.17) renews through his presence that which human sinfulness had subjected to disorder and decay and ‘reconstitutes it in its relation to God’. (59)
The direction of thought here is quite apparent. The Word of God, the second person of the Trinity, becomes incarnate, which becomes the defining centre of God’s relation to the world. Conceptually the argument reaches back only as far as a text like Colossians 1:17 because theology—or at least modern theology—needs to work with the largest possible abstractions. The incarnation is framed cosmically; it is for the sake of the salvation of the whole of humanity. The concrete existence of the historical people of God is barely relevant. We would struggle, I think, to give a good answer to the question, “What has incarnation to do with Israel?”

The historical reading of the New Testament begins with the concrete reality of Israel under Roman occupation, with its particular self-understanding; it interprets Jesus primarily in relation to that concrete circumstance; it locates salvation within the story about Israel; and while it may strain tentatively towards certain high level notions of the relationship of Jesus to the Father, it arrives basically at a thoroughly apocalyptic account of the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus as Lordthat is, a theological interpretation of history rather than a historical embodiment of theology.


Scripture as the (historical) theological interpretation of history

by Andrew Perriman
Thursday 11 November 2010

This is a fundamental dilemma facing biblical hermeneutics: how do we get from scripture as ancient religious text, which is at one level at least unquestionably what it is, to scripture as Word of God for the church today, which at one level at least is unquestionably what it needs to be? Arguably it is the most serious dilemma currently facing biblical interpretation.

The dilemma consists in the fact that there are two broad trajectories that interpretation can take, given the starting point of scripture as an ancient text. The first is the route of theological interpretation, which is the route that has mostly been trodden throughout the history of the church. The second is the route of historical interpretation, which was discovered only quite recently through the application of the historical-critical methods.

Theological interpretation has largely been of the opinion that consistent historical readings will not generate a viable, evangelical Word of God for the church—and it has to be said that the evidence for the most part has supported that opinion. Therefore, history must first be assimilated into theological interpretation, which usually means theological tradition, and in effect de-historicized, before it is may be permitted to address the church.

I would argue, however, that historical readings are in and of themselves theologically significant and capable of addressing the church today with the force of the Word of God. What makes this possible is the fact that scripture is already the theologicaland more particularly propheticinterpretation of history.

This argument would probably lead us to modify Campbell’s base-superstructure model. The base is not merely text waiting to be interpreted theologically. It is already a theological engagement both with prior texts and—retrospectively and prospectively—with history. It speaks as Word of God now because the church is an extension of that engagement. This does not mean that we have no further need for theological constructs that transcend or disregard the contingencies of history, just that we do not need to be protected from history in the interests of theology. Indeed, I would suggest that by grasping the evangelical force of the historical narrative we potentially unleash theological creativity because we do away with the need for dogmatic restraints.


Three ways to fit the story of salvation into history

by Andrew Perriman
Wednesday 17 August 2011

I argued in “The story of how Jesus died for everyone (longer version)” that the account of Jesus’ death in [the book of] Hebrews highlights both the constraints of the Jewish narrative and the importance of the martyrdom motif for soteriology. I suggested that the “saving significance of Jesus’ death is mediated to the world precisely through the story of the suffering of the early martyr church”. Having reflected on a brief exchange with Peter Wilkinson that ensued, I have sketched here, very roughly, what seem to me the three main ways in which we can locate the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection in history.

The a-historical paradigm

The popular or traditional understanding of Christianity has Jesus arriving more-or-less out of the blue in the centre of world history to save mankind from its sins. The Old Testament is useful because it contains prophecies of this singular event, but [it makes] the history of Israel is largely irrelevant. The church is the institutionalized—sometimes highly institutionalized—outcome of the universal salvation that is found in Christ. Its mission is mainly to convert, assimilate, and expand until Jesus returns.

The half-historical paradigm

This view fully embraces the historical narrative leading up to Jesus, but once we have arrived at the climax of the covenant, the climax of God’s redemptive purposes through Israel, history as theologically significant narrative comes to an abrupt halt. Then we revert to the a-historical paradigm. After Pentecost the next event of theological significance is the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world. The half-historical people sometimes acknowledge the importance of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as the dreadful terminus of the Old Testament story. The main gain from taking the Old Testament narrative more seriously [than in the a-historical paradigm] is [taht it gies] a broader sense of the corporate nature of the church as an extension of the concrete existence of Israel.

The consistent historical paradigm

My preferred consistent narrative-historical paradigm inserts the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection firmly into the continuing existence of a people that finds its identity and purpose in the calling of Abraham to be the father of a new creation. The people of God is radically changed by this event: it becomes a supra-ethnic community of the Spirit under the lordship of Jesus that will, in some sense, inherit the world. But the basic template remains the same: it is new creation in microcosm in the midst of the nations, for the sake of the creator God.

Under this paradigm theologically significant history does not stop with Jesus. Subsequent events are just as important, whether predicted by the New Testament (the destruction of Jerusalem, the vindication of the suffering churches, the defeat of pagan Rome), or not (the collapse of Christendom, the triumph of secular rationalism, and so on, indefinitely).


History and theologies: schematization number 6

by Andrew Perriman
Wednesday 29 June 2011

Actually, I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve attempted to schematize the relationship between history and theology. But I think it is central to the current theological task, so another attempt won’t go amiss. Modern evangelical theology is largely an abstraction. It is a very basic abstraction, very communicable, in many ways very appealing, and it can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. But a price has been paid for this accommodation to the narrow, privatized domain of modern religiosity.

First, it has made it very difficult for us to read scripture well, because the whole chaotic, glorious thing has somehow to be chopped up, pared down, allegorized, and in various ways misinterpreted in order to fit into a very small conceptual box.

Secondly, we have a very weak grasp of what is in fact the central narrative element in the Bible—the concrete historical existence of a people called in Abraham, in reaction against socially constructed blasphemy, to be a corporate, visible and credible witness to the full reality of new creation. In my view, this goes a long way towards explaining why we find it so hard to integrate social and environmental values into our theology and witness.

So what I want to do here is simply to show the difference between a standard evangelical theology of personal salvation (2) and an emerging or new perspective reading of the New Testament (3) as regards their relation to history (1). Whereas modern evangelical theology is largely an escape from history, New Testament theology is very much an engagement with history—that is, with the corporate existence of a people over time.

1. As a culture we have reference to a more or less empirical narrative told by journalists, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists, geologists, and astrophysicists. It starts, in theory, with the big bang, it encompasses what is likely to be the relatively brief span of human history, and it concludes, again in theory, with some sort of unimaginable cosmic curtain call. We are concerned here with a strand in the narrative that begins with the emergence of Israel as a nation, runs through exile and restoration, Roman occupation, the emergence of a breakaway sect that mutates over time into a thoroughly Gentile church, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the conversion of the empire to a modified Jewish monotheism, the rise and demise of an expansionist Western Christendom, and the ensuing struggle to redefine Christianity for the post-Christendom era, in which we are all, in our different ways engaged. (Click on the images to enlarge them.)

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2. Traditional evangelical theology barely makes contact with this historical narrative. Israel exists only as the negative backdrop to the abrupt appearance of grace in Jesus. Acts establishes the paradigm of a church that primarily exists to preach a gospel of personal salvation to the nations. Then nothing much happens of theological significance, with the exception perhaps of the Reformation, until the end of the world, which could happen at any time. At best the corporate narrative of scripture is translated into an allegory of personal salvation: I am a sinner because of Adam (or because of Eve); I cannot save myself by works of religion; Jesus died for my sins; I have new life in him; I must also preach the good news of personal salvation; and I will go to heaven when I die.

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3. The presumption behind an emerging or new perspective account of New Testament theology is that it is at every point an interpretive response to or anticipation of historical events. Genesis 2-3 is as much an account of Israel’s exile as it is of the universal beginnings of sin; Abraham represents the foundational self-understanding of a people chosen to be “new creation”; Israel’s troubled encounter with empire is a key thread in the developing story; Jesus preaches to and dies for Israel; the early prophetic community of his followers interpreted his resurrection as a certain sign of God’s intention to judge both Israel and the nations; the churches share directly in the death and resurrection of Jesus as they face the same hostility for the sake of the future of the people of God; they are vindicated, first by the destruction of Jerusalem, secondly by the eventual conversion of the Greek-Roman empire and the public confession of Jesus as Lord; the family of Abraham in this way inherits the world and embodies new creation on a grander scale.

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The corporate narrative is clearly much more complex than the personal narrative. It does not preach well, particularly in a society that has lost all sense of historical existence and is concerned only with the immediate consumption of material and cultural goods. But the corporate narrative has priority biblically, and I think it has to be recovered—not merely by academics but by the church as a whole—if we are to construct a viable long-term future for ourselves following the disintegration of the western Christendom paradigm.


Theology and history and Jesus as the culmination of Israel's story

by Andrew Perriman
Wednesday 11 May 2011

For reasons which I won’t disclose, I have been working through a [systematic] doctrinal course with a distinctly Reformed hue. If the church is convinced that it needs such a thing as a “doctrine course”, Reformed or otherwise, then this is by no means a bad one. But for me it has highlighted again the fact that so much theological activity [decoupled from biblical history] puts the cart before the horse.

Let me give an example. The section on the Trinity lists a number of biblical texts as “evidence” for the belief that Jesus is God. The assumption is that the doctrine or belief is a given fact and basically beyond dispute; biblical proof texts may be adduced as evidence for it, but this is merely a formality and certainly does not require anything as troublesome as EXEGESIS.

That is very different to reading Matthew 9:4, say, and considering how Jesus’ insight into the thoughts of the scribes is to be explained, from which it is unlikely that we would draw the conclusion that he is omniscient and therefore God. It is very different to reading Matthew 9:1-8 and asking about the significance of the fact that authority has been given to men to forgive sins—the passage virtually rules out the conclusion that Jesus was God.

I should stress that I am not making an argument here against a high Christology; I am making an argument for a high view of scripture. The problem is that a “[systematics] doctrine course” is bound to end up subordinating the organic, contextual argumentation of scripture to the rigid requirements of a theological system that has forgotten how to read historical texts.

So I am very much in agreement with Daniel Kirk when he says in a recent post on theological interpretation:
…I am convinced that there are better ways to conceive of the theological task than traditional systematic, confessional, and dogmatic theology. There is a theology that trades in the diachronic and polyvalent nature of scripture itself, and that continues to embrace such inevitable change and diversity as the church itself continues to speak over time.
Daniel has been writing some very thoughtful and stimulating stuff recently about theology and history and about how the believing church and the (unbelieving?) academy respectively understand Jesus. It ties in well with my history of biblical interpretation. The argument in Daniel’s series of posts zig-zags backwards and forwards rather, and it is difficult to know quite where the dialectic is going to land on any particular issue—which is another way of saying that I may be missing the point in what follows. But this section in a piece on The Church’s Jesus and Israel’s God raised a couple of questions in my mind, and if nothing else, they provide an excuse for some off-the-cuff reflections on the relation of Jesus to Israel’s story:
But the church’s Jesus is not merely a historical religious phenomenon. The church’s Jesus is the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people. And so, when we go to study the church’s Jesus we find that each of the four Gospels demands of us that we interpret the Jesus story as the culmination of the Israel story.

Why can’t church and academy tell the same historical story?

The first question has to do with the idea that the church’s Jesus is “not merely a historical religious phenomenon”. Why not? If the church’s Jesus is “the one in whom and through whom Israel’s God is bringing about the fulfillment of God’s promises to that people”, why is that not simply a “religious historical phenomenon”? Why is “religious historical phenomenon” a reductive category?

To put the question differently, was the Jesus of the New Testament communities anything more than a “religious historical phenomenon”? Israel’s existence was historical; the promises to Israel were embedded in historical texts; Jesus was a historical figure; his death and resurrection were historical events in one way or another; and the subsequent unpacking of the implications of his death and resurrection in the life of the community was a historical process.

Why cannot the academy, therefore, take seriously the historical self-understanding of the early church that it existed as a result of a major eschatological transformation of the status of the people of God? After all, it was the academy, roughly speaking, that encouraged us to explore this new contextualized perspective on the New Testament in the first place. By the same token, why cannot the church even today find its identity in the story of the historical-eschatological transformation of the people of God?

So Daniel’s question—”Do you see how the Gospels take us into an interpretive field that can never be entered by the academy?”—seems to me to admit an unnecessary dissociation of the two spheres. The academy may draw the line at confessing the active involvement of God in the historical process; but as far as interpretation goes, it seems to me that in principle there is nothing to keep the church and the academy from telling the same story. That Jesus was a “man attested by God” is part of the story. Whether the academy chooses to believe it is another matter.

What is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination?

W come to the second question. What exactly is the narrative of which Jesus is the culmination? Reformed and evangelical theologies will insist that this is a story of salvation, but again I think that this is letting the tail of a particular theological tradition wag the dog of scripture.

Jesus is clearly a saviour figure. He “saves” the story from premature termination. But that does not mean that the story is all about salvation. The historically limited meta-narrative of scripture, bookended by creation and new creation, is the story of how an insignificant people, chosen to represent the one good creator God, chosen to be new creation, finally got the better of pagan imperialism and inherited the world (cf. Rom. 4:13; Rev. 11:15). From Babel to Babylon to “Babylon”. This is why Philippians 2:6-11 concludes with the confession that Jesus is Lord rather than that Jesus is Saviour. The church stands in need of further correction here.

So if the academy has helped the church to return Jesus to his narrative context, it may also help us to take what seems to me to be the next critical step in understanding the narrative. The church has learned from the general New Perspective approach to see Jesus as one who marks the culmination of Israel’s story. But the evangelical assumption is that the story effectively stops there—that there is nothing more to be said that isn’t somehow encapsulated in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and perhaps Pentecost as a direct consequence of the resurrection, and perhaps, at a stretch, the destruction of Jerusalem, though we’re not entirely sure why that should matter.

But I think it is a mistake to suppose that Jesus is, in effect, the end of history. The priority of national Israel in the story—centred on Jerusalem and the temple, governed by the Law—came to an abrupt and brutal end with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70. But the story itself continued. If Jesus sums up what went before, he also anticipates what is to come.

This future of the narrative is partly foreseen in the New Testament—judgment on Israel, the vindication of the persecuted churches, the radical transformation of the ancient world. The biblical narrative is always concretely prophetic, forward-looking—arguably more forward-looking than backward-looking. But if we are to be true to our narrative-historical convictions, we also have to learn how to narrate what falls beyond the victory of Israel’s God over the forces of European paganism—and now, ironically, beyond the collapse of the Christendom worldview. Jesus is the end of one story but the beginning of others.

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