I have been engaged in a very constructive conversation with Derek Flood about ‘Penal substitution and the OT narrative of judgment’. My argument has been roughly that in order to understand who Jesus was, what his intentions were, and in this particular case how his suffering might be understood in terms of both punishment and substitution, we need a much stronger sense of the historical narrative in which he is embedded – and we need to resist the bad and lazy habit of reading our highly processed theological conclusions into the text. In response Derek has raised an extremely pertinent question about (I guess) the devotional or pastoral or theological or catechetical ‘value’ of consigning Jesus to the past, as it would seem:
As you say, your “main concern is to relocate Jesus, with exegetical and historical integrity, within the biblically interpreted narrative of Israel.” My question is: why would that be valuable? Or more specifically, to what end?
I would have responded on his blog, but the post exceeds the comment limit in length, and since this represents a bit of a change of direction, I have put it here. I hope he doesn’t mind. The question is then: Is there a danger of pushing Jesus so far back into his historical setting that we are no longer able to connect with him? Or: What is the point of reading Scripture if it is merely a historical book?
1. I would argue, in the first place, that it is a legitimate end in itself to recognise the text for what it is rather than for what we would like it to be. I understand that this is not possible in absolute or ideal terms, that the best historical-critical methodology is always skewed by the limited perspective of the interpreter, that history is only ever a construct, and so on. But I still see it as a matter of basic respect for the intrinsic character of the text to let it first engage consistently with its own context, as best we can reconstruct that engagement, regardless of the implications that may appear to have for our own relation to the text.
I am not suggesting that this is the only way to read Scripture, but I think it should constitute an important, and perhaps fundamental, substrate in our multilayered approaches to the text – and I think that in order to expose this substrate for what it is we need somehow to remove the extraneous and anachronistic material that has become mixed up with it.
2. I think that a lot of New Testament teaching, conceptuality, argumentation, etc., actually makes better sense when the narrative-historical dimension is taken into account. New Testament eschatology, to my mind, is a good example of this. To suppose that Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse has reference to the destruction of Jerusalem as matter of judgment on Israel and vindication of Jesus and his followers seems to me far more profound, far more compelling, far more coherent, far more realistic, far more meaningful, than the fanciful, alarmist, and sometimes quite rabid speculation that the passage has prompted throughout the ages.
3. I think that in the aftermath of the collapse of Christendom it is appropriate that we attempt to recover the primitive – and I suspect for many disconcertingly unfamiliar – historicality of the text. I think that it is a salutary and refreshing hermeneutical exercise – not just for scholars but for the church on a much broader basis. We are negotiating a massive historical crisis, and there is much to be gained from understanding how the New Testament addressed theologically the contingencies and uncertainties of its own circumstances.
4. I do not think that recovering the historical dynamic of Scripture means that it ceases to be instructive or normative or inspirational for the church today. We are accustomed to reading the Bible synchronically, as a text that speaks directly to us now. But I want to explore the possibility that it can also speak powerfully to us diachronically, as a text that speaks out of its own engagement with history.
One aspect of a diachronic hermeneutic will be the phenomenon that Derek describes: present or impending situations are redescribed through images and narratives developed to address earlier situations. That seems to me to be a key way in which the people of God make sense, prophetically, of the unknown or the new. We do it naïvely or unwittingly all the time, as Derek suggests, but I think we should be smart enough now as interpreters to construct these analogies with a critical understanding of the narrative-historical gap that exists between the two contexts.
5. I fully accept that we may look back now and judge that our view of things is ‘better’ than the ancient view of things, as Derek suggests: ‘Perhaps the later insights (including ones by the later church) may better express truth than the original historical perspective did.’ Our perspective on slavery or on the participation of women in the activity of the congregation may be ‘better’ than Paul’s, for example. But a historical hermeneutic still drives us to understand why Paul restricted the role of women or failed to champion the abolition of slavery, and I’m pretty sure that in the process we will learn things that would be lost if we simply dismissed his teaching on the basis of our (supposedly?) superior post-enlightenment ethical standpoint. The debate over penal substitutionary atonement, to my mind, also falls into this category.
6. I like Derek’s metaphor of hitting the reset button: ‘My concern is that while I would not want to “retroject” the future onto the past, I also do not think we should simply ignore 2000 years of good theology and hit the reset button.’ That is not my intention. But I do think that the best way for us to renew theology under the current circumstances is to retell the narrative of the New Testament with a rather austere and consistent integrity, and ask where its trajectory might land us in a post-Christendom, post-imperial, post-Reformational, post-modern, context. I see that as a very creative undertaking.