How the light of the modern gospel distorts scripture

Thu, 06/01/2011 - 15:57

It is essential for the integrity, credibility and mission of the church that we read the Bible well. Modern evangelicalism has preserved a particular theological outcome, a thesis, from scripture—the argument that God became incarnate in Jesus for the purpose of dying for the sins of the whole world so that we might be saved or redeemed or justified or reconciled with God, live holy lives here on earth, and have the ultimate hope of going to heaven when we die. This thesis, however, has been so critical not only for the identity but arguably for the survival of the modern church that it has come to be understood not simply as a particular theological outcome but as the determinative canon for the reading of scripture. The effectiveness of the modern gospel has, therefore, come at a considerable hermeneutical price.

Let me describe a phenomenon that always used to impress me as a child. If you look at a streetlamp through a leafless tree in winter, the glistening, spindly branches will appear to arrange themselves in circles around the light. The tree loses its natural shape and becomes enslaved to the controlling power of the light.

It is the same with our reading of scripture. The light of the modern gospel construct—not actually part of the tree, but a light we shine on the tree—is so bright that all the glistening, spindly texts appear to arrange themselves around it, they become an involuntary witness to the light, and we lose sight of the natural shape of the biblical narrative.

It’s a marvellous effect, and we may stand mesmerized before it. But I think we are getting to the point where it is more important to understood the true nature of the tree than to be impressed by the illusion of concentricity.

The biblical story cannot be reduced to the myth-like dimensions of the modern evangelical gospel—not without losing touch with the reality of the thing. It is a historical story and suffers from all the complexity, particularity, ambiguity, and short-sightedness that are part-and-parcel of historical existence.

The argument about how the story of “salvation” is constructed is a good example. The situation is obviously not as straightforward as the analogy of the branches suggests—there are numerous perspectives to be had between the illusion of evangelical simplicity and the stark historical shape of the text; and there is no undistorted view of the text to be had.

But there are a number of points at which it becomes rather clear, in my view, that the traditional reading seriously misrepresents the argument of the New Testament: in the Gospels, in Acts, and in Paul, Jesus is presented not as a universal saviour but as Israel’s saviour. It is this act of divine salvation, which is inseparable from an act of divine judgment, that is proclaimed to the world, presented before the eyes of the nations. Then, in their response to this good news of what God has done in order to vindicate himself and prove himself faithful to the promises made to the fathers the Gentiles find their own salvation.

How much the Immortal loves those men!

I suggested yesterday that we find this pattern already in Isaiah. I also recently came across another, less familiar text that reproduces it. Sibylline Oracles 3 is generally reckoned to be a composite document, almost entirely of Jewish authorship, written in Egypt. The larger part of the book, including the passage that I want to consider here, probably dates from around the mid-second century BC.

The book foresees an assault by the “kings of the peoples” against Jerusalem and the temple (3:657-68). God, however, will judge and overthrow these aggressors: “All well-constructed walls of hostile men will fall to the ground, because they knew neither the law nor the judgment of the great God, but with mindless spirit you all launched an attack and raised spears against the sanctuary” (3:685-88).

With the enemies of Israel destroyed, peace will be established: “…the sons of the great God will all live peacefully around the Temple, rejoicing in these things which the Creator, just judge and sole ruler, will give” (3:702-704). That is the vision of Israel’s salvation. It is followed by a response from the nations, who have seen how much “the Immortal loves those men” (3:710-11)—and we have exactly the development that we have in Acts 13:48 and Romans 15:9-12: the nations praise God for his mercy towards Israel:

They will bring forth from their mouths a delightful utterance in hymns, “Come, let us all fall on the ground and entreat the immortal king, the great eternal God. Let us send to the Temple, since he alone is sovereign and let us all ponder the Law of the Most High God, who is most righteous of all throughout the earth.” (3:715-20)

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the New Testament story was directly influenced by this text. But it reinforces the impression that the narrative template was widespread and typical, which adds weight to the exegetical argument from the New Testament. There is, admittedly, a risk of oversimplifying matters, not least because the identity of saved “Israel” changes as Gentiles are incorporated into it. But that is a narrative development: it does not weaken the general argument that Jesus is put forward as the king who will save his people from their sins (cf. Matt. 1:21), and that Gentiles find salvation in response to this extraordinary demonstration of the rightness and faithfulness of YHWH.

Comments

In your text I see a lot of negative connotations toward evangelicalism and how they missed the point. But how is it possible that your theological approach is right and not "distorting" Gospel understanding? Evangelicalism is a big word, and many churches are part of it. Did they missed the point????

I think that we should be more ecumenical and open to other churches, in language that is love and respect. And then to focus on spreading the Gospel, which is Good News that Jesus is Lord and Savior of all.

Nino, that’s a fair observation. I don’t have a problem with the core evangelical argument that we are all sinners in need of a saviour, and in a different context I might say some very positive things about it. I also think that modern evangelicalism was a crucial historical response to some very damaging developments in the church; and I agree that ecumenism is important. It is not my intention to undermine (even if I were in a position to do so) the work of evangelical churches.

But I also think that the dominant evangelical paradigm provides us with a very restrictive lens for reading scripture as a whole. For example, I don’t think that we fulfil the purpose of the people of God by spreading a “gospel” of personal salvation. That may be a crucial component, but evangelicalism’s concern for the salvation of the individual has in many instances all but obliterated the powerful social-level or national-level or cosmic-level dynamics of the biblical narrative.

So the point of this article and others is to expose the tensions. The tensions are not my invention—there is plenty of scholarship out there that tells a much more complex biblical story than our standard evangelical theology suggests.

My view is that if evangelicalism is to move forward from here, it needs to find a way of grounding itself biblically that does not distort the biblical material. I think in the long run evangelicalism has to address what are really quite serious structural flaws in its general worldview. Of course, that opinion is a matter for discussion, but I hope you can see that my aims are constructive and respectful of the existing ministry of evangelical churches.

 

Andrew,

Without trying to sound divisive to Nino (or anyone else for that matter) by "taking sides", I couldn't agree with you more. I’m not out to get on board someone’s theology but as I see it, a theological systematic has preserved a theological perspective that by its "popular familiarity" has blinded us to the bigger picture of the biblical narrative. I was really struck by this in recent conversations and the hurtful redundancy and rhetoric that controls the reading of the text and the common, clichéd conclusions people draw from it. And all this despite the information available, the new scholarship etc…. many people just sticking with what they know. But I just can't go back.

I especially liked your opening statement, “It is essential for the integrity, credibility and mission of the church that we read the Bible well”. That’s what I hope to do more of in 2011. 

At any rate you said in your comment to Nino that, “I don’t have a problem with the core evangelical argument that we are all sinners in need of a saviour, and in a different context I might say some very positive things about it”? What do you mean by "in a different context I might say some very positive things about it”

Great post and I think a fair response to Nino. 

 

Jim, I am enough of an evangelical to believe that people are in need of personal reconciliation to the creator God, that this must be a work of divine grace, and that it is accounted for by the biblical narrative, central to which is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I think that the modern evangelical movement and related developments such as Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement have been a necessary and life-giving response to the corrosive effect of rationalism and modernity on Western Christianity. These movements have sustained worship, a high regard for scripture, high levels of personal conviction, the experience of the Spirit, and so on.

I also believe that modern evangelicalism still has the power to motivate genuine good—self-sacrificing love, compassion, justice, personal integrity, etc.

So in the context, say, of a discussion about the development of the modern church or of the personal religious experiences of ordinary evangelicals I think there are some very positive things to be said.

But I still think that modern evangelicalism—largely as a consequence of its success—seriously misrepresents the narrative biblical framework within which it has fulfilled its particular historical vocation at the end of modernity, and that this has been at the expense of its intellectual integrity, its self-understanding as the people of God, and its sense of missional purpose in relation to humanity and the cosmos.

Incidentally, I think that the Alpha Course phenomenon illustrates the dilemma very well. It perpetuates what is by now, to my mind, an extremely outmoded theological paradigm, but it continues to be very effective. But that’s another debate… (you might also consider “Did Jesus claim to be God?”)

 

Andrew, Thanks for the clarity. I read the "What has the emerging church to do with the Alpha Course" article you referred to in your response to me and in one of the comments following the post you said, "I agree that HTB is doing some good theological education – I’ve seen it at first hand. But Gordon Fee is hardly a progressive theologian, and I wonder how long we will have to wait for the content of the Alpha course to reflect anything like a New Perspective on either Jesus or Paul". I'm reading Fee's most recent book on Revelation and he seems somewhat aligned with your thinking saying, "the book of Revelation is a marvelous book and I just cringe whenever I see and hear people take it and make it have to do primarily with something in our future, when the only stuff that’s in our future is chapters 21 and 22. Everything else belongs back in the near future of those seven churches and all other Christians at the beginning of the second century – It’s about the first-century church that is headed for a terrible two-century holocaust. Revelation wasn’t written to us, but we can hear it as a word for us, once we understand it as a word for them, and what it was saying to them". Fee also claims he is indebted to N.T.Wright for much of his theological perspective. So, am I missing something about Fee or do I need to more fully understand what you mean by a "progressive theologian" or progressive theology? Sorry to bug you Andrew but your responses are very helpful.Sent from my iPad

 

That’s very interesting. Perhaps I’m doing Gordon Fee a disservice. I was thinking of his work on the Holy Spirit, which I thought was fairly conventional. But I could be wrong. In any case, that was with reference to HTB’s theological training programme, not to the Alpha material.

Hi Andrew,

You said:
"Jim, I am enough of an evangelical to believe that people are in need of personal reconciliation to the creator God, that this must be a work of divine grace, and that it is accounted for by the biblical narrative, central to which is the death and resurrection of Jesus."

I have spent an entire afternoon reading almost all your various posts on election and how it plays out for Israel and the Gentiles, but I noticed that in your great emphasis on how salvation and election was offered to Israel - and also seeing how you seem to suggest from your article on Acts 13 that the Gentiles only incidentally entered into those promises intended only for Israel, which supposedly was not actually offered to the Gentiles (correct me if I have misinterpreted your stance) - that you never have gone past analyzing the immediate passages you cover in your articles to come to a conclusion of how Gentiles fit in to God's salvation plan at all.

I really would like to see how you think salvation eventually breaks down to the individual level. Have you done an article on 2 Peter 1:10 and its significance before? Though surely the command to "make your calling and election sure" can easily be applied to all believers (hence corporately) really it can only be enforced at the individual level and one believer cannot be responsible for another's assurance of calling and election or salvation (as Ezekiel 18 adequately demonstrates). Could you respond to that, and perhaps even consider addressing that in another article?

I would like to see you move past just the historical interpretations (which rightfully are necessary for biblical exegesis) and further bring out what you really think applies to all believers (as far as salvation) today - particularly for the Gentiles (though yet as ones who have been grafted in to the root of Israel). Corporate calling is all fine and good but free will and individual responsibility put weight on individuals to make sure they reach the goal and do not fall away. Paul's epistles always incorporated the individual, even if certain key theological points addressed the corporate. I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on that.

God Bless.

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