At the simplest level what we mean by “atonement” is that Jesus died for my sins in order to reconcile me to a holy God. But when the church attempts to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross does this, we quickly find ourselves entangled in a number of competing theories: the moral influence theory (popular with liberals), the Christus Victor theory (currently popular with emerging types), Anselm’s satisfaction theory (popular with Anselm), the notorious penal substitution theory (popular with the neo-Reformed), the sacrificial theory (popular with the writers of the New Testament, but see below), the governmental theory of Hugo Grotius, and no doubt many others.
Lexicon of theological terms in narrative-historical perspective
Calvinism is right to highlight the biblical rhetoric of election, foreknowledge and predetermination. It is wrong, however, in its understanding of the narrative in which that rhetoric is deployed; it is wrong about the purpose of election.
Reformed orthodoxy claims that election is an absolute premise of personal salvation. John Piper, for example, writes:
Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.
We are not saying that final salvation is unconditional. It is not. We must meet the condition of faith in Christ in order to inherit eternal life. But faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith. It is because God chose us before the foundation of the world that he purchases our redemption at the cross and quickens us with irresistible grace and brings us to faith.
The word “eschatology” would normally mean something like “the study of last things”. Traditionally it has been treated as a heading either for the classification of such ultimate realities as death, judgment, heaven and hell or for debates over competing millennialist timelines. I find both these approaches unhelpful. Within the frame of my preferred narrative-historical hermeneutic, I would use the word “eschatological” primarily with reference to prophecies of decisive, theologically significant historical events in a foreseeable future. From the perspective of the New Testament this means essentially the two horizons of the Jewish War and the victory of the persecuted church over Roman pagan imperialism.
As I would redefine the term from a narrative-historical perspective, an “evangelical” in the broadest sense is someone who finds “good news” in the long and complex story of the historic family of Abraham, descended through Jesus. Or better, the church is “evangelical” insofar as it finds good news in that story.
The “good news” in the New Testament is really the telling of the whole story, from Jesus’ initial proclamation to Israel through to judgment on the pagan world. But it has been broken down into its component parts. This observation correlates rather well with Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘ “creed” and “gospel” are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel’ (The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited, 63), though the narrative details would come out rather differently. The creedal narrative that emerges from the New Testament is a string of good news items.
I recently received an email from someone who has a friend who had a couple of points to make about the so-called Great Commission. She wants to know what I think.
- Since Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all “nations” rather than of all “people”, what he means is something like “make Christians among all people groups”, not “make everybody a Christian”.
- The mission of Jesus is to redeem a people whose role in the world will be to ‘exemplify and manifest God’s characteristics “as a city on a hill”’. It is not, as Evangelicals would have us believe, to crowd as many people as possible into that city.
What I think is that this is basically right as far as it goes but that it doesn’t go far enough….
By comparison with “hell”, which in its traditional sense is not a biblical idea, “heaven” ought to be a fairly straightforward theological concept to explain. Surely heaven is simply what belief in Jesus is ultimately all about? It’s where we go when we die. It’s what makes sitting through—or preaching—all those tedious sermons worth while. The party at the end of the cosmos. The thumping rock and roll worship session in the clouds around the throne of God for ever and ever. The marriage feast that will make the impending Royal Wedding celebrations—there will be a reception, surely?—look like a bunch of scruffy winos picking over the congealed remains from a discarded pizza box.
I set out a while back to write a general piece on the unbiblical doctrine of “hell” as part of a glossary or lexicon of key concepts but got side-tracked. Since then the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s book has prompted extensive reflection on the matter, and it now seems worth providing a rough summary of the position that I have argued for in a number of recent posts. Unfortunately, it has turned out rather longer than intended, but hopefully it will be the last word on the subject of “hell” for a while.
Hermeneutics is the academic discipline that seeks to understand what goes on when a text is read and interpreted. Anthony Thiselton gives the following basic definition:
Hermeneutics explores how we read, understand, and handle texts, especially those written in another time or in a context of life different from our own. Biblical hermeneutics investigates more specifically how we read, understand, apply, and respond to biblical texts.
At the simplest level, therefore, hermeneutics examines the process of interpretation that goes on when a text is read; it explores what happens between text and reader.
I keep making the point that the New Testament is a situated theological engagement with the historical narrative of the people of God. As such it is a work both of memory and of imagination: it addresses the present in the light of what has happened and what will happen.
It seems a good idea, therefore, to set out a rough outline of the relevant period—basically, in my view, the period from the decree of Cyrus permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem to Constantine’s Edict of Milan, by which Christianity was legalized. Modern evangelicalism has a very poor sense of history. We have somehow persuaded ourselves that the New Testament can be read perfectly well in more or less complete isolation from the historical substrate which it presupposes at every point. That is because we are only really interested in theology. I want to challenge that bias. What follows is very incomplete and is not very exciting in itself—I’ve made little attempt to work the Jesus story into it. But it should not be read merely as optional background material. It shares the same narrative foreground space as the New Testament itself.
The biblical story of Jesus is a very long one. It reaches back to the creation of all things; it concludes with the re-creation of all things and the symbolic presence of the Lamb in the glorious city of the creator God. If we superimpose on this already complicated biblical story the church’s highly theological account of who Jesus was, is and will be, then we have a biography of massive mythical and metaphysical proportions. But in order to understand the story of Jesus we have to start not with this glorious meta-biography but with the much more modest and limited historical narrative that we find in the Gospels—in Matthew, Mark and Luke in particular.
At the heart of Jesus’ preaching is the simple statement that “the kingdom of God is at hand”, to which an equally simple exhortation is attached: repent and believe this good news (Mk. 1:15). Simple? Perhaps not. We appear still to be remarkably confused about what Jesus meant. Is the kingdom present or future? Is it the same as the church? Is it bigger than the church? Is it all about miracles? Is this the social justice dimension that somehow fell out of evangelical theology? It’s not unusual to hear preachers say that they don’t really understand what the kingdom of God is, but they’re going to preach on it anyway…. That’s odd, surely?
I have Ben Witherington’s short book Revelation and the End Times to hand, so I will take the opportunity provided by his discussion of the millennium to outline what seems to me a more coherent, historically grounded understanding of this mystifying thousand year period.
It’s remarkable how pervasive the assumption is that Jesus told stories for the same reason that aspiring preachers and teachers today are urged to tell stories—to get people’s attention, entertain, illustrate the point in a homely and accessible fashion, provide vividness, bring clarity, and so on. I came across it this morning in an MA hermeneutics paper that I am marking. The student suggests that the rabbinic practice of telling stories to communicate spiritual or heavenly truths would have been familiar to first century Jewish audiences. So Jesus would have been speaking “in a familiar currency”, which would have facilitated “maximum understanding amongst the audience”. She then quotes from Fee and Stuart’s classic How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: “Jesus was not trying to be obtuse, he fully intended to be understood”.
I don’t have a copy of the book to hand so I can’t check the context, but presumably the student has not seriously misrepresented their view. In any case, the argument of the essay is that Jesus spoke in parables in order to make his teaching about the kingdom of God as clear and simple as he possibly could, and I suspect that a lot of people share that opinion.
I use the term "post-eschatological" with reference to the situation of the people of God after the major eschatological horizons of the Jewish war and the victory of the community in Christ over Greek-Roman paganism. This is a little misleading, but it is meant to take account of the fact that most of what the New Testament has to say about the future refers to these foreseeable historical events. I do not mean to preclude the third horizon of a final judgment and final remaking of creation.
The basic template for New Testament belief in any sort of life after death is the Jewish idea of the resurrection of a person from the dead at the end of the age—and probably the resurrection of the righteous Jew who has lost his or her life out of loyalty to YHWH (cf. Dan. 12:2-3). Personal resurrection derives from a theology of martyrdom (cf. 2 Macc. 7:9, 14), and I think that this pattern largely controls references to personal resurrection in the New Testament.
We had a very interesting session on the Book of Revelation in Harlesden last Tuesday evening. The big hermeneutical question it raised, in my view, is whether we live in the story it tells or after the story it tells. Barney suggested that we live in it and compared its complex allusive discourse cleverly and engagingly to the Meatrix. In many respects the analogy works well: it certainly helps us to understand the coded nature of the Book of Revelation better. But there is a critical point, I think, at which the analogy breaks down. Factory farming is a contemporary issue for us. Is that true of the issues addressed in the Book of Revelation? I don’t think so. We live in the Meatrix allegory. We do not live in the main story of that is being told in largely Revelation. We live after it and have to learn from it in rather different ways.
This is the first of what I hope will become a series of “glossary” type posts giving a fairly basic and compact explanation of core “evangelical” concepts from—as you might expect—a narrative-historical perspective. Our understanding of these concepts is in transition. I do not at all put these definitions forward as conclusive or authoritative, but I hope that they will provide some temporary focus in the process of reconstruction. We kick off with “salvation”, partly prompted by a post by Michael Patton a couple of days back, in which he addresses a question that he hopes no one will ask: “Why doesn’t God save everyone?” What follows doesn’t really answer the question, but it at least presents a very different frame within which to address it.
Do I believe in Satan? To be honest, on a good day, I’m not sure I do. I suspect that this arch hypostasis of evil is just a bit too much of a stretch for my largely rationalist view of the world. Should I be concerned about this? A narrative appraisal of Satan’s function in the New Testament suggests perhaps not. We naturally want to ask questions about the ontology and metaphysics of Satan. Does he really exist? How does he fit into a modern-theistic worldview? But in the New Testament Satan is a dramatic figure, a character in a story, who plays a quite specific, and in the end limited, role in the unfolding crisis.
I believe there are warnings about hell in the Old Testament. Sheol is not a neutral place, but the place where the wicked are sent. The warnings about Sheol would not be warnings if Sheol was simply a neutral place where all dead souls go.
I’ve probably argued before that Sheol is merely the place of the dead, but having looked through the Old Testament texts again, I think that Alex may have half a point. Here I have roughly sorted much of the Old Testament data under what seem to me to be the most useful headings and then added a summary definition. My suggestion, briefly, is that while Sheol is in principle the place of the dead, the imagery of going down to Sheol carries the particular connotation of an unfortunate, wretched or god-forsaken death.
The “Son of Man” motif is central to Jesus’ self-understanding and of critical importance for a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament. As J.D.G. Dunn says:
After ‘the kingdom of God/heaven’ there is no phrase so common in the Jesus tradition as ‘the son of man’. Its importance within the Jesus tradition, and possibly as a key to that tradition, therefore, can hardly be exaggerated. More to the immediate point, it seems to be the nearest thing in the Jesus tradition to a self chosen self-designation.1
The history of interpretation is exceedingly, and probably unnecessarily, complex. I suggest that three patterns of usage are relevant for understanding what Jesus meant when he referred to himself as “the son of man”.
- 1. J.D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 724.
Soteriology is that part of theology or religious studies which deals with the doctrine of “salvation” (Greek sōtēria). Traditionally the emphasis has been on personal salvation, but emerging theologies bring into focus also the corporate and cosmic dimensions. My narrative-historical perspective highlights the theme of the salvation of the people of God, in the first place from the destruction of the impending Jewish War, secondly from severe persecution, initially from the Jews but increasingly from a pagan world profoundly disturbed by the claim that Jesus had been made Lord over the nations in the place of Caesar and the multitude of ancient gods.