I have come across a number of people recently who, in their different ways, appear to agree that the future of evangelicalism lies ideally in a convergence of the New Perspective and emerging-missional forms of church. The question has been, though, whether such a convergence has any chance of happening given the powerful currents pulling the big ship of modern evangelicalism in quite different directions. What this diagram attempts to highlight are what seem to me to be the two main tensions or questions in the process of establishing a viable, biblically credible alternative to the old Christendom model. The diagram doesn’t solve anything but perhaps it will bring a little clarity.
This verse was alluded to briefly by Peter Wilkinson in a comment relating to the place of suffering in Paul’s thought. My view is that the suffering of the early church, culminating potentially in a death like Jesus’, plays a much more important and limiting part in his theology than we usually allow for. Much of Paul’s eschatology is constructed around the conviction that the church is called to participate in the story of Jesus’ suffering and vindication for the sake of the future of the people of God as it confronted first hostile Judaism and secondly hostile paganism. This is what the “Son of Man” motif is all about, for example—the inclusion of a righteous, persecuted community in the vindication of the Son of Man.
With all the depressing talk of hell recently it seems a good idea to turn our minds in a more positive direction and give some thought to what the alternative might be. My view is that the New Testament does not make “heaven” the normal destination for those who are saved. What we have is essentially a limited “martyr theology”, worked out within a broader “meta-narrative” about the renewal of creation.
The argument goes roughly—very roughly—like this. The restoration of Israel is brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is a “new creation” event, an “ontological novelty”. There is as yet, however, no “new creation”, no “new heavens and new earth”, in which to accommodate the resurrected Jesus, so he is exalted to the right hand of the Father, as Israel’s king, from where he will reign throughout the coming ages until such time as this authority to rule may be handed back to the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24)—the point being that the security and integrity of the people of God can be maintained only by the Lamb who was slain.
As a (moderately) good postmodern—and as a student of literature rather than of history—I have tended to avoid many of the problems raised by historical-criticism regarding the factual integrity and coherence of the Bible. The reason is that I think that the more interesting and more pressing problem for modern evangelicalism has to do not with whether the texts are demonstrably true as historical records but with what they are actually saying as historical records. To put it another way, it is not the factual distortions of the singular dogma of inerrancy that need to be corrected so much as the interpretive distortions of the multiple theological constructs that make up the evangelical belief system. What sort of story is actually being told here?
The so-called New Perspective has come up a few times recently here, not least because it has a significant bearing on how we understand New Testament teaching about wrath, judgment, “hell”, and salvation. My impression is that the New Perspective is still largely confined to the academic sphere and that we are only slowly beginning to grasp its revolutionary implications. So Kent Yinger’s nifty and very readable book The New Perspective on Paul: An Introduction (Wipf & Stock, 2011) is a timely resource for the church as it struggles to rethink its identity and purpose.
One of the things that has surprised me in the Bell’s hell controversy is the assumption behind much of the criticism that the denial of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment amounts to an endorsement of universalism—or at least as a “preliminary step” in that direction as it was put to me by Steve Hays on the Triabloggers site. Practically speaking, Steve has a point—consider, for example, this personal testimony from The Beautiful Heresy:
In my mid-40s I discovered Universalism about mid-2004 and immediately began reading all I could about it. I was raised as a Pentecostal Fundamentalist and could never quite grasp why G-d was so angry with me and the rest of the world that He wanted to condemn us to Eternal Torment. G-d seemed weak, angry and schizophrenic to me. This journey is about my discovery of G-d’s universal and inescapable love.
What bearing do the parable of the weeds (Matt. 13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43) have on the current debate about hell? Two questions present themselves. First, is Jesus speaking of an imminent judgment on Israel or a final judgment on humanity—or perhaps both? Secondly, if this is a final judgment, should we understand the burning of the weeds as a metaphor for eternal conscious suffering in what is popularly called “hell”? Of course, if the answer to the first question is that Jesus has in view only a historical judgment, the second question is redundant. What I will argue here is that both the context and the content of the parable and its interpretation point to a restricted narrative-historical setting—a crisis of the failure of the covenant analogous to that described in Daniel 7-12.
Jesus’ image of the grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies is, I imagine, most commonly understood as saying something about his death as the means by which many will be saved. Beasley-Murray, for example, writes: “so surely as a grain of wheat must be buried if it is to yield fruit for man, so the Son of Man must give himself in death if he is to produce a harvest of life for the world”. The verses that follow, however, suggest that this may not be so much an image of salvation as of discipleship—or perhaps of salvation through a model of self-sacrificing discipleship.
David Fitch offers an interesting analysis of why the winds of popular theology in North America have changed direction so dramatically in the last two or three years. In his view—though this is not his metaphor—the weather system is driven by the Christian publishing business. Over the last decade “publishing superstars” such as Rob Bell and Brian McLaren, blowing from the warm south (this is a northern hemisphere metaphor), have dared to “ask questions that have been avoided or shut down within evangelical church culture the past fifty years”. But having asked the questions, having raised the issues, they have failed to deliver on their promise. So the wind has veered round to the north, sweeping in from the chill wastes of the neo-Reformed movement. Or as Fitch puts it, the “wandering herd heads for the monster wave of the Neo Reformed”—and the paragraph sinks finally into metaphorical chaos.
Two major developments, very broadly speaking, have impacted modern Western evangelicalism over the last decade. With regard to praxis the emerging church movement has challenged traditional patterns of church life and mission and has set out—in more or less experimental fashion—new, fresh, innovative, down-to-earth, enterprising, risk-taking, controversial, incarnational, and, of course, missional ways of being church. With regard to theory the New Perspective has challenged the traditional rationalized presentation of evangelical beliefs, arguing that New Testament theology is a fast flowing river cutting through the landscape of a particular history, not a vast undifferentiated, universal flood covering the whole plain of human existence. The New Testament is not an allegory of personal salvation. It is the complex account of the crisis of first-century Judaism and the painful struggle to bring about the renewal of the people of God. Theology needs to be recontextualized.