Just to be clear, there will be a final judgment of all the dead, a final renewal of heaven and earth, and a final destruction of all that is contrary to the goodness of God’s creation. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). At least, that is my belief. But it is not what Jesus is talking about here when he tells his disciples that not even he knows exactly when the sequence of events that he has just recounted will reach its climax. A lot of people are clutching at this text at the moment to reassure themselves that Harold Camping doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Under the circumstances a little exegetical clarity—indeed sanity—probably would not go amiss.
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.
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”.
One of the objections most forcefully raised against a consistent narrative-historical reading of the New Testament is that it makes the texts more or less irrelevant as a source of teaching and inspiration for the church today. Peter Wilkinson expressed this objection in a recent comment in no uncertain terms:
Hereon in we are in uncharted, post-biblical waters, and left to sink or swim, to put it crudely, according to our own devices. There is no biblical matrix left in which we can locate ourselves. That’s a huge problem with your approach, and whenever the issue arises of what now for the church, you don’t have a lot to say. I find this inevitable conclusion of your approach, as it currently stands, rather incredible.
This is one of the passages that is often put forward as “evidence” that the synoptic Gospel account already presents Jesus as both human and divine. The argument is that i) it is the prerogative of God to forgive sins, ii) in this story Jesus forgives sins, iii) therefore Jesus must be God. Added to this, it is sometimes supposed that Jesus demonstrates exclusive supernatural insight into the inner thoughts of the scribes who were so offended by his pronouncement. Neither of these propositions is correct.
For reasons which I won’t disclose, I have been working through a doctrine course of 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 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 prooftexts 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.
The history of biblical interpretation is a tale of two cities—not London and Paris (Dickens), or even Jerusalem and Athens (Tertullian), but Alexandria and Antioch. In the third and fourth centuries Alexandria stood for an allegorizing approach to interpretation that sought to maximize the theological payload of a sacred text. Antioch stood for a more constrained approach that was more concerned to uncover the original historical meaning of the text than to exploit it to meet the theological needs and prejudices of the later reading community. The chart shows very roughly how this division has persisted right through the history of interpretation—indeed, it is arguably the defining feature of the history of interpretation. If anyone wants to suggest significant corrections or additions to it, please let me know.
This is a much debated passage, a good part of the discussion having to do with the question of whether it reflects a “high christology”. Is Jesus presented here as a preexisting divine figure who becomes incarnate as man, who dies (for the sins of the world), and who then is re-identified with the divine kyrios? The part about preexistence and incarnation I have my doubts about, though I wouldn’t rule it out—it appears to rely far too heavily on the single phrase “being in the form of God”. The climactic identification of Jesus as kyrios is clear.
But the standard high christological or incarnational reading in most cases completely misses the Jewish-narrative-historical-eschatological-whatever import of the passage. In other words, Philippians 2:6-11 is not another iteration of the evangelical divine redeemer myth; rather it speaks of the significance of Jesus in the historical clash between YHWH and ancient paganism. To recover this perspective we simply need to suppose that Paul, or whoever wrote this extraordinary hymn to the anti-Caesar, was thinking both biblically and contextually.
I have long harboured the suspicion that in certain respects, in certain habits of thought, modern evangelicalism has more in common with second century Gnosticism than with first century Christianity. I accept that the analogy is impressionistic and cannot be pushed very far, but I still think that there is something in the view that modern evangelicalism operates with a core a-historical redeemer myth not so different from Gnostic redeemer myths: the redeemer descends into the world to rescue people from their sins and, in the end, transport them to their true home in heaven. This mythicized narrative controls much of the language of evangelical piety, worship, evangelism, and popular theology. It barely makes contact with the biblical narrative of a historically situated people.
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.
Paul says that the God who has given the Spirit to his people, chose (exelexato) us in him before the construction of the world (1:4), pre-appointed (proorisas, prooristhentes) us for adoption and to be “for the praise of his glory” (1:5, 11-12).