By In Books, Politics, Theology

Narrative Christology

Richard Hays’ book Reading Backwards is a remarkably insightful piece of work, which prompts some thoughts about how the four evangelists (and for that matter the other NT authors, though that is not Hays’ concern here) depicted Jesus’ divinity. It is sometimes assumed that the apparent reticence of the evangelists to ascribe deity to Jesus (at least in straightforward, blunt, propositional, “Jesus is God” terms) reflects either the fact that they would have disagreed outright with the idea; or perhaps the fact that they were feeling their way towards something that they did not fully grasp, and which only later came to be understood more fully. The former possibility is problematic for obvious reasons; the latter seems to me somewhat patronising.

What is less commonly considered is the possibility that the New Testament authors may have grasped with a great deal of sophistication and nuance exactly who Jesus is (though perhaps not in the terms that became prominent in later theological and philosophical discussions of the incarnation), and that they simply chose to express this understanding in narrative form, within a complex of allusions and echoes, narrative retellings and reidentifications, metaphors, types and figures – the sort of thing Richard Hays calls “Figural Christology”. The substance is all there; our failure to see it reflects less the NT authors’ crudeness or lack of theological development, and more our somewhat shrunken idea of what counts as “theological truth”.

In any case, perhaps even to ask “What did the evangelists believe about Jesus?” is a slightly misdirected question, because it all to easily draws our attention away from the NT text to guesswork about what was believed by people long dead. This is a mistake, and one which inevitably leads to dead-end speculation, because apart from the evidence of the NT writings we have very little idea what the NT authors believed. It’s also pretty tragic, because we have no direct access to the minds of long-dead men, but the NT writings are directly in front of us. And it is these writings, not some speculative reconstruction of the thoughts of the men that wrote them, which comprise the Holy Scriptures and teach us the faith.

These writings – inspired as they are by the Spirit of God, so that the human authors may well have spoken better than they knew – certainly do speak of a man, Jesus of Nazareth, in whom Israel’s God came to be present in the world; a man whose words and works are the words and works of God; a man in whom the invisible became visible, the eternal became temporal, the immortal became mortal; a man through whose sacrificial saving grace God was and is at work to save the world. These and similar narrative formulations may lack something of the philosophical precision of later Christological formulations, but I’m not sure they lack so much of their substance. On the contrary, at its best, the road to Chalcedon and beyond is simply an attempt to draw out and express again (perhaps in response to critics, perhaps as a natural process of spiritual-intellectual development, perhaps in pursuit of further clarity, perhaps for other reasons) what the Scriptures actually say about Jesus.

I suspect that Richard Hays has a great deal to teach us about how the Scriptures speak of our Saviour.

Rev Dr Steve Jeffery is Minister at Emmanuel Evangelical Church, London, England (BlogFacebookTwitter)

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By In Books

The Christ of the Covenants

I’ve just been chatting with a friend about O. Palmer Robertson’s superb book The Christ of the Covenants. The conversation set me thinking again about the book (which as it happens we’re currently reading in the current module of the theology course at Emmanuel Training and Resources), and in particular about the very few points at which I might be inclined to offer a slightly different perspective from the one set forth by Professor Robertson. Here they are:

1. I’m not sure that the definition of “covenant” on p. 4 (“a bond in blood sovereignly administered”) is broad enough to accommodate all the relationships that are explicitly described as covenants in Scripture. Something more like “a relationship involving more-well-defined-than-usual demands and sanctions” might be better, provided those demands and sanctions are then defined in more detail depending on the identity of the parties in the covenant under consideration.

2. Related to the first point above, I wonder whether a broader definition of covenant might make it easier to see how the intra-trinitarian relations might helpfully be viewed in covenantal terms (without of course moving towards social trinitarianism or denying the significance of divine substance as an ontological category), thus making more sense of the biblical material in John’s Gospel, for example, where the ministry of the Son in history is seen as an outflow of the relationship between the Father and Son in eternity. (See p. 54.)

3. I wonder whether a more satisfying exegesis of Galatians might be given (see pp. 58-61) by taking into account the significance of the salvation-historic transition occasioned by the resurrection of Jesus and the inauguration of the new age in Christ, since in Galatians this issue appears (to me at least) to occupy more of the foreground of Paul’s concern than a critique of legalism.

4. I feel uncomfortable with characterizing the Mosaic covenant as “an externalized summation of God’s law,” describing its stipulations as “stark, cold, externalized,” and reducing God’s “law” to “an externalized summation of God’s will” (pp. 172-173). Actually, I feel more than uncomfortable – I feel downright twitchy. Merely on the basis of Deuteronomy 6:4-6; 30:14; Psalm 37:31; 40:8; 119:11, for example, it seems to me pretty obvious that under the Mosaic Covenant the righteous man had the law of Moses upon his heart.

But those quibbles aside, this is truly a great book. Well worth the investment of time needed to digest it thoroughly.

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By In Politics

Repentance, victimhood, laziness, and getting to church on time

According to John Frame, “Repentance and faith are opposite sides of the same coin”a, and thus although repentance is not the grounds of our justification before God, “yet it is of such necessity … that none may expect pardon without it”b.

In other words, no one is forgiven by God because they have turned away from sin, yet no one will be forgiven by God without turning away from sin.

This raises a whole host of tricky theology questions. But the most pressing questions, it seems to me, are pastoral. For the simple fact is that change (for make no mistake, that is exactly what repentance means – a change of mind, heart, and life) is both extremely difficult and entirely indispensable.

This issue cannot be evaded by an appeal to the doctrine of divine sovereignty. For however much we insist (and insist we must) that repentance is a gift of God (Acts 11:18), it is a gift that is invariably and necessarily displayed by us in our lives precisely at the moment when it is given. We cannot wave the flag for the sovereignty of divine grace without at the same time recognising that we are called to work out the salvation that God is working in us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Regrettably, as Frame points out, we often have a hard time even admitting that we have a problem:

“All Christians confess in at least a theoretical way that repentance is important. We believe that all are sinners. Practically, however, we find it difficult to admit – whether to others, to ourselves, or to God – that we have personally done wrong and need to change.”

Frame highlights one strategy of evasion that we frequently grasp:

“When someone criticizes our behaviour, our first instinct is, too often, to defend ourselves. Although we confess in general terms that we have sinned, we don’t want anyone to think that we have sinned in any specific way.”

Thus we maintain a superficial image of piety, acknowledging the unavoidable biblical truth that all people – including we ourselves – have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, whilst simultaneously side-stepping the painful and humiliating necessity of actually identifying what we have done wrong.

Alongside this straightforward evasion, however, we sometimes employ another tactic. Rather than trying to evade the personal challenge of confronting specific sins, we sometimes embrace the criticism wholeheartedly, yet still in a manner calculated to avoid doing anything about it.

This strategy appears most often when people are confronted by a challenge to repentance over a sin that simply cannot be denied: “Hey Jenny, why don’t you stop frittering your life away on Facebook and get a job? Hey Jonny, why are you always 25 minutes late for church?” These are not the sort of sins that can easily be denied, since they’re obvious to so many people whose good opinion we value. Instead of denial, therefore, we simply embrace the pain and admit our fault, yet we do so in a way that identifies us primarily as victims rather than sinners.

For example, Jenny the lazy layabout can no doubt point to a whole host of painful and tear-inducing memories of past failures, humiliations, and disappointments which in truth probably weren’t entirely her fault, and which would make any but the hardest heart bleed with her. The effect of this, however, is merely to steer the conversation away from what she is doing wrong, and towards how others have wronged her. Already, Jenny has taken several large strides away from repentance.

To bolster her case, Jenny can probably point to a couple of friends who, like her, spend many long hours on the sofa, but for very good reasons – chronic illness, for example. The entirely legitimate justification for these friends’ comparative inaction will serve as an impressive and impermeable second-hand get-out-clause for her: after all, once you’ve found a godly friend who’s living (however superficially) the same kind of life as you, you’re off the hook.

Jonny, on the other hand, will need to portray himself as a victim in a rather different way. Unlike Jenny, he no doubt has an extremely busy job, a long commute, and countless other responsibilities at home and elsewhere that demand his attention. He’s a victim of circumstance, right? “I’m trying, I really am – but can’t you understand how difficult is it for me?”

Unlike Jenny, Jonny must studiously avoid drawing comparisons with others, for in his case such a comparison would undermine the justification he has fabricated for himself. The plain truth is that his church is full of people with lives no less hectic than his, most of whom manage to get to worship in time for the first hymn, rather than sneaking in half-way through the sermon. To maintain his case, Jonny must tacitly (never explicitly – that would blow his cover for sure) keep insisting that his is a special case. And so he wrings his hands in despair at his desperate circumstances: “Please believe me – I’d really love to change, but I just can’t.”

All of these strategies fall woefully short of the biblical picture of repentance. To repent means not merely to recognise that people generally do bad things; nor to include yourself among them; nor to feel sorry about your sins; nor to shed tears over them; nor to wax lyrical about the agonising personal psychology, family history, and present circumstances that lie behind them. It means quite simply to stop doing them.

Rev Dr Steve Jeffery is Minister at Emmanuel Evangelical Church, London, England (BlogFacebookTwitter)

  1. Doctrine of the Christian Life, 331  (back)
  2. Westminster Confession of Faith, 15.3  (back)

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