February 5, 2004

“Timeless Truths”?

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When I was in seminary, I was introduced to “redemptive-historical preaching,” as exemplified by men such as Klaas Schilder and Benne Holwerda. These men insisted that we must read the Bible historically, taking into account that, for instance, Abraham is before Moses and that David is after Moses. There’s progress and development and change throughout the history of God’s covenant.

It’s crucial for exegetes and theologians to take that development into account. For instance, if you’re theologizing about angels, you need to be aware that since the coming of Christ there has been a change in man’s relationship to the angels. The Torah was given through angels, we’re told, and in the Old Covenant angels appear as tutors for men. In the Old Covenant, the Second Person of the Trinity appears as the Angel of Yahweh. (Question for you: What’s the personal name of the Angel of Yahweh?) But with the coming of Christ, we are no longer under the angel tutors. Angels don’t function today in exactly the same way they did in the Old Covenant. And therefore, in developing a theology of angels, we shouldn’t simply grab a bunch of verses from the Bible higgledy-piggledy and use them as prooftexts for the doctrine we’re developing; we have to take into account their context in covenant history.

So, too, with Jesus. Sometimes Jesus gets presented as if he were simply going around saying and doing things that anyone could have said and done at any time, giving good moral instruction, for instance, or calling people to trust in God. Rather, through his words and deeds, Jesus is inaugurating something new. There is both continuity and discontinuity between Jesus’ teaching and God’s previous revelation in the Old Covenant.

When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God is “among you” (or perhaps: “within your grasp,” but not “inside you,” as some thing) or when Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God is “at hand,” he’s speaking about something which is being introduced and embodied in his ministry, in his own words and actions, in the meals he has (with all the wrong people!) and the parables he tells. Jesus wasn’t preaching about something that had been there all along. He talks about “entering the kingdom,” but no one entered the kingdom of God before Jesus came.

One of the features I’ve appreciated most in N. T. Wright‘s Jesus and the Victory of God is his emphasis on history and the progress and development of redemptive history. He writes:

… the announcement of the kingdom of god could never, in the nature of the case, be heard as a “timeless” message, an incidental example or occurrence of some general truth. The whole point of it was that Israel’s dream was coming true right now. Equally important, it could never be divorced from the person and deeds of the proclaimer. This will have been as true for John the Baptist as for Jesus. This baptism is the “getting-ready-for-the-kingdom” baptism; this proclamation is the one that is actually inaugurating the kingdom. The two are, it seems, very closely linked; Jesus regarded the work of John as the launching-pad for his own work, and it is historically probable that he saw John’s arrest as the appropriate time to begin his own independent career of kingdom proclamation. The link of message and messenger is, of course, part of the scandal: the scandal of particularity (that YHWH should act here and now rather than at other times and places); the scandal that this was how the kingdom was coming; the scandal, too, of just who it was that YHWH was using, and the methods that he was employing. Like Salieri in Shaffer’s Amadeus, scandalized that his god should choose the disreputable Mozart as the vehicle for divine music, Jesus’ hearers could not but be struck, if they realized what was going on, at his extraordinary and shocking implicit claim (p. 228).

In a footnote, Wright clarifies what he means when he insists that Jesus wasn’t going around preaching “timeless truths”:

By “timeless” truth I do not mean necessarily a lofty philosophical abstraction. I mean something conceived to be a generally valid principle — e.g., “God is love” or “oppressors must be overthrown” or “brokered empires are bad for you” [Dominic Crossan’s view] — which could lead to political and/or revolutionary activity, and could indeed suggest some theological underpinnings for such activity, but which, crucially, would not carry the sense that the story of Israel was reaching its climax (p. 228n110).

Again, this helps us approach some of the questions I raised — or, rather, the questions Wright raised — about why Jesus lived. In his teaching, Jesus wasn’t simply going around saying things that were true. He wasn’t simply passing on some good moral instruction. In the things he did and said, he was bringing Israel’s history — covenant history — to its climax.

His teaching and his actions are thus fully historical. That is not to deny that they have relevance for today. But it is to say that if we are going to understand their relevance, we must not try to abstract them from their moment in covenant history.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:16 pm | Discuss (0)

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