Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Narrative-Historical Hermeneutic of Andrew Perriman


For some years now in books and blog posts Andrew Perriman has been developing what he calls a Narrative-Historical Hermeneutic. His book Re: Mission sketches the biblical story from this perspective. His post at http://www.postost.net/2015/06/10-good-reasons-switch-narrative-historical-hermeneutic-it-s-too-late gives a list of the benefits he finds in following this approach.
In his post today “This changes everything” http://www.postost.net/2015/12/changes-everything) Perriman provides a convenient glossary of terms and concepts as they appear from the perspective of his Narrative-Historical Hermeneutic. In some respects, Perriman is extending the approach of N. T. Wright by taking the underlying narrative of the biblical story in a fully historical direction (see “Eschatological Horizons” below). In other respects, it demands a radical rethink of our theology (evangelical in Perriman’s case, though his rethink takes him well outside the bounds of what most would accept as evangelical in the US).
I find Perriman’s proposals stimulating and in most respects persuasive. I’ll go down his glossary (24 items) and offer a brief assessment.  
The Bible: The Bible tells the story of how the God who called Abraham would eventually become God of the nations. It is true insofar as it is an accurate witness to how the community understood that story. (this statement of authority seems important and right to me; see my post “Bible Reading for the Biblically Illiterate” at marginalchristianity.blogspot.com)
Story: Current evangelical theology focuses on personal and (to a lesser extent) cosmic themes but almost entirely ignores the central narrative of scripture, which patently has to do neither with the salvation of individuals nor with the restoration of the cosmos but with the historical existence of Israel in relation to mostly hostile nations. Evangelical theology has got the whole narrative structure inside out. (yes, I think the Bible is fundamentally a  Theodicy, which has important implications for interpreting it and the place of doubt in Christian growth and experience)
Jesus: For evangelical theology Jesus is God-as-man, who invades history at an arbitrary point in order to save humanity. The narrative-historical approach puts Jesus firmly back in the New Testament narrative and puts the New Testament narrative firmly back in its literary and historical context. Jesus cannot be properly understood apart from what happens before and what happens after. (Yes, fortunately this is becoming a widely shared assumption for reading the gospels)
Resurrection: Evangelical theology has organised everything around the saving death of Jesus. The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament organises everything around the resurrection of Jesus and draws attention to the fundamentally political implications of his exaltation to the right hand of God for Israel and the nations. (Yes, fundamental and needed shift here)
Apocalyptic: The theology of Christendom has been at core Johannine: Jesus is the Word become flesh who takes away the sin of the world. Both historical criticism and historical experience, however, are pushing us to recover the much more widely attested apocalyptic storyline, running from the Synoptic Gospels, Acts, Paul and culminating in Revelation, which is that God has put his Son in charge of things, not least the historical fate of his people. I use the term “apocalyptic” here because the whole story works towards realistic outcomes that were most vividly described in Jewish and Jewish-Christian writings. (yes, along with theodicy apocalyptic is another primary lens for reading the Bible)
The Trinity: The doctrine of the Trinity was a later attempt to rationalise the apocalyptic narrative when people had forgotten what the apocalyptic narrative was for. The doctrine was not wrong, but it is part of the story. (the development of trinitarian doctrine is certainly a part of the story but it also serves as a ground and presupposition of reading the biblical story Christianly)
Atonement: Traditionally Jesus’ death has been understood as an atonement for the sins of the world according to an abstract universal metaphysic. Under a narrative-historical hermeneutic it is primarily a death for the sins of Israel according to a Jewish martyrdom theology or at least a general understanding of the place of suffering in Israel’s story. (Makes best sense IMO of Jesus’ death in New Testament)
Kingdom: Statements about the coming kingdom of God have in view not a final renewal of all things (that’s another matter) but the intervention of God in history to judge his people and establish his own rule over the nations of the ancient world. (probably so, but this does not preclude a foreshadowing of a final renewal of all things under this rubric)
Eschatological horizons: Jesus’ ministry, his teaching and actions, operated almost entirely within the limited historical horizon of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the transfer of the vineyard to “other tenants” who would give the owner the fruits their seasons. The eschatological horizon of the churches in the Greek-Roman world was the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations. (Last sentence controversial, to be sure, but it best illustrates the effect of a Narrative-Historical reading)
Great Commission: The so-called “Great Commission” was not a universal missional mandate. The disciples were sent to tell Israel and the nations about the significance of the resurrection in the period leading up to the end of the age of second temple Judaism. (again another effect of recalibrating the New Testament in a Narrative-Historical mode)
Gospel: The gospel was not “believe in Jesus and you will have eternal life”. It was the public announcement that through the judgment and restoration of his own people the God of Israel was about to bring centuries of pagan domination to an end and annex the nations of the Greek-Roman for his own rule. (yes)
Pentecost: Pentecost was interpreted by Peter not as the founding experience of the universal church but as the indiscriminate empowering of the community of disciples to continue Jesus’ prophetic proclamation to Israel on the years before the war against Rome.
Salvation: To be saved meant to have a part in the future of God’s people in the world. The future of God’s people in the world was secured by the faithfulness of Jesus. To be part of that future a person had to leave an old moribund world behind—whether Judaism according to the Law or classical paganism—and learn to live under the lordship of God’s Son. (spot on!)
Church: The New Testament church is not a model or template for the universal church throughout the ages but a remnant of the people of God in eschatological transition. It is the historical community that must make the difficult journey from the death of its leader in Jerusalem to an improbable victory over the supernatural forces that inspired and sustained pagan Rome. This is part of our story, but it is not our story. (reveals the fallacy of restorationist movements and give credence to N. T. Wright’s notion of the church as “improvising” faithfulness in its own world)
Discipleship: Disciples, apostles and communities of believers were trained with eschatological outcomes in view. Jesus taught his disciples to take up their own crosses in the expectation of being vindicated at his parousia (see below). The apostles built churches that would survive the coming day of persecution. Paul knew that if he was to fulfil his calling he would have to suffer as Christ had suffered, in the hope of being glorified as Christ had been glorified. Discipleship is learning to deal with our place in the story. (yes)
Justification by faith: The doctrine of justification by faith belongs to the eschatological narrative: the church in transition will eventually find itself publicly justified for having believed—and for having acted on the belief—that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead signaled the impending transformation of the standing of God’s people in the ancient world, etc. (yes)
The parousia: The coming of the Son of Man or parousia marks not the end of history but the moment when Jesus “comes” to deliver his persecuted followers from their enemies and share his glory with them. (yes)
Heaven: Contrary to the traditional view, going to heaven at death is not for the whole universal church. It is the suffering church in eschatological transition—in particular the martyrs—which shares in a “first resurrection” and reigns with Christ throughout the coming ages at the right hand of God. The rest of us have missed that bus and will just have to wait for the next resurrection to come along. (Hmm!)
Hell: In narrative-historical perspective there is no place of conscious torment after death, traditionally called “hell”. But historical judgments against Israel and against an aggressive paganism are conceived in fiercely apocalyptic terms. Jesus’ “judgment of gehenna” refers to the horrors of the coming war against Rome and siege of Jerusalem. (obviously controversial, but consistent with the method)
Mission: Mission should be defined in line with the core “political” narrative. The church in the West today is the “Abrahamic” community that is the product not only of this eschatological transition narrated in the New Testament but of subsequent developments—notably the collapse of Christendom and the assimilation to modernity. We are still a priestly-prophetic people called to serve the one true living God, but with all this narrative baggage. The church in the West today must rise to the particular challenge of securing a credible ongoing witness as society reinvents itself on a post-Christian basis. (yes, dealing with this historical “baggage” is a crucial past of being the church in our day in the west)
Missio Dei: Perhaps the missio Dei could be construed as God determining to maintain a viable priestly-prophetic people for himself, throughout history, come hell or high water, for the sake of his reputation among the nations and cultures of the world. (yes)
Renewal of all things: Highlighting the dominant political narrative that controls scripture contradicts optimistic arguments about the progressive or eventual conversion of all humanity and restoration of the world-as-we-know-it. In the course of history there are high points and low points, but everything is contingent—temporally and geographically. (yes
The end: Humanity will always be in rebellion against the creator. The church is not somehow collaborating with God in the slow and fitful transformation of the world. But in the end, I think, God will have the final word over everything that is corrupt and wicked, including the final enemy death. There will be a final judgment of all humanity and a new heaven and new earth. (yes)
Theology: The goal of theology is to serve the narrative, to make sense of the narrated existence of God’s people. Theology should not be an excuse for misreading the texts. (yes, yes, yes!)

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