I want to present an important distinction that’s been made clearer to me during my reading of N T Wright’s magisterial series Christian Origins and the Question of God. And that is the importance of history to a truly biblical faith.
In the whole series, but particularly in Jesus, the Son of God, Wright is keen to earth Jesus in an actual human life, and his ministry in the actual historical setting of first century Israel, with its authoritative inspired Scriptures (each arising in its own equally local and historical setting), its cultural developments, its politics, its language and its hopes. The fact that Jesus shared all these, and yet spoke new truth from God into them to transform them, makes him a very much more uncomfortable person to be with, but one who truly shows God’s moment-by-moment involvement in his world, and in individual lives.
This is opposed (and Wright often does oppose it) to a timeless Jesus speaking “eternal verities” to be distilled from the messiness and particularity of their original setting. In Wright’s eyes, the liberal quest for such verities, through such varied projects as demythologising the miraculous and reconstructing the “Jesus of Faith” from hypothetical early communities, is a form of gnosticism.
By that he means this. The gnostics held creation in contempt as the work of an inferior demiurge, and the task of the “spiritual” was to escape from its shackles to the true, unchanging realm of the spirit. But this is completely antithetical to the whole thrust of Hebrew religion, which was all about God’s revelation of himself through actual people in the actual world.
That’s why the Bible is disappointingly short on theological and philosophical treatises, and very long on narratives. Even someone like Paul’s most developed theology is set in letters dealing with current problems. The Law, likewise, was God’s way of dealing with the realpolitik of the Exodus people. A true Jew was never someone who had grasped and accepted timeless truths about God, but someone who understood the narrative of God’s salvation, and his own place in it.
Jesus was fundamentally of this mould, and passed it on to the Church, except that he re-interpreted (he didn’t re-invent or downplay) the true meaning of the biblical narrative in terms of himself and, particularly, his death, resurrection and glorification in God’s presence. It’s because his life and passion were the latest in a line of God’s dealings with his people that the reality of the Cross, and reality of the empty tomb, are central to the Faith. Christianity is about God’s intervention in the real world – and so it follows, that he can intervene in our real world and, not least, in our individual real worlds.
Jesus (and after him the New Testament writers) insisted on setting his ministry in the context of Israel’s entire history. He came to fulfil God’s real covenant with Abraham, by reversing Israel’s real exile to Babylon that resulted from their unfaithfulness to the Mosaic covenant of torah that had marked their real rescue from Egypt. He did so as the heir of God’s covenant with the real King David, as the Messiah and Son of Man promised in Daniel and the other prophets as they spoke from God (into real situations of national crisis). He came to effect a greater salvation from a more final judgement than had Noah, and to rescue even the gentiles from the global exile from God’s presence to sin and death that occurred with Adam.
In many of these events Jesus is shown as both their ultimate fulfilment and their purpose: he is the second Adam, the seed of Abraham, the prophet like Moses, the new Exodus, the fulfilment of the Law, the root and branch of David whose kingdom will never end. But the glory of this is that it does not bypass or relativise the real history that had gone before, but underlines its truth and importance. The patterns both originate and culminate in Jesus, but within a true and unfolding history of the world.
Or perhaps, better, the true and unfolding history of Creation – for to have a God whose dealings are all about the real down-and-dirty world, and not timeless truths, is in itself a confirmation of the goodness of the Creation with which God’s self-revelation began. Likewise the fact that the eschatological hope Jesus brought is that of resurrection to new life in that same, albeit renewed, Creation makes the here and now something to be celebrated, rather than downplayed and replaced with abstract spirituality.
Now this seems to be at loggerheads with some major strands of historical Christianity (and to mark its greatest divergence from its Hebrew roots), and particularly with some Catholicism. Much of the allegorising of Scripture that marked, especially, pre-Reformation Catholic teaching seems to have arisen from that desire to see Christianity as eternal – or rather static – and ultimately removed from the hard realities of the world.
I said some good things recently about Conor Cunningham’s book, Darwin’s Pious Idea, but his final chapter seems to fall into its own kind of pious soup, principally because of his desire to show that an historical Adam is unnecessary – and even antithetic – to real faith. I disagree:
It is folly to interpret the Fall or the existence of Adam in either positivistic terms or strictly historical terms, in the sense that there is no Fall before Christ. That is to say, there was but a glimmer of its occurrence, and this glimmer was about only Christ and not about some historical event of the same genus as the Battle of Trafalgar. Moreover before Christ there was neither death nor life nor even sin. For all such concepts find their truth only in the passion of the Christ, and for one simple reason: creation is about Christ, and nothing else.
…according to the Church Fathers, Adam was Christ and Eve was Mary, while paradise is the church and the Fall signals humankind’s redemption in Christ.
Now I find in this the same rather dangerous “how could this not be so?” rhetoric that I find with those evolutionary theodicies of suffering that put the Cross as the centre point of the whole meaning of Creation. Who would want to deny that Christ is the centre of all things? He is the Alpha and the Omega, after all.
But for a start it sits light to even the history of theology. Cunningham says in the same section that the Gnostics were the only believers in original sin of their time, which rides roughshod over Irenaeus’s actual teaching of that very doctrine in a context of anti-gnostic apologetics.
But if one can make the origin of sin – and the ancient biblical account of it – disappear into an ahistoric fog through which one can vaguely discern only Jesus, then all the other biblical landmarks which have been, in spiritual terns, rightly assimilated to the perspective of Jesus are equally to be taken as mere allegories. The Covenant with Abraham, the Captivity and Exodus, the prophetic warnings and the Exile all become neither historic nor fictional, but “eternal verities” orbiting somewhere in the nebulosphere. As, of course, do all the flesh-and-blood believers associated with them, who lived and died in hope of salvation within real lives in space and time, as do we. How dare we dismiss their lives as irrelevant?
Yet this is quite deliberate, once one decides that such epochal events are demeaned by being as real as the Battle of Trafalgar (which was equally concerned, in its own way, with real human and national destinies). This is exactly the same mental process undertaken by the liberal theologians – only in their case, of course, it is Christ himself who is promoted out of the vulgar world of real events in the interest of eternal spiritual truth. A real crucifixion, a resurrection of an animal body … come on, these are just ways in which unsophisticated people saw the transcendental truths of God’s self-giving love. That love, however, seldom seems to give much in the real world of a suffering Jewish nation under Rome, of a faithful minority in Elijah’s time, of an oppressed covenant people in Egypt – or a first representative of the race caught in rebellion in sacred space.
Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus of Nazareth – all can be made into symbols of “eternal verities”, but we don’t gain anything by it, but instead lose the unique revelation of Yahweh as the One who is there (for us), whose material and contingent Creation was good to begin with, is still good, and is to be redeemed to something even better by its maker, the Logos – by whose power “each tree and flower was planned and made”.
As I come to consider things more in this sense of a true-life narrative of the God who steps into history, the story of Adam and Eve, which I suppose is more of a focus in a project like The Hump than, say, the Exodus, appears in a different way.
We ought not to be looking at it as an ahistorical theological analogy for Everyman’s experience of sin (I’ve argued before that such a view is anachronistic anyway). And we shouldn’t be spending overmuch time on what problems it poses for current science (though, of course, anything which reduces the apparent tension is useful). Rather, God’s dealings with those two individuals are only the first in a long line of God’s similar hands-on dealings with people in the real world. Of course the story points to the work of Christ, but not in the sense that Christ is the only truth in the Universe – the whole wonder of the Creation is that he has chosen for there to be other realities in relationship to him. Rather, Adam and Eve’s experience, like the experience of all the other saints and sinners recorded in the great salvation narrative of Scripture, becomes historically significant and important only in him. We, and our small lives, are included in that grand narrative if we are in Christ.
And I think that’s different from merging everything into eternal verities.