“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5.6.
Doing a teaching series currently overviewing the narrative thrust of the whole Bible, one thing that struck me was the issue of God’s timing. It’s always slower than we might wish, though again Peter says “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.”
Yet having put the punishment of sin on hold after the Flood, it took at least several centuries to do something about the problem in the call of Abraham, several centuries of Egyptian slavery for Israel before God raised up Moses, and another half a millennium of Israel’s exile, after announcing the New Covenant through the prophets, before Jesus came to fulfil it.
One must suppose that such timing is not arbitrary. Apart from the general principle that God is slow to judge, and so on, it has to do with God’s providential management not only of Israel, but the world. All kinds of things happened for the Jews before their Messiah came, and notably the growth of their hope and focus on God’s intervention, and particularly the development of belief in the general resurrection of the just. Without these, and other developments, the ministry of Jesus would just not have made sense and changed the world in the way it has.
There were other things too, such as the consolidation of the Jewish diaspora over the centuries – it was that which provided the base for the early Christian mission, so that although we tend to think of the Church as “going Gentile” after the first generation or two, nevertheless because of its widespread Jewish origins it remained firmly rooted in the key teachings of the Hebrew Bible, and so remained genuinely the fulfilment of those teachings.
I was reminded of this by another post, or else a set of comments, on BioLogos. I can’t remember which, now, but it doesn’t matter overmuch as it represents a common mindset. And that is that, now Modern Science™ and particularly evolution, has come along, we are in a position to understand Christianity properly at last, because the ancients didn’t have the knowledge we do.
This attitude depends on the unthinking adoption of the myth of progress – one thing that deeply influences scientism. It is the idea that understanding is a one way ratchet – we always move onwards and upwards, and never lose anything along the way. This is demonstrably false. To take a recent example from this blog, the favourable reception by TEs of Michael Denton’s book dealing with the role of structuralism in biology is, as I said in a comment to Sy Garte (echoed by GD today), largely a return to the kind of thinking that was prominent in biology in the early twentieth century, before it was rudely ousted by the new kid on the block, the Modern Synthesis.
For nearly a century, structuralism has been as unsaleable as Lamarckism – sympathy for it (and so willingness to publish an ID-sympathetic paper) lost Richard Sternberg his career and more or less forced him out of mainstream science and into the ID camp.
But now it is back on the table – the time for it was right in 1916, and perhaps in 2016, but wrong in between. We lost the ability to appreciate its merits.
I suggest that the same is true for the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. Just as God’s providence ensured that Jesus himself came “just at the right time”, that time was also right for the establishment of apostolic doctrine. The disciples were in a unique historical, and therefore intellectual situation, in which those teachings made most sense.
I would also argue that there was no coincidence in the situation a century or two later in the Gentile Roman empire when, again according to God’s over-arching providence, the gospel came to the Gentiles according to his eternal plan. Not only did the Pax Romana enable the rapid distribution of the new faith (and ensure an appetite for it), and not only was a worldwide Jewish community available with the ability to interpret it in accordance with the Scriptures, but (I suggest) the availability of Greek philosophy in the particular forms it took enabled the early apologists and theologians to be at “just the right time” to form the bedrock of credal faith for all time.
Just as modern science could only really have developed as it did in Christian Europe, so Christianity could only have arisen in the Roman Empire as it was. Moderns tend to see all this as historically contingent – maybe the Gnostics or the Ebionites pr the Pelagians “ought” to have have got hold of the ball which, instead, fell to the orthodox. But moderns, amongst other things, have really lost the feel for the doctrine of divine providence over history.
And so to us, God was hampered by the mental framework of those times – whereas in the light of providence, he enabled that framework to flourish at the time it was most needed. If anything, he is hampered by our inability to appreciate anything beyond our own highly introspective culture, and no more so than in science.
The same is true, in my view, of those who want evolution to be the template for revising the central doctrines of historic Christianity: original sin, the Incarnation, atonement – you name it, and someone will say it has been misunderstood from the start, and only now becomes clear in the light of, especially, our scientific advances. Which doctrines are exempted from this re-moulding appears to be based on personal whim, for there are no foundational Christian doctrines that weren’t first formulated by those archaic Jewish and Greek types,despite having no proper scientific background.
That’s not to say Christian teaching is inflexibly set in stone. New knowledge of language and ancient history can bring new understandings of the inspired text, and it’s always been the case that local worldviews have led to re-interpretation of individual passages, according to the priorities of the age. Interpretations that seemed vital in mediaeval times became either irrelevant or plain wrong after the Renaissance – but that was always based on the understanding that the Scriptures had been written “just at the right time”, and that the passing fashions of men led to a decline from the primitive insights.
And likewise, there is always the danger that we will re-interpret doctrines according to the scientific worldview. I say “danger” because any transient way of seeing the world will, as often as providing new insights, be blind in its understanding the old. By assuming that our time is always “just the right time” we disenfranchise (to use somebody’s metaphor) the Church of the past – which in its entirety, remember, is still very much alive to God, and constitutes a majority in Christ’s Kingdom.
On the matter of theology, then, we ought to be more willing to listen to the insights of the past – insights that depended on the providential oversight of God as well as teaching it robustly – and less willing to shoot our modern mouths off as if we alone were the arbiters of divine truth.