THE UNITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
In my full length study The Problem with Evangelical Theology, one of the main points I tried to stress repeatedly is that the problem with Evangelical Theologies of various sorts is, paradoxically enough, that they are not Biblical enough, and even more to the point they become unbiblical at the precise junctures where they try to say something distinctive from the things orthodox Christians all basically agree on.
For example, the theologies of predetermination and perfection do claim to have some basis in the NT text, but upon further review the Biblical texts turn out to mean something other than Calvinists and Arminians thought they did. The NT doesn’t talk about fully ‘perfected’ sinless Christians short of the resurrection and full conformity to the image of Christ, nor does it talk about certain individuals being predetermined to be saved in the first place.
Furthermore, the concept of election in and of Christ in the NT cuts against all sorts of individualistic readings of the language of election and salvation. Christ is the elect one who needed no saving, and we are elect and saved insofar as we are in Christ. This does not explain how one gets ‘into Christ’ in the first place, which is usually said to be ‘by grace through faith’.
Or again, the distinctive idea of the rapture in Dispensational theology turns out to be an exaggeration based on what 1 Thess. 4 does say—that the dead in Christ will rise and meet and greet the Lord in the air when he is coming to rule the earth for good and all. Meeting the Lord in the air, does not equal rapture into heaven during a tribulation. Indeed, there is no text in the NT that has that sort of escape clause. Even the left behind texts in Mt. 24 and elsewhere make clear that being ‘taken away’ refers to being taken away for judgment, as in the Noachic flood, whereas being left behind when the judgment comes is a consummation devoutly to be wished. And against all forms of Protestant ‘eternal security’ arguments stands the apostasy texts found throughout the NT, in sources as diverse as 1 John, Hebrews, and the Pastoral Epistles.
Then of course we have the problem with Pentecostal views because Acts 2 has nothing to do with glossolalia or a second definitive work of grace in the believer called the baptism of the Spirit. And the discussion in 1 Cor. 12 positively rules out the notion that the gift of speaking in tongues is the required initial evidence that a person is filled with the Spirit. Indeed, one could even say that the whole notion of getting more of the Spirit over time (as if the Spirit could be quantified and then doled out in portions) is the result of a defective way of looking at the Spirit, not as a whole person, but as some sort of power or force. One can no more have a little bit of the Spirit in one’s life than one can be a little bit pregnant. When the Spirit comes into someone’s life, it is the Spirit as a whole person who comes in, not just the power of the Spirit. I could go on in this vein, but what I am pointing out is that the distinctives of Evangelical theology are no more immune to criticism on the basis of the Biblical text than the distinctives of Catholic or Orthodox theology. These are the things that divide us, and as it turns out they are the least Biblical parts of our own thought worlds.
In short, the NT is innocent of our later theological agendas and buzzwords and categories whether we think of patristic theology or Thomist theology or Lutheran theology or Calvinist theology or Wesleyan theology or Dispensational theology or Pentecostal theology. Perhaps it is time for each of us to be more self-critical of our own theological distinctives and ask what the NT truly suggests that makes us uncomfortable when it comes to those ideas. Here is a rule of thumb—don’t resort to exegetical gymnastics to explain a text or whittle off the hard edges of the texts that make you squirm when it comes to your own theological distinctives. It may be precisely those texts that you most need to hear and heed, and conform your theology to. That warning I give to myself first of all.
Let us then for a moment, instead of reading the NT through the lens of later theologies and ethical agendas, Evangelical or otherwise, ask the question what is it that unifies NT theology and ethics, and binds the NT together? For those who have managed to follow the discussion this far, it will come as no surprise that I say it is Christ—his person, work, and words. This not only unifies the theologies within the NT, it unifies the ethics within the NT as well. Not the theme of God’s sovereignty and electing grace or the theme of God’s glory or the theme of justification or the theme of the manifestations of the Spirit, or the theme of end-time prophecy (including a rapture) nor the notions of holiness, sanctification and perfection, nor the them of God’s kingdom unites all this diverse literature. No, it is the person, work, and words of Jesus.
Consider for a minute how this is so. Ask the question—what or whom caused the reconfiguration of the meaning of the very term ‘God’ in the early Jewish Christians symbolic universe? Answer, it was Christ and the Christ event which led to a Christological reformulation of monotheism. Ask the question—what or whom changed the story, or brought the narrative thought world of early Jewish Christian to its proper climax and denouement? Answer—it was the Christ and the Christ event. Ask the question— What or whom prompted all the theologizing and ethicizing that we find in the NT? Answer—it was the Christ, and the Christ event, his person, words, and works. Ask the question—What or whom caused a change in the soteriology of these early Jewish Christians? Answer it was the Christ and the Christ event, more specifically Christ and him crucified and risen. Ask the question—What changed the eschatology of the earliest Jewish Christians? Answer it was the coming of the Christ and the Christ event, and the divine saving activity called Kingdom with it. Ask the question—What changed these early Jewish Christians views about the Mosaic covenant and its ethic? Answer it was the Christ and the Christ event, including his teachings of and about a new covenant with a new ethic.
Even when we are dealing with a figure as creative as Paul, it is perfectly clear that Christ, both his person and work and teachings are what Paul intends to base his theologizing and ethicizing on, including things as different as his ethic of marriage and divorce, his ethic of non-violence and respect for the state, his theology of the coming kingdom and return of the thief in the night, and a host of other subjects. Christ is not merely a great shadow hovering behind and over the writings and writers of the NT—he and his person and work and words are their constant preoccupation. Christ’s ethic of non-violence, cross-bearing and self-sacrifice, even if need be unto death, permeates the teachings of figures as diverse as Paul, Peter, John of Patmos and derives from both the story and the words of Jesus.
Of course Christ is not the subject of every theological and ethical discourse or discussion in the NT, but his person, word and work guide, guard, and even goad all those discussion into quite specific ‘Christian’ and Christological directions. Christ is the basis, the focus, the Alpha and Omega of NT thought, such that even the long tale of salvation history suddenly condenses to the story of Jesus when he walks on the stage of human history. And what a story it is of a God who so lavishly loves not merely ‘his people’ or ‘the elect’ though that is true enough, but the world that he sends his Son to save the world, not condemn it.
Christ is not merely the fulcrum of change in the world, he is the anvil on which that change is wrought, and the one who brings it about through his own willing and free self-sacrifice. Christ is the one who forces us to see God as he really is—God in his great glory as a holy and loving self-sacrificial being, not a self-centered, self-indulgent, narcissistic deity. Indeed, the nodal ways that the Trinity is revealed in the NT point to the relational character of the Trinity and how the Father loves the Son, the Son loves and serves the Father, the Spirit serves both the Father and the Son, and so on. Even within the Godhead then the terms of discourse make clear that God’s love is ‘other’ directed, directed in the first instance to other persons in the Godhead, and then towards the world in all its multiplicity.
Let me leave this section with the focal image which began it—the indelible image. We are all created in the image of God and Christians are all re-created in the image of Christ for good works. We are meant to represent and reflect the holy, just, merciful, loving, blessed character of God in our lives. Theology and ethics are related through the middle term of Christian experience as God reproduces his character in us through a process of salvation which enables us to act ‘in character’ a character that reflects God’s own pure and moral character.
We are to become, on a lesser scale, what we admire and emulate, but the good news is that God is working in us to will and to do, to conform us to the image of his Son. God is working into us, what we must work out, but in the end God must intervene again, not merely at conversion or along the way in the Christian life, but in the end by means of resurrection which has nothing to do with human striving. Initial and final salvation are both overwhelmingly acts of God. Salvation is indeed by grace, or it would never happen at all. It was not, and is not, a human self-help program.
But behavior in the Christian life does indeed affect the sanctification process either positively or negatively. God has called us to participate in our own sanctification, so that the indelible image of God in humankind might truly shine forth both in this life and in the one to come. God is holy, and he expects his people to be so. God is loving and he expects his people to be so. God is just, and he expects his people to be so. God is merciful and forgiving, and he expects us to be so. The image of God was implanted in humankind by God, but after the Fall it is restored and renewed through Christ so that we reflect the divine character both by God working in us (sanctification), and by our working out our salvation with fear and trembling (ethics). Ethics then entails both being like God in moral character, and acting consistently and in according with that ‘being’.
It is my hope that this two volume study, which is far from complete or perfect, will serve as a catalyst towards someone or someones being able to more fully produce ‘a theology of the NT’ and/or ‘an ethics of the NT’ which is thoroughly grounded in the text itself, someone willing to take the risk of developing its ideas beyond the confines of the canon in directions the apostolic witness suggests. This will be the first steps towards providing a base line for discussion of canonical or biblical theology in general. It will also be a first tentative step in the direction of the systematicians of theology as well. We have much to learn from each other. If this study has furthered that process, I am content. Sola Deo Gloria, Christos Aneste.