There is a dominant and highly-attractive narrative at work among Christian thinkers, and it looks like this:
- God created a very good world and called humans to look after its wellbeing.
- Humans acted so sinfully that creation itself was broken, too. In response, God set apart the descendants of Abraham to do something about that brokenness.
- Though Abraham’s descendants failed to make this world a better place, God sent Jesus to cast a clearer vision of world betterment. After doing so, Jesus died on the cross to conquer sin and death— the very things that were keeping this world from becoming the better place God intended it to be.
- God did not want Jesus to fix this world by himself, so he gathered Abraham’s willing descendants, empowered them by his Spirit, enlarged their ranks to include all ethnic groups, and sent them into all nations to continue his work.
- Jesus will return someday and complete the task of world betterment (26).
But John Nugent, in his new book Endangered Gospel, thinks this narrative sells the Bible’s story short. His proposal, and this gives Nugent’s book a distinctive contribution unlike any narrative approach to the Bible I’ve seen, has to do with the divinely-created powers: institutions and the like. Nugent is right: they are ignored in nearly all narratives (and even more so ignored in soterian approaches to the Bible). What are they?
To make the world a better place, God institutes a plurality of competing powers—an international system of checks and balances (48).
My point is this: The tasks of keeping sin in check, meeting basic needs, and making the world a better place are crucial for human thriving, but they are tasks that God has assigned to ordinary human power structures. Most people assume that the powers hold world history in their hands. The powers are the movers and shakers. What they do has potential to make life better for all people. This is why everyone gets so excited around election seasons and regime changes. What rulers do appears to be most important.
God’s people have always been tempted to be like these powers (49).
Nugent finds light for this approach in the Torah, and appeals to Deuteronomy 4:5-8; 30:15-20 and Isaiah 2:2-3 to conclude these five points:
- God takes his people away from the nations and makes them his own nation.
- God’s people order their lives according to God’s instructions.
- God’s people thrive due to the superior way of life that he gives them and the blessings he pours upon them.
- The nations notice and are impressed, having never before seen such a life.
- The nations decide on their own to come to where God is blessing his people in order to learn this way of life from him (54).
That is, “They simply live how God calls them to live. They don’t try to make the world a better place. They humbly accept that God is making them into a better place” (54).
But things don’t work well enough according to Israel so they pursue their own agendas. Hence, the prophets:
Through the prophets, God gave his people a piece of his mind. They detailed every destructive misdemeanor and cast every vision of a wholesome alternative. Yet they never fault Gods people for neglecting to make the world a better place…. The Israelites disregarded the prophets, so God removed the kingship from them, as well as territorial sovereignty and national independence. Since they did not use their land for God’s purpose, God gave it to others to look after. He gave it first to Assyria, then Babylon, and eventually Persia. By the time of Jesus, it passed through the hands of the Greeks and Romans as well (56, 57).
Hope remains. That God would make this world a better place. “This world will become a better place, but Gods people must first become the better place that God called them to be on behalf of this world” (58).
Hence, Jesus (next post).