UPDATE: Andrew has just put up a new post that complements our piece today, outlining his method and its results in biblical interpretation.
UPDATE 2: I have added a brief summary of AP’s position to the end of the post.
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I continue to be intrigued by the approach to biblical interpretation that Andrew Perriman takes. He blogs at P.OST: An Evangelical Theology for the Age to Come. He has also written The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom, The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church, and Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective, among other books. Andrew has been a good friend through correspondence, answering my questions, and supporting Internet Monk by allowing us to re-post some of his pieces and by participating in some of our conversations.
This week, I have been reading through a large number of articles on P.OST, trying again to clarify his narrative-historical hermeneutic and the resulting “big picture” of interpretation it yields. I call Perriman’s method “the New Perspective on steroids.” He is relentless in applying his narrative-historical approach, surpassing such stalwarts of the NP as N.T. Wright, whom Perriman appreciates but doesn’t think goes far enough in staying within historical boundaries, especially when interpreting the eschatology of the apostles.
Today, I’d like to simply post a summary of Perriman’s “big picture” and have us discuss it. Andrew thinks that the Western church took some wrong turns when her teachers moved away from the specific historically-focused narrative of Scripture and developed a more metaphysical, abstract, meta-narrative approach. Theology trumped history, in his view, whereas a better view understands theology as growing out of history.
Our inherited theology has spent the best part of two thousand years wooing, living with, separating from, and trying to win back History-with-a-capital-H. It now needs to learn how to live with a much more down-to-earth, messy, painful, everyday, contingent, non-capitalized history, beginning with the New Testament story of the Son of Man, which is the story of how God judged, restored and promoted his people amongst the nations of the ancient world.
Here are the overall contours of Perriman’s narrative-historical interpretation. I’ve taken a few paragraphs from one of his foundational articles, “The narrative premise of a post-Christendom theology”, as a summary statement.
The New Testament presupposes, describes, and predicts a long, tumultuous transition in the history of the people of God, running from the initial summons to Israel to repent in the face of imminent judgment and national destruction (John the Baptist) to the eventual displacement of the institutions and worldview of classical paganism and the recognition of Christ as sovereign over the empire and beyond (Constantine). Jesus’ death and resurrection constitutes the key redemptive event in this historical process, by which the people of God are saved from complete destruction and granted a new lease of life – the life of the age that was to come. On the outskirts of the New Testament’s vision of the future (but of much greater eschatological relevance to the church today) is the hope of a final judgment and making new of all things.
The ‘good news’ at the heart of the story begins as an announcement to Israel that its God is about to act both to punish and to restore his people; but (precisely on this basis) it becomes the announcement to the empire that God is no longer willing to overlook its idolatry, immorality and injustices. Paul’s gospel is that God will sooner or later ‘judge’ (in the characteristic biblical sense) the Greek-Roman world by a man whom he has appointed, and that this historical transformation will finally vindicate the refugees from Judaism and the growing numbers of Gentiles who have attached themselves to this Spirit-driven renewal movement. This moment of vindication, when Christ will receive the nations as his inheritance, will mark the beginning of a new age, when he (and the martyrs) will reign at the right hand of the Father over and on behalf of God’s people.
The story of Jesus includes and anticipates the story of the early believers who had to follow him along a difficult and narrow path leading to life. The New Testament in the first place, as a set of historical documents, describes the life and vocation of an eschatological community, scattered across the whole oikoumenē, which in its supra-national and ecumenical nature, in its solidarity, in its holiness, in its confession of Christ, in its experience of the eschatological Spirit, in its faithfulness and willingness to endure the most severe opposition, represented the claim of Israel’s God to be sovereign over all the gods of the nations.
From our perspective, looking back, the new age that began with the instatement of Christianity as the religion of the empire (as a consequence of the faithful witness of the Christ-like martyr church) appears to have finally come to an end: Christendom as both a social and an intellectual phenomenon has collapsed. The challenge now is to deconstruct the Christendom paradigm, which is both ecclesial and theological and within which we are still to a large degree ensnared, and ask what new paradigm, what new way of existing in the world, might emerge for the post-Christendom, post-imperial, post-modern church as it seeks to be loyal to the original calling in Abraham to be an authentic new creation.
Here is my summary of Andrew Perriman’s basic interpretation of the NT message:
1. The “Gospel” is not a universal theological message of personal salvation, but must be understood as a message intimately connected to the historical circumstances in which it was given.
2. Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom was a message of judgment and salvation for Israel in the light of the pending crisis of 70AD.
3. The apostles’ gospel was a message to the nations that God had made Jesus King and would, through him, bring judgment and salvation to the Greek-Roman pagan world, which reached its climax in the establishment of Christendom.
4. There is an ultimate day of judgment and salvation coming which will inaugurate the new creation.
5. The church is now witnessing the collapse of Christendom, which is prompting the church to reevaluate how to be a faithful eschatological community of mission in a post-Christendom world.
I will be interested to get your responses and hear your discussion.