New Testament Theology for Today

One of the more recent theological stirrings in the past few decades is the rethinking of some deeply important biblical perspectives, especially with regards to some cherished New Testament passages. Now this is not new, per se. A refocus and readjustment of biblical and theological perspectives has gone on for centuries following the finalisation of the canon of Scripture. It’s not just something special from the past few decades, nor the past few centuries since the Reformation. Such has always been taking place within the church.

But, with each generation, there are particular aspects of our biblical and theological approach that will be challenged. Challenged for change. Challenged for good change.

This change is very prevalent for those embracing what is known as the new Pauline perspective. When thinking of the ‘new perspective’, many people will focus mainly on justification, i.e., as found in Paul’s two letters of Romans and Galatians. And then the focus turns to two modern theologians – John Piper (more of the traditional reformed perspective) and N.T. Wright (more of the new Pauline perspective).

But what the new perspective is all about is looking to embed the Scripture text within its specific historical narrative. Therefore, the challenge is that we not mainly read Romans or Galatians through the eyes of Martin Luther and the Reformation (though we don’t fully discard such a perspective). But we read, as best we can, Paul’s words in the context of first century, second temple Jewish culture.

That is no easy task, to say the least.

Does it mean that everyone in the ‘new perspective’ has it correct? Well, no. But their voice is well worth listening to, as was Martin Luther’s some 500 years ago. And noting we have constantly seen the call throughout church history to a ‘reformation’ of theological perspective (semper reformanda, as the Reformers would say), maybe we should not be so guarded against such. It is part and parcel to the growth and maturity of the church as a whole (i.e. the reality of Eph 4:11-13).

Still, another voice out there, swinging the proverbial pendulum even further than that of the new perspective, is the voice (or blog/books) of Andrew Perriman. If one were to read Perriam (i.e. his books on eschatology or on Romans), one might tend to pin the traditional label of preterist upon him. But, as Perriman would be quick to point out, such a term does not faithfully describe his approach.

You see, people like Perriman (or new perspective proponents) are not trying to say all eschatological prophecies are fulfilled (actually, he wouldn’t even argue that if he took on the more traditional terms). What he is arguing is that, like the new perspective folk, the New Testament must be embedded within its own historical narrative time-frame. To read a passage like, say, Matthew 24 outside of a first century, second temple Jewish context, well, it would mislead us in understanding Jesus’ teaching.

Or to read some of Paul’s other statements about what we might label as ‘last things’ (i.e., the man of lawlessness in 2 Thess 2 or even the Jew-Gentile context of Romans 9-11), without grounding the text within its own narrative framework, well, it would lead to some disastrous approaches to the text.

Not too long ago, on his blog, Perriman was challenged that, if we are going to allow for the New Testament to mainly speak into the context of the New Testament era and the New Testament era alone, this will strip it of its relevance and importance for the church today. A good question and challenge, to say the least.

And so, in a recent blog post published at his blog, Perriman took the time to summarise his beliefs in 7 specific bullet points:

What I have attempted to show on this blog and in my books is that the core elements of New Testament theology have a very precise, particular, and in certain important respects limited significance in the historical frame within which they were originally conceived and articulated. Let me give some examples:

  • The “gospel” is not a standardized message of personal salvation but a public announcement to Israel that decisive events are about to take place, or to the Gentiles that the Law no longer stands as an impediment to their participation in the people of God.
  • Jesus’ death on the cross is understood, in the first place, as a death because of the sins of Israel and only marginally and in a qualified sense as a death for all humanity.
  • The resurrection of Jesus is both actually and symbolically the resurrection of Israel on the third day following judgment (cf. Hos. 6:1-2); as part of this narrative it also anticipates the vindication of the martyr communities in their “contest” with both the Jewish authorities and with pagan imperialism.
  • The Spirit is given at Pentecost as a continuation of Jesus’ prophetic witness against Jerusalem—a whole charismatic community now gives notice of a coming day of the Lord, when judgment will come on a “crooked generation”.
  • The language of future judgment, restoration, vindication, the symbolic language of a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, etc., has in my view (see The Coming of the Son of Man) reference to foreseeable historical events, which turned out to be, roughly speaking, the Jewish war of AD 66–70 and the eventual conversion of pagan Europe.
  • The whole argument about justification by faith presupposes these eschatological horizons: it is the church insofar as it trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus, and not Law-based Israel, that will be concretely “justified” as the people of YHWH—shown to have been “right” all along—when he “judges” the ancient world, the Jew first, and then the Greek (see The Future of the People of God).
  • The “teaching” that we find in the New Testament—the Lord’s prayer, for example—is aimed at equipping the Jesus movement to live out a specific eschatological narrative that would culminate in the confession of Jesus as Kyrios by the pagan world.

(Note: All italics and links to other articles he has written are kept just as found in his original post.)

He follows up these points by stating:

All that brings out—sharply and coherently, to my way of thinking—the narrative-historical significance of New Testament theology. With it, I think, we make some major gains in terms of exegetical and historical integrity. But does it mean that the New Testament has nothing left to say to the church today? No, of course not.

He then lists and shares a few thoughts about 9 particular areas in which the New Testament’s framework continues to speak into the church today: the notion of God’s chosen people, mission, praxis, salvation, personal salvation, Jesus, new heaven and new earth, Holy Spirit, and Scripture.

I’m sure he could have gone even further, but this was simply a blog post.

Am I challenged by the new perspective at times? Yes. Am I challenged by Perriman’s stirring and provocative approach to the text of Scripture? Even more, yes! But I think the proponents of the new perspective and others like Andrew Perriman have uncovered something with which we need to grapple.

Does this challenge the natural disposition of post-reformation, evangelical theology? Yes. But I am not so bothered by that. What I do know is that I don’t want to be unwilling to engage with something that does challenge my theological perspective. I don’t even want the thought of being seen as not-so-evangelical steer me from re-considering the New Testament narrative and its approach to things like justification or the eschaton (‘last things’).

What we have in Scripture is the true and solid witness of the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). I want to engage with the text that testifies to this faith. And I want to be ready to change my perspective as God unveils what is actually taking place within this God-breathed text.

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8 thoughts on “New Testament Theology for Today

  1. Scot, really enoyed the read. Perriman’s posts challenge me. They cause me to check my biases and preconceptions in relation to Scripture…they stretch me. And after reading people like Perriman, Kirk, Wright etc. I’m often left hoping the historical narrative message  (including the New Perspective) will filter out to the “builders” more prolifically in the future and influence in a way that we may not be able to imagine at the moment. I feel (and I might be wrong) that this is a time of historic transition to work out these theological issues so that there will be less baggage carried on into the future. I think Perriman’s ideas regarding a convergence of New Perspective theology and missional church are, in part, a way to get there.

  2. I know this is a far from academic response (or, arguably, even rational) but having been under a very conservative evangelical teaching ministry, I struggled to find answers to ‘big questions’ that made a lot of sense to me. They either seemed too contrived – just too much twisting of understanding to make things ‘work’ – or just too trite – we can never fathom the mystery of God (so don’t question it any further).
    It was when I read Wright’s ‘Surprised by hope’ that I felt much of what I was wrestling with finally find a ‘place’. Not necessarily an answer, but at least a solid grounding from where the questions could be raised and dealt with in a more ‘well-rounded’ way. (It may also be a reflection on the quality of the conservative evangelical teaching I had been previously exposed to)
    In other words, the ‘new perspective’ simply made more sense to me.
    I hit this point round about 3rd year of my BD and so many jigsaw pieces fell into place then. 4th year honours meant a deeper exploration of it and my Masters year allowed me to work it through in application.
    What I find with it though is that, in many respects, it is quite alien, as a theological approach, to both conservative and liberal ends of the spectrum. It almost seems (and apologies for the caricature) that to conservatives, it’s a bit too ‘social gospel’ or a bit too ‘judgement-light’. To liberals it still has too much of a ‘follow the rules’ feel to it when there is an expected response and it doesn’t quite allow the free-for-all that liberty allows. To both it smacks of compromise – an intellectual exercise to hold both sides together, when the ‘best’ solution is to cast one or the other free. The approach turns many ‘traditional’ things on their head and pushes the focus very firmly back to God, but with the very strong sense of humanity’s partnership with God.
    But for me, as I say, it just makes sense. It has academic rigour, largely holding together the established orthodoxies. It creates a ‘now’ imperative which is more than just a social gospel response. And it holds to a pretty ‘tough’ God, who does not accept that anything goes and love is all you need.
    Sorry, I’ve rambled and not really added to the original post, but I confess to being a bit of a fan and I felt an urge to do a little bit of cheer-leading from a personal perspective.

  3. John O –

    Thanks for the comment. I like Wright and the new perspective on justification. I get more uncomfortably challenged when I consider Perriman’s thoughts. 🙂

  4. Why not have a bit of both? I think that, yes, the purpose of justification in making a covenant people for the expansion of God’s Kingdom is something sorely missed out on by the traditional evangelical message… but then, I do think that the old reformed ‘law/grace’ etc. does still need to be emphasised as the way into this Kingdom. For me, Perriman links Jesus ‘coming on the clouds,’ to historical events too much – I actually think Jesus was ‘wrong’ about the timing of his return, but in the context of how Jewish prophecy worked it doesn’t matter because He will return in the future. Surely tying too much of your theology to a particular version of eschatology is shaky because of the difficulty of reconciling the eschatological passages at all (again, something I don’t find problematic).

  5. Just had another thought about this: I think one of the strongest points of caution for the New Perspective is how it sees the relationship between God’s acts and God’s character. Surely his acts reveal aspects of his character that can be extrapolated into a more general context? I think that’s a helpful corrective (and one that Perriman himself uses).

  6. Ben –

    I think I understand what you are saying. For example, the talk in Romans about salvation could be extended to salvation for general humanity, rather than specifically speaking of salvation within the historical narrative that Perriman would frame it in. Is that something like you are getting at?

  7. Yes, that’s right. So, for instance, Karl Barth, in his commentary on Romans, sought to transfer the polemic against Judaizers pushing ‘works of the Law’ into his context against the liberal theologians of the day. I’ve learnt a lot from the New Perspective – much of the ‘covenant people’ language drenches my thinking – but I’m certainly not going to ditch a robust Reformed view of justification: to me it seems like the NP sort of stretches out towards it anyway, but doesn’t define it as clearly because it’s so stuck in the historical context it can’t articulate fully what it means now for an individual in the existential sense. That’s my relatively uninformed opinion, anyway.

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