December 5, 2020

Follow-Up: Answers from Andrew Perriman


NOTE FROM CM: Andrew Perriman was kind enough to send some responses to our post outlining his NT interpretation last week and the comments in the discussion. Because they came later than the first discussion, I thought I would post them today as a means of continuing the conversation.

• • •

I don’t know- I don’t think rejecting Constantine and imperial Christendom as a legitimate expression of the Kingdom of God is retreating into a theological abstraction. It has caused some to do that, yes. But anywhere the church is, there is God in Christ reigning. It does not require the empire to be Christian, nor does a rejection of Christian empire mean God’s reign must be non-historical.

The answer to his final question is, it seems, bound up in this. If we did not assume Christianity’s expression in Constantine’s empire as legitimate in the first place, than we probably wouldn’t have to ask the question. The answer is clear, to any who belong to the people of God, whether they exert legitimate political influence or not: God reigns on earth as in heaven, and we, in our obedience, are the expression of that reign . . . wherever, whenever, and under whatever conditions. We shall inherit the earth as his co-heirs. But the assumption of political power by the church is not what is meant by that. That just betrays a confusion between the Church and Christ himself, and reckons authority incorrectly.

Unless we can find a Christian political structure that actually, in its authority and practice and expansion of its faith, REALLY looks and smells like Jesus. It’s possible, I suppose. I’m not holding my breath though.

Nate, it seems to me that the “anywhere the church is, there is God in Christ reigning” argument is itself a consequence of the eventual breakdown of Christendom—or of the rise of modernity. It’s essentially an a-historical argument; it denies the relevance of historical developments; and it is anachronistic to read it back into the ancient period. It could not have been said for Old Testament Israel. In the Old Testament context the kingdom of God is not where Israel is. It is where and when God acts to judge his people, save his people, defeat his enemies, rescue his reputation, and so on. My argument is that the New Testament presupposes just this historically shaped notion of the kingdom of God, in which case I think we have to take seriously the fact that the conversion of the empire meant the ending of persecution (a crucial part of the kingdom vision), the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations, the defeat of the gods of the nations, all to the glory of the God of Israel. These outcomes, it seems to me, are all intrinsic to New Testament apocalyptic expectation.

. . . Andrew certainly uses many post-modern buzz words. He probably truly is post-modern and I know what that means is not grasped by the people I hang around with . . . . So for the sake of clarity, let’s just put some defining of post-modern thought into internet monk today.

Post modernism holds foremost that one’s philosophy of life is determined by the group or community which is most influential in your life. Other factors such as personal choice or religion, are secondary. Post modernists view history more as a study of people’s images and thoughts about their society and their past. What actually happened is no longer the concern, in fact, can never be actually known. Instead, it is what people thought happened. Therefore, the metanarratives of the past now need to be deconstructed, that is exposed for what they really are . . . ”overarching explanations of reality based on central organizing truths”.  And they are myths that gave authority to those who wrote them, and ideological power structures built upon oppression of others and upon domination of the earth. The post-modern suspicions are that Christianity is (1)intolerant- not respecting difference. (2) its communicators lack authenticity — too much leaning toward will. (3) does not affirm people — tries to disempower some while lifting others. I would only add that James K.A. Smith’s approach in how (not) to be secular “deconstructs” these three suspicions. Oops, sorry, one more thought. “The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in Late Modern World” by James Davison Hunter is a great answering to Andrew Perriman’s question, “What new way of existing in the world?”

I think the postmodern suspicion of over-confident “modern” historiography is entirely valid. I also think that it has helped us regain a sense of the importance of context, community, perspective and narrative in our reading of the New Testament. I emphasize the need to read the New Testament from within the circumscribed historical contexts of the communities for which it was written, insofar as that is possible, which is perhaps not very far. But I don’t think of my work as an exercise in postmodern criticism particularly.

. . . I honestly think the NT perspective is much, much bigger than that. I mean, Paul speaks about Central Asian peoples (Scythians) and others in Ephesians; people of the day were aware that there was something beyond *North* Africa and to the East, even if they had vague, fantastical notions of what those places might be like. (Merchants who dealt w/goods from Central and East Asia – silk, spices and much more – likely had a far clearer picture than we might suspect.)

Even the Hellenistic world had some understanding of Terra incognita…

Numo, Paul was obviously aware that there were peoples beyond the empire, but that just makes it all the more remarkable that he and the New Testament generally show no interest in a mission to the East or to the Africa. Paul set out to proclaim his gospel for Jerusalem to Spain, as a matter of judgment on the pagan oikoumen?. He may have encountered Scythians and Barbarians in Asia Minor, and perhaps their inclusion signified for him something of the wider relevance of the message, but the New Testament remains resolutely focused on the Greek-Roman world. Revelation climaxes in judgment on idolatrous pagan Rome as the supreme power hostile to the purposes of YHWH. The point is that the storyline of the New Testament as we have it is not about the global relevance of a universal gospel but about the more limited conflict between God’s people and the classical pagan world.

This is an intriguing perspective. Like the rest of you, I’ll have to give it some serious thought.

My initial niggle, though, is it seems to leave out some things. If the Gospel as preached by the Apostles was very specifically directed towards Greek/Roman paganism, what about the Apostles (and other early Christians) who went beyond Rome’s borders?

What about Thomas in India? There was never any judgement of the Hindu religious structures. So, if Andrew Perriman is right, what was Thomas preaching to them? (Actually, I’d like to know that anyway out of sheer curiosity, but Mr Perriman’s thesis seems to make it more urgent) What about the Ethiopians? Or the Armenians? Or the Christians living under Persian rule before the arrival of the Muslims? Did these all just skip Point 3 and move on to Point 4 directly in their preaching? And if so, how is that different from what we thought before?

Perhaps that begs another question. How did the Apostles know that Christendom would be established in the Greek/Roman context, rather than anywhere else? If I recall my history correctly, the Armenians were the first to have their king convert. If that was the short-term goal, why didn’t Christians flock there, or evangelists set up shop there and try and extend that situation to Armenia’s neighbours?

I think Mike has done a very good job of representing my argument here, which is basically that I think the New Testament makes much better sense—not least in relation to the Old Testament—if we recognise and work with the historical limitations of its outlook. I simply don’t think the storyline as we have it has reference to or any interest in a mission beyond the Greek-Roman context. That doesn’t mean that the wider context is unimportant. The church in Asia is part of the story of God’s people and needs to be told—but as a continuation of the New Testament narrative rather than as something that is already anticipated in it. The argument is precisely that some things need to be left out. At the historical level, I don’t think Jesus looks much beyond the destruction of Jerusalem or Paul beyond judgment on pagan idolatry.

I get the need to historically center the Gospel and the Christian hope, but this, to me, goes entirely too far. Jesus was not trying to establish a historical kingdom in the boundaries of literal Israel, still less of the literal Roman Empire – “my kingdom if not of this world.” Yes, it is a kingdom that’s come to earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s a kingdom composed of governments or cities or political issues. Neither Jesus nor the Apostles seem to care about political activism. Christ’s kingdom comes when people are baptized, believe His Word, receive His holy body and blood, and reflect this infinite mercy and love in worship and deeds – whether that happens in the family, the government, the wider community, etc. The problem with “kingdom on earth” talk among Evangelicals, Reformed, and post-Evangelicals is that they don’t have a robust or scriptural theology of the word and sacraments, which are the *real* means whereby God’s kingdom descends among us until the Last Day. Without that, they have to fill up the lack, and they usually tend to do it politically, despite the witness of the NT.

Also, I hate to be rude, but I’m really, really sick of the line about the Gospel not being about personal salvation. Yes, I agree, it’s about more than that. Yes, I know, we’ve over-emphasized it for the past few centuries. But the Gospel is most definitely about personal salvation, and it is most definitely a universal theological message. “Preach the Gospel to the whole of creation.” “This Gospel will be proclaimed throughout the whole world.” Likewise with the Apostle’s preaching in Acts about salvation and how to receive it.

I read an article or two on Perriman’s site, and he had one about how the Gospel is not about man’s reconciliation with his creator, an assertion that seems central to his theses here. This is supremely ironic to me, because it indicates that he isn’t interested in seeing the Gospel in its historical perspective, but seeing it in the historical perspective which *he* finds appealing. Has the man read Leviticus? If the Gospel is not a universal message, if it doesn’t speak to personal salvation, if Christ has not reconciled to God all things in heaven and on earth, if He is not the fulfillment of all sacrifice a la Hebrews, if He is not the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, if He is not a hilasterion, a mercy seat, then what is He? Tabernacle and Temple and the cultic system of Israel – all of which were oftentimes very focused on individual forgiveness and reconciliation – is just as much a part of the Gospel’s history as the Davidic kingship, and Jesus is a priest as much as a king.

For me, it all comes down to the fact that post-Evangelical or progressive authors like Perriman throw the baby out with the bathwater. They see problems of emphasis in current Evangelicalism, and thy want to correct the imbalance. All well and good! But they proceed to do so by introducing a different, equal imbalance, throwing out substitutionary atonement, getting rid of the idea of Gospel as message of personal salvation. The key is not to choose one or the other, but to hold the two together, as the Scriptures do. The Gospel is about the restoration of creation AND about personal salvation; Jesus died as conquering victor over death AND as propitiatory sacrifice for the sins of the world; Jesus was concerned with bringing the kingdom on earth AND with imputing [the dreaded word!] his resurrection status to His Christians; Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel AND the fulfillment of the universal Law. It’s not impossible to do this, you know. N.T. Wright does it pretty well. Jack Kilcrease and other contemporary Lutherans are doing it from our tradition with beautiful results.

But then, I guess that nuance and balance don’t sell boatloads of books. Forgive me for my long-windedness and my cynicism, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’m more irritated by progressives than I am by fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Aidan, thank you for your comments—and for withdrawing the cynicism. You make some important points.

I think I would agree with you that “Jesus was not trying to establish a historical kingdom”. His aim was to establish God’s rule over a historical people in a historical context in relation to the nations which from Egypt onwards had opposed the rule of God.

But I am arguing against the dehistoricizing of the kingdom idea that you describe when you say that “Christ’s kingdom comes when people are baptized, believe His Word, receive His holy body and blood, and reflect this infinite mercy and love in worship and deeds – whether that happens in the family, the government, the wider community, etc.” That’s all true, but it misses the narrative context given us in the New Testament and in scripture as a whole. That at least is my contention.

Jesus and the apostles were not interested in “political activism” as we understand it. But that does not mean that the gospel which they proclaimed did not have “political” implications. It is entirely about which God ruled in the ancient world and on what basis. This seems to me to be the main thrust of the gospel; personal salvation, in the different contexts of first century Judaism and the pagan world, comes as a consequence to that. This does not mean there is no such thing as personal salvation. It means that something else is driving the New Testament narrative.

I don’t regard this as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. On the contrary, I think this is a matter of retrieving a baby that the church threw out a long time ago when it found it had no further need for the Jewish narrative.

As regards Jesus’ kingdom and Christendom, I would say that Jesus has been seated at the right hand of the Father since the resurrection, having all authority and power for the sake of his body. But when read historically the New Testament appears to be part of a strong storyline going back at least to Isaiah which is expected to culminate in the victory of YHWH over the nations which have for so long opposed his people.

This has nothing to do with what I find appealing. Frankly, I think we will find it much harder to proclaim a “political” gospel of this sort—to make sense in our secular world of the central New Testament claim that God has made Jesus Lord—than to persevere with the traditional focus on the eternal destiny of individuals.

I am not arguing against atonement. I am arguing that in the New Testament this is secondary, and that it is framed by Israel’s story, not immediately or automatically a matter of universal significance. I strongly affirm penal substitutionary atonement in that light.

I think Tom Wright does it well up to a point, but I don’t think he carries the hermeneutic through consistently. If Jesus’ teaching presupposed judgment on Israel in concrete historical terms, I see no reason why Paul’s teaching should not have presupposed judgment on the pagan world in concrete historical terms.

I don’t sell boatloads of books. I wish I did.

Your comment about denying “certain doctrinal presuppositions” seems disingenuous. Why should doctrines be presuppositional to the interpretation of the text? The presuppositions for the New Testament are given by historical context and literary (i.e., scriptural) precedent.

CM, it would be nice if Perriman would either affirm that you have summarized his thought fairly or show where he thinks it falls short. In my view you are very good at presenting others’ views that you may or may not agree with. Most of the time when I read theology I am looking for anything that I would consider wrong, and this because it makes me better define what I consider right. With me this is an ongoing process in constant revision. I hope you will continue to follow Perriman’s work because he seems to think outside the box and that is usually helpful.

So far in this very limited presentation and without having studied the man’s work, as with some others the main thing that strikes me is that he seems to either be ignoring the whole Eastern wing of the church with its huge history, or is unaware of it. Which doesn’t make sense. Not fair to draw conclusions without reading the man’s writings, but I’m not about to invest that time for no apparent benefit. Looking forward to more on him.

Charles, I think that Mike has done an excellent job of summarizing and explaining my views.I’m not sure what your concerns are regarding the Eastern church. My basic argument about New Testament eschatology is that it should mostly be read in historical terms, so that what the churches of the Greek-Roman world was an outcome in which persecution was brought to an end, they were vindicated for their faithful witness to the Lamb, and Jesus was confessed by the nations as Lord, bring paganism to an end, to the glory of Israel’s God. That happened when the empire converted to Christianity. What happens next is beyond the horizon of the New Testament except that there remains the conviction that the creator will finally judge all creation and the last enemies will be destroyed.

One of my primary problem with Perriman’s schematic for understanding the history of Christianity is that it is accessible only to intellectuals, or those with intellectual tendencies, and is completely untranslatable into terms that the average citizen of modernity or history could even begin to understand. If Christianity is a religion not only for and of intellectuals and educated people, but also for the masses, and as such should be comprehensible to the average person across time, then this diagram of church history fails miserably.

My other main problem with it is that I don’t believe that it reflects the self-understanding of the Church in the first five centuries of its history, and I doubt that the Church Fathers would identify Perriman’s views as their own. I think this is major argument against the credibility of Perriman’s views.

Robert, I disagree that it is only accessible to intellectuals. If ordinary first century Jews could understand and tell their story—Abraham, Egypt, exodus, kingdom, exile, imperial oppression: think of Stephen’s speech in Acts, for example, or Paul’s sermon in Antioch of Pisidia—I don’t see why ordinary Christians today shouldn’t be able to do so. We just need to learn how. It’s not rocket science.

There are certainly those who saw the conversion of Rome as the fulfilment of New Testament expectations regarding the kingdom of God—Lactantius, Eusebius, for example. But I also accept that as early as the second century the Jewish political-religious narrative about kingdom was giving way to a universalised narrative about redemption. This was an inevitable and necessary development and I don’t quibble with it—I would make the same point about Trinitarian orthodoxy. What I am trying to show is that if we then turn the process round and restrict scripture to the later perspective, something very important gets lost.


  1. Andrew, thanks muchly for taking the time to respond.

    I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree, though.


  2. Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist says

    I appreciate the responses and clarifications, but I’m still not buying it. It seems to be at least two levels removed from the actual NT texts. Of course, I would argue that there is no such thing as *one* unified perspective, theme, or theology among the writers of the NT, so perhaps that is a starting point for our differences.

  3. Aidan Clevinger says

    My thanks to Andrew for forgiving my knee-jerk ass-holery. Like the commenters above I still disagree and remain unconvinced by the main argument, but I appreciate his charity tremendously.

  4. Faulty O-Ring says

    What about the Trinity? What about the Nicene Creed? Are these part of the original message of the NT, or not?

    For that matter, the NT itself would likely have been abhorent to the Jerusalem church. In case of conflict, which is to be preferred–the NT or the original message of Jesus (assuming we can know anything about it)?

  5. This was a classy thing to do. Thank you, Andrew, for your magnanimity in responding.

    Still wrestling with these ideas, and still not entirely convinced. Something occurred to me while reading the responses, though. I wonder if it would be fair to say that, in this schema, there is a distinction drawn between the New Testament itself and NT/Apostolic/Early Christianity. That is to say, there may well have been Apostles and others in those early days who had a wider perspective, and who looked (and, in some cases, went) beyond the borders of the Empire but for whatever reason, providential or otherwise, those aren’t the ones who wrote the NT; and that in the NT we find exclusively a vision and mindset focused on God’s actions and plans in that singular Greek-Roman historical/geographical context. So while it might be nice and maybe even useful for us moderns to know what Thomas was preaching in India, if we’re going from Scripture, we’re stuck with the Greek/Roman context and we just have to accept and deal with the fact that that’s the NT we have. Would that be fair to say?

  6. Thanks for your gracious responses, Andrew.

    You are certainly correct that it’s not rocket science; if it was, I for one would not be able to understand it. It is, however, a significant and sophisticated shift away from any traditional ways of reading and interpreting the New Testament, the kind of shift that removes a significant degree of contemporaneity and directness in reading the Bible. Your interpretation, in fact, demands that every reader approach the Bible as a scholar reading a text not written to them, a text that has no obvious, plain meaning. I think this in effect removes the Bible from the hands of all but the best educated laity. Devotional reading of Scripture would become much more problematic, if not impossible, for most laity, and even for not so well-educated clergy, than it is already.

    I wonder, also, how adoption of your interpretation would change the cultus of Christian worship. It seems to me that much in traditional Christian worship would have to be changed. For instance, it would seem to me that the office and lectionary readings as listed in the rubrics of my Book of Common Prayer, with their thematic connections, would have to be completely overhauled, along with the worship of the entire Anglican Communion, which is rooted in the BCP tradition.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      “t removes a significant degree of contemporaneity and directness in reading the Bible”

      Is this necessarily a bad thing?

      “every reader approach the Bible as a scholar reading a text not written to them”

      As they should approach every text which was, in fact, not written to them.

      “Devotional reading of Scripture would become much more problematic , if not impossible, for most laity”.

      I don’t see why. To read Scripture in this way does not mean NONE of the text has a plain meaning, it means a plain meaning cannot be *assumed*. Humility and contemplation and patience are all important virtues when reading Scripture – or any text; this is in contrast to a desire to read a text and lunge to a decisive conclusion of its meaning.

      I also suspect that completely unguided devotional reading is a quite recent phenomenon; one that has gifted us with the college freshmen who sees plainly stark truths the wise and learned have been oblivious to for centuries…. and we are soooo thankful for him.

      “how adoption of your interpretation would change the cultus of Christian worship.”

      This is an interesting question.

      • I’m not sure how we can say the Bible is inspired in any significant sense if it lacks a dimension of immediacy and contemporaneity, both for the individual reader and for the gathered church, and if it ONLY can be approached in a detached and scholarly way. If I came to believe that the Bible does not speak directly to me in any way, I would find it hard to believe that it had any spiritual significance for me, particularly because the Bible is a collection of many narratives in which God speaks directly to individual human beings, as well as to groups of people. Good storytelling compels you to find yourself in the story, and to hear yourself addressed in the narrative; I frankly think that is a very positive aspect of Christian faith. To approach these Biblical narratives only and primarily as documents to be analyzed rather than as stories in which we discover our are addressed and discover ourselves seems to me to undermine one of the great strengths of Christianity and its Scriptures.

    • “Your interpretation, in fact, demands that every reader approach the Bible as a scholar reading a text not written to them, a text that has no obvious, plain meaning. I think this in effect removes the Bible from the hands of all but the best educated laity. Devotional reading of Scripture would become much more problematic, if not impossible, for most laity, and even for not so well-educated clergy, than it is already.”

      This is true, but only because we mostly inhabit a different popular worldview. We already read scripture in a very different way to how the average person heard it in, say, the 12th century—because our worldview is very different. I expect that over time we will all become much more comfortable with the historical approach, and then it will be second nature to read the texts differently, without the scholarly apparatus to guide is. It’s a question of presuppositions.

      The question about how such a shift would affect worship is a very interesting one. I think it would be a healthy development to get away from the self-absorbed sentimentalism of much modern worship and to worship instead the God of history.

  7. Thanks for the responses! I didn’t expect that when I commented. I’ll definitely have to consider this more closely, and read your (Andrew’s) articles more closely. By the way, despite my disagreement in my comment, I really appreciate the narrative-historical approach you’re bringing. That’s right in my wheelhouse.

  8. I guess one of the things that troubles me is Andrew’s supposition (as expressed in his reply to me above) that there actually is a “conflict” between Greco-Roman society (which was itself quite diverse) and the kingdom of God. I do *not* see anything in the gospels, Acts or the epistles that jibes with Andrew’s apparent understanding of God’s kingdom as a political/governmental entity, nor do I accept that Jesus was solely concerned with near-future events regarding Judea, Samaia

    One thing that absolutely convinces me of this is the history of the church, and of xtian biblical interpretation (what little I know of it) pre-Constantine. I mean, how/why would a cult of martyrs and idealization of martyrdom be so important to people seeking a “this-world” kingdom/fulfillment of prophecy?

    OTOH, I do agree that Revelation was directed primarily toward events and nproblems of its time, and that it isn’t meant to be some kind ofjumping-off point for all kinds of crazy end of the world scenarios. That said, it is a *very* difficult, convoluted piece (or pieces) of writing, alternating between the beautiful, the inexplicable, and the horrific. I mean, I just can’t accept the nightmare vision of the martyrs calling for blood and vengeance as having anything to do with Jesus’ sayings as recorded in the Gospels.

    Andrew, again, I so appreciate your taking the time to reply. I am a bit concerned, though, about your seeming rejection of all of the other perspectives mentioned last week by commenters. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that there’s plenty of room for multiple perspectives and overlap – which doesn’t negate the validity of historical investigation at all – far from it. (In the interest of disclosure, I have training in historical research and methodology myself and that’s where I see some serious difficulties with your approach. But this isn’t the place to rehash that, I’m thinking.)

    • I agree with your comments, numo.

      Speaking for myself, I have no problem with the idea that events in our contemporary world are beyond the horizon of the NT canon and its immediate concerns. I do, however, believe that spiritually and typologically the New Testament does speak directly to our contemporary world, and to every age. Contextualization may be an important part of this, so study of the historical and cultural settings that gave birth to the texts is important, but the they do not exhaust the meanings and depths of the texts.

      For explication of what I’m getting at, see:

      • I think Jesus was getting at much more, though he certainly was speaking to his immediate contemporaries.

        Maybe zeroing in *too* much on the Greco-Roman world is on of the problems here?

        • I also find the vengeful themes of the New Testament out of keeping with the core intentions of Jesus’ teaching and life. In addition, though I may agree that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE is interpreted by the New Testament writers as a judgement of God against Israel, I do not agree that it was in fact such a judgement, anymore than I would accept the idea that the Holocaust was such a judgement. If AP’s historical/theological interpretation involves the idea that the destruction of Jerusalem 70 CE was in reality such a judgement of God (does it involve this idea? I’m not sure…), then I completely disagree. I guess I would disagree with N.T. Wright in this as well.

          • I’m not on the “judgment of God” team. I think it is a huge mistake to look at history through that lens, and would rather go w/Jesus’ statement about those who were crushed when the tower of Siloam came down.

            To even hint that God uses genocide as judgment is appalling to me, and I won’t go down that road.

          • Robert, you sound like a Marcionite!

            On the tower of Siloam saying you might (not) like

          • Andrew, I agree that the text is saying what you say in your post. It may be that this is what Jesus meant, or that this is what the writers of the gospels read back into the memory of Jesus. But I think it’s wrong to limit the meaning of the text to what either Jesus or the early Church consciously meant it to be, since I believe the Scriptures have a universal application involving Israel as a priestly nation representing the entire human race, and by extension the Church also. Even if both Jesus and the early Church understood the human race, or world, to be in limited to the Greco-Roman world, I do not believe that God so limited his understanding, and I believe that the text may spiritually, typologically, and existentially be expanded without undermining original meaning, and should be so expanded. In this I’m willing to say that it was possible for Jesus as a human being to err, as it was for the Church, and I’m making a distinction between Jesus humanity and divinity, though I hope not to be separating them.

          • Andrew, I do have my gnostic tendencies, but I hope that’s because gnosticism, as David Bentley Hart has said, starts from a morally healthy apprehension of and reaction against the violence and suffering exhibited by history. One of the things that distinguishes me from the Marcionites is that I accept the established canon (perhaps too conveniently sidestepping the differences between Protestant/Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox) of the Old Testament as conveying God’s word to humanity, as mediated through the living Jesus Christ, and the traditions surrounding him, to the Church.

  9. This has prompted an interesting discussion that I’ve enjoyed reading. I am a historian, so I always value trying to recover what texts meant to the immediate community that produced them. This helps us to understand other people and communities, which is worthy in itself; in addition, Christians have many reasons to be interested in the perspectives of early Christianity. It also tells us a lot about the text itself, and which can help us to interpret it for ourselves and our contemporary context.

    However, while I might privilege ‘original meaning’ when I have my historian’s hat on, the rest of the time I am more inclined to say that that texts have the inherent ability to say much more than they originally said even to their rightful ‘owners,’ due to their richness or (if we want to go there) their ‘inspiration’–and that even the original understood meaning and emphases take on new luster and significance as they age and as human experience suffers through the fits and starts and cataclysms of history. Or, if you don’t want a narrative that implies improvement (that’s a bit dodgy of me, I suppose), we might say that the text keeps talking–in fact, any living religion with a “book” has texts that seem to be doing this. It is as though the historian or archaeologist goes out and finds a choice pearl, carefully cleans it up, and sticks it a museum, where she attaches a very nice little placard explaining what it is. Viola, job done! Then she goes into the streets and what’s this? Same darned pearl keeps showing up in other locations! They day you put the pearl in the museum and it can only be found there, your religion is dead.

    It also seems to me that meanings “stack” – both in terms of literal, immediate and more symbolic meanings being present at the moment the text is penned, and in terms of communal interpretation adding meaning across time. There is a lot of value in trying to see one layer in the stack, and you may even want to separate that layer from others in order to examine it clearly. Ultimately, though, I’m interested in doing that not in order to kick the stack over and burn part of it, but to see how a better understanding of one layer enriches our understanding of the whole stack.

    I’m sure that’s not the best way to put it. But the human being in me has this clumsy-formed question in the back of my head whenever my scholar-me is working.

    Andrew, one thing I can’t tell from the short essays on P.OST and the comments here is exactly how you connect the meanings you are “uncovering” to this larger story. You seems to be allowing for it, for example: “I also accept that as early as the second century the Jewish political-religious narrative about kingdom was giving way to a universalised narrative about redemption.” But then I read other statements, and it seems that in order to clarify the significance of immediate socio-political meaning, he’s restricting the potential of the text to “talk”:

    From point 10 of “The narrative-historical method—an outline”:

    “If we are to be consistent hermeneutically, I suggest that what principally connects the New Testament with the church today is the continuing historical narrative of God’s people.”


    “I think it is misleading to accommodate the historical distance by differentiating between what the text meant and what the text means. It means what it meant. Within the narrative frame there are certainly direct lessons to be learnt, and I do not discount analogical reading, but the New Testament is formative for the church today primarily because it explains what happened at a critical moment in the history of the people of God.”

    I’m not sure what is hidden within the word “primarily.” But insofar as the text can only be about a particular, formative moment that long ago, I have a problem: I don’t live there. I do live in the “continuing historical narrative of God’s people.” But *how* do I live in the continuing historical narrative of God’s people, considering that the main show is over? I’m missing the how.

    I’ve only read the recent short entries at P.OST, so it may be that I read more, and more carefully, or if I read one of your books, I’ll have a much better sense for how you address my question. The fact I haven’t done so is one reason I haven’t been sure what to comment. That is the question I have based on your short essays, though — perhaps because your thrust in them is usually to distinguish the “historical-narrative interpretation” from its competitors. You’re (usefully) splitting, but when I put myself to bed at night I’m integrating.

    • Excellent comment, Danielle. You might be interested to see how much your perspective on history vis a vis Christian origins aligns with that of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, specifically about how the “truth” of historical events is not a merely chronological matter and “stacks” (in your word) in the passage of time and experience. You would especially expect this in a religion that finds its origin in a figure it considers to have been alive and present not only back then, but to be alive and present now, as he has been at every moment between then and now.

      To state it from a faith perspective, the meaning and reality of Christianity cannot be confined, or even controlled in many many respects, by focusing on the context of Christian origins, because Jesus Christ is not constrained by those origins. A sober understanding of those historical origins can act as a constraint against unbalanced and untethered developments within Christian self-understanding, but it cannot filter all variant contemporary understandings of what it means to be Christian down to only one possible model, nor can it be made the foundation for reconstructing what it means to have Christian faith. History, as a discipline, requires modesty here.

    • Danielle, that gets at the heart of the matter extremely well. What I am proposing is that we do not actually need various layers of sensus plenior in order to make sense of the New Testament, whether in itself or as a document that is formative and compelling for faith and mission today. I am asking whether it should really be necessary to take the historian’s hat off in order faithfully to read the New Testament. Why not let the history speak to us in its own right?

      I have written a lot more about the hermeneutics and exegetical part, not so much about the application, but this was an attempt to consider how it might work:

      • Andrew, you appear to be saying that your ideas supersede all others – please correct me if I’m wrong, but the more I read of what you’ve written, the more convinced I am of this (accurately or not).

        How/why is that? Is it possible that your reading (which does mean your *interpretation*) is one that must inevitably overthrow all others, or does it overlap – and thus coexist – within a larger continuum?

        I don’t see any reason or need to make one particular view *the* primary view, as if theres somehow a direct pipeline to the original Jerusalem church. We cannot know for certain that they thought in a very specific way, if going on NT documents alone. What other documentation are you using to corroborate and confirm your statements? (I.e., what other primary sources are you drawing on?)

        • Exist, not co-exist.

        • I agree, numo. Historical study may help to constrain irresponsible constructions of Christian faith, but it cannot tell us which is the “truest” construction among a group that are all reasonably responsible.

      • As you can tell from my comment, I am very open to adding meanings to the “stack”–or even privileging them. I’m reluctant to remove layers from the stack and toss them completely aside.

        Nonetheless, I look forward to reading your work further, and to seeing how your interpretation can be brought to bear on contemporary church life.

  10. Just to say to Mike and everyone else, I’m very appreciative of the trouble you have all taken to consider the argument. I take the feedback very seriously.