Penal substitution and the OT narrative of judgment

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Andrew Perriman responding to my blog on a non-penal understanding of Isa 53 proposes that while we should not see the Servant Song as a picture of the satisfaction of the demands of justice, he does want to retain a penal view understood in the context of the Old Testament narrative. He writes that,

“There is at least a difference to note between God directly punishing Jesus in order to satisfy the demands of justice and Jesus being implicated in the direct punishment of Israel (in order to satisfy the demands of the Law).”

This is indeed much more Jewish and historical than the classical Calvinist presentation of penal substitution, but it is something I would also want to ultimately reject as well, in particular that last part about “punishment... in order to satisfy the demands of the Law.” The reason not because I reject the biblical narrative, but because I think this only tells half the story.

Much of the book of Isaiah indeed conveys exactly this above narrative: Israel has sinned and now, Isaiah tells them over and over, they are suffering calamity, oppression, and death for their sin. This is not just in Isaiah, it is all over the OT. Andrew writes further that, “in the biblical setting we should recall that sickness is a consequence of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant (cf. Deut. 28:20-22).” Again this is quite true. In the Old Testament mindset, sickness is conceived of as both impurity, and punishment from God.

While this represents the broad picture of sickness in the Hebrew Scriptures, it is important to note that the Old Testament does not present a single static view, but a dynamic one containing internal critiques and developing understandings of who God is. In the book of Job for instance we find a divine critique of the view of Job’s friends, who assumed that Job’s afflictions must have come as the result of his sin. In contrast to their judgment, Job is declared by God to be “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1 :8). The rest of the book that follows proceeds to give us one long and colorful protest against judging the sick and suffering. Similarly, in Isaiah we again find a critique of the connection of sickness with sin in the story of the suffering servant who, Isaiah tells us, was falsely considered “struck down by God, and afflicted” (Isa 53:4). Yet it is through the righteous suffering of the servant that healing is to come to Israel: “by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:5). One might even say that the suffering servant song serves as an internal critique of the view in Isaiah itself that suffering comes as the result of sin.

This inner-biblical critique of the view that sickness and suffering are punishment for sin finds its strongest statement in the gospels. At times Jesus seems to associate sickness with sin (for example in the healing of the paralytic Lk 5:20ff), and other times he explicitly denies it (as with the blind man in in Jn 9:2-3), his focus throughout however is never on ascribing blame, but that “the works of God might be displayed” through a reversal of the curse of sickness and affliction. Andrew is again spot on when he writes, “when Jesus heals the sick, it is to be understood as a sign that the curse is being lifted, that forgiveness is being offered to Israel.” The paradigmatic statement of Jesus here is “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:31–32). Here a connection is indeed drawn between “sinners” and “those who are sick,” but the order is reversed: instead of saying that the sick are guilty, he is saying that sin is an illness in need of healing, rather than judgment. This reflects a significant shift: even if sickness is the result of sin, God’s action in Jesus is now to reverse that judgment via healing.

Now here's the part that I think Andrew leaves out: The primary way in which sickness is expressed in the gospels is not in terms of God’s curse, but of demonic affliction. By the time of the gospels, a major shift had occurred in Judaism, and the idea that affliction and sickness stemmed from Satan had become widespread. So while there was still the sense in Second Temple Judaism that Satan served as an “agent of God’s wrath,” and thus that sickness was ultimately the result of God’s judgment, there was now also the notion that sickness came from “the enemy.” This later focus is what we observe in Jesus, who saw the Satanic reign as something to be opposed and overcome. Jesus frames his healing ministry in terms of the kingdom of God advancing against Satan’s kingdom (cf. Lk 11:17–20). This approach to sickness carries over into the approach Jesus took to sin: people are in need of being liberated from both sickness and sin. Jesus "came for sinners" because "it is the sick who need a doctor." Here we have a more sophisticated understanding of sin and sickness: it is not just something to be quarantined, it is something to be healed. The full narrative is not "do good and be blessed, do bad and be cursed" but a way to make the rotten pure and new again.

That is why I would ultimately disagree with a view of the atonement that views Jesus as bearing the “punishment of Israel in order to satisfy the demands of the Law.” In one sense this may be true. I would agree that (as Martin Hengel puts it) Jesus bears the full weight of human wretchedness. But I have a big problem with the idea that this “satisfies” the “demand” of God’s law. The picture I see in the NT and the early church is that the punishment itself is seen as evil, and identified with the will of the devil and not with God’s will. It is something that needs to be opposed and overcome, not fulfilled or satisfied.

God did not kill Jesus, nor did justice or the law. Injustice did. Evil did. We did. As Peter says on Pentecost, “wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead.” (Acts 2:23) That’s Isaiah 53 in one sentence.

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At 6:18 AM, Anonymous Andrew said...

Hi Derek, nice place you've got here!

While Job reflects a philosophically different perspective on suffering, there seems no real basis for reading it as an intentional critique of a Deuteronomic theology and it surely remains marginal to the prophetic witness of the OT.

As for Isaiah 53, far from contradicting the conditions of covenant set out in Deuteronomy 28, it presupposes them. The premise is that unrighteous Israel must suffer judgment, but the suffering of the righteous servant serves to overturn the verdict of the Law.

You're right that John 9 does not engage with the sickness-judgment-forgiveness theme in the same way. Perhaps a distinction is relevant here between the moral responsibility of the blind man and the collective responsibility of Israel. I would also agree with you that Jesus does not elsewhere explicitly interpret sickness as a sign of judgment; rather he interprets healing as a sign of forgiveness. But that still presupposes the argument about judgment on the nation.

I think satan gets introduced into the narrative at the point when Israel becomes subject to and oppressed by blasphemous foreign powers (most clearly in the apocalyptic writings). This keeps us within the narrative about judgment and restoration because Babylon, Greece and Rome are the means by which God inflicts wrath on Israel.

There is a huge amount in the Gospels, Acts, and Paul about the wrath of God against his people, which has to be understood in terms of divine judgment as an outworking of the Law. It's at the heart of Romans. And how could Jews fail to interpret AD 70 as God's wrath against his people. A God who is pleased with his people does not inflict that sort of suffering upon them.

At 10:04 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Hi Andrew,

As I have said, I do acknowledge that the idea of suffering=punishment is a major theme in the OT. What I am saying is that the minor theme is crucial to see as well because the gospel is in that minor theme. I don’t hear the gospel in what you are saying here. I just hear “you (Israel) are bad and so will be punished.” That’s bad news. The good news is the “but” that gets added on: “.., but there is a way out of that death trap. God does not desire that you die. There is a way to make things new”. The main point of Romans is not to argue for wrath, but to propose grace as a way out. It’s about saying to a people who wanted wrath to come, who wanted to see God judge pagan Rome, that because we are all sinners this was a way that would lead to our destruction too. It presupposes a belief in wrath, and then says that this is a dead end and proposes that we need to seek grace and mercy instead.

I find it helpful to frame this in a medical paradigm: we are sick, and a doctor acknowledges the reality of that sickness. The doctor would encourage us to stop habits that lead to sickness. At the same time however the doctor would do everything they could to make us well. If we were brought into the ER after a horrible car accident, a doctor would not say “well that is simply the consequence of your carelessness” or “that’s the law of physics and it must be fulfilled” they would fight to save our life. That’s what I see God doing. This allows me to acknowledge the narrative of punishment for sin as a principle of how the world works just like sickness is, but to see that where God is active is in healing that not inflicting it.

You say that “As for Isaiah 53, far from contradicting the conditions of covenant set out in Deuteronomy 28, it presupposes them.” It presupposes them in order to critique them. We had thought the servant was afflicted, we had thought that suffering must come because of punishment... but that was wrong. We had missed something because the servant was not guilty. Suffering does not always come because of punishment. That’s what Isaiah 53 says. It is about a miscarriage of justice. It is a story that begins with “my God what have we done?” and then ends with a twist. God somehow uses that evil we did for our good.

I’m most concerned with where you say “how could Jews fail to interpret AD 70 as God's wrath against his people. A God who is pleased with his people does not inflict that sort of suffering upon them.” because if we take that conclusion further, I don’t see how you could avoid saying the same thing about the Holocaust. Was the Holocaust God’s act of justice? Was it what ought to happen to bad people? Was Hitler an agent of God’s wrath? That should make all of us swallow hard. I for one would have to object to that reading. In a world after Auschwitz I would say that a narrative of suffering=punishment is no longer morally tenable, if it ever was. At least in a post-holocaust world – and in a world where genocides continue to happen – I have a big problem with thinking that these are in any way God’s will. I’d say on the contrary that they are evil and satanic, and that God, if he is anywhere, is there hanging on the gallows, suffering with his people.

At 4:34 PM, Blogger Josh said...

Hmmm. It seems clear from the Old Testament that ancient Jews believed that God sometimes punished God's people by means of the sword of enemy nations, with Babylon being the prime example--exile was understood to be God's judgment. Whether or not it was in fact God's judgment is another matter. Also, it was at most indirect punishment. God's wrath was made known in the non-deliverance of Israel from Babylon's sword. Similarly, the wrath that Jesus felt on the cross was the experience of non-deliverance--God allowed Jesus to die. The physical torture of Jesus was not inflicted by God, but by humans--creatures who once again rejected their creator. Of course, the story of Jesus continues with deliverance from death--with resurrection.

At 5:05 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

That is a major theme, however I believe there are what Bruggemann calls "counter witnesses" to that narrative throughout both Testaments which call this into question. The biggest counter-witness being the resurrection where what seemed to be a scandal in fact turns out to be vindication.

At 6:24 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Let me also pose a question to you as a pastor Josh, because I think this really gets at the heart of what's a stake here. If a parishioner came to you and told you that her father and younger sister had just be killed in a car accident, would you tell her that the reason they had died was because God had punished them because of their sin? I think I know you well enough to say that there is no way you would even think that, let alone say it.

That is my major problem with biblical theology. It is just too easy for a biblical scholar to make some detached statement about God being behind some atrocity without realizing the pain and damage that this would do if anyone ever tried to live out their interpretation by applying it to their own life or to others. Biblical interpretation cannot be detached from pastoral care. If we are not willing to look a grieving person in the eyes and say these things to them, they we should not say them at all.

Now there are people who do say exactly this. Recall the comments of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Fundamentalists are willing to put their money where their mouth is and apply Old Testament theology. What happens then is that biblical scholars who are not themselves conservative, often not even Christian but who are simply committed to neutral detached presentation of authorial intent end up being the unintentional biblical support behind fundamentalism.

So is our choice between being fundamentalists and abandoning the Bible? I want to insist that it is not. William Loader has I think persuasively argued that Jesus did not read his Bible like a fundamentalist, and neither should we. I'd highly recommend reading him if you haven't already.

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Josh said...

All I'm saying is that ancient Israelites believed that their suffering at the hands of enemy nations was God's judgment.

At 11:20 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

I'd like to hear you more directly address the moral/pastoral issue I'm raising here. Why is it important for you to stress what they believed? Do you believe it? Do think it is a message we should hear and apply to our lives? I appreciate that you are trying to be neutral, but part of what I m saying is that even neutral statements are in fact are taking a position.

At 11:39 PM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...


Yes, of course, there is a 'but': God's patience has run out with Israel, the outcome will be destruction, BUT there is an alternative way of grace and forgiveness. Agreed.

I disagree, however, that Isaiah 53 critiques the conditions set out in Deuteronomy 28 – at least, 'critique' doesn't seem to me to be the right word. Isaiah fully accepts that persistent rebellion on Israel's part must lead (and has led) to the punishment of the nation through the instrumentality of a pagan aggressor, the Chaldeans. That in itself is a demonstration of the righteousness of God, as both Habakkuk and Paul would confirm. But Isaiah also believes that having punished his people God will restore and heal them. So there is a critique of those who took the suffering of the servant to be a sign that he was a transgressor (echoes of Job here), but that is not the same as saying that 'Suffering does not always come because of punishment'. That is of course true but it is not Isaiah's point here. The servant is reckoned to have suffered in some way (and the passage does not give us enough information to explain in what way) because of the sins of Israel and so to have suffered the chastisement or correction of Israel (Is. 53:5). Isaiah does not at any point question the justice of the punishment, but he sees that precisely through that punishment (which, remember, is not mere theology but historical experience) forgiveness comes about.

We have a very similar argument in 2 Macc. 7:30-38, except that the martyrs acknowledge that they are themselves culpable – they share in the sins of the nation on account of which they are suffering torment. But they still hope that their suffering as punishment may have an vicarious or substitutionary atoning effect for the nation.

The point about the Holocaust is an important one. I think my response would be that AD 70 has to be seen from the New Testament's point of view (this is to be stressed) as a final, decisive judgment on national Israel – it is the last outworking of the old covenant. I think Paul hoped that following this catastrophe his people en masse would repent and believe that Jesus was the messiah – that seems to me to be the point of Romans 11:26-27. But that didn't happen, and (unsurprisingly) from a historical point of view the NT has nothing to say about national Israel beyond the horizon of judgment.

Nevertheless, the fact that the people of God is now constituted according to a new covenant of the Spirit, with the one who loved his enemies and suffered now reigning as Lord, must surely mean that we view such events as the Holocaust or a car crash differently.

Again, it seems to me that a narratively-constructed theology allows us to maintain some important distinctions – allows us to define a moral and theological integrity for ourselves without prejudicing the interpretation of Scripture. I totally agree with you about the pastoral problem of fundamentalist application of the Old Testament. But we also have to be alert to the fact that the pressure of pastoral and moral concerns can lead us to distort and misrepresent the nature of Israel's historical experience of God.

At 1:54 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


You write, "Isaiah fully accepts that persistent rebellion on Israel's part must lead (and has led) to the punishment of the nation" but he does not say this in chapter 53. Chapter 53 seems to critique that kind of conclusion. There the punishment of the servant was not because of his rebellion. What if there is not just one Isaiah? Or what if Isaiah here is adding in a twist? At any rate chapter 53 stands out to me from the entire book. There is something surprising about that one chapter that is not in the rest of Isaiah.

You lost me on this next part. What is the difference between "a critique of those who took the suffering of the servant to be a sign that he was a transgressor" and "saying that 'Suffering does not always come because of punishment'." These seem to be the exact same statement to me. At least when I said the later I was thinking the former.

You say "Isaiah does not at any point question the justice of the punishment." But what about where he says "He was oppressed and afflicted yet he did not open his mouth" (the assumption here being that he should be protesting this unfair treatment) "By oppression and judgment he was taken away" (Isa 53:7,8 NIV compare Acts 8:33). The NET renders this "He was led away after an unjust trial" the NRSV has "By a perversion of justice he was taken away" That sounds like a clear statement of a miscarriage of justice to me. That the reason verse 10 begins "and yet..." Yet despite how completely unjust that was, still God had a plan.

I was fascinated by your statement "Nevertheless, the fact that the people of God is now constituted according to a new covenant of the Spirit, with the one who loved his enemies and suffered now reigning as Lord, must surely mean that we view such events as the Holocaust or a car crash differently."

I find that encouraging to hear, but I'd like to explore it a bit. Are you saying that *before* suffering was the result of judgment, but now something has changed and that is no longer true, no longer how God operates? What changed? Did God change?

At 4:36 AM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...

Derek, you say, 'There the punishment of the servant was not because of his rebellion.' That's correct. But the punishment was because of Israel's rebellion. There's a twist, but it shouldn't be construed simply as a critique or rejection or repudiation of the covenant argument about sin and suffering. Isaiah 53 stands out, i think, because it suggests that the sin of Israel can be atoned for through the suffering of another. The connection between sin and suffering is still there, but the subject has changed: Israel sins and the righteous servant suffers.

That distinction, I think, should explain the point about the distinction between Isaiah's critique of those Jews who attributed the servant's suffering to his sin and the general argument that suffering does not always come because of punishment. The Jews were right to think that in this particular instance suffering is a consequence of sin but wrong to attribute the suffering to the servant's rather than their own sin. That's probably oversimplifying the point, but I think it makes sense.

Isaiah does not question the justice of Israel being punished. That is not the same as saying he questioned the justice of the servant's suffering. Again, the 'atonement' works by disconnecting the suffering from the sin. Certainly, the servant suffers unjustly, but he suffers because Israel sinned. I don't think, though, that that can then be construed as God directly punishing the servant in order to satisfy some abstract requirement of justice. That is not the basis on which the vicarious suffering of the servant works.

Before Jesus – or perhaps more precisely before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 – suffering was the result of judgment for the covenant people. They had signed up to that agreement. Obedience would lead to blessing and prosperity; disobedience would lead eventually to suffering, destruction, exile, and so on – and AD 70 was the final outworking of that rule. It is not a universal principle, though there is always in the background the thought that for humanity the wages of sin is death. I would argue that Jesus' language of gehenna, etc., points to his view that Israel would suffer death and destruction, in concrete historical terms, as a consequence of their rebelliousness.

The covenant people is no longer under a Law that stipulates destruction and death, disease, famine, and exile, as a consequence of disobedience. We are now under grace. The human condition hasn't changed: the wages of sin is still, in the end, death. But the people of God represent by their existence in the world a different way of dealing with the sinfulness that corrupts all human endeavour. We experience the underpinning, reparative grace of God in our own lives; but we also embody it prophetically and as a community of priests for the world.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger Josh said...


I didn't respond to your hypothetical pastoral crisis above because I assumed you knew that I would not call such a tragedy God's judgment. All I'm saying is that in order to understand various passages of Scripture, it's helpful to know that Jews thought of Israel's tragedies as God's judgment. Whether they were right or wrong in this analysis, I don't know. I do find helpful Andrew's observation that this view was not a universal principal but had to do with Israel's unique covenant relationship with God and the consequences of breaking this covenant.

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


I'd like to place what you describe above within the larger narrative context of God's salvation history. Part of that involves a developing understanding of who God is and how God works where we have in Christ a fuller revelation than we do in the Old Covenant. We have continuity, but we also have a re-framing of these narratives that introduces something new to them and suggests that some parts of them were incomplete understandings, mere shadows. So while I can see that what you say above can be seen to represent how Isa 53 may have been understood at the time, there is a lot more data that we are in possession of now, a lot more pivotal chapters in the story that have taken place which radically transform that older narrative.
One which I have mentioned earlier is Jesus view towards “sinners”. By this he does not mean the classical bad guy, the tyrant, the brute. These people he calls “snakes” and “foxes”. When he speaks of sinners he is referring to the rejected, the poor, the sick, the ostracized, the unclean. He rejects the idea that they should be viewed as guilty, rejects the idea that he should not touch them, let alone befriend them, and does so to an extent that his actions are perceived as being sinful, blasphemous, and demonic. This is how Jesus is presented to us by the Gospel writers – that is, the proclaim him as sinless and holy but at the same time as one who was seen by the leaders of his faith at the time as the polar opposite. Again, there is a critique here. We do not see Jesus saying that it is right that they are suffering, we see him opposing that suffering, working to undo it. We also to don't see the disciples in acts interpreting Jesus death in terms of his suffering, but in terms of overcoming death through the resurrection. There is I believe an important roll that representational suffering of God incarnate plays here, but it needs to be understood within the broad narrative of God in Christ opposing and undoing death. The central act of God is the resurrection which undoes the human evil of the cross.


At 3:12 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


There is considerable struggle already present in the OT with the idea that suffering is the consequence to sin. Job objects to the conclusion, as do the Psalms that observe that while they want to see the bad suffer, they in fact see that the bad go unpunished while the innocent suffer. Looking around today we see the same thing: who really suffers from a crime, the criminal or the victim? Clearly the victim does. It just is not true that the guilty suffer. All the people in Haiti killed in the earthquake were not any worse sinners that we are. It is simply a false conclusion based on the desire to have the world make sense. Maybe it would be nice if bad things happened to bad people, but as we and the psalmist and Job all observe... that just isn't true. It never was true. Isaiah may have wanted to frame Israel's suffering pedagogically to show how it could stop if they would just repent, but that is bad pedagogy because it is not only untrue, but deeply hurtful. Again, think of how damaging it would be for you to be told in the midst of mourning a loved one that they deserved to die because God was mad at you and them. Statements like those are no less hurtful then than they are now. They are horrible things to say, and always have been. That's why we see people in the OT wrestling with these statements, critiquing them, objecting to them. They represent a primitive morality that Israel grew up out of. It is a view of God which I feel morally compelled to categorically reject, and I see many figures in the OT and NT doing the same thing. Jack Miles has I think successfully illustrated that the entire picture of the warrior God who favors one tribe and who rules through force and violence is a failed image of God. Not only because that God failed to keep Israel safe, but because that entire picture of might and power is an a profoundly immoral one that has lead people like Luther to cry out “I did not love, and indeed I hated that righteous God who punished sinners.”

At 12:36 AM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...

Derek, I understand your interest in the 'larger narrative context of God's salvation history'. My point is simply that I don't entirely trust the way that story has come to be told by mainstream modern traditions – and the way that it has been retrojected on scripture. But we've gone over that ground already.

You make a good point about the distinction between a corrupt and hypocritical leadership and the marginalized community of 'sinners' whom Jesus accepts and to whom he extends forgiveness. But I'm not sure that that means he does not regard the 'sinners' as 'guilty' or complicit in the sinfulness of Israel. Otherwise what would be the point of 'I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance'? Indeed, what would be the point of extending forgiveness to them? The distinction is surely between the unrepentant 'sinners' into whose hands the Son of man is betrayed (Mk. 14:41) and the repentant 'sinners' who constitute the basis for hope that the people of God will not be utterly destroyed on the day of God's wrath. Jesus' opposition to their 'suffering' is (I would suggest) simply the concrete expression of the forgiveness of a covenant people: Jesus forgives repentant Israel and confirms that forgiveness by alleviating the physical signs of their being under judgment.

I'm not sure about your argument from Acts. Peter's sermon in Acts 3:11-26, for example, certainly places the suffering of Jesus within the narrative about the renewal of Israel – it is a victory over death primarily for the sake of the covenant people that stands under judgment, threatened with destruction. And of course Paul has a great deal to say about the suffering of Jesus. In my view, this is because the community expected to have to suffer at the hands of the enemies of YHWH in the same way that Jesus suffered. We can perhaps couch that in the language of the 'representational suffering of God incarnate', but that seems to me just another example of how a later theology obscures the contingent historical narrative.

I made the point before that finding a theology of retributive suffering in the covenantal narrative of Israel according to the Law (a narrative that runs at least through to AD 70), does not mean that we have to perpetuate that theology today. I don't think it helps particularly to call this a 'failed image of God' – I think there are probably more constructive ways of making the point. But my main concern is to relocate Jesus, with exegetical and historical integrity, within the biblically interpreted narrative of Israel – not to let this story be distorted by our modern ethical and theological prejudices, no matter how justifiable they may be.

I agree that there is a counterwitness to the covenant theology but it is focused on individuals. The judgment-suffering argument has to do with Israel as a nation: invasion, destruction, warfare, exile, etc., are taken as concrete evidence that the nation has been judged by its God. We should be careful not to overwrite a motif that is so central both to the prophetic witness and to the Gospels in the interests of preserving a more nuanced modern ethic.

At 9:15 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


It seems that my emphasis has been to show the "critique" entailed in the NT to the OT narrative which thus transforms and redeems it, while your emphasis has been to show continuity and to present the idea of penal suffering and its representational fulfillment in Jesus for the nation as representing the central plot arc of the OT narrative.

My question is: if this is indeed a presentation of how Jews understood things, why is it that no one including the disciples saw the cross coming and indeed were appalled by it? Why again is it that the majority of Judaism at the time rejected Jesus as messiah because of the cross? This would indicate to me that they understood their narrative differently.

At 12:14 AM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...

Yes, I think probably the issue is at what point historically does the penal understanding of suffering cease to operate. I would argue that AD 70 constitutes the end point of that theology though it has to be stressed that this culmination and transition is anticipated in Jesus' death as suffering because of Israel's sin.

But then your question is a challenging one. In The Coming of the Son of Man I use the image of a ship heading towards a storm. The crew are squabbling over control of the vessel. One man insists that there is no hope for the ship, that to survive they must take to the lifeboats and take their chances on the rough and dangerous sea. The man is set upon by the others for daring to question the sea-worthiness of the ship and killed. A few people believe him and take the risk of launching a life-boat. In the end they watch horrified from a safe distance as the ship founders and sinks in the storm.

The point is that Judaism did not want to admit that it faced disaster and that the only hope lay in a radical repentance. John the Baptist called the Jews to repent and be baptised because the axe was already laid to the root of the trees – in other words, because he foresaw judgment coming. But in the end it was only a very small group of people who proved willing not only to believe that things were coming to a head but to take up their own crosses and follow Jesus down a narrow path of suffering. The story of the rich young ruler shows what an unappealing option that could be.

And of course, Paul agonises in Romans over the failure of his people to recognise the parlous position that they were in. They had the theology that said that God punished rebellion – and they were quick to apply it to the idolatrous, unjust and immoral Gentiles. But they refused to accept that the same theology applied to them – more so in fact, because they had been chosen to be a benchmark of righteousness amongst the nations.

At 1:48 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Thanks for your response. I’m appreciating the nuance and sensitivity in which you engage these issues. You are an excellent advocate for your position. As I’ve said before, I think that rather than disagreeing (indeed I think an awful lot of what you say is right on) it strikes me that I am simply emphasizing a different side of the issue than you are. With that in mind, I’d like to return to what you said in your previous post:

“I understand your interest in the 'larger narrative context of God's salvation history'. My point is simply that I don't entirely trust the way that story has come to be told by mainstream modern traditions – and the way that it has been retrojected on scripture. But we've gone over that ground already.”

I’d like to unpack this a bit more because I think it is really the key issue here behind our two approaches. As you say, your “main concern is to relocate Jesus, with exegetical and historical integrity, within the biblically interpreted narrative of Israel.” My question is: why would that be valuable? Or more specifically, to what end?

What I am getting at is this: if the Bible is simply a historical book that has no normative value, and our task is to act as historians, then I can certainly see the merit in your historical exegesis. If however the ultimate goal is to read Scripture informatively, then this conclusion is less obvious. In fact, what I see the writers of Scripture doing is reading texts so that they are applicable to their time. That how the NT authors read the OT (and especially Isa 53 which they apply to Jesus), and even some would argue how Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John read the historical Jesus whom they adapt to speak into the unique situations of their respective audiences. This is also how people have read their Bibles for centuries – devotionally, allowing God to speak to them. All of that is – from the perspective of historical exegesis that is taught in our seminaries – wrong exegesis. But along with a lot of other folks (Richard Hays for example) I’m wondering just how fruitful a historical method is. And I’m wondering if that “wrong” exegesis is not in fact deeply biblical (that is:how the biblical authors read their Bibles), and deeply Jewish (that is: characteristic of Jewish exegesis both then and now).

I’m not suggesting that we should be ignorant of history, but I am suggesting that perhaps the way that things were viewed by the people in the original historical context is not necessarily the “right way” to see them. Perhaps the later insights (including ones by the later church) may better express truth than the original historical perspective did. My concern is that while I would not want to “retroject” the future onto the past, I also do not think we should simply ignore 2000 years of good theology and hit the reset button. I don’t want to say the Amish used iPhones, but I also don’t want to drive around in a buggy.

At 1:51 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Sorry typo: "to read Scripture informatively" should be
"to read Scripture normatively"

At 1:20 PM, Blogger Josh said...


I like the way Hays approaches Scripture. It seems to me, though, that he does both historical-critical work and theological interpretation (seen especially in his work on ethics).

With you, I think the Bible has normative value for Christians--but not every passage in the Bible. Somewhere I have read N.T. Wright argue that not every passage of Scripture remains relevant. Part of the value of beginning with a historical-critical reading is that this work shows us what parts remain relevant to Christians. Some passages may need a theological or Christological interpretation to have relevance for Christians today, other passages may remain relevant without such a reading, and still others may prove to be no longer relevant no matter how they are read (for example, the NT sometimes seems to correct the OT).

At 4:21 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

That all makes a lot of sense Josh, I agree.

At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...

Derek, I started writing a response but it exceeded the character limit, so I posted it here: I hope it is apparent that in pushing for a more rigorous narrative-historical approach I am not disputing the validity of your more theologically and ethically motivated hermeneutic (Josh makes some good comments). I just think that there is a lot more to be gained from reading the New Testament historically than we perhaps realize, and if nothing else, I am curious to see how far it takes us.

At 8:49 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Woo hoo, the party has now relocated to Andrew's place
I'm on my way over...

At 5:19 AM, Anonymous Andrew Perriman said...

Great. Bring a bottle!

At 5:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

can I break into this as an enterloper on the question of sickness, suffering and even death, as very good instruments God purposely uses at all times! And, that the Scripture goes to great lengths to make clear a distinction between punishment, with a view of destruction, and chastisement, with a view of correction.
If we believe then, that this world is not a continuing city, that we are merely pilgrims and strangers here, then if our friends, our mates and even our own children suffer sickness and even death in this world, perhaps it was because God in His rich mercy saw that one's hidden and secret sinfulness, and had they continued on, they might have lost their souls eternally.

I would love to see my own family as such wonderful people all, and look to see they receive nothing but God's best at all times and would not want to face that they may in fact not be such wonderful people after all, and that some are in fact nasty and selfish, and oppose God every chance they get.

So, the question becomes, if I really truly love them, would I prefer they remain whole and healthy to enter into hell having suffered nothing in this life,or have them go into heaven..without that limb or eye, or sickened unto death having a shortened life?
And as regards our Lord's healing of the sick: our human bodies are as important to God as they are to us in this life.
But, if I may speak personally, I began this way desperately holding on to my flesh, while first seeing myself a young man as true hearted, determined, and full of purpose for God's will for me, but in this life character is easier kept than recovered. And that's when you find yourself engaged in a sacrificial dance with your flesh; you either slowly let go of it, to grasp more unto the life of God in Christ, or you keep holding on, and life in the flesh has a way of coming in between you and the man you wanted to be for God.

Ah, but this way is never as beautiful as when you find it within your heart to agree to allow His Cross to purposely crush and destroy your flesh as a living sacrifice which is acceptable to God and your reasonable service to Him.
So, my purpose has always been to be healed spiritually and not physically.
I can't recall if I have ever asked God to heal me when I was sick, and I won't ask Him now, when my doctors have given me the news I am dying of cancer.
After all, I have spend my life laboring body and soul taking care of His business, and He has promised that if we take care of His business, He would take care of ours.

...Great is His faithfulness....


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