After a ”deserved” break (for you as well as me), I now return to my series on “theological hermeneutics.” (For the previous articles, see the heading “Hermeneutics” on my Serial Index page.)
My last few posts in this series emphasized the redemptive-historical character of Scripture as a function of the narrative plot of God’s story. In particular, I have suggested (along with others, of course–it is not my invention or solitary insight) that we read Scripture as a Five Act drama: Creation, Israel, Ministry of Jesus, Church and Eschaton. In this reading, it is appropriate to think of Creation and Eschaton as the bookends, the intent (creative purpose) and goal (eschatologial telos), of God’s story. Israel and the Church are the historical implementation of the divine intent within in a broken world with mixed results as both Scripture andecclesiastical history make clear.
In this post I want to suggest that the Christ Event (or, more specifically but not limited to, the ministry of Jesus) is the eschatological realization of the divine intent and goal within history. Whew! I need to unpack that one but it deserves a book. Here is a brief attempt.
What I mean by “Christ Event” is the broad conception of Christology itself. The “Christ Event” is the incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. It is fundamentally an act of God in and through the flesh to redeem the cosmos.
In this post I will concentrate on the “ministry of Jesus” since it is, I think, often underplayed in the history of theology, particulary in Stone-Campbell theology. Yet we should always think about the “Christ Event” holistically rather than compartmentalizing it or neglecting some of its aspects (e.g., Evangelicals tend to emphasize the death of Christ more than any other dimension–just compare how many songs we sing about the cross in contrast with how many we sing about the ministry or resurrection of Jesus).
The ministry of Jesus is not simply the historical evidence of the messianic office of Jesus (which is its primary function in Stone-Campbell thinking). For example, the miracles of Jesus in this frame are often regarded as simple authentifications of the message rather than eschatological signs of the reign of God. Neither is the ministry of Jesus simply the active obedience of Jesus to secure active righteousness for the sake of imputation in a Reformation doctrine of justification (as is often the case in historic Reformed theology). For example, the obedience of Jesus is seen more in the context of meritorious achievement rather than a path of discipleship. I want to suggest–without denying the substance of the above–that the ministry of Jesus is itself the implementation of the divine intent of creation and the realization of the eschatological goal within history. It is the climatic moment in the history of redemption because it embodies the intent and goal of God’s story.
On the one hand, the ministry of Jesus is the presence of the Incarnate God at work to reverse the brokenness of the world, that is, the mission of Jesus is to reverse the curse. He is the true image of God–indeed, the one through whom the cosmos was made. He is the true Israel–all that Israel should have been; he is the remnant of Israel. He is the beloved Son of God who lives out the original divine intent in creation as humanity was intended to do. He is the fleshly and personal emodiment of God’s creative intent which should not be surprising since he is the instrument of creation itself.
On the other hand, the ministry of Jesus is the presence of the eschaton. The future arrived in the person and ministry of Jesus. His ministry is an eschatological ministry–he raises the dead, heals the sick, includes the outsider, brings good news to the poor. The eschatological hopes of Israel are realized in the minsitry of Jesus (e.g., Matthew 4:12-17). His death is an eschatological one–it is no mere physical death but a participation in the eschatological death (curse) that hangs over the creation. His resurrection–and this is the easiest one to see–is an eschatological event; it belongs to the future but appears within the flow of history as the firstfruits of the Eschaton. The incarnation itself, I would suggest, is an eschatological reality as the person of God dwells with his people on the earth which is both the original walk of God in the Garden and the hope of Revelation 21:1-4.
Without fully arguing this point, permit me to stress its significance. As the historic instantiation of divine intent and the proleptic realization of God’s eschatological goal, the ministry of Jesus (as part of the Christ Event) is the “pattern” (model, or whatever synonymn or metaphor one might want to employ) for living out the story of God. He is the story of God lived. He is the embodiment of both divine intent and the divine goal. The climax of the story of God appears within history as the fulfillment of divine intent and in anticipation of the appearance of the Eschaton itself. He is the image of God–what God intended his creation to be. He is the Son of Man–not in the sense that he is is human, but in the sense that he is the presence of the Eschaton (“Son of Man” is an eschatological title).
Understood in this way, the ministry of Jesus is the ministry of the church; the mission of Jesus is the mission of the church. I have made this point previously but it is important to stress this in the context of redemptive-historical hermeneutics. The ministry of Jesus is not simply the central act in terms of the middle act of five acts, but it is the central act because it is both the embodiment of the original (first) act and the last (fifth) act. It is beginning, center and goal of history itself. Consequently, the ministry of Jesus is the climactic moment in redemptive history. It serves, then, as the hermeneutical lens for thinking about divine intent and goal as we seek to live out the story of God in the present. The ministry of Jesus–or, speaking more holistically, the Christ Event–is our hermeneutical lens.
Israel was created to be the image of God in the world, but it was flawed. The church was created to be the image of God in the world, but it is flawed. The image of God is lived in Jesus. Neither Israel (as is clear from the Hebrew Scriptures) nor the church (as is clear from the Epistles) are the pattern for the image of God but rather Jesus–the Christ Event–is that pattern.
How this plays out in terms of specific ecclesiological issues that have dominated discussions within Reformed and Stone-Campbell hermeneutics is an important question to which I will soon turn. But the theological substance is what is important to me at this point. It is to see Christology–rather than ecclesiology–as the core pattern for living out the story of God and embodying the narrative of God in our present lives both individually and communally.
Ultimately, our ecclesiology must be an expression and application of Christology. Ecclesiology cannot stand on its own. Rather, it is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ; it is built on the foundation of the ministry of Jesus. Just as Israel found its fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus, so the church continues the ministry of Jesus. Everything before the ministry of Jesus pointed toward it and everything after the ministry of Jesus should be grounded in it.
Part of my point is that to find the “pattern” for the church in the Acts and the Epistles is to get the cart before the horse. The pattern for the church is the ministry of Jesus. The Acts and the Epistles are illustrations of how the church lived out the ministry of Jesus as it spread across the known world. The Acts and Epistles do not constitute “patterns” (specified, detail instructions about how to “do church”) for the church but rather guides (explanations, interpretations and applications of the “Christ Event”) for how to live out the pattern exhibited in the ministry of Jesus himself who is both the Image (intent) and Eschaton (goal) of God.