the all-purpose theological trump card?

I used to think the story of Israel was the all-purpose theological trump card.

But now I’m having second thoughts.

You see, I’ve signed up for a reading group tackling the whole New Perspective on Paul issue — focussing on the in-print tussle between John Piper and N. T. Wright.

I’m excited about sinking my teeth into it. And I’m especially looking forward to getting our Bibles open so we can weigh up what we read — whichever highly respected teacher and pastor penned it.

But I’ve just finished reading the (extended) introduction to Wright’s Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Towards the end, he caps off a discussion of the representative role stitched into Israel’s expectations about the Messiah like this (page 84):

Once we grasp the essentially Jewish categories of thought with which Paul is working, many problems in a de-Judaised systematic theology are transcended.

Wright’s point here is well made — particularly in relation to the mistaken attempt to play off representation against substitution. And I can’t help but sympathise with him.

I’ve long felt that many of the knots we tie ourselves in when it comes to Christian doctrine and ethics can be significantly slackened by attending to the story of Israel, God’s faithfulness to his promises to Abraham, and the overarching biblical narrative.

I don’t doubt that reference to the story of God’s dealings with Israel (which reaches its climax with Jesus) can throw fresh light on old questions.

But I’m starting to wonder if we might be overplaying it.

What’s your sense? What issues has Israel — and the overall plot-line of Scripture — illuminated for you? And where has it been less helpful than you imagined?

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6 comments

    1. Totally! I really should have done it in this post. But my head’s not in the game this week. I just shared a niggling feeling I have. Thanks for keeping me honest, Matt.

  1. great question Chris.

    like you i’m all for the story of Israel, the ways in which it has been helpful are too many to count.

    to have a go at the second part of your question: could the plot line (ie Israel’s developing narrative) prepare me for the continuities with the gospel better than the discontinuities? could i even be tempted to smooth over the discontinuities for the sake of the overal plot line.

    to what extent am i prepared for statements like: ‘I am making everything new’ (Rev 21.5), ‘the law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming’ (Heb 10.1), and how Melchizedek’s priesthood is ‘like the Son of God’ (Heb 7.3).

    I remember Peter Bolt’s lectures (on BT) would start from the gospel and then move back into Israel’s story. I wonder whether we need to understand the fulfilment before we can understand the story. thoughts?

    1. Hi Tim. Nice pick up on the being prepared for continuities better than discontinuities thing! I hadn’t thought about it that way before.

      As to your question about understanding the fulfilment before we can understand the story, I suppose it depends a little on our sense of what kind of fulfilment we’re talking about. Because — for all its ‘rightness’ — the way Jesus brought the story to a head was thoroughly surprising and hard to swallow for those who first heard it (e.g., I can imagine a first century Seinfeld doing a stand up routine about a crucified Messiah).

  2. Hey Chris,

    First thought: Is it possible to overplay a trump card?. But that may be missing/diverting the point you’re making. Like Matt, I’m keen to see some specifics.

    Second thought: From Monday I’m taking over leadership of a Bible study group for new Christians/interested but not yet committed and I’m planning that the first study series for the year will be an OT overview. I’m still working on the structure but I want to tie it in to the Easter events so that the term builds to a climax at Easter. Perhaps in mature Christian debate we overplay the Israel card (i’m not committing to that until I’ve seen what you’ve got to say) but I think that for younger Christians we too often shy away from tackling Israel’s history. Maybe we think that history isn’t cool? Will turn people off? Isn’t relevant for the young Christian? And maybe it’s just the circles I mix in?

    Finally, I tried to list some areas where I’ve found Israel and the overall plot line helpful but there are too many to be comprehensive. But I will say that Matt and I have just re-read Nehemiah – what a reminder of how sinful we are, how the human heart pulls away from God. The cement is hardly dry and already they’re renting office space to Sanballat. I think that in middle class land where ‘niceness’ is all, a reminder of our sinfulness and what an afront that is to God, is a good thing.

    M.

    1. Hi Michelle,

      What a great idea to take the group for an OT fly-over leading up to Easter! (And sorry for mixing my metaphors — at least we were still playing cards, right?)

      I am definitely a fan of the biblical storyline and agree that we often shy away from it — to our detriment. So even when I do get around (hopefully on Monday) to spelling out where I feel we’re tempted to make Israel the solution to every theological problem, I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying it’s not tremendously important and helpful and in need of emphasis.

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