More than fifteen years ago I wrote The Jesus Creed. How that book came about is worth telling. I was teaching two classes, back to back. Jesus of Nazareth and then a seminar on spiritual formation with seniors. The seminar was reading Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water, which is a kind of history of church thinking about spiritual formation.
Walking Jesus class to the seminar I would mull over in my head how Jesus would approach the topic of the seminar that day. Nearly every day I would say to myself, “Not as this church thinker did.” So, by the middle of the term I was beginning to answer my own question by showing that Jesus thought in Jewish terms and that his thinking was through the lens of the Shema (Deut 6:5-9), and then that his thinking included not only that text but also Leviticus 19:18, and the “Jesus Creed” – loving God, loving others – was born.
Image: Cover Photo
I’m not done, though. I began writing a book on Jesus and spiritual formation because I was tired of hearing pastors and parishioners say truly uninformed and sometimes deeply mistaken things about Judaism and Jesus. I began with Joseph and then Mary and then did some other characters and it was about half way through that study and writing that it dawned on me – like a revelation I’m telling you – that it could all fall in place with the “Jesus Creed.”
So, I began writing the thing all over again with the Jesus Creed in mind and it all came together.
Writing is like that often: explore, explore, explore. Discovery. A moment of revelation. A sudden flash of insight. Then the whole thing takes on a new perspective and one has to write from the beginning in light of the ending, or the revelation.
This is exactly what Douglas Campbell contends for in his many works on Paul, and it is given full articulation in his new and wonderful (buy it!) book Pauline Dogmatics.
His contention is the revelation of God in Christ – Jesus, Paul’s doctrine of revelation, his christology, et al – revolutionized Paul’s comprehension of Israel’s story. His understanding of history, then, was based on a revelation. History, then, is a predicate of revelation (he’s quoting Barth on that one). The Bible, then, must be read backwards or read retrospectively. The Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible, which becomes for Christians the “old” testament through such a reading, is a Christian reading in light of who Christ is.
Campbell says we have to learn to distinguish between quests, which are inductive, make no assumptions, and build the bricks one by one until we get a house. Thus, start with Genesis 1 and let the story lead us where it goes and if we read it right it will get us to the revelation of God in Christ. Campbell says No. That kind of reading will not get us to Jesus because Jesus was a shattering revelation of such great consequences that everything became new.
It’s like getting a vision of the whole from a mountain top and seeing everything now in new way.
This is what I have come to believe: there was not one story of Israel. There were stories. What there was is a combination of several elements that make up a story: characters (Adam and Eve, Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, etc and then Jesus and the apostles and, don’t forget her, Mary), events (creation, sin and expulsion from Eden, covenant with Abram/Abraham, law under Moses, entry into land, exile from land, et al) and various interpretations of those events and characters (election, exile, return, redemption, promise, eschatology).
There is no one telling of these characters and events in Israel’s history though the deuteronomic one seems to run dominant. With Jesus the whole story changes because the characters and events now take on a new interpretation. The people and events are shifted into a new schematic reading of the same old people and events.
To get to Jesus’ kingdom interpretation we have to focus on different elements of the old story than we need to get to Paul’s ecclesial and redemptive story than we need to get to John’s Life-in-God story than we need to get to Hebrews’ Jesus-is-better story. There is, then, no one single story that unlocks it all.
We do see Jesus, however. Jesus changes the story and from that point on the “old” testament narrative is told anew through that lens. Paul called the old story a “loss” because of what he had gained in Christ. It was all skubala, excrement, feces, rotting garbage. This is from Philippians 3.
This does not disqualify history so much as it gives us a grid through which to read history. Campbell’s penchant word for thinking history will get us there is “foundationalism.” The quest for the historical Jesus then is foundationalism and it will never get us to the Pauline story (or the Jesus story for that matter). The story of Jesus and the apostles is more memoir than quest. Nothing is bracketed off so we get to the unvarnished facts. No, the story is told from an angle.
The God of love then is a God of story, but that love-story-God is one that fashions the narrative for us in Christ. For Campbell, the true story is one imposed on the past because of the revelation.