The story of Israel and the saving promise of particularity, or why its important God doesn’t see us all the same

I presented a paper at a conference on hermeneutics a few years ago and had a respondent who hoped to improve on my proposal by offering the importance of a biblical meta-narrative. A “meta-narrative” is an overarching story that helps you interpret the importance of other aspects of biblical testimonies. How do these other elements relate to the biblical meta-narrative? This might tell you if a text has continuing relevance today, for instance.

I pushed back. While I’m a big fan of narrative as a leading characteristic of the biblical testimonies, I’m hesitant to lift a single narrative out of Scripture as the one ring that rules them all. I’m more comfortable, I suggested, talking about the biblical narratives (plural) and recognizing the inherent tensions that exist between some of them. Instead of smoothing these tensions out by appealing to one story that rules them all, I think the tensions themselves are important for us to live with as we interpret Scripture.

My auditor was not impressed with my response. With a high dose of incredulity, he suggested that every Christian would agree that creation-fall-redemption-consumation is the biblical meta-narrative. He’s certainly not alone with this kind of approach. Scot McKnight argues for something similar in The Blue Parakeet and NT Wright does something like this as well with his story in five acts. It’s popular with the students I teach at the graduate level as well. And who am I to disagree with McKnight and Wright? Fair point. And I would add that McKnight and Wright’s understanding of the major acts in the drama are full and more complex than this bare outline would suggest and don’t rub out the diversity of the narratives.

Still, in my favor, this is not how Orthodox Christians understand the story. They read Genesis 2-3 very differently, for instance, so don’t really have a “Fall” in their doctrine of salvation. So, not every Christian sees the overarching story in these terms. My auditor was outlining one way the biblical story has been understood (a Reformed version), but not the only one. I stuck to my guns that day and my commitments have only deepened.

Here’s the current problem I’m wrestling with related to this currently: the place of Israel in the creation-fall-redemption scheme. I mean think about it. What necessary place does Israel have in this scheme? For most of the people I worship with, Israel is little more than a failed attempt at delivering salvation. Law vs. grace. Commandment keeping vs. faith. Failed covenant vs. new covenant. It’s a historical part of the story and “predicts” the coming of Jesus in some places and we may learn a thing or two about God along the way, but Israel’s story has little or no immediate relevance in the creation-fall-redemption way of telling the story.

Let me see if I can make this point clearer. When you begin the drama with creation-fall, you generalize the biblical story. It becomes a story about each person, an abstract story about human sin, not a particular story about a particular people. The point or telos of the story easily becomes focused on an explanation of how to overcome individual sin and guilt.

“Yeah, so?” you ask. “Haven’t all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Isn’t this the point of Jesus’ coming, so that this would no longer be just a story about Israel, but all people?” Yes and no, and mostly no.

Let’s look at the stories the biblical authors are working within as they address God’s people. While creation and fall comes first in our Bibles, it’s not the story most use to explain what God is up to in either the Old Testament or New. For instance, there are several places in Scripture where Israel recites its story to clarify its identity. The story of “the Fall” never appears in these recitals and the story of Creation only once. The promise made to David shows up sometimes, but not often. The promises made to the patriarchs show up in most, but not all. The Exodus story is in every single one of them.

To expand this point, the creation-fall story is not told as a preface to the giving of the law, but the story of the Exodus is. And when Israel’s prophets call Israel and her kings back to covenant loyalty, they do not typically appeal to a creation-fall scheme, but they often appeal to the story of God’s act of mercy in delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery. The return of the people from exile, for instance, is often cast in Exodus terms. I think it’s fair to say that for Old Testament interpreters of Israel’s story, the Exodus functions paradigmatically in much the same way that the death and resurrection story does in the New Testament. So, while creation occupies the first place in our Bibles and certainly has theological significance, it doesn’t hold the first place in the theological imagination of the Hebrew Scriptures.

“Yeah, so. That’s the Old Testament. Jesus changes the meaning of the story in the New Testament.” Yes and no, mostly no.

I’m working a lot in Luke-Acts currently, which certainly emphasizes universalism (the salvation of people from all nations), but it does so within the story of God’s covenant promises to Israel. For instance, the significance of the death of Jesus in Luke is not related to individual sin, or a creation-fall interpretation of the biblical story. Instead, Jesus’ death is aligned with the unjust death of all the prophets who have come before him, from Abel to Zechariah. His death pulls back the curtain on these injustices, exposing the violent ways that human kingdoms keep the peace. Given this emphasis, it is no surprise that the story of the Exodus features prominently in the telling of Luke’s gospel. In Luke, the rule of God (Kingdom) stands in contrast to the rule of Caesar or Herod or Caiaphas or, by extension, Pharaoh. In Luke’s world, the power of the Holy Spirit is more powerful than the power of earthly rulers who can imprison, execute, tax, etc, and produces an alternative reality–the Kingdom of God.

OK, but what about Paul? Fair enough. Paul certainly has a functioning creation theology that includes Jews and Gentiles, and he does give us a lot of language that can be related to personal salvation, for instance, justification. But Paul scholars have been challenging the long held assumption that justification by faith is the center of Paul’s theology. In fact, scholars like James Dunn suggest its wrong to think of Paul’s theology as having a center–a doctrine or idea that informs others. Paul is less concerned with the question of how individual sinners have their sins forgiven, and more interested in how the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenants of promise can represent the righteousness of God. The stories that stand behind that question are less creation-fall, and more related to the promises that God has made with Israel. In other words, Paul has not set aside the story of Israel for a generic human story about sin and redemption, but instead places what God has accomplished in Jesus within the concrete story of Israel. As a result, the story of salvation Paul tells is much larger than a story of individual forgiveness. Paul envisions salvation in terms of a new creation where all things (creation, our bodies) participate in the transforming realities of the resurrection.

Other New Testament writers could be similarly called to testify, and perhaps there would be some who are animated more by a creation-fall-redemption scheme, but not many candidates come readily to mind.

So, to summarize, the meta-narrative of creation-fall-redemption does not seem to be the one behind most biblical writings, nor does there seem to be a single alternative meta-narrative. But why does this matter? I think it matters profoundly and beyond the need to interpret the Bible well. At the very least, it would blunt the anti-Semitic impulse that has run through Christian history. But there’s more here as well, tendencies we don’t recognize because they’re part of the assumed fabric of Christian theology and practice. Let me see if I can get there.

Not long ago, a speaker at a church I attended talked about learning to see the world the way God sees it. God does not see our particularity, our racial and ethnic identities, this person claimed, but only our souls. Beyond the non-biblical anthropology at work here (we are not souls “encased in bodies”), this statement traffics at the level of same-ness or the general and abstract. This view comes from, I think, a creation-fall-redemption version of the story. There is no particularity, only a general human condition. There is no Israel, only generic, disembodied sinners. This is different than saying, for instance, that God loves the diversity of humanity in all of its colorful particularity. Could it be that God doesn’t see us all the same even if he loves us all the same? Could it be that our particularity is a gift, and that the gift of the other as an other is precisely what we need to be redeemed, to be liberated from our own sinful insularity?

When we make the Christian story a story about same-ness, it favors the experience of the majority at the expense of the marginalized. Hear me out. When same-ness becomes the norm of Christian imagination, what’s “normal” is easily confused with the experience of the majority. Same-ness too easily becomes the assimilation of the minority into the experience of the majority. Because there is no generic experience of what it means to be human, we have to assign same-ness to a particular experience big enough to pull off the illusion of being the definition of normal. It turn, this not only encourages various expressions of paternalism, but makes it invisible to those who benefit from it. We are, after all, attempting to see all people as being the same.

It was this kind of paternalism, traveling under the theological cover of creation-fall-redemption, that allowed European missionaries to confuse Christianity with Western civilization. Land and bodies and geographical identities were unimportant next to “saving souls,” which was indistinguishable from “civilizing” them according to European standards. Willie Jennings, in his provocative book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, makes these connections clear. He demonstrates how soteriology became the driving logic of colonialism and claims that with the loss of the particular story of Israel came the loss of tying particular identities to place (Zulus, Aztecs, etc), all with disastrous consequences.

“OK, but those days are long in the past and we’ve overcome them with the same old creation-fall-redemption view of the Christian story.” Well, not so fast. Theologians like SMU’s Joerg Rieger suggest that colonialism has changed, not gone away. We’re in a neo-colonial era more than a post-colonial one. But let’s bring it closer to home.

Suburban congregations that do “outreach” to urban areas do not imagine, for instance, that the African-American experience is the norm to emulate or learn from. When they plant a church in the area, they import their own experience and too often replace the capacities of those who have lived there for generations. They don’t ask, how might we be assimilated into the experience of the congregations that are already there, but how can we assimilate this neighborhood into our expression of Christianity? They assume that their experience is normative.

How else would you explain urban ministries whose staff are all suburban imports and whose boards do not include any long term residents? As one urban church planter confessed to me, “I now realize we’re benevolent imperialists.”

Maybe I’ve convinced you that a skinny creation-fall-redemption soteriology pushes toward “same-ness,” which in turn makes the majority experience the assumed norm resulting in paternalistic practices. Maybe not. But at any rate, what difference would holding on to the particularity of the story of Israel make?

If the story of salvation necessarily passes through the story of Israel, it can never fully be my possession. It didn’t start with me, doesn’t depend on me, and it didn’t come directly to me from God. It came to me through someone else’s story, which means it is never fully my possession. I cannot confuse my own experience of the story with the story itself. So, when I’m a missionary to Uganda or Uraguay I cannot point to myself as the carrier of the story. I am instead a witness to the story. It is not my possession, it is not given to me within my own history. The story is mediated to me and to the Ugandans and Uruguayans through the story of Israel. We are both found in the sequence of “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Together we witness what this story will produce among us.

The particular (biblical) story of Israel is important for more than its mediating function. Israel’s story is unlike others. Israel exists wholly within the saving action of God on its behalf. Israel is called by God’s summoning promise. It exists, not as the most powerful of nations or the most populous. They exist as God’s people precisely because they have been liberated from slavery, a situation beyond their control, which in turn obligates them to the widow, the stranger, and the orphan among them. It is this particular social circumstance that allows them to bear the story of God in the world. This is a different story than the story empires tell about themselves, stories where the world bends to their will, stories of exceptionalism and progress. Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, Great Britain, the USA, no matter how noble or good or accomplished, need not apply.

God raised Israel’s messiah from the dead and has made him Lord of all.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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2 Responses to The story of Israel and the saving promise of particularity, or why its important God doesn’t see us all the same

  1. Ty says:

    I’m right there with you. Your explanation of the failure of metanarratives sounds a lot like Bakhtin’s _Toward a Philosophy of the Act_: there can be no ethical generalization, but understanding happens in the only-begotten life, the specific moment of life.

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