You are hereAn Interview with Andrew Perriman
An Interview with Andrew Perriman
As a frequent reader of Open Source Theology, I can say that Andrew Perriman is one of the most accessible authors I have ever encountered; he readily replies to those asking questions and loves interacting with his readers openly. Rarely does he write something that has no deep meaning and he is one of the most generous and thoughtful people I interact with. So I am very excited to finally bring to you an interview in which Andrew will discuss some of his new projects and talk about where his work and journey has taken him. Andrew is the author of The Coming of the Son of Man, Otherways, and Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for a PostBiblical Church.Virgil Vaduva: Would you tell the readers here a bit about yourself and your background, your websites and journey? What makes Andrew Perriman tick and why is he involved in this conversation? Why theology, instead of Premier League football?
Andrew Perriman: In brief. Studied English Literature at Oxford. Went to Sudan to teach English. Did little teaching, lots of travelling, and started reading some industrial-strength theology (Macquarrie, Bultmann, Jeremias, Hick, Robinson, Moltmann, Küng). Spent a year at London Bible College, not exactly a hotbed of theological radicalism at the time. Married into the oil industry. Worked on MPhil and PhD on literary aspects of Paul's thought while living in Brunei, Gabon, the Netherlands and Oman. Started writing seriously. Did church stuff. Was torn between evangelical and critical commitments. Got interested in postmodern and emerging theologies as a way of recovering intellectual and spiritual integrity. Started Open Source Theology as a place to explore these issues further. What makes me tick? A too tightly wound critical spring, which occasionally goes haywire, and a loosely wound love for God.
Virgil: I think that one appropriate place to start our conversation is with my own observations about some of the eschatological developments in Christianity in the past ten years alone; it seems that the eschatology of despair and surrender is somewhat losing ground, especially among younger Christians, and an eschatology of fulfillment and hope is being born. Why do you think this is happening, and how do you think this will affect Christendom in the next few decades?
Andrew: I would agree broadly with your observation, though to speak of the eschatology that is passing away as one of 'despair and surrender' is tendentious - believers whose core future expectation is of rapture and glory would not accept such a negative characterization of their 'hope'. But I agree, nevertheless, that the effect is to foster an attitude of disappointment or disdain or disregard towards creation, and that we are increasingly seeing a reaction against this.
The very success of popular apocalyptic fantasies must be a contributing factor here, but I think that the eschatological re-orientation is part of a larger theological shift away from a privatized, self-centred, and in many respects gnostic form of faith to a way of believing that is much more realistic, holistic, historical, social and (in a particular sense) political. Behind this, I would suggest, is a far-reaching search for renewed relevance following the collapse of the Christendom paradigm. I don't see Christendom as something worth protecting from the consequences of its failings.
My hope is that in the next few decades we will learn to read scripture in our communities in a way that is much better attuned to the historical character of the narratives, and that out of this new reading we will redefine for ourselves the identity and purpose of the people of God under Christ as Lord. I'm not entirely confident, however, that this will happen. It seems to me that most of the change that we see taking place is driven not by theological reflection but by something much more instinctual, much more pragmatic, which then dresses itself in whatever theological categories are to hand. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I would like to see a more attentive and ambitious dialogue taking place between practitioners and theologians.
Virgil: You seem to also see a strong connection between Emergent theology and an eschatology which is maybe fully or at least partially rooted in first century historical events, something you have in the past called narrative-realism. How is narrative-realism different from a Preterist approach to understanding first century events?
Andrew: I find this a difficult question to answer, mainly because I don't think I really understand what Preterism is as a contemporary movement. It's one thing to know that Preterists assert the full or partial fulfilment of New Testament prophecy in the events of the early centuries. It's quite another to understand what has motivated this dogmatic orientation, what it feels like to live within this worldview, how it affects other beliefs, how the movement relates to other sectors of the modern church, and so on.
I arrived at a historically contextualized - a narrative-realist - reading of New Testament eschatology largely on the basis of two quite simple hermeneutical assumptions. The first is that we should suppose that Jesus and his followers spoke about things that directly and concretely concerned the early communities of disciples - not least when they were speaking about the future. That is the realism part. Secondly, we should assume that they understood the historical character of Old Testament prophecy and used it to tell similar stories about the future that they faced. That is the narrative part. So the core question is: How did they tell a story - for the most part a biblical story - about their past, present and foreseeable future?
How does that differ from a Preterist approach? I don't know. That's really a question for Preterists to answer. Preterism sounds to me like a dogmatic position - one that has emerged in reaction against other dogmatic positions such as the Historicism of the Reformation period or the Futurist eschatology of modern evangelicalism. A lot of good scholarship may have been done along the way, but in the end what we are left with is something with a sectarian feel to it - perhaps not surprisingly since it contradicts what has been a fundamental tenet of mainstream Christian belief.
We inevitably bring a set of presuppositions to the interpretation of scripture, and it's probably fair to say that most of our theologizing is polemical in one way or another. So the question is this: What is the main conflict or tension or battle within which we should seek to rethink our theology? The eschatology wars of recent times are not irrelevant, but I don't think that they provide a very helpful starting point or context or methodology for us as we struggle to make sense of our existence as a biblical people. The central issue is rather a hermeneutical one: What sort of text is the New Testament? How does it relate to history? How does it speak about the action of God? How do we best read it in a postmodern context? This seems to me to get to the heart of the challenge that the church faces, which has to do with the integrity and plausibility of its belief system.
So I guess I am more interested in how we read the New Testament than in defending any particular dogmatic outcome of our reading. If it's of interest, I recently attempted a fuller answer to this question here: http://www.andrewperriman.com/node/1576
Virgil: Do you think this is a natural consequence of Emergent hermeneutics, or is it the other way around: the historical hermeneutic is responsible for a new kind of eschatology, one which is rooted in narrative realism?
Andrew: I imagine it's a bit of both. The historical hermeneutic is certainly not new - indeed, it has probably been lurking beneath the surface of evangelical scholarship for decades. What has kept it largely out of sight, particularly when it comes to eschatology, is evangelicalism's strong adherence to the specific doctrine of a Second Coming as a universal and absolute rather than historical and contingent hope for the church. The emerging church has been wary of dogmatism and keen to stress the more practical and humanistic relevance of the kingdom of God, and this seems to have opened up the possibility for a convergence between a historical and postmodern hermeneutic.
I suppose what has happened is that postmodernism has helped us to deconstruct the dominant mythology of modern evangelicalism. We have then turned to historical modes of interpretation to fill the intellectual space that has, as a result, been opened up at the centre of our belief system. The fact that this overlapped with yet another quest for the historical Jesus (the work of N.T. Wright in particular) may or may not have been coincidental. It seems to me that Wright's work has something genuinely in common with the emerging theological agenda, but it is a curious convergence.
Virgil: How about the overarching Biblical narrative? As you well know, a Preterist approach to the narrative is usually taking place in a "covenantal" kind of context: God interacts with mankind within a covenantal structure, thus the narrative is covenantal, the hermeneutic and linguist approach needs to be covenantal, therefore the eschatology conclusion is covenantal. Do you have any thoughts on this kind of approach?
Andrew: I would take a different approach. In Re: Mission I argued that we have in effect two intercalated narratives in scripture. The first has to do with the calling of a people to live in the midst of the nations as God's 'new creation'. The integrity of that new creation was defined by, and should have been safeguarded by, the Law. But when ultimately that integrity failed (because Israel proved itself to be as sinful as the rest of humankind), another story emerged about the suffering and vindication of the one who has faith. In this story we discover that it is not observance of the Law that will safeguard the integrity of this new creation people but the concrete historical trust of a community that must endure suffering in the hope of being vindicated by God. That is the story of the Son of man. It dominates the New Testament, it remains central to our self-understanding, but it also sends us back to the first story about the calling of a people to be 'new creation'. It is that narrative return that we have neglected.
Covenant is an important element in all of this: it is what binds us to the narrative. But I would argue that it is secondary to the essential missional vocation of the people of God, which is to be a renewed creation in the midst of the nations and cultures of the earth, having the hope to which the resurrection crucially points that ultimately even death will be defeated in a final act of judgment and renewal.
Virgil: Some people are wondering, is then anything new at all about an Emergent eschatology, or is it just "Preterism re-imaged?"
Andrew: I doubt if 'Emergent eschatology' is such a coherent or well-defined thing. I have argued that the church as it emerges from the ruins of Christendom would do well to read the New Testament texts in a strongly historical fashion, which I think will lead to the understanding that the Jewish War and the eventual victory over Roman imperial paganism constituted the dominant eschatological horizons of the New Testament. But I doubt that this represents a majority emerging view. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the emerging church is not greatly interested in eschatology, being far more captivated by the earthly life of Jesus.
In any case, there is a lot more to consider than the content of these respective approaches to eschatology. The circumstances and dynamics of these two movements seem to be too divergent for an 'Emergent eschatology' to be 'Preterism re-imaged'. The literary-historical hermeneutic is part of this, but we must also take into account the relation of Emergent to evangelicalism, its emphasis on justice and new creation, the strong orientation towards mission or church planting, and so on. Again, you are likely to have a much better perspective on this than I have.
Virgil: Do you see any differences between the idea of a "Kingdom of God" and that of a "Kingdom of Heaven?" Do you think they were used interchangeably by Jesus?
Andrew: Is this a significant question? Matthew prefers the Jewish circumlocution 'kingdom of heaven', but 'kingdom of God' slips in occasionally. Matthew 19:23-24 shows that the expressions are interchangeable. That leaves the question open, however, as to which Jesus used.
Virgil: Should an Emergent theology also present the "Kingdom" as a present reality, or do you think that takes away something from future expectations?
Andrew: In my view, 'kingdom' discourse in the New Testament mostly has in view to an impending historical event or set of events, when God will act sovereignly or as king to transform the condition of his people - defeat their enemies, deliver them from oppression, and vindicate them in the eyes of the watching pagan world. Because Jesus is the central agent of that transformation, because he makes it his story, he is given the kingdom; he becomes a proxy king in the place of YHWH; he is the one who defines this transformation. The Son of man narrative in the New Testament suggests that the culmination of this process (the fall of Jerusalem is a significant moment along the way) is the eventual victory of the suffering church over Rome. This, in my view, is the final and decisive historical vindication of Jesus and of those who followed him down the difficult path leading to life.
Kingdom becomes an issue when the sovereignty of God over his people is contested or the integrity of the people is threatened. So 'kingdom' - the proxy reign of Christ over his people - remains relevant as long as we are opposed, whether by human enemies, supernatural forces, or death. When the final enemy is destroyed, there will be no more need for Jesus to reign as king over his vulnerable people, and the kingdom will be given back to the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-26). What follows that is not kingdom but new creation.
That is roughly how I read the 'kingdom of God' motif in the New Testament. The emerging church, however, tends to use the phrase rather differently, primarily as a shorthand for a theology of social engagement, as a counterweight to the prevailing 'personal faith' orthodoxy of modern evangelicalism. This seems to me to be a misuse of the term. Kingdom and justice certainly do connect in the Gospels, but in this sense: because the people have failed to live justly and compassionately, God will come to act as king to judge Israel in catastrophic fashion and restore righteousness.
Virgil: Your book The Coming of the Son of Man has been a hit in many theological circles here in the U.S. and I often recommend it as a great reference and introduction to "preteristic" eschatology. How does this make you feel? And why write a book on eschatology to begin with?
Andrew: I wrote a book on eschatology because I felt that there must be a better way of making sense of this troublesome material. It was basically a matter of recovering the narrative integrity of the New Testament. In that respect, I don't really think of it as a book on eschatology. It's a book about how Jesus and his followers drew from the Jewish scriptures a narrative about judgment and transformation, suffering and vindication, and retold that narrative in order to make sense of what God was doing through this new messianic movement. New Testament eschatology is the prophetic or forward-looking part of that story, but it is nevertheless historically coherent with what went before.
Virgil: I personally see a strong possibility of Preterism and Emergent/Emerging eschatology becoming eventually synonymous. Do you think this is a possibility, and is there enough space for all of us to learn from each other and grow together?
Andrew: That may be true. But as I said, eschatology is not the whole story. I prefer a 'narrative-realist' approach because it seems to offer a much better way of holding the whole thing together - and a better framework within which to find our identity and purpose as the people of God after Christendom, at a time of far-reaching disintegration and reconstruction. The 'Preterist' label belongs to a particular polemical context, a particular theological dispute - and if I knew a bit more about the history of the movement (if it amounts to a movement), I would probably want to say that some really good things have been done in the name of Preterism. But I think we need to move beyond that particular polemical context.
Virgil: What new projects do you have on the burner that you can share with us?
Andrew: Nothing definite, but a few ideas.
Virgil: Any closing thoughts or words of wisdom for your Preterist readers?
Andrew: Yes, though more of a question, and it may come across as rather impertinent - so I apologize. I would ask why they need to identify themselves specifically as 'Preterist' readers? I would ask them to consider what theological battle they understand themselves to be engaged in.