Salvation here and nowBy Daniel Hertzler
When I first saw the title of this book, I wondered idly whether the author might be an atheist. On second thought, atheists probably do not bother with heaven. It is God they want to get rid of.
In fact, author Wes Bergen is a Mennonite scholar (and current mission worker in Ghana) from North Newton, Kan., who has taught Bible at Wichita State University. Maybe he developed this book from his notes for Bib Lit 101. Occasionally he refers to students’ inadequate views of the Bible. His anti-heaven emphasis may come from weariness at hearing their religious cliches.
The book’s purpose, Bergen writes, is to encourage salvation to happen rather than just talk about it. His students believe salvation is all about going to heaven. But Bergen asserts that “going to heaven is not a significant part of a biblical understanding of salvation. This is not to say it doesn’t exist as part of the answer of what salvation is, but it isn’t a major part.”
Bergen says he discussed his thesis with various groups, including high school youth. He cites the influence of scholars who “point me back to the text, to the Bible as it is rather than the Bible as I want it to be.”
Bergen’s path to understanding salvation takes an unusual turn. He approaches first the Old Testament and then the New from the standpoint of “bad news, good news.” First the bad, then the good.
Bad news in the Bible? Anabaptists have always viewed the Old Testament from the perspective of the New, because we find the greatest good news in the New. We might not look for bad news in the Old Testament, but on occasion we might avert our eyes — as, for example, from the seamy stories in Judges. I do not recall that these stories bothered me when I read the Bible as a child. It seems children are able to pass over such tragedies without being shocked as adults might be.
What is Bergen’s bad news in the Old Testament? He is particularly concerned about the “Grand Narrative” — Genesis to 2 Chronicles — which, he says, “reached its current form sometime after the Israelites are taken into captivity in Babylon… . I’m going to presume that the Grand Narrative reflects the ongoing debate within the community of Israel during the Persian period (roughly 520-330 B.C.).”
Because most of the Grand Narrative’s writers did not cite their sources, we are left to imagine how the narrative developed. Rabbis surmised Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and this idea has persisted. To suggest otherwise is to invite a backlash. Years ago when I was editing Sunday school material, a writer observed that Genesis was probably written in Babylon. I thought this was reasonable, but I should have crossed it out. The statement caused such a stir that management felt the need to put an advertisement in Gospel Herald, the Mennonite Church magazine, to apologize.
I agree in general with Bergen on how the Hebrew Bible came together. My hunch is that Jewish leaders in Babylon took their cue from Jeremiah 29 and wanted to help their children avoid the mistakes that brought them to exile. So, they said, we need to teach them our story and also the law of the Lord as in Deut. 6:4-9 — whose teaching methods some Jews still follow literally.
Bergen says it was only when the writers looked to the distant past that they saw God working in remarkable ways as the Israelites got out of Egypt and into the promised land. The return from Babylon was not like this at all: “No plagues, no manna, no angels.” I have not noticed that Ezra and Nehemiah complained about this lack, and I wonder if Bergen is making too much of it.
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