[K:NWTS 22/1 (May 2007) 50-56]

Book Review

Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. 267pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-664-22779-1. $29.95.

We can be thankful that John Knox has reprinted this work (originally published in 1960), if nothing else, for its influence on New Testament scholarship. It may also be helpful for those studying the documents of Vatican II. For as Leander Keck notes in the foreword, this book was circulating around discussions in Vatican II. Minear is Neo-Orthodox. At the time of this re-publication in 2004, he was still alive and writing at 98 years of age. He wrote this book originally at the request of the World Counsel of Churches to provide a book on the church that could be appreciated by a wide ecumenical audience. As a result, he has chosen to write primarily on areas where New Testament scholars from many traditions agree on issues of New Testament interpretation. This, with his Neo-Orthodox proclivities, suggests a book that is not theologically penetrating.

In spite of his desire to present a broad perspective, he does criticize other views on occasion, such as John A. T. Robinson's view that the church as the body of Christ is to be understood realistically rather than metaphorically. He also presents his own view of the nature of the images, claiming that they cannot be used to provide a coherent metaphysical view. In this respect his view embraces ecumenical liberalism, but rejects orthodoxy. Minear does claim that these images reflect ontological reality. However, one feels that Minear would be comfortable with Richard Niebuhr's distinction between metaphysics (which Niebuhr rejects) and ontology (which he embraces). That is, because of the Kantian divide, our language cannot accurately describe reality. It cannot even do this by way of analogy through the use of univocal and equivocal language. As Minear claims, Paul uses images that are intentionally garbled. Scholasticism and traditional metaphysics are out. At least this seems to be the conclusion of Minear's view of metaphorical language as it was of his mentor Karl Barth, who reveled in contradictions.

As Minear puts it, "It does not matter that a logical contradiction appears in picturing expectant Israel both as the bride and as the friends of the bridegroom. This and other contradictions simply suggest that the truths being communicated lay at a level deeper than the shifting images" (57).

This view is conducive to his liberal ecumenical goals. For instance, Minear agrees with Canon (Alan) Richardson that the New Testament writers present disparate views of church polity. But unlike Richardson, he thinks this is a good thing because it turns the church away from seeking to conform itself to an imagined "primitive archetype," and focuses it on whether its apostolic, priestly, and ministerial character is manifested or obscured in its laity and its particular ministerial organization (264-65). Further, Minear implies that Rome focuses on the image of the temple priesthood, while Protestants focus on the image of the covenant (word). He states that the image of the temple is not the polemic of a high church wing and the covenant of another. Behind different images is the same motivation to portray the gospel. (This despite his more Protestant interpretation of Mt. 16:18.) All of this sounds a bit too much like Paul Tillich's view of symbol.

In fact, we may ask whether Minear's images are nothing more than Jungian archetypes. And at one point he notes Jung's view of archetypes without clearly distinguishing his own view from it.

Still, we may cheer in formal assent when Minear points out that moralists neglect the ontological nature of biblical images. Ah, does this imply that moralists are even more Kantian than this Neo-Orthodox Kantian?

Minear's book deals with New Testament images of the church, as the title implies. The Old Testament background to these images are rarely fleshed out, though he begins to do this on occasion as when he shows how the images of the vine, vineyard, fig tree, and olive tree are grounded in idioms from the Old Testament. But for the most part, he either briefly comments on OT background or simply assumes it. His allusions to extra-biblical materials in the ancient Greco-Roman world to elucidate these images are also sparse. He focuses primarily on the New Testament itself. Thus he deals with Colossians and the Pastorals, even if many question their Pauline authorship, because they are in the New Testament.

Minear begins his book with a description of the scope and method of his study. (Here he reveals his Neo-Orthodox assumptions.) He follows this with chapters on the minor images of the church, the people of God, the new creation, the fellowship in faith, and the body of Christ. Finally, he finishes the book with a chapter on the interrelationship of the images and a postscript. While Minear rarely engages in debates with other New Testament scholars in the body of the book, the footnotes show that he is familiar with the literature on this subject.

We can learn things from Minear about biblical images and their interrelationships, if we throw out his Kantian presuppositions—but perhaps not much if we are already familiar with Geerhardus Vos, Hermann Ridderbos and Meredith Kline. For then many of the images he draws from the text and their interrelationships will be familiar to us. Still, he has some insights to add and some exegetical points to consider (and sometimes to reject). And he even raises us to heaven on occasion. His reflection on our semi-realized participation in the Jerusalem above (90) has a heavenly and eschatological ring. And he suggests that this has implications for the Jerusalem of old—that the heavenly reality was manifest in it. Sounds like a true eschatological intrusion (if we cancel out his anti-metaphysical presuppositions). Still, in spite of this insight, at a later point he does not recognize a contrast between two cities (Gal. 4) as either historical development (centered in Christ's work) or in terms of a distinction between the supernatural and the natural.

At the same time, in spite of Minear's metaphysical skepticism, (Leander) Keck (who rejected future eschatology in an orthodox sense) states in the foreword that Minear would not follow Bultmann's demythologizing of future eschatology. For Minear believed in God's sovereignty over the world and thus (presumably) his ability to bring an end to the cosmos. What are we to make of this?

The more Minear shows the interrelationships between images the more he provides grist for the mill. For instance, when discussing the image of Christ as the shepherd, he suggests that the connection between the shepherd and his lambs is found embodied together in Christ himself, the great shepherd and the lamb. Then he notes that Christ as shepherd reflects on the first exodus where God was the shepherd of his people. From this he suggests that the flock of Israel was united to the Passover lamb. Is he suggesting from these points that God himself identified with the Passover lamb and so with his people? This suggested union with God and his people in the first exodus would then find its eschatological fruition in the great shepherd/lamb of God.

Minear's discussion of the household of God brings together all the familial associations of the New Testament. His insights into the interrelationship of New Testament images is perhaps the most stimulating aspect of the book, and may be what moves the book forward, culminating in its seventh chapter, where the focus is the interrelationships that exist between the images previously discussed in the book.

As an existentialist, Minear assumes that formulating theology as an object of investigation is at odds with the view that God scrutinizes us as an object of investigation. Minear holds to the later view and thus rejects the former. Orthodoxy did not consider these things incompatible, as long as one acknowledges that God knows us before we exist and know him, and that God's knowledge of us is the metaphysical precondition of our knowledge of him.

Still, while existentialists are to be criticized for their ontology, metaphysical skepticism, eschatology, theology, and anthropology, they can have insights into the crisis of human existence, perhaps because this is all that is ultimate in their investigations. At the same time, we must acknowledge that these existential insights are colored and distorted by their existentialist ontology. However, these existential proclivities cause them to look for the existential engagement of the text. On occasion Minear points out how the text engages the church existentially. In such cases (brushing aside Minear's existentialist presuppositions), we can meditate on these pointers in the text itself and reflect on how they existentially engage the reader in Christ in the light of the context. However, if one is looking for existential insights into the text, he will be somewhat disappointed, as they do not run throughout the piece in a consistent way. Nor are they generally very penetrating.

At the same time, some of his existential insights ring true (at least formally) for the biblical theologian. When commenting on the existential dilemma of Israel's unbelief, Minear comments that inner decision is not the focus. All is dependent on the historical eschatological work of God. Is Minear beginning to recognize that the New Testament writers place Christ at the center rather than the sinner?

As noted, Minear sometimes elucidates the Christ-centered character of the text. He can say of the Old Testament idioms that Christ has converted them—that he is the center; that the whole history of Israel is summed up in the person and work of Christ. So he is the living link between Israel and the church.

Minear also moves in a Christ-centered direction (but not too far) when he notes that the disciples were scattered because of Jesus' death and gathered together after his resurrection. We might press his point a bit further by noting that to the degree that Christ's life involved carrying the cross and bearing the curse, he was undergoing exile (judicial scattering from the heavenly homeland), culminating in the cross. And his resurrection was the great semi-eschatological gathering in heaven (for himself and his people), which then involved the vital gathering of his people in him.

However, in considering the New Testament theme of the gathering of the people of God, Minear does not think this reflects upon the Jewish Diaspora, but on the idea of the `scattered' before the Messiah would come. But (in this reviewer's opinion) this is an unnecessary distinction. Christ's salvation involves a new exodus in which he gathers those scattered as a result of the curse of the law (most poignantly represented in the Babylonian captivity), bringing them semi-eschatological justification, and raising them with Christ into heaven.

Again, because Israel saw the Babylonian captivity as a curse, Minear suggests that New Testament writers do not reflect upon it when they discuss the church's present dispersion. Instead, the New Testament has in mind Abraham's call from Haran and Israel's deliverance from Egypt. While we do not deny that these latter backgrounds may be involved, we think it most likely that the New Testament authors also thought of the Christian dispersion in continuity with Israel's dispersion from Babylon. This would involve the "not yet" of the fulfillment of the gathering (discussed above).

We must also take issue with Minear's claim that the "remnant" theme is unessential while the theme of "election" is essential. (It is not surprising that Minear adopts Marcus Barth's notion of election.) This view does not do justice to the eschatological implications of Romans 9. Here Paul indicates that the election of an elect remnant within Israel (in the Old Testament) was essential to display the truly supernatural character of election that would be revealed in fullness when God chose an elect people for himself from Jews and Gentiles. This later election is one that does not discriminate (in any respect) on the basis of national descent according to the flesh. Instead, God's choice to disregard national descent fully accords with the age to come, the source of all supernatural renovation.

For that eschatological election to be manifested in the patriarchal age (in which only those of Abraham's descent according to the flesh were chosen), it was necessary that only some of them and not all of them were elect. If all Abraham's children according to the flesh were chosen, then physical descent according to the flesh would seem to be the determining factor rather than the supernatural work of the Spirit. Thus, it was essential to choose some from Israel and reject others.

For without this supernatural character, biblical election does not exist, nor can it be historically embodied and organically unfold into the full revelation of election in the New Testament, where we have a choice that altogether disregards distinction according to the flesh. Thus, the Scripture's teaching about the remnant is essential to its teaching on election. Both are equally essential and interdependent.

Other points of Minear's exegesis are problematic, such as his distinction between the church and the kingdom in the vineyard parable, from which he questions whether the vineyard refers to the church because he notes that it speaks of the kingdom. Or his agnosticism about the symbolism of the Jewish water pots in John 2.

However, despite these problems, when he draws his book to a climax in chapter seven and suggests the interrelationships between the previous images discussed in the book, he seeks to draw all his images together in the eschatological Christ. And so he provides some stimulating reflections.

It is unfortunate that his presentation is grounded in an Enlightenment view of epistemology and symbolic representation. As he quotes Krister Stendahl to describe his own view of the images and their interrelationships, "Over against stringent logic (the way of thinking of later theology) stands the Jewish thinking in images, where contradictory facts and conceptions can be put together in a kind of significant mosaic" (252).

How much greater riches might he have unearthed if he had recognized in these images a true metaphysical unity in the person of the risen Christ; if he had taken a semi-eschatological perspective in Christ that is truly descriptive, redemptive historically dynamic, and thus more vitally engaging; one in which we are constantly drawn away from the idols of this age to the heavenly life in union with Christ Jesus our eschatological shepherd-king, lamb and priest, servant and Lord.

—Scott Sanborn