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Principles of interpretation

These, very briefly, are the main principles of interpretation – the distinctive hermeneutical presuppositions – that underpin this reconstruction of the story about the kingdom of God. They have to do especially with how we understand New Testament eschatology and read the texts associated with it. The reading offered here locates the teaching of the New Testament in a fundamentally eschatological framework in the sense that it deals with a decisive transition – an end but also a beginning – in the history of the ‘people of God’.

1. New Testament eschatology can be properly understood only from the historical and religious perspective of the New Testament authors. We must learn to look forwards from the first century rather than backwards from the twenty-first century. It is like writing on a glass door – the church has passed through the door and now struggles to decipher the cryptic text from the wrong side. In our minds we must go back through the door and read from the other side.

2. Apocalyptic language is highly allusive and must consistently be read against the colourful backdrop both of Old Testament prophecy and of the Jewish apocalyptic mindset. The argumentative context from which the ideas and images are drawn will frequently be seen both to clarify and to delimit their significance.

3. We should expect apocalyptic language, even in its more obscure and mythical formulations, to relate meaningfully to historical events as experienced or foreseen by the community which generated the apocalyptic visions. Prophetic and mythical language should not override or displace historical or literal language: it is the means by which the historical narrative is interpreted and redescribed.

4. Within the constraints of a proper literary-critical methodology, we should endeavour to construct an integrated eschatological narrative for the New Testament. This must be based on a proper understanding of both apocalyptic tradition and historical context. If we have become wary of attempts to develop a grand synthesis of New Testament eschatology, it is largely because this has too often been undertaken within the framework of a fundamentalist and literalist hermeneutic that has only served to generate arcane and fantastic end-time scenarios.

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