NEW TESTAMENT MODEL THEOLOGY
by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) Kingston, Ontario, April 2006
A simile or metaphor illustrates a point by a simple comparison. "You are the light of the world
. . . Like a wise man who built his house on rock . . . new wine is put into new wineskins . . . Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me" (Matthew 5:14; 7:24; 9:17; 11:29). But a model is used to explain the working of a more complicated set of relationships. We have models of automobile engines, electrons, protons, and neutrons in an atom, the double helix model for DNA, economic models, the digestive system. In some cases a model turns out to be unhelpful (see the article "Freud is Toppled") and it is replaced by a more useful model.
Jesus used many parables, and some of these can be viewed as explanatory models. The Parable of the Sower explains how new disciples can immediately lose interest, some only have a shallow faith, others get choked by worldly concerns, but a proportion really understand and go on to bring forth fruit for the Kingdom of Heaven. The parable of the weeds recommends letting the good and bad grow together in a church congregation rather than rooting out the evil.
Models are evaluated for usefulness. Jesus’ parable of the Vine and the Branches sets out a relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity in the life of a believer. The Messiah is the Vine tree, the Father is the Vine dresser, and the Holy Spirit corresponds to the sap that comes in to enable the branches to produce grapes. For me this model is a constant reminder that there is no way I can produce spiritual fruit by my own efforts. "Apart from me you can nothing" (John 15:5). My task is to remain in close contact with the Son of God and open my heart to the Holy Spirit to do in me what I cannot do myself.
In four of his epistles Paul uses a model of the church in each city functioning as a human body. "Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with the Messiah. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body - Jews or Greeks, slaves or free - and we were all made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Romans 12:4-8; Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 2:19). This very fruitful model offers a very sharp contrast with the model of the world-wide church as a hierarchy (the Pope appoints and governs the bishops, bishops make priests, and priests make submissive Christians).
And it was the model of the church as a body that enabled the Charismatic movement to recover the idea of Christians with many different gifts working together in various ways in each city.
Models will often use a picture from a quite different sphere of life to explain a complex relationship. To picture the Christian faith Paul used the model of the Roman soldier putting on his armor. "Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:13-17). This model makes clear that faith is not just believing some facts about God, but a dynamic engagement with the forces of evil.
Paul uses a pair of models to illustrate what happens to us when we die. "What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised in imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:36-38, 42-44).
The other model contrasts our present life as a refugee in a tent with the building that God has ready for us. As Jesus explained, "In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places" (John 14:2). As we die, we picture the soldiers arriving to take down our tent, but we are immediately ushered into the mansion that is perfectly suited for us in heaven. "We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling" (2 Corinthians 5:1-2).
Obviously this is a totally different outcome from the Hindu model of reincarnation into a better or worse form of life depending on our performance. As he faces death the atheist pictures a model of disintegration and total annihilation.
The relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity is set out in the New Testament as a oneness of three eternal Persons held together by love. The three Persons are involved in the baptism of Jesus. "The heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased (Matthew 3:16-17). As the apostles were sent out for their world-wide mission, the plan was to enroll people as disciples (learners) and teach them "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).
This model of an organic oneness in the nature of God enables us to picture the eternal love of God. One Person cannot love alone. It also permits us to share in the love of God in our resurrection body. This yields a totally different picture from the Unitarian and Muslim view of the absolute (mathematical) oneness of God.