Christian Storytelling, Part II: The Story of God

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Christian Storytelling, Part I: The Right Stories

I have always loved systematic theology.  I own four (Grudem, Oden, Hodge, and Reymond).  Ironically enough, I am going to continue my discussion of Christian Theology as Storytelling by quoting from a systematic theology, because Thomas Oden gets it right, I believe.  I’m going to let Oden do a lot of the talking here, but stick with it: It’s good stuff.  (Quotes are taken from The Living God: Systematic Theology, Volume One).

The value of Oden’s already great “systematic” theology is increased by the fact that it realizes its own limitations.  Oden writes:

The vitality of the biblical history of God’s acts does not easily boil down to the clear, consistent formulations about God attempted by systematic theology.  Try as we may, the biblical history resists systematization (p. 40).

One might wonder why Oden writes this in the middle of a systematic theology. He rejoins:

Yet since the Bible wishes to address each hearer as a whole person, it invites and to some degree requires that each believer bring its loose ends together, to listen for its unity, and to try to see it integrally.  In that sense the Bible invites systematic, cohesive thinking about its varied events and messages (pp. 40-41).

Good answer.  Oden cautions that we do well not to pretend to be able to resolve the tension between the Bible’s inability to be easily systematized and its invitation to think about it cohesively.  In other words, we do systematic theology with a constant awareness of its own limitations, because the Bible is history and story, not a systematic theology itself.

Oden’s ability to see the limitations of systematic theology is rooted in his accurate understanding of how God is revealed in the Scriptures:

In the Hebraic religion, God is known by what God does.  What God does is remembered and recollected as history – the history of God’s encounter with humanity…That remains a constant frustration to our systematic attempts to get God safely boxed into our changing linguistic packages (pp. 40-41).

So God is revealed to us in story form.  It’s not a made-up story like a fantasy fiction or a nursery tale.  Rather, it is God’s direct interaction with humanity within history.  Perhaps a personal insight will help me communicate the value of such an understanding.

I recall the days when for me, biblical hermeneutics was about correct application of the grammatical-historical principle for interpretation, and then application to modern day.  “What did the Bible say then?  What does it say to me now? How do I apply that?”  As I operated on these three questions, it made much more sense to let the propositional truth statements be the key guide for interpretation, and the stories I relegated to illustrative material.  After all, if we’re making an attempt at systematic theology, wouldn’t it make more sense to read the “objective truth statements” of Paul and use Abraham, Moses, Acts, and even the Gospel stories as illustrative material of the Pauline corpus?  (Or the General Epistles, of course).  So my sermons generally consisted of the exegesis of a few verses from a Letter with OT and NT biblical stories as illustrative material.

You’ve heard these sermons. Three propositional truth statements (with alliteration!), and a story to illustrate each point. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, so don’t think I’m picking on your pastor.

But when it comes to understand God and how He’s spoken to us, we need to let Him speak as He has chosen to speak, and not how we want him to. The way we handle St. Paul is a good example. We think of his letters as statements of propositional truth about God. Paul, however, built his theology the other way around, as Oden noted about Hebraic theology (“God is known by what God does.”) Paul did not start with a systematic theology of justification by faith and then tack on Abraham as an example or illustration.  The Abraham story and its culmination in the Jesus story is the foundation of the doctrine.  The story serves as the central point; justification by faith comes out of the story.

To press this further, I used to believe the Romans was a good example of a sort of early systematic theology.  This was a terrible missing of the point.  As systematic as Romans may seem (and is, compared to the other epistles), even Romans is built on the framework of the story from Genesis to Paul’s time.  Creation-Fall-Redemption serves as the foundation of Romans.  Paul is explaining the story.

It should be further noted that each epistle has its own story and context: the story of the humanity – the failures, questions, and struggles – of Peter, Paul, John, and their readers.  Some of these stories can only be speculated about, and this should lead to some humility on the part of the 21st century exegete. But the key point is this: in each epistle, all those truth statements are St. Paul’s bringing the Jesus story to bear on the historically situated, very human stories of the churches to whom he is writing.

There is no question about it: this method makes theology harder. As Oden has noted, “History does not readily lend itself to systematic statement or definition” (p. 41; more on this subject in a coming post).  But it yields deep rewards in understanding a God who doesn’t just shout truth from on high, but enters into our world and our stories himself as the truth.


16 Comments

  1. Chris

    “The Abraham story and its culmination in the Jesus story is the foundation of the doctrine.” Sounds like someone has been reading N.T. Wright.

    Great quotes from Ogden though. Both are important, but its good to see a systematic theologian recognizing the limits of his method.

  2. MITCHELL

    I recently heard a lesson a friend delivered at a youth retreat where he went through the entire story of humanity from the perspective of a narrator talking to Jesus (from pre-Creation to Death and Resurrection).

    It was incredible, and the truth and glory of Jesus was made significantly more clear through a story-telling rather than a three-point lesson.

  3. Jen

    I was thinking about something like this this while listening to a sermon on the “spiritual lessons” we could learn from Jesus feeding the 5000. The story telling, the way he expanded the history, set the stage, and expressed the greatness of the miracle was so telling in itself, I wondered why we needed bullet points to teach us a lesson and wrap it up in the end.

    My mindset early on was a lot like yours. And lessons, teachings, and systematic theology are all important, but learning to see history as a whole story changed everything for me. There’s a tension in the two, and I’m glad Ogden recognizes that.

    This is good stuff, Travis. Looking forward to the rest of this series!

  4. phillip

    “And lessons, teachings, and systematic theology are all important, but learning to see history as a whole story changed everything for me. There’s a tension in the two, and I’m glad Ogden recognizes that.”

    “Try as we may, the biblical history resists systematization (p. 40).”

    This is a great find here at the RR! Great to reconnect with Andrew Peterson’s stuff as well.

    The Story of God has been a total change of everything for me as well. You can’t systematize a story or for that matter a love relationship within that story.

    It is this context of story that I became convinced that no human story could ever trump God’s story and that nothing less than “everything sad is going to come untrue” can be God’s plan for the world. Also as Andrew prophesies in his song: “All shall be made well”.

    Tim Keller, Cornelius Plantinga, and Michael Williams make sweeping statements about the “end of the Story”. They talk of the restoration of the entire cosmos that are absolutely stunning and take our breath away.

    Here are some quotes from them that portray the Story of God as nothing less than the best news possible…

    “God moves toward His world in care and love. He is committed to every part of His creation, loving it and upholding it. And though sin and evil have marred the world, so it is just a shadow of its true self, at the end of time, nature will be restored to its full glory and we with it.”

    “The whole world will be healed as it is drawn into the fullness of God’s glory. Evil will be destroyed and all the potentialities in creation, latent until that moment, will explode with fullness and beauty.”

    “Because creation was made in the image of a God who is equally one and many, the human race will finally be reunited and our racial and cultural diversity will remain intact in the renewed world. The human race finally lives together in peace and interdependence. Glory to God in the highest goes with peace on earth.”

    — Tim Keller “The Reason for God” (pg 232-233)

    “The goal of redemption is nothing less the restoration of the entire cosmos. The scope of redemption is truly cosmic. Through Christ, God determined ‘to reconcile to himself all things’ (Col 1:20). Matthew 19:28 speaks of the renewal (the word is ‘regeneration’) of all things. Acts 3:21 also indicates a cosmic regeneration when it says that Jesus must remain in heaven ‘until the time comes for God to restore everything’.

    “Why must God regenerate, give new life and direction to, all things? Because the entire creation has been drawn into the mutiny of the human race (Rom. 8:19–24). Because man’s fall affected not only himself but also the rest of creation, redemption must involve God’s entire creation.”

    — Michael D. Williams “Far As the Curse is Found”

    “To speak of sin by itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way.

    — Cornelius Plantinga “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be”

    Do these quotes resonate with the Story written on our hearts? Why do many theologians say things they aren’t supposed to mean? How would you qualify them to fit your version of the Story? Do we want to qualify them? Why not?

    Would love to hear what you think.

    Phillip
    godslovewins.com

  5. Travis Prinzi

    Sounds like someone has been reading N.T. Wright.

    Chris, you got me. I know the guy’s a controversial figure, but his stuff on this is right on, I think. Two of the forthcoming posts deal with his thoughts on Christian story and the Bible directly.

  6. Tony Heringer

    Creation-Fall-Redemption and restoration. Like Phillip this particular idea of what God is up to in and through our lives is one of the most invigorating ideas I come across. Loved the Williams book. He started my imagination on this journey of discovery.

    Thanks Travis! Looking forward to the next installment.

  7. Cory

    I’ve been interested in the discipline known as Biblical theology as a companion to systematic theology. From what I understand from teachers like Stephen Um, it is a way of connecting the Bible through story, especially using symbols, and not trying to draw moral conclusions (specifically) from the stories. There’s a pretty good podcast in which Steven Um expounds on it and is available on iTunes in the Gospel Coalition’s podcasts.

  8. Becca

    Ten years ago, I was assured repeatedly that God could be reigned by systematic theology. I was taught that Christians could convince a doubting world if we were simply adept with the tools of the logistical trade. How I loved the polemic charge and volley of it!

    Yet there were folks like me who reached the end of this promise and found it lacking on multiple fronts. Some of those are now finding renewed excitement in the living story of the Text.

    A narrative approach to theology is a particularly good fit with the post-modern emphasis on experience. I find it relates naturally to a culture cynical of proofs. So much so, that a decade later, I tend to view my old ventures into systematics with the shame of an old fad. (I.e.: parachute pants. I WORE those things? Sheesh?)

    Yet as much as I love story, I don’t think it is above danger as a method of interpretation — particularly if my interpretation once again becomes rooted in a method instead of a person. (Why is this so often my default? Why do I tend to create systems that do not “require” the involvement of a living God?)

    I am thinking of Sayers’ idea of the equilateral triangle (Idea, Energy, Power) here:

    When the Energy of systematics becomes self-sustaining, void of listening to the aesthetic Idea and living Power of the Person, an imbalance happens. Pride rises. The cerebral dominates. Theology becomes flesh-powered instead of Spirit-powered.

    If the Energy of story becomes self-sustaining, distanced from the truth of Idea and the Spirit’s directive Power, an imbalance happens. Pride rises. The story becomes adulterated to meet soul needs. Theology becomes flesh-powered instead of Spirit-powered.

    As a lover of story, I find the second temptation far greater than the first. Narrative is supremely enchanting for me. I chase it away from God sometimes.

    Travis, I know that idolizing story isn’t what you are advocating here. It’s clear that this is not what you are saying, and I don’t want to give that impression. This comment is not a critique.

    I am just saying that as someone who has also shifted in part from systematics to story, these are some of the dragons I have found in these waters. Their allure has shocked me!

    I keep being reminded of this: my safety doesn’t lie in seeing story any more than it lies in seeing linear systematic connections. My safety lies in trusting a living God who is both logical and storyteller. For He can reveal Himself to me in any manner He chooses. He is infinite and creative.

    So, regardless of the template I am using, I must faith in Him who lives inside me. Not in my ability to understand. As a child of the Enlightenment, it is often difficult to distance myself from a perception of “capable self” enough to do this.

  9. Dan R.

    I’m grateful for these posts, Travis, and for the way you’ve approached the idea of God’s story in this one particularly.

    I’m intrigued by Becca’s last comment, and was wondering if someone could point me in the direction whence cometh that equilateral triangle business. (a triangle with three sides the same length?! Brilliant!) I figured I could look up which book it was in, but using the internet as a way to circumvent human interaction is something I like to avoid doing.

  10. Becca

    Dan, check out Dorothy Sayers’s _The Mind of the Maker_. Brilliant book I discovered via recommendation of several RR’ers.

    She uses the equilateral triangle analogy to describe the creative process. Briefly, this means that a work of art must be rooted in an idea, made manifest through energy, and connect through power. Each of these elements must remain in proper proportion, or a work of art will be askew. (She offers an incredible chapter on errors creators make out of being idea-heavy, energy-heavy, and power-heavy.)

    Sayers connects this theory with the Trinity. Father as Idea, Son as Energy, and Holy Spirit as Power. She believes God imparted this dynamic like a law of physics into the undercurrents of our world.

    As I have been chewing on this book for several months, I have begun to see how this concept transfers to other realms as well– possibly even the study of theology. So, the two paragraphs I wrote there are neither hers nor was this thought advocated by her. They are just me thinking about how an imbalance in theological viewpoint might look if it were carried to an extreme in any of these areas. I might be wrong, it’s just something that struck me as I was considering all of this. 🙂

  11. Tony Heringer

    Becca,

    I like that type of thinking. A lot of ideas have transference from one area of life to another. I see it as an integration or holistic view.

    For example, many times lessons I learn in relating to some matter at home transfer to work and vice versa. I think that is what is fascinating about the Rabbit Room. There are many subjects put forth but always a quest to apprehend the mind of Christ our Maker and Friend. It gives life both a stability and a sense of adventure as we know we will never plum the depths of His mind.

    Or as Tolkien once wrote:

    “The Road goes ever on and on
    Down from the door where it began.
    Now far ahead the Road has gone,
    And I must follow, if I can,
    Pursuing it with eager feet,
    Until it joins some larger way
    Where many paths and errands meet.
    And whither then? I cannot say.”

    Cheers!

  12. Randy Heffner

    Becca – Another angle into your caution against unbalanced learning is the greatest commandment’s “all your heart. . .soul. . .mind.” We miss life if we seek by any of these alone. The soul-mind-heart triad finds parallel articulation in other triads including Jesus as Way-Truth-Life, Western philosophy’s great transcendentals (goodness-truth-beauty), the core human elements of will-intellect-emotion, and others (although I’ve not read the Sayers book you note, it sounds to me like her idea-energy-power triad is related, but is not precisely parallel with these). That said, I find in Scripture a primacy of place given to the life/heart/beauty corner of the triad. I see this in places like John 10:10 (“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”), Jer 31:33 (“I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it”), and 1 Cor 13:13 (“the greatest of these is love”).

    Travis – I see support in the Romans 7/8 dichotomy for your notion that Romans is more than systematic theology. Romans 7 correlates with propositional learning, saying in effect that a mind set on the Law leads (through our corrupted hearts) to death. Romans 8 correlates with artistic and non-rational learning, wherein the Spirit speaks with “groanings too deep for words.” It is a “mind set on the Spirit” that results in “life and peace” and our “putting to death the deeds of the body” — that is, in the sanctification that we often seek solely through Romans 7 means. At its best, story’s affect on us is through emotional, non-rational pathways, which are a true channel for Christian joy and growth — story, film, music, and art in general are pens for the Spirit to write on our hearts.

    One more thought about the risks of systematic theology: In its attempts to capture God’s heart, it can subtly become an attempt to live by certainty rather than by faith. We try to eliminate the mystery of God, so that we can (subtly, but often truly, as Becca suggests) with pride say we have the answer. What I find in this life is that there’s always another level of depth to the riches of God’s heart, so even when I systematically learn, new mysteries arise, and I want more stories and art to help me see.

  13. W C Giles

    So well written.

    It delights me to see several comments along the lines of “I have been thinking about this very thing…”

    Me too.

    I think of it as the “language of the soul.”

    Great stories have their meaning in the soul.

    Great music, great art, poetry, along with beauty, truth and all the altruistic expressions– they touch us deeply and our minds reel to comprehend what our souls have already apprehended.

    And if we write ourselves into such a story– make our very lives…

    (not the prestige or the contempt in which we are held by others, not our successes any more than our failures, not our wealth or our poverty– but our lives)

    …a telling of the love of God for us– then, perhaps, we are understanding the stories we know as Holy Scripture.

    Even if we do that, it is but a tiny part. The Promise, and therefore the Hope, delights the soul in which there are no bounds.

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