I’ve really been enjoying J.R. Daniel Kirk’s Storied Theology blog. Kirk is that rare biblical scholar who writes in a clear, concise manner usually missing from academic writing. His book, Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? is on my to-read list. In the meantime, I enjoy his reflections on theology – especially narrative theology, which he contrasts with systematic theology.
The latter, he argues, looks at theology as a system by which we derive the answers we are seeking. It’s very modern, in other words. Narrative theology, on the other hand, taps into a vein of thought we’re seeing come to the fore with the likes of Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel and others: that the Bible isn’t set up so much to give answers as to engage us in dialogue and tell a very important story that can and should change our lives.
Perhaps the place where narrative and systematic theology differ is in the latter’s need to stand at the end of the story throughout, and articulate what is true on its basis. What is true about God, now that this story has happened (and is happening)? What do we know to be true about people?
Narrative theology is more content to leave stories as stories. Perhaps more, narrative theology is content to talk about God as God interacts with Abraham, and Moses, and David, and Jesus, and Paul, and the Lamb. To what degree can we speak of God truly when we have not located God as the actor in a story that unfolds in and among the people?
Is abstracting that character going to be able to produce a true portrait? Is the fear of an abstracted God, abstracted humanity, or abstracted church legitimate?
Narrative approaches also tend to have more patience with leaving contrasting voices on the table to continue their conversation. The Bible is a narrative, not a philosophical system, so univocal theological points are not expected.
I like this very much. It’s very postmodern. (Those two sentences may or may not be related on a deeper level.) So when we talk, as we’ve been doing, about Paul’s views on sexuality, we are free to interact with them, see the context from which Paul’s writing, understand that our knowledge of gender roles and sex are much different than his, and perhaps adjust our viewpoints accordingly.
“But,” I can hear slippery slopers arguing (and there’s a little slippery sloper in each of us, I think), “once you start arguing the Bible doesn’t provide answers, there’s no end to the heresies! What about the cross? What about the resurrection? What about heaven and hell?”
Yeah, about that.
We’ve talked before about how the writers of the Hebrew Bible do not actually agree about exactly who was eligible for God’s salvation. Cities like Sodom and Jericho clearly were not, yet Ninevah, arguably a far worse place, was. Outside influences were considered pollutants by Ezra and Nehemiah, not so much Moses, Joseph, Esther or Boaz. The Jewish writers of the Old Testament simply did not agree about what God had in mind for the gentiles, and those disagreements surface throughout their texts. That’s a pretty big deal. The question they were trying to answer was: Who would God save? The answer was not clear.
Likewise in the New Testament.
Who will God save? Is it as simple as, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ“? Or is it, “Believe and be baptized“? Or is it, “Faith without works is dead“? What does Jesus say? “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my father.” And in Matthew 25, faith plays no role at all in who’s in and who’s out; rather it’s all about how well the people care for the poor.
This is kind of a big deal, isn’t it? For at least a millennium, we as Christians have been telling everyone that we know how to get to heaven and avoid hell, and it turns out, the only book that purports to give us the answer isn’t terribly clear about it.
Which leads us to another question: Why wouldn’t God be clearer? God desires that all people be saved (1 Tim. 2:4); if that’s the case, shouldn’t he have made it a little more obvious how to go about doing that? And let’s take this a step further. Can a good God who is the definition of love send millions of people to hell for getting the wrong answer to a question he hasn’t answered clearly?
And before you start accusing me of being all relativistic about scripture, I’m relying heavily on Jesus’ own words in Matthew 7: “Who among you will give your children a stone when they ask for bread? Or give them a snake when they ask for fish? If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”
If we as parents strive to set consistent boundaries and mete out discipline that is both just and appropriate for the infraction, the notion that God will punish people forever because they did not … what? Ask Jesus into their hearts? (That phrase isn’t in the Bible, by the way.) Get baptized? Care for the poor? … seems to run afoul of Jesus’ argument that his father is better than we are. I know many will fudge the issue by citing Isaiah 55:8-9, “God’s ways are higher than ours.” But higher should mean better; it certainly did for Isaiah. And if the argument is that anything God does is better because he’s God, then we need new definitions for “good,” preferably definitions that actually mean “bad.”
The arguments for and against universalism are many, and we could spend much more time delving into the subject. But that’s the whole point: The disagreement over the means and method of salvation is as old as the oldest books of the Bible. God seems comfortable with that uncertainty; it requires a lot of faith, but perhaps it’s time we started following his lead.