According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Saturday, February 25, 2012

What Is Narrative Theology? It is the "Grander Story of God and Creation"

The Grander Story of God and Creation

In today's contemporary theology a new term has arisen called "Narrative Theology" that is sidling alongside the older term of "Biblical Theology" to give it a fuller expression to our dynamic understanding between God and man that we've been calling Relational Theism in an everyday expression of interaction, community, and relationship between the Godhead and Creation. Whereas the older idea of revelatory communication showed us what God was doing in specific covenantal areas of the Old and New Testaments, narrative theology takes this idea and couples it with another older German theological idea of heilsgeschichte (salvation history; a term used by Oscar Cullman to describe an interpretation of history emphasizing God's saving acts and viewing Jesus Christ as the central theme of redemption). That is, as God reveals Himself to mankind He is also remaking the idea of Himself to mankind into a truer, fuller, expression of Himself as He teaches us of Himself through salvific events of covenant, sin, redemption, etc. Which events continue to evolve our relationship to Himself and to Creation. It is God's narrative of himself, his divine story to us. As much as it is our own narrative. Our story of us, back to God. It is then, the story of God and us. God and me. God and Creation, as we commune each with the other, era after era, age after age, through His image relationally, in love, in truth, in passion, in anger, in all that makes us "us". It is our t-o-g-e-t-h-e-r story of the divine/human cooperative amidst the larger story of Creation.

God and Creation
To this concept I might further add the important idea of eschatological escalationwhich gives meaning to the idea that within each era's narrative story between God and man is the further idea that this narrative story continues to expand, to eschalate, upwards into a fuller story of redemption and salvation. That is, there is a future hope, or promise, within Christianity that has a time element to it that works itself progressively forward within time-and-space (e.g. within the history of mankind) which lends itself to the fuller expression of the idea of a future Kingdom of God. A Kingdom that encapsulates all of Creation's past into all of its future. That, as much as Israel moved forward in its storied history towards its ultimate expression in Jesus, their Messiah, which then gave birth to the Church. So too is the Church moving forwards towards that time when Jesus is manifested again in some future time period we call God's Kingdom. But as a returning King and not as a crucified Saviour. One who comes to Rule what He has Redeemed.

Interlocking Shalom
through Redemption
Hence, God's story of Himself is also the story of man whom God incorporates into His story - not simply by telling us of Himself - of who He is - but of telling us of who we are, and how we fit importantly into His plans in a glorious era to come that we call the New Heavens and New Earth. That we have hope and that our hope is not hopeless when we see so much death and destruction, injustice and impoverishment around us. That He is redeeming all of mankind and not only some of mankind. That He is configuring us to be a significant part of this story of redemption, of redeeming mankind. That while He tarries we are to work towards the coming Kingdom Rule of Jesus through love and good works (we call this concept the Ethics of the Kingdom of God). And that we have as much a future in eternity's history NOW, as we will LATER, as God Himself does who indwells all of eternity's history of past, present and future. That both the Creator and the Created are bound together as One in a steady evolution of recapture, re-incorporation, re-assimilation, re-adoption, reconciliation, and redemption (the adjectives to describe this are endless!).

Further, the Christian story is not one merely of redemptive revelation (biblical covenants), historical progress (heilsgeschichte or salvation history), and forward movement unto a completed Hope (we call this Christianity's teleology, it's eschatological hope). But that all of these movements show a helical structure to themselves that seem oddly familiar to us - though dissimilar as well - in that we seem to be repeating God's redemptive purposes again, and again, and again, in a circular paradigm of historical import. Only that this paradigm is stretched out in an upward fashion teleologically so that we have a helical structure of history progressing forwards, or eschalating upwards, into the fuller story of God Himself. We are thus being inextricably drawn forwards - and upwards at the same time - into repetitive, circular expressions of God's story of our redemption from sin; of stories of healing and health; and unto culminating, continuing, stories of eternal completeness. This then is the Christian story. It's narrative. It is one of culminating, eternal, completeness.

Picture a 2d helix set along the lines of time and motion (= event). The
Christian story is one of Salvific escalation showing an historical repetition
 and forward movement in time sequences that are similar but dissimilar
as God recreates the cosmos through redemption's cycle of renewal.

In terms of biblical events God's movement through time
and history would show a progression from one covenantal
era to another as creation becomes aligned with its Creator
in redemptive renewal. This also means that God will do
newer redemptive things in successively evolving eras. In
a sense God is changing in relation to His own creation.

From this idea of storied theology come the new idea of Narrative Theology long lost over the past 500 years of Reformational teachings emphasizing systematic doctrine in place of the biblical practice of storied narrative that once incorporated doctrinal ideas into the biblical story being told amongst ancient peoples. Thus today's contemporary theologies are adjusting from past Reformational practices of scientific statement about God which gave impetus to dearly held Christian heritages, dogmas, liturgies, and practices, and allowing the larger narrative of God to arise over popularly held biblical ideas and expressions. Curiously, today's postmodernistic cultures have rapidly accepted this style of teaching making it a very popular form of talking about God and God's revelation to man.

But not to the exclusion of systematic study and biblical apologetic discussion of the Scriptures. But in the sense of "uplifting" those ideas and doctrines into the newer areas of storied theology which in its own way is recreating God's story to us from the ancient settings of past biblical events into relevant ideas available for public reception, discussion, and incorporation. This is an important development and one that needs to be used deftly, honestly, and graciously without reducing biblical teaching to the pandering philosophies of humanism's overly therapeutic cultures and narcissistic preoccupation with one's own experience. That said, Narrative Theology is a powerful tool in re-imagining God's Word to both Christian and non-Christian audiences alike thought lost so long ago to the Bedouin experiences of very ancient cultures and ideologies.

Consequently - (and I'm speaking to my past evangelical heritage now) - one such adjustment that must be made is the evangelic belief that "systematic theology" (or, reductionistic biblical re-statement) is the fuller expression of God.... But in actuality has done just the opposite by reducing God into our own privately held ideas of Himself and His Story through our own logical, analytical expressions of formulaic theological creeds, church covenants, and dogmas. By saying that (i) God is thus-and thus, and consequently (ii) we are thus-and-thus, then (iii) we must do such-and-such. These reductionisms, though at times helpful to our feeble intelligences, do greater harm to the larger story of God and Creation. A story that is larger than our own interpretation of it....

Hence, we must always give precedence to biblical/narrative theology over that of any systematizing theology, dogmatic expressions, creedal confessions and ecclesiastical statements. Not only do we look to the text of Scripture for this help through a hermeneutic of biblical/narrative theology, but we look first and foremost to the God of Scripture Himself (relational theism) to drive our expectations, our theologies, our ethics, in the story of us as seen through God's completing glories.

Our stories must then be God's stories of ourselves. And our stories must also be of God's own story of His divine majesty. It is not only a story of the Triunity of the Godhead but of the completing unity of Creation to this Godhead that gives all majesty. However you wish to word it, God created Creation to be part of Himself, and He in it, in a process of completing harmony, resolution, and order. This then is the real biblical narrative of redemption and salvation.

R.E. Slater
February 24, 2012

The Evolving Narrative of God's Redemption


The following articles by JR Daniel Kirk will address the change in relationship between three theological disciplines: biblical, systematic and narrative theology. In the older idea good biblical theology led to good systematic/analytic statements about God, us and the world. In the newer idea, systematic theology is abandoned (in a sense) and is replaced with a narrative theology that enhances biblical theology.

If systematic statements are now made of God they must be couched within the greater stories (and mysteries or enigmas!) of biblical/narrative theology. Hence, we may say that "God is good," but must realize that this statement will have multiple meanings depending upon its listeners social, cultural, and temporal milieus (that is, it is dependent upon the cultural era, type of society, and generational characteristics prevalent within that historical era).

Consequently, systematic theology has become un-systematized due to narrative (and postmodern) influences necessitating theologians to talk of God within a given socio-cultural context that would allow for cultural elasticity and flow. As well as for the broad human dynamics of linguistic communication that can be both plain and ambiguous to the same listeners on the same subject. God created man in His image. That image is infinitely complex and eternal. We are God's image bearers and should expect nothing less than to be amazed at the capacities God has given to us in bearing His image.

Thus, God cannot be systematised. And should not be. He is a living Being as we are living beings. Nor should the Bible be systematised. It is God's living Word which thus makes the Bible an open document without a culminating interpretation so that it can dynamically speak to every age, era, culture, and community of humanity. It opens God up to us without providing systematised, formulaic, expressions of definitive statement about God and ourselves. It can do this because we are open beings who live in open socio-cultural contexts and use an open language that is symbolic and can be as ambiguous as it is plain. All of which then allows for fluidity (that is, elasticity and flow) within our communication with God and with each other.

Humanity changes with time and circumstance. This is what is meant when Classic Theism meets Process Theology - one is old timey, the other postmodern. Somewhere in between is its synthetic alternative I prefer to call Relational Theism. An alternative that I think better retains the past to the relationship of the future (e.g., postmodernism) without throwing out God's steady redemptive narrative that has been evolving since He spoke the worlds into being. And will not stop evolving until all worlds have come under submission to His will and Word.

A submission that will allow for the greatest amount of freedom without the terror of sin, death and destruction behind it all because of Jesus' work of redemption. Because all things have come under God's redemption - and will come under God's redemption - both now and forevermore. God's Word is as living and true now as it was a hundred years ago, a millenia ago, or even eons ago. And it is spoken from the very God who "Is" (Yhwh = I Am), and is evolving with us, even as we are evolving with Him, in an open theology of time and import.

R.E. Slater
April 16, 2012 

Part 1
Narrative Theology and Biblical Theology

by JRD Kirk
February 24, 2012

Having just read Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?, a reader emailed to ask what, exactly, this narrative theology is that I’m on about in the book. Is there a go-to definition or description? The book embodies it, but what is this “it” we are beholding?

In short, narrative or storied theology is a way to talk about God and proceeds on the premise that the Story is the thing.

Learning the story of God as a story, articulating the various aspects as parts of a dynamic movement that not only passes through time but genuinely develops and changes as it does so, narrative theology never seeks to leave the story behind to get on to the real business of theology or ethics. The church’s theology is the narrative, and its ethics is the telling of that story in the words and deeds of Christian communities.

"Narrative theology recognizes changes in people’s expectations
and even in the nature of the fulfillment of God’s promises."

Narrative Theology is (un)Like Biblical Theology that Preceded It.

Like the biblical theology movement that finds description in the likes of Geerhardus Vos and Reformed theology more generally, it strives to do justice to the interconnections between what we are told about God, God’s promises, and God’s people in the OT, and what we are told about them in the New.

However, unlike the work of some of the older Reformed Biblical theologians, narrative theology reads the story as a history of God’s action, not merely a history of revelation. In the latter, as it is defined within this world, there is a truth about God that is progressively revealed through time–much as though it existed in a heavenly cache, only to be distributed a bit at a time over the course of history.

Narrative theology, instead, recognizes changes in the people’s expectations and even in the nature of the fulfillment of God’s promises. We cannot read the Bible from Genesis through Malachi and be prepared for the surprises of Matthew through Revelation.

Narrative theology is more dynamic, allowing room for dead-ends to certain OT roads, and a radical revision of our understanding of God and salvation in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus–even within the same story that is the story of Israel.

Such a move toward seeing surprise is not absent in the Reformed Tradition, and is captured quite well at several moments in Herman Ridderbos’ Paul. But in general, I see it as a movement beyond Vos, and ultimately untenable metaphors such as the idea that the story develops “from acorn to oak tree.”

Going back further, Narrative Theology also stands over against the notion of biblical theology enshrined in Gabler‘s famous “On the Correct Distinction Between Dogmatic and Biblical Theology and the Right Definition of Their Goals.”

Gabler suggested that the job of biblical studies was to distill the truths from the Bible, to be handed over to the systematicians for proper and logical ordering. Such a vision holds onto what Narrative Theology will always deem a mistake: thinking that “systematic theology” is the real thing, whereas biblical theology is a road on the way to theology’s completion.

Narrative theology grows from the soil prepared by biblical theology, or perhaps it is a branch off the same tree, but it embodies a commitment to the narrative that older concerns with the enduring primacy of systematic (or, if you prefer, analytic) theology in the life of the church did not allow.

In future posts I’ll talk about narrative theology in relationship to systematic theology and to ethics.

Part 2
Narrative Theology and Biblical Theology
February 25, 2012

In practicing a narrative theology, the overarching conviction is that the revelation of God is a story: the story of the creator God, at work in Israel, to redeem and reconcile the world through the story of Jesus.

Part of what this means for me is the possibility of transformation, reconfiguration, and even leaving behind of earlier moments in the story as later scenes show us the way forward and, ultimately, the climactic saving sequence.

This is one point at which I differ from N. T. Wright.

Regularly in Wright’s writing we will find statements such as, “This is what God was up to all along.” I don’t disagree here. But what often goes unspoken, and where I think we need to be more clear, is that one only knows “this is what God was up to all along” once one is already convinced that “this new thing is actually what God is up to.”

The work of Jesus is not merely a saving act. For a people who are convinced that the saving work of Jesus is what was “pre-promised in the scriptures” (Rom 1), the Christ event becomes a hermeneutic. It becomes a lens by which we re-read the Old Testament and discover what can only be seen by the eyes of faith.

In light of the climax of the story, we re-read the earlier moments and discover things that would not have been visible to the original audience. We boldly read those as indications of God’s work in Christ, nonetheless, because we believe that the same God is at work in the same story to bring it to its culmination in him. 

 Image courtesy of The Open Fiction Project

This brings me to a point at which my version of narrative theology differs from the work of some practitioners of what is sometimes called “theological interpretation of scripture.” Here the specific example who comes to mind is Kevin Vanhoozer.

Confronted with the incongruity between “behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son” as it is used in Isaiah and in Matthew, Vanhoozer appeals to authorial intention to say that the Matthew meaning was, in a sense, the meaning intended for Isaiah as well. Of course, by “authorial intention,” Vanhoozer means God as author.

Matthew's meaning = Isaiah's meaning
(using authorial intent where God is the Author)

This, it seems to me, is cheating.

Instead, I propose a multiple-reading strategy: Allow the text to mean what it meant in its first context, as much as we can determine this. Do the historical critical work that sheds light on why, for example, an eighth century BC audience would formulate matters just soand then recognize the freedom of later readers to re-read those texts differently in light of later events.

Reading Vahoozer or Dan Treier, I sometimes fear that theological readings become a way to circumvent critical issues. But even if the demands of the church push us toward a final, post-critical reading, where we reincorporate the difficult message of an earlier day into the story of the church by a dramatic rereading of the text, I want to contend that we must still be first critical in order to be post-critical.

To my mind, narrative theology allows for such transformations. We are part of a story. Later moments take up, fulfill, recapitulate, and transform earlier. We can say both, “Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with a person born hundreds of years later to someone who has not had sex,” and, “the virgin birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7.”

Reading a book on theological interpretation by a scholar across the pond, I was struck by a claim that we are to read the Bible as a book addressed to us–that the ideal audience are those who proclaim and profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord.

This, it seemed, to me, was half right.

Yes, we are like the first and ideal audience: those expected to respond in faithful following of Jesus.

But we are also not like them: we are not first-century Romans; we are not first-century Jews; we are not fifth century Jews in Babylon. There is a specificity to the particular audience that sets us apart from them. To the writer, there would have been a hope that first-century Galatians would respond by “kicking out the slave woman and her son,” even as Abraham did. That word is not directly addressed to us in the same way.

What I propose for reading the Bible itself also pertains to reading it for our communities. We are part of a long story. This means that the retellings will involve some measure of transformation. And this is, itself, faithful and living renarration of the story of God.

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