Here’s one way of framing my “thesis” at the hermeneutical level—that is, at the level of how we interpret the Bible and make use of it as church.
For various complex reasons the church is coming under pressure to switch from a theological way of thinking to what I think is most concisely and most accurately termed a narrative-historical way of thinking. In my view that is a good thing and should be encouraged. It may even, in the long run, save the church in the secular West from obsolescence.
It comes down to the question of how we explain or talk about or define the new state of affairs that began with Jesus—the phenomenon that we call Christianity.
The traditional understanding has been that the incarnation-death-resurrection event gave birth to a new way of salvation for humankind. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. People who believe in him will not perish—or, worse, go to hell—but will have eternal life. These saved people come together to form the community of the church, whose life and mission are described and determined by a comprehensive belief system. The belief system carries all the information and instructions necessary for the church to know what it is, why it is here, and what it is supposed to do.
The raw content for the belief system is provided by the Bible, but the church has had to interpret, process, systematise and apply that raw content. That is the work of theology in the broadest sense.
There are different ways of doing theology, but the point to make here is that a fundamental objective is to bring order, clarity and stability to the chaotic biblical material. We do this by examining the biblical material and sorting it into the standard systematic categories (revelation, christology, soteriology, etc.), or by reducing it to summary doctrinal statements, or by organising it around some core principle or other: the incarnation, personal salvation, the kingdom of God, social action—like rose beds arranged around an ornamental centre-piece.
So here’s the metaphor…
Theology is like a great concrete dam—a massive piece of intellectual infrastructure—that holds in place the reservoir of biblical material. Sluice gates are used to control the flow of biblical “truth” to irrigate the land and sustain life in the regions below the dam, where the church has been settled for the last nearly two thousand years.
But we might ask ourselves: how is it that we have this reservoir of biblical material that needs to be kept in place by the dam of theology? Where has it all come from?
The answer is that there was a river flowing through the landscape of history. That river was the story of the people of God—not the people itself but the story that was being told, from one generation to the next, from age to age.
The story was not like a static pool or lake or reservoir. It was dynamic, changing, at times meandering gracefully across flood plains, at times a white-water torrent cutting through mountains. There were rapids and waterfalls, confluences, cliff faces, shingle beaches, river caves, and overhangs.
The story began with Abraham and the patriarchs. It ran through the long stay in Egypt, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the emergence of the kingdom, the division of the kingdom, invasion and exile, subjection to empires. It surged into the New Testament, becoming the story of the movement of revolution and renewal initiated by Jesus from Nazareth…
But the church decided fairly early on—perhaps some time in the second century—that the story of Israel had been brought to its predicted and inevitable “end”. So they gave up story-telling, closed the canon of scripture, and recruited some of the best philosophically trained minds of the time to devise a system behind which the vast body of biblical truth could be safely stored for future generations.
So the lively river of the biblical narrative ran up against the unyielding barrier of theological orthodoxy, and the waters rose, and became a great immutable lake.
Of course, the original design and construction of the theological dam were matters of great controversy; and it has been subjected to poorly managed redesign and repair over the centuries. But it has stood for a long time—a monument to the theological prowess of the ancients. The scheme has proved extremely effective.
In recent decades, however, our perspective has begun to change.
Researchers have headed back upstream and have remapped the relation between the tumultuous river of the Jewish narrative and the landscape of history. As a result we have become much more aware of how unlike the original story the placid reservoir of managed biblical truth acually is.
It has become apparent that the story that came after Jesus—the war against Rome, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the protracted contest with paganism, the conversion of the nations, and so on—was submerged under the rising waters of the reservoir. Eschatology was the surging force that drove New Testament belief, but for the theologians it meant instability and disorder and needed to be staunched.
Concerns have also arisen regarding the structural integrity of the dam. It was badly shaken by the earthquake of the Enlightenment and a series of aftershocks. Hasty repairs have been done in the modern era, cracks have been cemented over, but it may only be a matter of time before the theological dam gives way and the river of the story of the people of God begins to flow again.
This is the really challenging and exciting part of a narrative-historical hermeneutic. It’s not just that we have recovered the narrative shape of biblical truth, the historical horizons of New Testament thought. We are also beginning to sense that theology itself is subject to history, it’s part of the story—whether or not the damn dam stays in place.
The management of truth as static system does not serve us well in the post-Christendom era. There is too much happening, too much change going on. The future is too uncertain. We need to learn again to make sense of who we are as the historical people of God—empowered by the Spirit, answerable to Jesus as Lord—by telling our story.
I wrote most of this before I read in the news this morning that nearly 200,000 people have been evacuated from areas downriver of the Oroville Dam in northern California. Heavy storm rains and damage to the emergency spillway have combined to pose a risk of catastrophic flooding. The dam is not about to break, and water levels are dropping, but it is a reminder that our best efforts are not always enough to hold back the forces of nature—or the forces of history.