Editors’ Note: During the last few decades books such as The Gagging of God by D. A. Carson and No Place for Truth by David Wells spoke prophetically about the church’s response to changing cultural trends. The Gospel Coalition’s Theological Vision for Ministry affirms the need for such wise assessment, because “we want to be a church that not only gives support to individual Christians in their personal walks with God, but one that also shapes them into the alternative human society God creates by his Word and Spirit.” So TGC editors asked several writers to identify the cultural trends currently challenging the church to be faithful Christians in the world and suggest how we might we respond.
The premise of this essay affords a few significant personal memories. Reading David Wells’s book No Place for Truth had a significant effect on me as a college student. I’m likely doing what I’m doing now—-teaching a mixture of church history, historical theology, theology, and apologetics—-because of that book. To put the matter another way, Wells made a believer out of me.
I also remember one of the earlier papers I wrote for a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1996, I think, on the pitfalls and promises of postmodernism. The paper was long on pitfalls and rather slim on promises. In fact, I think the latter category was about nil, another case of false advertising. In that paper I was concerned mostly with issues of epistemology. I wasn’t then, and I’m still not ready to jettison objectivity. Neutrality can go, but I still think there’s a place for objectivity—-grounded in the two givens that God is, he exists, and God has spoken and speaks, he revealed/s himself in his Word and in his world. I believe that’s true not only for my tribe, but for all people of all time of all places, whether acknowledged or not, whether denied and suppressed (as we are naturally wont to do according to Romans 1) or whether embraced and relished (as we are able to do only by way of the Holy Spirit’s gracious work according to 1 Corinthians 2). I also believe there’s no hope, of both an epistemological and soteriological kind, without these two givens. But I’ll leave the epistemological wrangling to others. Any more, reading philosophy journals leaves me a bit glazed over.
Instead, a fruitful area to explore concerns how we think about and teach theology. There seems to be no small debate over systematic versus narrative approaches to theology. And these two lines sometimes fall in along the modernist/postmodernist divide. Those advocating systematic theology see the narrative approaches as lacking if not eschewing propositions. Without propositions orthodoxy is in jeopardy. In addition, those advocating systematic theology see the narrative approach as a dumbing down.
Advocates of the narrative approach counter that the systematic approach to theology is too bound up with modernity. It is, they contend, wedded to a modernist way of organizing and classifying and, hence, thinking about the world. They further contend that Scripture itself does not look like the table of contents of a systematic theology. These are imposed categories, goes the narrative approach.
This debate might be helped by framing it around the question of encyclopedic versus narrative as opposed to systematic versus narrative. In fact, to temper this debate even more, one could likely speak of a narrative systematic theology as opposed to an encyclopedic systematic theology. Of course, there are advocates of a kind of narrative theology that would have an apoplectic reaction to any such suggestion. Equally, there are advocates of a kind of systematic theology who are sure I have no idea what I am talking about. But for those still reading, let me argue the virtues of a narrative systematic approach.
My training and my early teaching in theology was largely in the encyclopedic vein. I soon began to realize, however, that undergraduates were not quite as excited about the topic as I was. I would talk of theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, anthropology, hamartiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, angelology, and eschatology. They would clock out—-these were the days before iPhones, so they didn’t have the luxury of that distraction. This can’t simply be chalked up to the inability of 18- to 22-year-olds to recognize the feast I was laying out before them because their (theological) tastes were undeveloped. I venture to guess advertising these topics would not book out the largest room in the educational wing for an adult Sunday school class, either.
In addition to the challenges in the classes I found another challenge that was far more disheartening. Students were not making connections from course to course as they journeyed through 12 hours, four courses, of the theology curriculum. These topics were seen as discreet units, and like peanut butter and chocolate before Reese’s they didn’t intermingle. All teachers long to see their students make connections, connections to prior learning, connections across the curriculum, connections to life. For what it’s worth, my testimony is that the encyclopedic systematic theology approach was not helping students make connections. In fact, it was a barrier to them in making connections.
Then I read something in Jonathan Edwards. I had seen it before. But I hadn’t thought of applying it to me. In his letter to the Princeton trustees, as he was trying to wiggle his way out of their invitation to be president, he mentioned some of the irons he had in his writing fire. From his more youthful days he wanted to write a magnum opus called “A Rational Account.” This would be a rational account of all things. Encyclopedic. But he changed his mind. He now wanted to throw (his word) the whole thing into a narrative. His unfinished magnum opus would now be “A History of the Work of Redemption” (not to be confused with the sermon series published posthumously with that title). Edwards wanted to tell a story, the grand story.
I’m not sure what exactly led Edwards to make this paradigm shift in understanding and then teaching what God is doing in his Word and in his world, but he did. I suspect it had something to do with his awareness of the limitations of the encyclopedic approach and the promise of the narrative approach. To put it another way, the narrative approach “will preach.”
For the Guild, or For the People?
Mention the categories of encyclopedic systematic theology and people are lost. Theologies are a language of the guild, by the guild, for the guild. Conversely, mention creation, fall, redemption, and restoration and you’re speaking a language of the people, by the people, for the people.
Narrative theology need not be proposition-less, or anti-propositional. It is true that some forms are; they are not healthy for the church and should be refuted. Plain and simple. But, as those like Kevin Vanhoozer have shown, a narrative theology can be proposition-full. No dumbing down here, either. Narrative theology can also be rather robust and rigorous. It is also poetic, artistic. And at the end of the day, when you open up the Scriptures you see it. That is to say, you see creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. This is not imposed; it’s there. And you see it in life. The narrative systematic theology approach resonates with experience, and it does so because it’s true.
I will not say that all of my students have risen up and called me blessed since I have thrown systematic theology into a narrative, but I do see them paying attention. More heartening, I see them making connections, connections across the curriculum and connections to life. That’s all rather promising.
Also in “The Church and the Cultural Challenge” series:
- ”The Danger of Running a Spiritual Deficit” by Fred Sanders
- ”Tell Your Story, Tell It Well” by Alissa Wilkinson
- ”The Myths of Progress and Relevance” by John Dickson