Why story?

On February 27, 2012, in Gospel-in-Persons, by Neil Williams

For Christianity to remain transformative we need a distinction between the text of Scripture and the gospel story.

We find this distinction in the Bible itself. For example, in Ephesians 1:13 Paul writes, “In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.” This “word of truth” is not referring to the Bible as we have it, for most of the New Testament wasn’t written at this stage. This “word” is the gospel story that Paul lives by and unpacks in the rest of this letter to include God’s “armor” of faithfulness, righteousness, salvation, peace, and truth. It is this gospel story, that Christians are called to live by.

This essential distinction between text and story enabled Christian abolitionists in the 19th century to argue that although the text of Scripture did not condemn the institution of slavery, the gospel story did—with its message of freedom, love, and the equality of all people. And this way of reasoning wasn’t a modern development. The church in its earliest beginnings argued for the inclusion of the Gentiles, even when their text—the Hebrew Bible—excluded Gentiles. The earliest Christians solved the Gentile “problem” not by appealing to the so-called “clear texts” of their Scripture but by seeing what God was doing—the new future opened up by Jesus and the Spirit’s work. This approach eventually led to the relativization and redefinition of the Torah.

A static text or a developing story? The conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders is rooted in this question. The significant predicament of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day was not because they were trying through their “works” to earn salvation, neither was it because they opposed grace or forgiveness; it was because they had so rigidly categorized their theological system based on a static text, that not even God-incarnate could change their opinions. A story includes development, change, unknowns, and surprises, and Jesus took the story in a different direction. As Jesus unveiled the newness of what God was doing, their fear, control, pride, and rage were exposed. Their spiritual danger was not their so-called “works” but a hermetically sealed theology that could not feel the breath of the Spirit of God. Without the gospel story, Christianity loses its transformative message. Without the gospel story, the text itself becomes god and with it a moral certainty where, ironically, all kinds of evil can proliferate.

The text is a testimony to a greater reality. This fact is necessary for transformation and engagement with today’s world—from opposing the marginalization of women to accepting modern science.

The gospel story is seen in, but is distinct from the biblical text. It is this continuing story that gives Christianity the ability to adapt and remain good news through the changing millennia. A casual observer may conclude that Christianity, chameleon like is either camouflaging its true intentions or simply changing to fit into its surroundings. On closer examination, Christianity is remaining true to the gospel, which is inherently a narrative—a developing story of God’s inbreaking into creation, a story that emphasizes particular realities working out in history, such as the image of God, freedom, justice, humility, resurrection, and the impartiality of God. These themes are primary and essential—the life avenues of the story. If they are undermined the heart of the narrative stops beating, and the story collapses, for it is no longer good news.


11 Responses to Why story?

  1. [...] adding to his series on relational transformation with a couple more posts.This next post is titled Why story? and addresses reasons why we need to make a distinction between the biblical text and the gospel [...]

  2. Lawrence Garcia says:

    Outstanding! Another great example comes to mind is the Acts 15 scenario.

    • Neil Williams says:

      Yes, Acts 15 is a great example and shows how the earliest Christians, some who would contribute to the formation of the New Testament, arrived at a new understanding of God’s purposes. It was not harkening back to the ways things were but rather recognizing what God was now doing in Jesus.

  3. eric says:

    John Wesley preached by the wayside during his epoch this was revolutionary, and struck at the common world-view.

    Billy Graham filled stadiums and preached the Gospel, perhaps in a time when America, was on one level anyway, of one more common zeitgeist.

    So what is the content of and what are the mechanics of the Great Commission’s demands today?

    • eric says:

      Like I cross posted with Peter, what is the Story?

      If you had to speak with him about the content and praxis to a group of bright, educated missionaries at a conference. I referenced a hymn, supra.

      What is the 3 point homiletic you would use? And you can add another hymn.

      When Peter and I were young we attended a church that would often have a rocked out version of the Battle Hymn, I think. Something martial that would send you on your way wanting to win the world for the Story.


      • Neil Williams says:

        What would Paul or Wesley say today? I don’t know what they would say today. They were people of their time and place, and if they were alive today, they would be different people. Paul, for example, was not an abolitionist and did not consider abolishing slavery. But as Paul reflected on the gospel story, he went beyond his culture and appealed to slave owners to treat their slaves with love and urged Philemon to receive his runaway slave as brother. In so doing, Paul planted “gospel seeds” that in time came to fruition and helped to change the conscience of the church. In this sense, Paul faithfully served a gospel bigger than his own vision.

        What is the gospel story? As a story, the gospel resists hard definitions—because it is developing. It resists categorization—because it contains surprises. Broadly speaking, we may say that the gospel is a developing narrative about God’s faithfulness, love, righteousness, truth, and salvation—primarily seen in Jesus Christ and the Spirit’s continuing work. And this story has particular preeminent themes, such as love, freedom, justice, resurrection, impartiality of God, and the image of God. How people tell this story will change from time and place. How would I tell it today? For one example, see the previous posts on relational transformation—a conversation on how the gospel story may engender relational wholeness.

        • eric says:

          I am not quite satisfied. Neither are we probably abolitionists, because slavery has been abolished here.

          John Brown, for example was an abolitionist and most agree that he relied heavily on both his Calvinist theology, a version of the Biblical stories and his own crazy violence. His own retelling of a subset of stories in the Bible which emphasized violent liberation were retold until he seems to have justified murder, in “Bloody Kansas”, for example.

          Also, and perhaps related to this, I am not sure how your view of the story differs from Foucault’s “L Énoncé” , statements that are so culturally bound as to be non-transmissible. You know, the antithesis of “timeless truths.”

          There must be some middle way here. Murder, as defined in my handy Penal Code is always wrong. Some stories or parts of stories in the Bible are tantamount to timeless truths, thought I would acquiesce not all are. (Me, I would take that via media.)

          There has be, it seems to me some checks and balances, like Montesquieu taught us. There needs to be yesterdays ink on vellum, black and whites in order to get the situational grays.

          Anyway that is why I wanted to see how you and Pete would preach your views to practical men and women and I am not satisfied, like I said.

          Jesus said, “GO” and “Preach or proclaim”: he used story, it seems to get people to believe certain things not others. So the story, or parable or pericope or whatever genre is a device, in part to get people to believe certain things (especially about Him) enough to proclaim them propositionally. The story is a means to an end.

          So again, how would this view of story apply at the Missionary Conference, perhaps in outline form?

          Neil, since Pete and I are known to like Phil Keaggy, perhaps the hymn should be “Rise up O Men of God.”

          Your exposition has arity. Beautiful theories yes, but how do you exhort bright minds who cannot afford a good suit, because they have left all to preach x, y and z, a set of truths?

  4. Peter Kress says:

    If I am hearing your question correctly, it is along the lines of “what shall we then preach”, or perhaps better expressed as “how shall we then live/love”. I think the http://www.gospelfutures.org/about page gives some thoughts on this as well as previous entries in the blog. Personally I am working on a set of “gospel memes” (very much in process and badly in need of an update) that are informing how I want to talk about, think and live gospel in the future at gospelmemes.pkress.net.

    Three points for me? 1. Gospel Incarnate and made new (incarnation and resurrection). 2. The universal presence and engagement of the Spirit (fellow seeking with all mankind). 3. Wisdom lived through compassion (life/mercy), suffering (laying down of life for others), and seeking beauty. I will have to think about whether these work beyond the moment.

    How do we talk about these things? We need to seek Christ anew in our generation in continuity and discontinuity with our traditions of faith and wisdom, always convinced that Christ is revealing himself, his grace/mercy, his story in every moment and every heart. But we need to seek humbly listening and engaging with those very different from us.


  5. [...] but for some reason we seem to want to resist such a notion.  Consider the following.  Neil Williams writes: For Christianity to remain transformative we need a distinction between the text of Scripture and [...]

  6. [...] Shared Why story? | GospelFutures. [...]

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