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.