An Emerging Theological Mosaic

Thoughts about Mystery

The first statement we can make about God is also the last. God is utterly and ultimately incomprehensible. God is beyond us. God is transcendent and even the divine imminence is baffling to us. The infinite cannot be contained by the finite. The limitless is not bound by limitations. Certainly, we have some sense of God. We gain insights and like Moses can on occasion glimpse the afterburners of God. But to know God well, let alone completely, is simply further than the reaches of human capacity.

Some bristle against this assertion, thinking “in heaven someday, I will understand it all.” The apostle Paul said that during his earthly life, he knew in part, as we all do. Yet he did not follow up that statement with its inverse, “and one day I will fully know,” as we might expect. Rather, he said, “one day, I will be fully known.” Paul had no expectation that one day he would reach the outskirts of divine understanding. He, and we, will always know in part.

For generations now theology books have been written to provide answers about God. Proof-texts and outlines and explanations have filled volumes in an effort to dissect God. Yet the unintended consequence of these efforts is that mystery has been sucked out of God. What is more beautiful and captivating – a butterfly in flight or one pinned to a science project?

It might very well be that good theology leaves us with more questions than answers. Good theology might well feed our doubts as much our faith. Good theology points us in the direction of the God who is yet beyond our reach. The incomprehensibility of God puts mystery at the heart of theology.

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More Thoughts on Narrative

Which is the master and which is the servant? Do the propositions serve the story, providing needed details and insight as the plot moves forward toward a culmination? Or do the stories serve the propositions, providing illustrative material for them?

This may mostly be a matter of semantics, but I think it does highlight an important distinction and clarification. Whichever is primary for us – story or proposition – will shape our perspective on the Bible, our emphasis in communicating it, and ultimately our effectiveness in reaching a new generation with the gospel.

For me, I am more inclined to see the propositions as servants of the story than vice versa. I see life as a grand movement full of adventure and mystery. I think it is moving toward a resolution, a kingdom, a happily ever after. And I think things like love and courage and hope are the stuff of life. When my story reaches it final page, I can’t imagine that there will be a quiz.

Along the way, the propositions fill in the details. They provide some explanation. But they are not the point. Why can I keep hope in a dark chapter of my life? Because I have learned that God is faithful. Where can I turn when I am down? I have heard that the church is to be a place of encouragement.

What are propositions about my wife? She has beautiful brown hair and eyes. She is creative and funny. She is a wonderful mother.

These propositions are true. But I would rather be captivated by the often hilarious and poignant story of her life than to merely be told these statements. And, I would rather, above all, have my life intertwined with hers that I might experience all that she is.

So too it ought to be with God. Let’s captivate people with his story, using the propositions when necessary, but never as a replacement for the mystery and adventure that is the gospel. And, even more, let’s invite people to have their stories woven into the only one who can offer them a lasting happily ever after.

Iron Joe and “Propositional Truth”

We sat at narrow tables in the large classroom and soaked in his words. He spoke with authority and conviction. He had barbed comments for those who didn’t see things the same way he did, be they from a different theological tradition or within the school’s administration. Occasionally his soft heart would shine through and endear him to those who listened carefully. But most often his steely demeanor justified his nickname “Iron Joe.”

Iron Joe taught us a lot about the Bible and theology. His affect on the way I think is ongoing. But as my horizons have widened so too has my perspective on some of the things Iron Joe held with such ironclad conviction. One of his mantras is that the Bible is “propositional truth.”

Railing against the emotional drivel that sometimes passes as serious theological reflection, Iron Joe would tell us that we had to study the Bible, study it well, in the right way so that we could begin to plunge the depths of our incomprehensible God. And we did that by recognizing and learning the propositional truth presented in God’s Word, the Bible. In Joe’s theological world, the Bible is full of objective, verifiable truth that can be, in essence, taken off the shelf, handled and examined, and then returned safely to its home.

Joe is not alone in this approach to the Bible. On any given Sunday, thousands of preachers around the country and the globe present sermons, not dissimilar to Iron Joe’s lectures, that present the truth in propositions – points in an outline, principles to be memorized and appropriated.

And the Bible is reduced to a medical manual, which can be taken down to address a specific malady with easy how-to steps to follow. Or it is reduced to an encyclopedia in which any odd curiosity can be researched and debated. Or it is a users manual with an index (we’d call it a concordance) that gets searched on the occasion of something breaking.

But is the Bible “propositional truth”? Certainly some parts are. The letters of Paul, Peter, James, and others are clear and concise statements of belief, often with neatly drawn applications. But much of the Bible is messy and downright disturbing. And it is written in genres that lose their punch when they are reduced to neatly packaged statements.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams’ character makes fun of the American Bandstand approach to poetry because it negates the power of the poem by fitting it into a formula. The propositional truth approach to the Bible can do the same to the powerful narrative unfolding in its pages.

The vast majority of the Bible is narrative. Much is the written account of the great oral tradition, the stories told for generations around bedouin campfires. And the Bible contains much poetry, the honest and authentic cry of the soul to a God who is baffling. Compared to the prose and poetry, proposition is a small percentage of the Bible.

The thing that gives the story its power – its ability to capture us – is lost when we try to reduce it to principles and propositions. We need to let the Bible be read for what it is, a compelling and arresting story of betrayl, conflict, redemption, and hope.

The Power of Narrative

The story captures our imagination in a way that no other means of passing of information can. It engages us. It draws us in. The story involves not just our mind but our emotions and imagination as well. Principles and propositions need to be illustrated. They are dry and dead without a story to bring them to life. Ideas need to be given application, showing how they affect our personal storylines.

Stories prevail. For generations, it has been the story that has been passed down. It is the story that gets told around the campfire and at family reunions.

The movie Signs has a powerful depiction of the power of the story. When the aliens are seeking an entrance into the family home and Mel Gibson’s character is frantically trying to keep them out while also keeping his kids’ calm, he does not resort to principles and propositions. Instead, he tells each of them the story of their birth, describing what they looked like, how their mother reacted, and how much he loved them at their arrival into life. The children find comfort and hope in hearing these stories for they speak of their own resilence and life.

Stories are memories. I do not remember many of the specific principles and propositions I learned in college. Of the thousands that were downloaded to me on a daily basis, I might be able to come up with a few dozen if I tried. But I could tell college stories for days. I could tell you about my friends, our highjinx, all of the things that would have gotten me kicked out if I had been caught. I could tell you about the characters and the relationships and the laughs. I could tell you about the broken hearts and the misunderstandings. I can’t remember the propositions, but I can remember the stories.

Holding Doctrines in Orbit

Many people see the trinity as an obsure and ansillary belief in the Christian system. It is relegated to an afterthought for only the most theologically curious. This approach is unfortunate because it fails to take into account the deep signifance of trinitarian understanding.

In a sentence, the trinity is the matrix that holds all other Christian doctrines together. If the harmonious activity of the Divine Community is removed, so too is all historic, orthodox Christian understanding. Trinitairian belief holds all other Christian belief in orbit around God.

With the previously described harmonious activity of God in mind (The Father activates. The Son accomplishes. The Spirit animates.), consider other significant Christian beliefs:

Creation:
– The Father creates heaven and earth out of nothing.
– The Son is the Word and the Wisdom that brings all things into being.
– The Spirit moves over creation, bringing it into motion and to life.

Revelation:
– The Father reveals himself through his word.
– The Son is the living Word, the one to whom the written word testifies.
– The Spirit superintended with the writers of the word to make sure that what they wrote bore faithful witness to the Son.

Salvation:
– The Father choses (elects) those who will be saved.
– The Son pays the penalty for their sins on the cross.
– The Spirit regenerates them so that they may respond in faith and repentance.

Spirituality:
– The Father calls us to holiness.
– The Son gives us an example of holiness.
– The Spirit strengthens us for holiness.

Trinitarian understanding brings a richness, a texture, a beauty to Christian theology. Without it, doctrines can be flat and two-dimensional. With it, they come alive with mystery, like the God to whom they point us.

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