stroup“One of the strengths of narrative theology has been that it provides a foundation for theology by uniting experience and reflection in a way that other recent forms of systematic theology apparently have been unable to do.  Narrative theology is not simply a matter of storytelling.  Narrative theology does recognize, however, that Christian faith is rooted in particular historical events which are recounted in the narratives of Christian Scripture and tradition, that these historical narratives are the basis for Christian affirmations about the nature of God and the reality of grace, and that these historical narratives and the faith they spawn are redemptive when they are appropriated at the level of personal identity and existence.” (George W. StroupThe Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church, p. 17)

stroup“A turning point in the Gospel narratives is the question Jesus addresses to his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (Matt. 16:15; Mark 8:29; and Luke 9:20).  The question marks a turning point in Jesus’ relation to the disciples and in the larger narrative itself because it points to a central feature of Christian faith–namely that a person’s understanding of Jesus’ identity is inseparable from his or her understanding of the nature of discipleship.  What a person believes about Jesus cannot be separated from how he or she lives in the world.  Faith in the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ has serious but unavoidable consequences for daily life, from the most mundane issues to questions of life and death.

At the center of Christian faith is the question of identity, a question that is two-sided.  On the one hand it is a question about Jesus of Nazareth and the God whom Christians confess to be disclosed in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  Christian theology is the attempt to think through and understand what faith confesses about the God revealed in Jesus Christ.  But that is only one side of the identity question in Christian faith and only one part of the task of theology.  Equally important are the consequences of what it means to confess that Jesus Christ is ‘the only begotten Son of God.’  Traditionally Christians have claimed that anyone who makes that confession is led to reconsider what kind of person one is and how one lives in the world.  In more cases than not that confession seems to require a person to ‘turn around,’ reinterpret personal identity, and live differently in the world.  What a person believes about Jesus Christ cannot be separated from how one lives in the world without tearing apart the fabric of Christian faith.  But while the two go hand in hand they also are never perfectly conjoined.  The agony of Christian existence in both its personal and corporate forms is that what one believes and confesses is rarely demonstrated consistently and without distortion in daily life.  Sin remains as much a reality for Christians as non-Christians.  Yet the two-sided question of Christian identity–who one understands Jesus of Nazareth to be and what it means to confess him as Lord–stands at the very center of Christian faith.” (George W. StroupThe Promise of Narrative Theology: Recovering the Gospel in the Church, pp. 14-15)


arendt“That every individual life between birth and death can eventually be told as a story with beginning and end is the pre political and prehistorical condition of history, the great story without beginning and end.  But the reason why each human life tells its story and why history ultimately becomes these storybook of mankind, with many actors and speakers and yet without any tangible authors, is that both are the outcome of action.” (Hannah ArendtThe Human Condition)

Thompson“[Paul] shows extraordinary pessimism concerning the human potential to do the good apart from Christ, but equally extraordinary optimism concerning the possibilities of his communities to fulfill the will of God [through the empowerment of the Spirit]. His categorical claim that ‘no one is righteous’ (Romans 3:10) is without parallel in both the [pagan] philosophical tradition and Jewish literature. However, he assures his communities that if they walk by the Spirit they will not be overcome by the desire of the flesh (Gal. 5:16), and he assumes that his readers will keep the commandments.” (James W. Thompson, Moral Formation According to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics, p. 6)

What jumped out at me about this way of putting the matter is how our natural “instincts” as Christians today is so often the very opposite of this.  We tend to have trouble grasping how those who are outside of Christ could really stand in such desperate need of God’s redemptive grace in the gospel, as they already seem to be (quite self-evidently) pretty “nice” people, while we tend to have quite low expectations for our own struggle with sin and the pursuit of newly transformed lives that are qualitatively different from the “way-of-being-in-the-world” that is experienced by those who do not follow Jesus. Are we willing to have our intuitions reformed under the guidance of Scripture, our moral imaginations newly reawakened and refreshed?

gombis“For Paul, then, churches are outposts of the Kingdom of God, communities where God’s presence resides by the Spirit of Jesus.  Because this is so, churches are the ‘body of Christ’ on earth, embodying the self-giving love of God in the world, the same love for which Jesus set the pattern in his cruciform life.  And the Spirit is shaping these communities accordingly, empowering them to embody the self-expending life of Jesus on earth.  This narrative pattern of self-expenditure–death, resurrection, and exaltation–becomes for Paul the normative pattern that God is effecting within communities of the Kingdom of God.  According to Paul, participation in self-emptying and self-giving cements one’s place in glory–guaranteeing participation in the resurrection until life at the day of Christ.  What is more, participation in the suffering of Jesus also draws upon and unleashes the resurrection power of God now.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, p. 69)

Paul’s Master Story

gombis“[The depiction of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11 is] ‘Paul’s master story,’ the controlling narrative pattern that reveals the essential character of Jesus, through which Paul envisions his own ministry, the shape of Christian relationships, and the character of Christian community life…In the remainder of Philippians Paul makes exhortations based on this narrative pattern of self-emptying, renunciation of status, death, resurrection, and exaltation.  Paul seeks to share in the sufferings of Christ in order to share in Christ’s exaltation.  The Philippians, too, are to serve one another, adopting cruciform postures toward one another, so that they might share in the glory to be revealed at the day of Christ.  Paul’s letters are filled with references to the self-expenditure of Jesus, as Paul works from this narrative trajectory to shape the community life of his churches…For Paul, this narrative trajectory, embodied by a community, is the manner in which the people of God enact the Kingdom of God.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 64-65)

gombis“Paul does not, in any of his letters, lay out a comprehensive ethical vision…Paul writes to actual churches facing specific challenges or going through unique struggles, and he tailors his counsel to fit just those situations as he understands them.  While he is not an ethical theorist, then, Paul does indeed have what we might call an ethical vision.  He helps his churches to re-conceive and re-imagine their situations in light of Kingdom of God realities, and his counsel to them involves ethical reasoning to a high degree.  Because of this, we can trace the basic contours of Paul’s ethical vision and determine just how his thought ‘works’ with regard to Christian conduct.  When we do, we find that Paul’s ethical vision is shaped by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Spirit.

The pattern set by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus is fundamental to Paul’s thought and determines everything regarding the reality of the Kingdom of God.  The life of the people of God is ‘cruciform’–which indicates existence in the shape of the cross…The Spirit’s work among the people of God is focused on producing in Kingdom communities this cruciform pattern of life…The way of life that Paul envisions for his churches follows the pattern of the self-giving Jesus…When Paul helps his communities solve their relational troubles or to imagine how to approach a challenge to their community life, his fundamental lens is the cruciform life of Jesus.” (Timothy G. GombisPaul: A Guide for the Perplexed, pp. 62-63)


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