“Fire. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and the scholars…” (Pascal, November 23, 1654)
For my money, one of the most undeniably significant insights of modern biblical scholarship is the increasing recognition of “narrative” as central to genuinely Christian thought about God. I do not want to go too far and critique ALL older theology that is more systematic, abstract or propositional in nature, as many today excel in doing. Wisdom was not born with this generation–can we at least be clear on that? And narrative theology has its own dangers, not the least of which is the temptation to flee from realism and actual history when talking about “story”. Yet, with that disclaimer put forth, I do think the recovery of “narrative” in contemporary theology holds forth great promise for a renewed, deeper, and ultimately richer understanding of the Scriptures.
Listen to this provocative suggestion:
“Influenced as it has been by the Greek philosophical tradition, the church throughout the centuries has often articulated an understanding of God under heavy influence from Plato’s god of ideal form and perfect moral goodness and from Aristotle’s unmoved mover. We thus find Augustine [in Confessions] asking, ‘What, then, are you, O my God?’ and giving a list of attributes that includes ‘Most high, most excellent, most potent, most omnipotent…unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old.’ In the medieval period, Anselm’s Proslogion seeks to prove the existence of a God whose definition is of the same ilk: ‘that being greater than which cannot be conceived.’ Centuries later, we find the British Reformed tradition [i.e. Westminster Confession] giving this definition of God: ‘What is God? God is a spirit; infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.’ Not only do these Christian definitions, like their Greek philosophical counterparts, all focus on a g/God who is wholly other, they also define God in universal terms without reference to the story of Israel. In the Scriptures of Israel, however, God’s identity is inseparable from a particular people and from certain actions performed on behalf of that people. God is not known in universal abstract qualities but in limiting and particular actions. The question of the Scriptures seems to be less What is God? but rather Who is God? or perhaps Which God? The God of Israel is known through that God’s commitment to and actions among a particular people…The God of Israel’s Scriptures is the God who, though Lord over all things, has chosen to disclose himself and make his name known to the world through one particular people.” (J. R. Daniel Kirk, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God, pp. 1-2)
Let me be blunt: this is a brilliant nugget in what it affirms, but unhelpful in what it denies (or at least ascribes to past generations of Christian thinkers). Kirk’s book as a whole strikes me as a typically modern overreaction against Augustine and Luther and Calvin–after all, “narrative” is not the sole possession of the 21st century, lest we forget who penned this claim:
“This gospel of God or New Testament is a good story and report, sounded forth into all the world by the apostles, telling of a true David who strove with sin, death, and the devil, and overcame them, and thereby rescued all those who were captive in sin, afflicted with death, and overpowered by the devil. Without any merit of their own he made them righteous, gave them life, and saved them, so that they were given peace and brought back to God. For this they sing, and thank and praise God, and are glad forever, if only they believe firmly and remain steadfast in faith.” (Martin Luther, LW 35:358)
Luther (and most Christian theologians throughout history) knew that the gospel is ultimately a story about what God has done in Christ, and any “abstract” or “systematic” theologizing was done by them within this larger framework. Any other claim is pure historical revisionism. Furthermore, there’s quite a bit of discussion in both the Old and New Testaments that would fall under the same hammer Kirk wants to swing at Western theology. But…it is also the case that, concomitant with the move away from modernism into postmodernism, our ears are becoming slowly more attuned to the centrality of “narrative” for understanding God and our role in the world He has made. On that theme, Kirk is dynamite and provides a helpful corrective to other kinds of extremes.
A further trend in much scholarship today is the growing awareness that human identity cannot ultimately be understood or defined apart from history…that is, our actual lived lives. Our stories. If someone asks me to describe my wife Kasey to them (and they have never met her), and I reply by saying: “Well, she’s intelligent, funny, athletic, beautiful, humble…”, the result would not be true knowledge of who Kasey really is. In fact, that would be spectacularly unhelpful. BUT if I told you a number of personal, true stories from her life experience, that “narrative” would embody these qualities and make them vibrant to you. What Kasey has done and experienced plays an intimate role in who she is today. And thus for you to know her, you cannot skip around her history.
So it is with God Himself. Biblically, God is defined primarily by what He has done in salvation history–that is, by how He has acted in relation to Israel and the Church and most of all, in Jesus.
“For Paul, the question who God is can best be answered by reference to what God does—just as, in a narrative, a character may be individualized by reference to significant actions within a specific history rather than through immanent attributes or dispositions. Divine being and divine action are inseparable from one another, and no distinction is drawn between how God is in se and ad extra.” (Francis Watson, “The Triune Divine Identity: Reflections on Pauline God-Language, in Disagreement with J.D.G. Dunn,” JSNT 80 (2000), p. 105)
In Romans 4, God’s identity is fleshed out in three statements that are descriptive of how He acts in the world. To have “faith” in Romans 4 (which brings righteousness!) means to believe in and trust this God. The object of faith determines the subjective, pyschological makeup of that same faith. Faith means relating to Him as the One who has done (and continues to do) these things.
So who is God according to Romans 4?
God is the One “who justifies the ungodly” (4:5)
God is the One “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (4:17)
God is the One “who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (4:24)
The significance of this narrative identity of God for Christian faith cannot possibly be overstated:
“It is noteworthy that while Paul never reduces God to a function of human faith, Romans 4 is exclusively concerned with God ad extra, with God as he is to be believed in…for Paul in Romans 4 human faith is inseparable not only from God, but also from God understood in a certain way. For Paul there is no true human faith that is not faith in ‘the God who justifies the ungodly’ (4:5), ‘the God who gives life to the dead and calls non-entities to be entities’ (4:17), and finally ‘the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead’ (4:24)…It is an essential pre-requisite of faith that it is faith in such a God.” (Simon Gathercole, Justification and Variegated Nomism, Vol. II, p. 165)
If I read Paul aright, his argument in Romans 4 is that this God who has now revealed Himself in Jesus’s death and resurrection is the same God who called out Abraham and gave him promises–in spite of, to be sure, the rejection of this Messiah by so many children of Abraham. In Abraham’s story, God was the one who justified the ungodly, and he was the one who gave life to the dead and called into existence the things that are from the things that are not (i.e. creation ex nihilo). This same God has now raised Jesus from the dead–and by giving life to the dead once more, He has once and for all justified the ungodly (4:24-25). Paul’s point is clear: of course this is the same God, the redeeming Lord whose narrative identity was splashed all over the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures in Israel’s story. Raising Jesus from the dead and justifying ungodly Gentiles is exactly how you would expect Him to act at the end of the ages, if you are reading the Old Testament Scriptures rightly.
So the death and resurrection of Jesus define, for Christians, the core identity of God. God–for us–is the one who handed Jesus over to be crucified, who raised him from the dead, and who has subsequently installed this risen Jesus at His right hand as Lord over all. Deny this and, simply put, you are talking about another God. I’ll leave the last word to Robert Jenson as he unapologetically lays out what which distinguishes Judaism and Christianity ever since Jesus came on the scene (hint: it’s not primarily different “attributes” of God, as if the prospect of Jews and Muslims and Christians all signing off on the same list of divine attributes would mean we all worship the same God. What we fundamentally differ over are the acts of God in history, along with their specific interpretation and meaning for the community of faith):
“To the question “Whom do you mean, ‘God?’” Israel answered, “Whoever got us out of Egypt”. The gospel of the New Testament is the provision of a new identifying description for this same God, that this new description comes to apply is the event witness to which is the whole point of the New Testament. The content of the gospel is that God can now be known as “whoever raised Jesus from the dead” ‘ (Robert Jenson, The Triune Identity God According to the Gospel [Philadelphia Fortress Press, 1982], pp 7-8)