Jesus, God and narrative theology
The recent discussion about the divinity of Jesus has been fascinating and has generated some powerful insights. For the most part, however, it has polarized between Theocrat’s view that Jesus is essentially a unique but human agent of God and Peter’s more orthodox argument that the historical Jesus was somehow both human and divine. The various points made are too many and too complex to address in detail, but I have some sympathy with Peter’s lament that this could go on interminably. Paul Chen is certainly right to suggest that an alternative approach needs to be found, and I wonder if he isn’t on the right track when he asks, ‘Why do we so badly have to decide which exact nature he is of?’
I can’t help feeling that we’re still encumbered with a rather ‘modern’ methodology that assumes that the various biblical texts must all somehow serve as evidence for a coherent, unitary theological position regarding the person of Christ. We suppose in effect that revelation is the translation of some sort of prior, pure, abstract truth about God into the complex categories of human thought and experience, and that the task of the theologian is simply to reverse that process: from the complexity of biblical discourse we attempt to recover the essential simplicity of theological truth. Truth has been encoded in the texts of scripture and needs to be decoded.
What I would suggest we need to do is begin to restructure this whole discussion around the simpler task of telling and illuminating the historical narrative and decentralize the programme of constructing a definitive systematic theology. The importance of narrative for the debate has been generally recognized (Peter refers to the ‘narrative of the presence of God’, for example). It seems to me, however, that we are still too quick to jump from narrative to doctrine: narrative simply provides us with a different type of data out of which we construct our grand theological theories. I think there are a number of ways in which taking narrative seriously and keeping it central to how we structure our belief system at all levels would change the shape of this debate.
1. A narrative theology encourages us to draw meaning from larger structures. We are still prone to taking arbitrary proof texts out of context and building a predetermined case around them. Larger narrative structures are much more resistant to being bent to fit some reductive and rationalizing theological schema; narrative naturally allows for a diversity of perspectives without having to arbitrate between them.
2. A narrative theology is informed not by a post-biblical belief system but by a community, which has to act and interpret its actions in the light of its theological tradition and of immediate experience. This has all sorts of implications. I would argue that for an emerging theology it is the existence of a covenant people that should have hermeneutical priority. There is a strong realist commitment in this: what we actually have is a historical community telling stories about itself over a period of time. Over time the story changes, the context in which it is told changes, the reasons for which it is told change. The community is not simply handing down from one generation to the next an immutable set of truths or doctrines. I have argued elsewhere that around the time of Jesus the ‘righteous’ in Israel were retelling Daniel’s story of the coming of the Son of man in order to account for their actual circumstances and sustain hope for the future. This narrative, I think, somehow has to be taken into account in our endeavours to speak biblically about the relation between Jesus and God - but it hardly fits comfortably into conventional christological categories.
3. Within a narrative framework it should be easier to maintain a sense of how the relation between Jesus and God must be understood dynamically and functionally, not merely staticly and ontologically. This point has been emphasized in the debate (I am inclined to agree with Theocrat in this matter), but I feel that there is still a tendency to assume that a proper christology must give priority to categories of being rather than categories of doing. I certainly think that if we are going to speak of the historical Jesus as ‘divine’, we need to understand this primarily in terms of his self-consciously acting the part of YHWH. ‘Acting’ is a complex notion: Jesus acts out prophetically, he acts as agent, he acts as God. He also, incidentally, acts the part of Israel under judgment. Would it then be appropriate to think of him not as God become man but as the one who acts out, in the various senses of the term, the eschatological drama of judgment, forgiveness and renewal?
4. The narrative throws up certain contingent insights into who Jesus was. Typically we attempt to rationalize those insights on the assumption that they are simply expressions of a universal truth: we drop the historical memory into the acid of theological analysis, which dissolves away all that is secondary and contingent, leaving pure revealed doctrine. I would suggest that a properly narrative (and postmodern) theology would retain a much stronger sense of the narrative integrity of the insight. So, for example, Thomas’ words ‘My Lord and my God’ (John 20:28) are read not as an expression of a universal truth but as a particular confession of personal faith within a particular narrative context. This was how Thomas responded - or how John understood Thomas to have responded - to Jesus’ invitation to believe.
5. If we keep the narrative setting in view, we are more likely to draw contextually appropriate conclusions from the texts. It seems to me contextually inappropriate, for example, to base an argument about ontology on Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22:1. The psalm speaks of the God who will not abandon one who trusts in him: Jesus invokes it as an expression of hope that God will deliver or vindicate him. Stephen, on the point of martyrdom, prays to the Lord Jesus (Acts 7:59), but the narrative context is crucial. He prays to the one who has been revealed to him as the Son of man (7:56), the one who suffered at the hands of the enemies of the people of God and who has been exalted to the right hand of the father. It may not be so appropriate to pray to the Lord Jesus in that way outside the eschatological context.
So I think I’m arguing for two rather different things - first, to exercise a measure of theological restraint in reading the texts, allowing them to set contextual limits to the language that we use about Jesus; but secondly, to recognize that within the covenant community, within the body of Christ, the Spirit of God prompts (continues to prompt) a wide range of personal and corporate insights into the nature of the overlap of identity and purpose between Jesus and God.