Thursday, September 01, 2005

Batter my heart, you three-personned narrative!

One of my favorite theological stories occurred a few years ago during a conference in one of the lecture rooms at Harvard Divinity School. The occasion was headlined by Anglican New Testament scholar, N. T. Wright. Also in attendance was the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz, and this story concerns a remark by him. During the closing Q&A of the conference, one of the students present asked Grenz about something he had said during a talk earlier that morning. "Dr. Grenz," began the student, "earlier you said that one of the tasks that presently confronts the church is to learn to read the Bible as a Christian text. What did you mean by that?" Grenz responded by saying, "we must learn to read the Bible as trinitarians!" It is an epigrammatic statement, and it stuck with me. Yet, what did he mean? I think that Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff may provide an answer.

In the article "Seeking Justice in Hope"[1], Nicholas Wolterstorff cites the influence colleague David Kelsey has had in explaining, basically, what Grenz was talking about (though Wolterstorff has not heard my story, nor was he at the conference that winter morning.) Wolterstorff writes:

As the results of working through a magnificent, but yet-unpublished, manuscript on theological anthropology by my colleague David Kelsey, I have come to see with far greater clarity than ever before that the story Christian Scripture tells of how the triune God relates to what is not God is a story that has three independent, though mutually involving, story lines: there is the story line of how God relates to all that is not God as creator and sustainer, there is the story line of how God relates to all that is not God as consummator, and there is the story line of how God relates to all that is not God as deliverer or redeemer. Christian theology, though it does not itself usually take the form of a narrative, is nonetheless unique among the theologies and philosophies of humankind in that it articulates this narrative--that is, it articulates the threefold way in which the three-person God relates to all that is not God.

I said that these three story lines, though certainly mutually involving, are nonetheless independent; none is a mere component or implication of another. To a person who has heard of God only as creator and sustainer, the news of consummation and of redemption comes as news -- good news. Consummation and redemption are not simply the outworking of the dynamics of creation. Likewise the story line of consummation does not imply that of redemption, nor vice versa. If God's creatures had acted as God wanted them to act, so that there was no need of the deliverance of which the One in the burning bush spoke nor for that which Zechariah now expected, nonetheless God might have promised and effected consummation. Conversely, God might have redeemed us from the sin that so strangely haunts creation without offering us that consummation which is a new creation. The consummation and redemption story lines do not even presuppose the creation story line. They do, of course, presuppose that there are beings who can be redeemed and whose existence can be consummated by a mode of existence that goes beyond what "the flesh" is capable of. But they do not, as such, presuppose that the totality of what is not God has been created by God, nor, if it has been created by God, that the creating and sustaining God is also the God who consummates and redeems.

Insofar as theology blurs the distinctiveness of these three story lines, thus far does theology depart from one of the deepest and most distinctive characteristics of the Christian scriptures' presentation of God's relation to all that is not God.
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[1] "Seeking Justice in Hope" in The Future of Hope: Christian Tradition amid Modernity and Postmodernity, eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg (Grand Rapids: Eerdman's 2004), 83-84.

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