It was certainly an enlightening moment in my own life when I came to realize my modernist prejudice in considering modern theological terms superior to biblical imagery and story. The chart below is an example of the kind of comparisons I had to make to reflect upon my modernizing tendency. I had come to prefer theological technical terms over their biblical images and metaphors.
C.S. Lewis pointed out that the technical term for God, “The transcendent Ground of Being,” is simply not as rich or full of meaning as the scriptural metaphor “Our Father who art in heaven.”1 Of course, the creation of theological terms is not inherently wrong, and metaphors are not the only way in which Scripture communicates God’s attributes. But I have to be careful that my theological shorthand will not overshadow or replace biblical longhand. The very theological words themselves reflect the modernist tendency to reduce truth to scientific terminology (every word having the suffix of “ology” or “ence”), which may ultimately depersonalize my faith and cast theology as a “scientific” study rather than a holistic biblical relationship with God.
Scholar Peter J. Leithart goes so far as to say that theology as we modern Christians understand it is against the biblical approach to truth, precisely because theology uses a professional language that is academic and obscure, “whereas the Bible talks about trees and stars, about donkeys and barren women, about kings and queens and carpenters.”
Theology tells us that God is eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. The Bible tells us that God relents because He is God (Joel 2:13-14), that God is “shrewd with the shrewd” (Psa. 18:25-29), that he rejoices over us with shouting (Zeph. 3:14-20), and that He is an eternal whirlwind of triune communion and love. Theology is a “Victorian” enterprise, neoclassically bright and neat and clean, nothing out of place. Whereas the Bible talks about hair, blood, sweat, entrails, menstruation and genital emissions.2
Israel’s theology was told as stories. The organizing principles of Jewish theology are characteristically expressed through narratives of creation, election, exodus, monarchy, exile and return.3 So it was most appropriate when Jesus and the Apostles proclaimed the New Covenant as the fulfillment of those stories—in stories and parables as well. Wright, a Pauline scholar, points out that even the Apostle Paul’s most “emphatically ‘theological’ statements and arguments are in fact expressions of the essentially Jewish story now redrawn around Jesus.”4 He points out that for the early Christians, disputes “were carried on not so much by appeal to fixed principles, or to Jewish scripture conceived as a rag-bag of proof-texts, but precisely by fresh retellings of the story which highlighted the points at issue…not a theory or a new ethic, not an abstract dogma or rote-learned teaching, but a particular story told and lived.”5
It would not be an exaggeration to suppose that Jesus would probably be scolded by conservative Evangelical theologues for not taking the Kingdom of God more seriously, because he seemed to spend most of his time walking around telling confusing stories rather than tightly organized three-point sermons. And even worse, Jesus would often avoid explaining those stories, preferring the “dangerous” ambiguity that modern Evangelicals complain leads to an unclear “Gospel presentation” or subjective interpretation (Matt. 13:10-15). Jesus just wasn’t precise enough by modern theological standards. Jesus just wasn’t a modern Evangelical.
- Kevin J Vanhoozer, “The Semantics of Biblical Literature,” in Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon, eds. D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Zondervan Publishing, 1986), p. 78. ↩
- Peter Leithart, Against Christianity (Moscow, Id.: Canon Press, 2003), pp. 46-47. ↩
- Wright, New Testament, p. 215. ↩
- Wright, New Testament, p. 79. ↩
- Wright, New Testament, p. 456. ↩