When the whole story of the Bible is not the context for the life and formation of communities of faith, it is too easy for parts of the gospel to be mistaken as the entire gospel itself. One example of this is the particular version of the gospel that has been the predominant rendering in evangelical communities in the United States in the past century. This rendering is one that often presents the gospel as a cosmic legal transaction (Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross and the forgiveness of sin) that is almost completely dislocated from the rest of the narrative of Scripture. If one were to engage the people who make up these communities and ask them what the gospel is, the standard answer would consist of some articulation of penal substitutionary atonement theory.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Not only is penal substitutionary atonement theory unfaithful to Scripture, it also has tremendously damaging effects on the concrete outworking of these communities’ lives when genuinely desiring to be faithful to God’s call to be a part of His mission. When people have a partial view of the story they will be unable to faithfully play out their role as a character in that story.
This becomes evident in the lives of so many people whose discipleship has been developed in these communities yet end up not having a clue about how their lives contribute to God’s story and mission. The version of the Gospel their community of faith has been shaped by has not given them the ability to see the larger story of God’s cosmic redemption.
The importance of approaching the Bible as a story is already showing itself to be as pressing a need as the Church has today. The confusion about the significance of the life of an individual in the Church is dissipated when the story is given its proper place. In the book The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen note one reason why this is so: “Individual experiences make sense and acquire meaning only when seen within the context or frame of some story we believe to be the true story of the world: each episode of our life stories finds its place there.”
The hope is that the follower of Jesus will be able to view their entire life from the perspective of the grand story in the Bible. This not only allows the individual to see meaning in their entire life, it also enables them to see how all of the decisions they make matter since they are playing a part in the fulfillment of that story.
The Misplaced Role of the Self
Describing how a vision of the larger framework of God’s story shapes how we live our lives, Bartholomew and Goheen borrow from the work of the great Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who wrote, “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the question, ‘Of what story do I find myself a part?’”
A common approach many people take when engaging the Bible is one that seeks to extract timeless universal truths that are meant to be applied to their lives. Often the question that frames this approach is, “What does this mean for my life?” A major problem with this approach is that the individual reading the text becomes the focus of the interaction taking place. This occurs because the paradigm begins with the individual (i.e., asking the question what does this mean for my life?) and ends with the application of answers (usually regarded as “truths”) to the life of the individual.
By contrast, the narrative approach rejects the individualism embedded within the above approach by placing God and the story of God as the foci of one’s interaction with the Bible. When focusing on God and his story, the reader is “invited—urged—to become a part of the story of the church, to follow Jesus and continue the kingdom mission in the steps of his earliest followers.”
The reader is called to find their place within the story. So, the call for the individual to change in response to the text is not disregarded. Rather, it finds its proper place within the context of changing for the purpose of playing out more faithfully one’s part in God’s story.
The Mission Is in the Story
The more people see their lives as being defined by and fulfilled in God’s story, the more organically they will give their lives to God’s mission because God’s mission is embedded within the story. We need to tell the entirety of God’s story. We need to emphasize the centrality of God’s mission to that story. And when we call people to follow Christ, we must remember that we are calling them into God’s mission so that they can play their unique role in the fulfillment of God’s story.
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