Tuesday 15 August 2006

Theology for beginners (3): Gospel

Summary: The verbal expression of faith must be shaped and guided by the story of Jesus.

Theology is the attempt to articulate faith verbally. But while theology provides the vocabulary of faith, it is the gospel which provides the grammar of faith. Just as every language has an underlying grammatical structure, so too faith has its own grammar: it has an underlying structure of meaning, a set of fundamental “rules” which determine the way faith can be expressed.

And the grammar of faith is the gospel: it is the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This means, then, that faith is fundamentally structured by narrative, by story. If we want to bring our faith to verbal expression, we cannot simply use concepts and ideas and symbols – first and foremost, we must tell a story. We must allow all our speaking to be shaped and structured by the story of Jesus.

The gospel is not, however, simply an ordinary historical narrative. It is not simply a recollection of certain events that took place in the first century CE. Rather, the gospel is a very special kind of story. For the point of this story is not simply the narration of historical events, but the narration of God. When we narrate the gospel, we are telling the story of God himself – we are narrating who God is, what he has done, and what he will do. In order to speak the gospel, then, we must tell the story of Jesus as the story of God.

This means, further, that the story of Jesus has universal significance. If the story of one particular first-century man is also the story of God, then this must be the true story, the story of reality as a whole, the story that tells us the way things really are. And thus the gospel is a story about ourselves – it is a story which has truth and meaning for every human person. We could thus describe the gospel as a “meta-narrative,” as the one great story which puts all our own personal stories into their proper context. My own personal narrative, or the narrative of my own family or community, finds its true meaning only within the context of this story about God. God is reality, God is truth; he is the context of meaning which makes all other things meaningful.

In order to speak the gospel, then, we must do two things: we must tell the story of Jesus as the story of God, and we must tell it as the story of ourselves. Only when we have done both these things together have we truly narrated the gospel. And in just this way, the gospel functions as the grammar of faith, as the underlying structure which determines how we speak about God and about ourselves.

So as we seek to articulate our faith verbally, we must allow all our speaking to be guided by the grammar of the gospel. At the deepest level, everything we say about God and about ourselves must be shaped by the story of one particular Jewish man in the first century CE – a man who lived, died, and was raised to life.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. “The Proclamation of God’s Free Grace,” in God Here and Now (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 34-54.
  • Bloesch, Donald G. A Theology of Word and Spirit (Downers Grove: IVP, 1992), pp. 107-138.
  • Jensen, Peter. The Revelation of God (Leicester: IVP, 2002), pp. 31-63.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 3-60.
  • Newlands, George. God in Christian Perspective (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994), pp. 209-221.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. “What Is Truth?” in Basic Questions in Theology, Vol. 2 (London: SCM, 1971), pp. 1-27.


W. Travis McMaken said...

I'm surprised that you left Lindbeck's The Nature of Doctrine off your further reading list, seeing as how you couch your discussion in terms of the difference between grammar and vocabulary.

David W. Congdon said...

Very nice post as usual, Ben. I would add to your reading list Eberhard Jüngel, God as the Mystery of the World, pp. 299-314, subtitled, "The Humanity of God as a Story to be Told." Most of what you say finds dogmatic expression in these pages.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ben.

Two supplements.

1. We must remember that the story of Jesus has a prologue - the story of Israel - and an (unfinished) epilogue - the story of the church. We always enter the story of Jesus in medias res and become characters in the ongoing narrative.

2. Along with the Lindbeck and the Jüngel, I would highly recommend Gerard Loughlin, Telling God's Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology (1996), which is a contribution from Radical Orthodoxy, the last chapter focussing on the eucharist as the somatic site of the divine comedy.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these reading suggestions -- Lindbeck and Jüngel are far better suggestions than the ones I listed, and it sounds as though Loughlin (which I haven't read) would also be a perfect fit.

I'm especially glad that you've made these suggestions, since I compiled this "further reading" list with great haste and very little thought! (In retrospect, I would withdraw Barth, Bloesch and Newlands from the list -- none of them is really closely related to this topic: they were just attempts to "fill out" the list.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ben. I'm really enjoying this series so far.

Do you think it is right to begin with Faith? Should we begin with us or with God? Beginning with us means you define Gospel in relation to faith, rather than in relation to what God has done. Your comments to this end are spot on and very helpful; but aren't there more important things to say about Gospel?

Anonymous said...

Andrewe makes an interesting point about "Faith". Remember that in Ben's study Bultmann's photographic portrait hangs side-by-side with Barth's! Ben's project (as I see it) is, like Jüngel's, following trajectories, to arrange a kind of marriage, volatile yet creative, between the two Bs.

As for Andrewe's second point about the "Gospel", what more needs saying I suspect Ben will say under another locus.

Anonymous said...


I am thoroughly enjoying this series that you are putting together. I feel this series demonstrates a great depth,simplicity,richness,warmth and wisdom. I also deeply appreciate your amazing humility toward people who are making comments on your thoughts. It is evident that the Spirit of God is filling your life. I'm looking forward to introducing you to readers of my blog. Thanks for taking the time to make these meaningful posts.

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