The Next Faithful Step
Old Stories with New Ears
Stories are endemic to Christianity, as is clear from the Scripture’s focus on the narratives of Israel, Jesus, and the Church—to say nothing of smaller stories shaped as parables, examples, and exhortations. The retelling of stories is also at the heart of Christian ministry, especially in sermons and in spiritual guidance. Although there is a traditional streak in Christianity that prefers to hear stories told in traditional ways, the NT offers many instances of the hearing of old stories with new ears, under new circumstances, with fresh emphasis. The opportunity is both that fresh experience finds an anchor in older testimony, but also that familiar texts disclose themselves to be far richer than we thought. A significant example is suggested by recent Pauline studies in relation to his primary theological framework.
The Church’s theologians have found Paul’s epistles to be an endlessly rich treasury of systematic theology. Nevertheless Paul resists the label of systematic theologian himself, even in Romans, his most theological letter. Rather it is suggested that Paul has framed his theology within, not a system, but an interlocking series of “great narratives” that support his teaching and preaching of the gospel.1 As we explore three such stories, as students of Paul have discerned them, we see that each one entails the hearing of old stories with new ears.
The first story Paul had to hear with new ears was the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a Pharisee in full flood chasing down the Christian heresy on the road to Damascus, Paul’s world was shattered by the theophanic vision and two lines of dialogue: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” “Who are you, Lord?” So began the retracing and reevaluating of all that he had heard about the life and ministry of the Galilean. His conclusions are well-known, and decisive for Christian theology: Jesus is (not “was”) Christ, Lord, Son of God. The story of the one sent by God (Rom. 8:3), “born of a woman, born under the Law” (Gal. 4:4), who in obedience and humility accomplished redemption and thus charted our own humble obedience (Phil. 2:5-11), who died and lived and thus provided for our own death and life (Rom. 6:5), who ascended as Lord of the Church and the world (Col. 3:1-3; Eph. 4:8-12), and whose story continues to include and surpass the legends this world—this story remains astonishingly fruitful for Christian faith and practice.2 It also resists a facile transposition into the key of systematic theology.
The second story that Paul found himself retracing, in light of the significance of Jesus’ life, was the story of Israel. While there remains a lively debate about the self-understanding of Judaism in Paul’s day, and the diversity it manifested,3 it is clear that the encounter with Christ showed up significant problems in the Pharisaism Paul had experienced as a student in Jerusalem. A cultural defensiveness, perhaps inevitable in the Hellenistic and Roman milieux of the day, may have led to a religious focus on achievements rather than faith, and a bias against, rather than on behalf of, the peoples of the surrounding nations. In the light of Christ’s grace and the commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul began to reread the purpose of Israel’s history as an opportunity to witness the glory of God to all people. And he found plenty of supporting material in the Psalms and the Prophets (for an example, see the “theme of Romans,” 1:16-17; and Rom. 9:23-26). Further, the awaited Messiah had come, and the future of Israel was to be charted in relation to that reality rather than according to any other (Rom. 9:1-3; 11:25-27). It is clear that the recasting of such stories involves more than an arbitrary plot change; the new directions in these narratives testify to deeply altered conceptions of reality itself.
Thirdly, faced with controversy regarding the conversion of the Gentiles to Christ, Paul found again that old stories needed to be heard afresh in order to do justice to this new work of God. Stories of Abraham and of Moses were, of course, foundational to Jewish history and identity. But as Paul looked again into the OT accounts, he found that they also testified unexpectedly to the new situation. Did Gentile believers need in some sense to become converts to Judaism and to the Law of Moses in order to be Christian? Paul discovered that Abraham had been accepted into covenant by God long before the Law had been promulgated, and even before his own circumcision (Gal. 3:17-18; Rom. 4:9-11). Paul found that this made Abraham not only Father of Israel, but Father also of Gentile Christianity (Rom 4:16-17). So the requirement for Gentile believers would be the same as had been effective for Abraham: faith in God, reckoned as righteousness (Rom. 4:22-25).
These rich and successful rereadings of purportedly well-known stories gave Paul an astonishing depth for understanding the impact of Jesus Christ, and they fed in turn into the task of systematizing Christian theology in later centuries. They anchored Paul in the tradition both textually but also as a master interpreter of Scripture.4 They may also stimulate Christian leadership to a careful and creative engagement with old stories, with ears attentive to a God whose mercies are “new every morning.”