Gavin Ortlund on Theological Triage and Retrieval

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Gavin Ortlund of First Baptist Church of Ojai, California. We discuss how evangelicals can retrieve theology from the past (2:50), benefits and dangers of retrieval (6:05), evangelicals who “leave” to other traditions (11:01), retrieving Augustine and getting beyond modern theology debates (13:53), why theological triage is important and what it looks like (17:34), doctrines that we rank too high or too low (27:34), and more. See my review of Finding the Right Hills to Die On at Christianity Today and buy Gavin’s books.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl. Producer: Katie Larson.

Brandon D. Smith is Assistant Professor of Theology & New Testament at Cedarville University, Editorial Director for the Center for Baptist Renewal, and writes things.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.

Francis Watson on the Biblical Story

. . . a book that begins with the assertion that ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth’ establishes, through the comprehensiveness of its scope, the expectation that the narrative will lead eventually to an equally comprehensive goal – as indeed it does, in the creation of new heavens and a new earth at the close of the book of Revelation. The universal horizons of this narrative do not permit the extraction of ‘the story of Jesus’ to serve as the legitimation-myth of a small community in its self-imposed exile from the world. Over against the apolitical parochialism of some postmodern narrative theology, the story of Jesus must instead be interpreted as the midpoint of time, deriving from the universal horizon of the creation of the world and of humankind in the likeness of God, and pointing towards the universal horizon of an eschaton in which the human and non-human creation together reach their appointed goal.

Francis Watson, Text, Church and World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 153.

Narrative Method

The fourth aspect of a Christian theological method is that it ought to be narrative, meaning that

it frames interpretation of particular passages within the broader framework of the biblical storyline – Creation, Fall, Redemption, and New Creation. This aspect also recognizes that Christ stands as the goal of that story and that our lives need to be re-oriented within it.

As noted previously, each of these foundations relates to the others, so notice here that this narrative aspect focuses on the Christotelic sense of the biblical story, giving interpretation an eschatological flavor; recognizes and relies on the Scripture’s canonical shape and interconnectedness, imbued by the Spirit’s illumination and inspiration; and expects the narrative to confront readers and transform them through the power of the Spirit.

The biblical story has an endpoint, the new creation of Revelation 21-22, and it is towards this climax that everything moves. Further, this climax actually begins with Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, but the cosmic scope of his restorative, atoning, and ruling work is finally realized at his second coming. To read the Bible as literature, and to read it as its authors intended, is to read it as an interconnected, telos-oriented narrative.

This narrative is Christ-centered, as it is through Christ that the act, redemption, and goal of creation are accomplished, but it also points readers to the missiological, cosmic, and global character of Christ’s redemptive work. Moreover, remembering that the Bible is narrative in character helps us to remember that the Old Testament is Israel’s story, instead of a deposit to be mined for theological proof-texts and instead of cutting it off as no longer historically relevant to primarily Gentile Christians. Additionally, it in my opinion assists us in reading books like Ecclesiastes or Songs from an explicitly Christian perspective, as it helps us to place the material in these books in the larger context of both Israel’s story and the story of God’s redemption.

Finally, a narrative approach will call those who don’t know Christ to re-orient the narrative of their lives into the narrative of the Bible. Narratives are powerful, both for worldview formation and confrontation, and thus relatedly for evangelism and apologetics. “Come follow me” is a command from the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the universe who became man, suffered, died, was buried, and on the third day rose from the dead to restore creation, defeat the powers of evil, and atone for sin. We are presented with alternative viewpoint on reality; in the words of a recent book published on empire – “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not.” That claim is particularly narrative in nature. Re-orient your life to live under the rule and reign of Jesus, not Caesar. Of course this transformational narrative also applies to and confronts Christians; the structure of the New Testament puts the epistles, often assumed to be more propositional and logical, in this narrative context. Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude also seem to assume this larger narrative context as they call Christians to live in light of both Christ’s first and second coming. Structuring our theology and interpretation around this story ought to be foundational for our theological method.

Doctrine of Revelation and the Hebrew Bible

Revelation can broadly be described as God’s self-disclosure to humanity. Brevard Childs states that the goal of God’s self-disclosure is so that all may see and know him.[1] Thus, God’s revelation proceeds from his activity and to understand his actions is to know God.[2] In the Hebrew Bible, God’s revelation comes in different variety of media: fire, thunder, a whisper, a donkey but these often are related to and initiated through his spoken word, in turn bringing upon some type of action.[3] Two examples that I think this can be seen is through creation and covenant.

In the creation story, God’s word is portrayed as the actor. The Psalmist states that it was by God’s word that creation came forth (Psalm 33:6, 9). In God’s self-disclosure to humanity in Genesis 2:17, God commands Adam to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This command has an implicit promise that if Adam and Eve refrained from eating of the tree they would continue to live in the blessings of the garden and an explicit promise that if they did eat they would die. For Adam and Eve, because of their disobedience, God’s word of judgment becomes actualized. Their knowledge of God and his action of one who blesses and provides in the garden now include a God who judges and is more concealed outside the garden.

Another significant high point in the Hebrew Bible is the Abrahamic covenant. In Genesis 12:1-3 God establishes a relationship with Abram through the utterance of a promise—heir, land, nation, and international blessing.[4] God commits himself to Abram and to Abram’s family. God reveals himself to be loyal and will bless his family. God’s act in revealing himself again begins by establishing a particular relationship through his word. Likewise, it seems that God’s disclosure is initiated freely by himself, but is actualised by Abram believing by faith.

It seems that from the perspective of these examples of the Hebrew Bible that God’s self disclosure has a tight relationship to the obedience and faith of his people. I think this brings an interesting perspective to Christian theology which rightly understands God’s initiative in revelation, but what role does the idea of understanding, listening, and obedience play in this self-disclosure?

[1] Brevard S Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989), 43-44.

[2] Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 45.

[3] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[4] Paul R House, Old Testament Theology (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 75.

Further Reading

Barr, James. The Concept of Biblical Theology, 468-96

Brueggemann, Walter. Theology of the Old Testament, 333-358

Balentine, S. The Hidden God 

Childs, Brevard. Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 20-59.

Ward, Timothy. Words of Life: Scripture as Living Active Word of God.

Ward, Timothy. Word and Supplement Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture.