Sunday, December 06, 2009

Theology as Telling the Story -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 11

Transforming Theology Project
Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Theology as Telling the Story
Chapter 11

When I was going through the ordination process twenty-five years ago, I was required to write a faith statement. It’s important to note that Disciples don’t have a creed that we’re required to affirm, but they wanted us to articulate our faith. In fact, we were required to write a statement at the beginning of the process and another at the end – the assumption being that they wouldn’t be exactly the same. Hopefully, over that year’s time, one would grow in one’s understanding and one’s ability to tell the story.

Martha Grace Reese’s book, Unbinding the Gospel (Chalice 2007) presents evidence that mainline Protestants not only don’t share their faith with others, but they’re not sure what it is they could share. This tells me that the church has not been doing a good job of encouraging people to explore their faith or giving the resources to do this exploration. This is one of the reasons why I’ve been leading some of our members through a study I’ve called Theology 101. I laid this study out before starting to read Philip Clayton’s book, but for the most part I’ve been working with what is equivalent to us “Seven Core Christian Questions.”

Theology is, in the minds of many, a question of propositions – statements that we either affirm or don’t affirm. But, as Clayton reminds us, theology is about telling a story – the story of one’s encounter with the living God. The idea that theology is about propositions stems from a Modernist understanding of reality – a mechanical view that seeks to nail down every idea and concept. In this emerging postmodern world, we’re letting go of this need to nail things down and are focusing more on the story, on the narrative of faith. To tell one’s story, is not the same as “telling stories,” that is passing on fiction. It is simply a way of accounting for what we believe and why we believe this.

What we’re really talking about here is giving one’s testimony. Now, as Clayton notes, conservative evangelicals might have a head start here. He himself was immersed in a Christian culture when he was younger that not only encouraged but stressed this activity – and so he got, by his own confession, quite proficient at this task. But it’s not just a conservative evangelical trait – we mainliners can do the same. Indeed, it’s really about telling one’s own story – sharing one’s autobiography. In telling one’s testimony, both the glory and the problem is found in their simplicity.

Testimonies are our personal telling of our faith stories. On the positive side, Clayton writes that testimonies are quite natural.
Testimonies explain in personal terms why you have come to see your life as bound up inextricably with the love and grace of God. That’s something that all of us who believe in God can do – or, if we can’t yet, we can learn it pretty quickly. (P. 82)

On the other hand, in their simplicity, such testimonies don’t get us very far unless we’re also able to say why we believe. Can we say why we believe what we believe about these seven core questions?

Although we tell our stories on a personal level, theological stories are also told at the congregational level. Congregations are, Clayton writes, places “where we come together to tell the corporate narrative of our life together with God.” We do this, along with observing rites and liturgies that help us remember these corporate stories (p. 83). We invite, as a community, the seeker to come and listen and then decide if they too wish to tell a story of faith.

What is important to remember, at both the personal and the congregational level, is that our faith stories are continually evolving and developing. Our statements aren’t written in cement. Still, whatever we say or do is grounded, or needs to be grounded, in “the gospel narrative and in responses to the Seven Core Christian Questions (p. 84). And this requires that we do theological work together – so that we can link the testimony once given with a new context for ministry.

It's not an easy task -- but its a possible one. That is if we're willing to think through what it is we believe and why!


John said...


You mention that Clayton suggests that anyone who claims to be a Christian should probably at some point work through the 'Seven Core Christian Questions' which are:

1. Theology: questions about God
2. Christology: questions about the person of Jesus the Christ
3. Pneumatology: questions about the Holy Spirit
4. Anthropology: questions about what it means to be human
5. Soteriology: questions about salvation
6. Ecclesiology: questions about the church
7. Eschatology: questions about the “last things”

In setting forth a statement of faith, participants in your Theology 101 class my find it helpful for purposes of organization to begin with these seven core questions and set forth what is believed (at this time) as to each question area.

Just a suggestion.


Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


The suggestion is a good one -- and I'm going to talk about this set of questions on Wednesday to help us work out our own statements! Wish I had read the chapter closer before last Wednesday.

Anonymous said...

Who answers the questions?

Sorry, I couldn't resist. David Mc

Anonymous said...

If you didn’t know me, you might think I was a pessimist. I’m actually a skeptic who’s impatient for truth. I know the way of Jesus is empirically true (by observing you all) and ironically, I’m spiritually fulfilled by that.

Your class was quite fulfilling this week John. I was actually thinking of sleeping in. Glad I didn't. David Mc