God’s Story and Your Story, by Chad Thornhill
Having taught college and Seminary theology courses for some time now, a rising frustration has continued to grow with available textbooks. Traditional theology books are heavy on doctrines, their historical development, and comparing modern perspectives. They give students a good introduction and overview to the issues and beliefs central to Christianity, but often read like a dictionary. They often too, focused on doctrines as they are, treat the Bible as a repository of information for various “-ologies.” The Bible thus gives information about God which must harvested, organized, and systematized. They thus often lack in a contextual reading of passages, and in particular any sense of the overarching story that ties Scripture together. Jesus, for example, was big on kingdom. Your average theology text is not.
Enter The Magnificent Story by James Bryan Smith. It is not a systematic theology, but it is quite theological. As I read through this book, I was struck by how it aligned with the central themes of one of the courses I teach frequently: Trinity, incarnation, kingdom, atonement, Christology, Pneumatology, formation. It’s all there. But Smith is keenly aware of how the Bible unfolds its themes and doctrines, not through definitions and disputes, but primarily through story. And Smith is also right that when we lose sight of the story of Scripture, it is easy for doctrines to lose their depth, or, as he would describe, lose their beauty, goodness, and truth.
Smith’s major influences are Balthasar, Willard, and Wright, a forceful trio in the theological world. He likewise creatively blends the themes of beauty, truth, and goodness with spiritual formation and a narrative-heavy approach to the theology of the Bible. The result is an impressive, yet accessible, construction that is both theologically rich and spiritually impactful.
Smith begins not with the story of the Bible, but the stories we tell ourselves. Stories help us make sense of the world and form our sense of identity. Each of us have one. Where we were born, grew up, what line of work we are in, what family we belong to, etc. Smith asks, however, if we see our own stories connected to the beautiful, good, and true story we find in Scripture. We don’t in part, Smith suggests, because the story many have heard is a shrunken, partially true story. One that doesn’t ooze with beauty, goodness, and truth. And if it isn’t those things, Smith suggests, it isn’t the good-news-story that the Bible actually tells.
Smith offers two examples of common shrunken gospel stories. The first is illustrated by his recollection of a minister who informed him as a young seeker that “Jesus was not divine. He was not the Son of God any more than any of us are sons and daughters of God. Jesus was a great teacher, as were Socrates and Gandhi… the Bible is merely mythology” (20). The point of Christianity for this minister was to live a good life and engage in social justice, what Smith terms the “do-good-works” gospel.The second shrunken gospel is what Smith terms the “shaming and scary” gospel. Here he recounts the story of an eager young evangelist who had convinced the newly converted Smith that he hadn’t actually been converted because he hadn’t yet prayed the sinner’s prayer, which meant if he died at that moment, he would forever be hell bound. Smith summarizes the “shaming and scary” gospel as “you are bad and God is mad, but Jesus took your blame” (26).
Of both of these accounts, Smith asks, where is beauty, truth, and goodness? While one may be more lacking in truth, and the other in beauty and goodness, they both are lacking. They lack in a deep, gratitude-creating sense of goodness and an awe-inspiring sense of beauty. They lack not in that they get everything wrong, but rather are thin accounts of the story we find in Scripture. Good works and justice are a part of the teachings of Jesus, as are sin and Jesus’ atoning death, but there is a bigger story to tell.
Smith observes that both of these stories are focused on humans: one on the kind of deeds they should be doing and another on their depravity. But the Bible is not a story about what to do (though it contains that) or about the depth of our sin (though it speaks to that), but rather about a good God who enters into his creation in order to set it right. These stories lack discipleship because they lack a Jesus worth following and a God worth loving. So what is the magnificent story of Scripture? Smith gives a tease:
“It is a story about the Trinity as a loving community, about creation as a proclamation of the glory of God and a sign of God’s love, about humans bearing the image of God whose likeness has been tarnished by sin but designed for goodness and relationship with God, about the incarnation as the coming of a King and his unshakable kingdom, about a divine rescue mission, and finally about the restoration of all things. It is the story we all long for, the story we were meant to enter (32-33).”
Is this the story you think of when you ponder the story the Bible tells?
When you think about your own story, do you see it as intertwined with this magnificent story?
Chad Thornhill, PhD
Chair of Theological Studies, Director of the MA in Christian Apologetics,
Associate Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies
School of Divinity, Liberty University