True Tales, Told God’s Way

In the preceding post, I argued (contra Gordon Clark and various others) that the object of saving faith is the Person Jesus Christ, not merely a proposition or set of propositions about Him.  Among my theology-wonk friends — and there are many of them — this point usually provokes a particular response.  “So it doesn’t really matter what propositions I believe as long as I’m looking at Jesus?” they ask incredulously.

Well, of course it matters.  We’re talking about a particular person here, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Adam, Son of Abraham, Son of David, supposed son of Joseph.  As with any particular person, not all things are true about Him.  He had a certain height, and not some other height.  Eyes of a certain color; hair of a certain length; born in Bethlehem and not in Gaza, born to Mary and not to Elizabeth, suffered under Pontius Pilate and not under Nero, and so on.  Certain claims about Him are true, and others false.

We are called to represent Him, and to do so according to His nature.  Because He is the Truth, we represent Him truly.  We must therefore be faithful to what we’re given about Jesus.  We must say of Him the things Scripture gives us to say.  We must tell the stories Scripture gives us to tell.  We must be true to the volume of material Scripture gives us to present.  When we don’t have time to tell the whole story — which, let’s face it, is almost all the time — then we try to summarize or tell a piece of it that’s particularly important for this person at this time.  There’s nothing wrong with that; Jesus Himself does it all the time, as do the apostles, and we have them for a pattern.

But we should not confuse telling a small piece of the story with “boiling it down to essentials,” as though we could do without the rest of it.  If we’re to be faithful to what God actually gave us, then we’re going to overflow with stories, poetry, songs, parables, proverbs, and much more.  We’re introducing people to a Person, and that process proceeds by addition, not by subtraction. You don’t get to know someone by paring away all that is not essential to the person; you get to know someone by adding more and more: different situations, different angles, different facets of the personality.  Trying to do it the other way around is trying to live in a world God just didn’t make.  We can’t view the abstract proposition as “the essence of it all,” because God didn’t give it to us that way, and we must truly represent what God gave us.

Now God did, in some places, give us abstract theological propositions; they are also an essential part of communication — a point I will take up shortly.  But those propositions come in a cocoon of stories.  Apart from the story context that they elucidate and from which they take their meaning, the propositions are not even false so much as utterly useless, completely without referent in the real world.  Just try to explain “By grace you are saved through faith” without telling a story.  I dare you.

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19 Responses to True Tales, Told God’s Way

  1. Jim Reitman says:

    Well said, my friend.

    Love the addition, not subtraction caveat, Tim—it is this kind of thinking about the “promise” of life in the Seed that has led me to favor continuity over discontinuity in various articulations of the notion of progressive revelation. Viewing the revealing of this “promise of life in the Seed” from Gen 3:15 on—as well as of the detailed nature of this Person—as more continuous than discontinuous has led me to favor the “already-not yet” vantage point of progressive dispensationalism.

    For example, I would favor the unpopular view (in GES circles, at least) that Cornelius was an OT saint who received the Spirit, not when he first believed in the person of Messiah, but rather when Peter “added” the detail of His name to the object of Cornelius’ [already existing] faith; hence, the receiving of the Spirit merely marked him—for the benefit of the believing Jews—as a full-fledged member of the people of God. I would see this as an example of different people of God who could be in separate dispensations at one point in history; thus, continuity (at least in faith and its object) > discontinuity.

    Does that make any sense to you?

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    Progressive dispensationalism always seemed to me that it was trying to fix classic dispensationalism by making the existing problems — of which there were a number — even worse. But I respect the impulse behind it; there’s a lot of layers, some continuous and some not, and they don’t all break in the same places.

    It’s a matter of formulating the story (not the system) biblically, which means at minimum that we don’t get crosswise with Scripture, and at most that the points that need proving are actually provable.

    Your take on Cornelius makes a great deal of sense to me, and I’ve made the same suggestion — why shouldn’t a Yahweh-fearing Gentile in the first century already be God’s child? — although I don’t know that anyone could prove one way or the other. In any case, I’d want to argue that the events of Ac.10 don’t just “mark” him as a member of God’s people, although they do that. The application of Spirit and water constitutes him as a member of the new priesthood, initiating him into the universal/invisible Church (Spirit) and the historical/visible Church (baptism).

    And why stop with Cornelius? Just for fun, one could add Nicodemus, Nathaniel, Andrew, and a number of others. Try proving they’re not just as saved as Abraham before they meet Jesus. Much of what we conceive of as “evangelistic” encounters in, say, John’s Gospel, could well be OT saints learning about the Messiah, not “unbelievers” becoming believers. You see something similar, in Acts 19 — clearly they’re believers already, unless John the Baptist was singularly inept. This, by the way, has substantial repercussions for how we try to learn evangelism from John’s Gospel: the document is the paradigm far more than isolated accounts in it.

    Not sure I’m following you in “continuity > discontinuity.” Care to elaborate?

  3. Jim Reitman says:

    I’d love to rap with you sometime about PD and CD. I recently dragged myself through Ron Bigalke’s collection of articles critiquing PD and found myself feeling that differences in hermeneutic approach were often leading these authors to erect straw men in their evaluation of PD. But I’d be very interested in your take.

    Regarding continuity and discontinuity, the terminology was made popular by a multi-author volume by that name published in 1998 to address perspectives on the relationship between the Testaments.

    Since then, these terms have been used to evaluate different theological systems insofar as they invoke greater or lesser degrees of “continuity” in God’s revealed plan for dealing with people, not only in the OT and NT but also in the multiple iterations of dispensationalism that have arisen, and in contrast to various iterations of Covenant Theology. Probably the best overall assessment of the history of this notion as applied to Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism that I’ve read is Russell Moore’s The Kingdom of Christ (2005).

    My perspective on the whole debate is that there is more “continuity” than “discontinuity” in God’s dealings with man as revealed throughout history, as you picked up in my “test” example of continuity in the notion of the “promised Seed.” Various strands of hyper-dispensationalism could be seen as examples of greater discontinuity than I would see warranted by God’s self-revelation through the dispensations.

  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    Haven’t read most of Bigalke’s stuff, so can’t comment, but don’t construe my skepticism of PD as support for CD. I don’t know how to categorize myself on that spectrum anymore. Many CD guys would probably want to disown me because I want to qualify their litmus-test statements, and nondispensational types would accuse me of lying if I said I wasn’t dispensational — but when I cop to it, they impute to me all manner of silliness I don’t believe in. Somebody really needs to tell those guys that it’s possible to be a dispie without being Hal Lindsay’s fair-haired son.

    Probably the best indication I could give is ethical: I take the dominion mandate and the Great Commission seriously, and I’ll cheerfully stomp all over any system (including my own) that gets in the way of fulfilling them.

    With you on the continuity issue, if I’m following you. The Bible is not — Josh McDowell notwithstanding — one book; it is one story, though. The narrative carries through; the motifs and symbols carry through; the typology (God help me) carries through. The discontinuity we see through biblical history is much like the discontinuity we see between the 2-year-old girl running through the sprinkler with her diaper on her head, the same young lady at her senior prom, and the same woman helping her own daughter get ready for prom a couple of decades later. Plenty different, no doubt; ask her daddy whether the discontinuities matter more than the continuity — another case where I think it’s more productive to mock the question than to answer it. As close as I get to an answer there is to say “It’s a story.”

    Thanks for the book suggestions; I’ll keep an eye out. (No book budget to speak of, though, until I get a job.)

  5. Jim Reitman says:

    You certainly have the “gift of analogy”; love the diaper on the head, man.

    I figured we’d end up viewing the dispensational landscape more alike than not. I can really relate to your “dominion mandate” and “Great Commission” convictions; I would go even further to poke a hornet’s nest and insist that “I take the present Kingdom of God seriously and cheerfully stomp on any system that gets in the way of fulfilling Christ’s mandate for us to display Kingdom living now.”

    Hey, about the “book budget,” give me your top two picks and I’ll order them as a contribution to your ministry. Seriously.

  6. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,

    Yeah, when we get less abstract and boil it down to concrete-relational terms — who does what to/for whom, when, and what should I be doing now in light of that? — we undoubtedly agree far more than not.

    Your kingdom statement is definitely further than I’m presently willing to go; I’ve not been able to make my peace with a “kingdom now” category. It seems as odd to me to talk in terms of God’s present kingdom as it does to talk in terms of Abraham possessing the land during his lifetime — he lived there, sure, but as a stranger and a foreigner, and I can’t quite see my way clear to viewing that as an “already/not yet” possession of the land. I’m much more comfortable saying his presence in the land is his believing anticipation of the promise, and as he travels round building altars to Yahweh in the land, he is (to steal Wright’s phrase) “planting flags in hostile territory.” The controlling metaphor seems to be anticipation, which is slightly different from “it’s really here but it’s not.”
    All of which said, I can’t make any sense of Matthew 11:12, never could, and that may be my undoing on this point. The Lord recently taught me, in a very forceful way, that controlling metaphors are not mutually exclusive in the way a system-builder would prefer, so I’m open to other possibilities. The fact that I can’t make any sense out of a present kingdom may say more about me than it does about the kingdom.

    re. books — Thanks so much! I’ll email you.

  7. Jim Reitman says:

    Appreciate your honesty about Matt 11:12, Tim; and just for grins I’ll add the Kingdom parables of Matt 13.

    My particular “brand” of PD nails a lot fewer things down than some “flavors”; I don’t worry much about whether Christ’s present session should be considered Davidic. But I’ll readily borrow from your borrowing of NT Wright and see J. the B. and Christ’s announcements of the Kingdom as mandates to “plant flags on Satan’s territory of human souls.” After having spent the years I did synthesizing the argument of Job, in which Satan’s gambit is “fronted,” I am convinced enough of a present form of Kingdom reign via human co-regency [see my intro to Job] to consider myself a “Kingdom evangelist” planting Kingdom flags in human souls, especially those of complacent Christian men.

    Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems I see “Kingdom advance” much more consistently in the lives of disillusioned middle-aged women who generally seem more ready to accept Christ’s invitation to more life. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to me any less significant a “possession” of foreign territory than the ultimate possession of the land by redeemed Israel.

  8. Drew says:

    Eternal security is only one doctrine. How important should we think eternal security is to trusting the person of Jesus? And I’m actually being sincere.

    We can pretty easily look at societies influenced by legalistic denominations, and we can witness examples of their weak faith. This weak faith usually leads to asceticism, unbelieving children, low rates of evangelism, high rates of apostacy, and basically overall “death.” I just wonder just how important certain propositions (like eternal security) really are.

    It’s kinda something that we have to answer eventually, because we need to know how much effort we should exert in evangelizing people who aren’t Free Grace.

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    The typical CD take on Mt. 13 is a travesty, but I can offer you a rock-ribbed ‘future Kingdom’ reading of the passage, no problem at all, and coherently situate it into its larger context as well, just for fun. The major problem with CD interpretations of Mt.13 is that they really want to claim the kingdom parables for the future and preach them for the present at the same time, and you just can’t have it both ways. But identifying your theological enemies as the birds that come nest in the branches of the mustard tree just preaches sooooo well, it’s hard to resist the temptation.

    Re. human coregency, I agree on the grounds of the dominion mandate, and would see Christian living now as the fulfillment of that mandate — fueled by, and in light of, the work of Christ, and in anticipation of His Kingdom. I would situate missions among a tribe of animists in terms of them having ceded dominion rightfully theirs to demons, and God’s call is to worship Him and take dominion responsibility themselves. When an animist prays to the spirits for a good harvest, he’s giving over to them a project on which he and God should be collaborating.
    To be human is to be kings and queens of the earth, and Jesus is the King of kings — in that sense, there is always a kingdom, and always has been. But usually when we talk about the kingdom of God, we’re talking about something that has or will come in Christ (or both), as opposed to something just as applicable in Seth’s day, or Nehemiah’s, as today.

    I think we see more ‘kingdom advance’ in women because we haven’t sufficiently tied in dominion and (real) economics to the advance of the kingdom — that’s the stuff men can sink their teeth into. On this, you might want to talk with Joe Anderson (he’s in Denver, not far from you). He’s got a several-year-long project going on biblical manhood, with a strong polemical component against the culture. What he’s put to paper so far is very good.
    His,
    Tim

  10. Tim Nichols says:

    Drew,

    I see the strategic question. Day by day, though, I find I minister to the people God brings me, and the job with each of them is simply to do the next thing to encourage them to love and good deeds. With one, that’s planting a seed that may lead to faith in Christ one day — but today is not that day by anyone’s reckoning. With another, its’ helping him straighten out on eternal security. With another, it’s helping him through a struggle with the “illogical” nature of the Trinity. With a fourth, it’s giving counsel on how to deal with a difficult relationship. With a fifth, it’s dropping off a bag of groceries. And so it goes. I handle what’s in front of me, and I find that in real life, the question of how much effort to invest here or there doesn’t arise much — I don’t have a lot of discretionary effort left over at the end of the day.

    I see eternal security as fairly important in that to miss it is either to doubt Jesus’ integrity or to misunderstand the nature of the promise. That said, I don’t order my daily ministry based on what’s important according to some abstract doctrinal hierarchy, but based on who is in front of me, and what that person most needs today.

  11. Sanc says:

    Hi Tim,

    I’m so glad you’ve put out your thoughts. Thanks for writing them.

    You mentioned how the Gospel of John might be written to reveal more of God to OT saints. That’s darn right revolutionary. The thought had come to me a time here or there but it made this entire debate feel so different that I thought I must not understand.

    Was the GoJ written to the unsaved only? Does that change how we read that purpose statement of why it was written? I think it is fascinating to consider this now.

    “…but these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you have have life in His name.” 20:31

    I’d like to comment on another thing which you termed “bare minimum foolishness.” I spent a lot of my time as a Christian waiting till others could repeat back to me exactly what I believed, until I felt comfortable believing that they were saved. At some point it hit me like a ton of bricks – the offers Jesus extends demand a lot less than what I had been expecting of people. So for me, the “bare minimum” was a necessary exploration, and one I discovered a lot of people like me had not yet made.

    I appreciated Jim’s thoughts on Cornelius.

    I also appreciated Drew’s statement: “It’s kinda something that we have to answer eventually, because we need to know how much effort we should exert in evangelizing people who aren’t Free Grace.”

    My feeling for this (though I’m not educated) is that it is pretty close to zero.

    I’m very much appreciating this discussion you’ve begun.
    Michele

  12. Tim Nichols says:

    Michele,

    GJohn seems pretty clearly to have been written with an unbelieving audience in mind, as 20:30-31 indicates. The issue is whether we take our evangelistic cues from the book as a whole book or whether we see particular encounters (say, Nathaniel, or Nicodemus, or the man born blind) as instances in which Jesus evangelizes unregenerate people. I question the legitimacy of the latter, but not the former.

    If you want to have a little fun, try telling one of our mutual friends at GES that you think maybe the woman at the well was an OT saint before John 4. Ask ‘em to prove she wasn’t. Then sit back and watch. Bet you $10 that within 5 minutes, the person points at the woman’s lifestyle as an indication that she wasn’t regenerate. Heh.

    Re. bare minimum-hunting: I understand the disease with which you were afflicted, but I don’t think trying to settle on a bare minimum proposition is the answer. First because the Bible doesn’t give us one, and second, well — as the current fracas demonstrates, that particular cure can be as bad as the disease (although in fairness, the present unpleasantness is as much to do with a failure of any sense of proportion as it is with the question at hand.)
    Instead, I’d tackle it from the angle of telling the story in a way that is in harmony with the book of John (as explained above) and with the obviously evangelistic speeches of Acts, particularly the ones addressed to Gentile audiences.

  13. Jim Reitman says:

    Thanks, Tim, for your even-handed treatment…

    re: “rock-ribbed ‘future Kingdom’ reading of the passage”—I take this passage as exemplary pictures of Kingdom “continuity” I talked about before, so that the parables become Jesus’ quintessential “exposition” of how we can expect the Kingdom to evolve during the present age, culminating in the consummation of the Second Coming of Christ/Day of the Lord. Hence, for example, “the Kingdom of God is like” …leaven, in the sense that it permeates the world during this present age but the loaf is “done” only at the end of the age…or a mustard seed, in the sense that it starts out teeny but grows inexorably during the present age until it consummates the Second Coming in providing for all the nations of earth, much as in the imagery of Zech 14, for example.

    What we then have is more continuity than discontinuity, so that granted, the Kingdom is never fully consummated in the present age but it is certainly “present” in some sense…and clearly influential in its “advance.” Thus I would largely agree with your take on human co-regency and its intended role in that “advance,” as depicted by your apt illustration.

    OTOH, I’m not so sure that Jesus in his parables didn’t “see” any Kingdom advance in Seth’s day or Nehemiah’s. I agree, perhaps, that it is not as “applicable” in their day but only in the sense that the “advance” was not as evident in earlier “phases” of the permeation or growth depicted in Matt 13.

  14. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    My take on it will, of course, be a bit different.

    Couple of points: (1) There are four parables where Matthew gives us no interpretation and three where he does. The interpreted parables, of course, are the map for interpreting the others. (2) The noun that comes after “The kingdom of heaven is like…” is not necessarily the kingdom — see the parable of wheat and tares, where He says “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed…,” but the man is not the kingdom, but Jesus Himself. The comparison is to the parable as a whole. This point is often forgotten in v.33. (3) The precipitating situation is the great unbelief of ch.12.

    The parable of the sower is not a parable of the kingdom, but of the present day; note the absence of “the kingdom of heaven is like” that appears in all the others. Faced with unbelief from the people who should have been first in line to believe, Jesus describes the situation to His disciples: some disbelieve and the devil steals the word from their hearts, some believe but lack foundation, some believe but are distracted by other things, and some believe and follow through.
    The disciples ask why He’s teaching in parables, and He explains a twofold purpose: to communicate about the kingdom to those who are ready, and to conceal it all from those who are not. He then interprets the parable of the sower.
    The parable of the tares is the hinge of my understanding here: its beginning describes a particular situation. The Son of Man comes into the world and plants His people in it. Only afterwards, “while men slept” does the devil enter and begin to spread his sons in the world as well. As far as I can tell, this situation only happens three times at most in the history of the world: at the very beginning, immediately after the flood, and at the opening of the Millennial kingdom. If we take “the field is the world” seriously, then the ministry of Jesus or the opening of the church age at Pentecost don’t qualify. The picture is that even in the Millennial kingdom, wickedness will crop up and will be allowed for a time to flourish and compete with good until the day of reckoning. The mustard seed and leaven parables follow hard on this one, with the interpretation of the wheat and tares given after — they’re teaching the same basic point. The mustard seed depicts the the devil finding a home in the kingdom as it grows up into maturity (picking up birds from the preceding parable). The leaven depicts the insidious spread of the wicked through the kingdom, following in the ‘mold’ of the other two parables, in which the start is pure, but wickedness later takes root and flourishes.
    The close of Jesus’ interpretation of the wheat and tares depicts the righteous shining forth as the sun in their Father’s kingdom. What might such a status be worth? The next two parables focus on the worth of possessing the kingdom. The final parable depicts the day of reckoning in the kingdom.
    Why tell all this now? Remember, the precipitating situation is overwhelming unbelief on the part of those who should have been first to believe. Jesus tells His disciples that even in the kingdom itself such wickedness will exist, and will be allowed for a time to flourish, but not forever. This constitutes a backhanded encouragement: if God’s people will be required to exhibit faith in His promise and patience until the day of reckoning even in the kingdom itself, how much more will it be required now, before the kingdom has come?

    Love to hear your thoughts on this take on it.

  15. Jim Reitman says:

    Well, Bubba, I see you’ve done some homework. :-)

    I accept your gracious invitation:

    Your take certainly has coherence, which is a major criterion for validation. I agree, of course, that the first parable is present day (though that is also consistent with the “now” aspect of the “already/not yet” Kingdom, which is initiated by sowing the promise of the gospel whenever it is revealed); and that the occasion of the parables is the great unbelief of chap. 12 (though the “progress” of evil would therefore with your take be unsurprising—the great impact of the parables that follow, amid all that unbelief, is in fact the “surprise” of progress in Kingdom righteousness, in spite of evil).

    Hence, I would reply that the first parable sets up all the others in order to prepare disciples during the present age by establishing a surprising expectancy of present Kingdom progress that can only be viewed with the proper “lenses,” for such progress in the eyes of the world would be “against all odds” and look very different from the usual “kingdom.”

    In order to keep your interpretation coherent, you have to read evil into the mustard seed and leaven; while there is certainly a precedent in the OT and in 1 Cor 5 for seeing leaven as “bad,” the point of the comparison is the surprise metaphor for the positive referent of the parable (as is so typical of Jesus’ parables): The “surprise” of the leaven is that it represents the progress of righteousness not evil, which already holds full sway in this world—whether you take the first noun or the whole parable as the main referent, the inexorable permeation depicted by leaven is an influence (righteousness) that characterizes the Kingdom of heaven not the kingdom of this world. Jesus sets this up perfectly with his “surprise” introduction of Kingdom righteousness in Matt 5-7 (“You have heard it said…, but I tell you….” Surprise!!—righteousness wins anyway: What’s in your wallet?.

    Along the same lines for the mustard seed, evil doesn’t start “teeny” and then grow; man’s heart is always evil from the beginning (cf. Gen 6:5; 8:21). The surprising impact of the parable is that righteousness grows, even during the present age: The mustard seed, which starts as the “smallest,” ends up growing to such an extent in spreading righteousness (“putting the world to rights,” as NT Wright would put it) that even the birds—the nations that are in the grip of evil throughout the present age—will find nurture and sustenance by Messiah’s righteous millennial rule at the end of the age, as so aptly pictured in Rev 22 and Zech 14.

    Hence, wheat and tares follow logically: The pursuit of righteousness during the present age (cf. Matt 6:33) should not be characterized by deliberate attempts to hack out the expected evil “growing” alongside the good seed; it should be characterized by confident, consistent growth in righteousness that will eventually be harvested for the coming phase of the Kingdom of heaven, when all the “weeds” will be appropriately disposed of by God and leave the originally intended kind of “reign” in which the nations can flourish.

    Big picture:

    The encouragement of present disciples is straightforward, not “backhanded”—there’s Kingdom work to be done now and it will happen, whether we choose to accept his invitation to participate or not;

    the “separating” effect of the parables makes more sense, because the results are not what one would expect unless they had “eyes to see and ears to hear”;

    there is far more logical and chronological continuity in the parables after the “seed is sown” in this present age;

    the “commodity” of Kingdom growth is the same righteousness that J. the B. and Jesus both declared to be “at hand”;

    hence, our focus as agents of reconciliation is logically on righteousness (cf. 2 Cor 5:17-21), rather than evil;

    hence, the gospel of Matthew warrants its position in the canon by virtue of setting up the church’s anticipation (in the following gospels and epistles) of further revealed detail in this same “commodity” of righteousness—first in the Person of Messiah himself (the promised “seed”) and then in his church who carry out his righteous mandate in his Body in the present world.

  16. Sanc says:

    Tim,

    You said, “Now God did, in some places, give us abstract theological propositions; they are also an essential part of communication…” And that was the subject of your latest post. My thought is that even the plain theological propositions are difficult to understand when standing distinct from the “cocoon” of the stories. Although, perhaps it is not for everyone growing up in a Christianized culture but as you mentioned in the 2007 fga panel, Paul preached to the Gentiles differently beginning at the story of creation with the Athenians in Acts 17.

    If the goal of the stories is for the lost to believe in the Person of Jesus, then our goal is “achieved” when they do so and receive justification. If our goal is to help them believe in the Person, does it not matter if we (the evangelists) know when and where the listener has done so? When do we ask for their response? What sort of response are we looking for?

    And most importantly how much should it matter to us if they are confused even by some simple facts about Jesus? Is it possible… that there are many people who hear the Word of God (gospel stories) and used the “telescope” as you’ve said to see Jesus on the other side, but who are afraid of their own inability to understand anything theological? Their fear is that they acknowledge and are also intimidated that they don’t know the bible, nor do they know God very well, so, even when they think they’ve understood it they don’t have much confidence? I have a feeling that perhaps some newly converted people (people who have just placed their faith in the Person of Jesus) may not say in reply to any one fact, “I believe it;” instead they will just express doubt or ask questions for a good deal of time until they’ve heard it over and over and over again. But this is all a matter of their own assurance. Their faith actually was seeded some time before the doubts and questions started coming out….

    I have seen a few examples in Acts how Paul did follow-up for days with those who heard his message, reasoning with them from the scriptures that Jesus was their God and Savior from sin. I am curious if you know those passages well enough to decide if this means they must have been believers, were not yet believers, or perhaps were an unknown mix of both?

    Thanks. Michele

  17. Tim Nichols says:

    Michele,
    Sorry to be so long about getting back to this.
    The goal of stories is not just for the lost to believe in Jesus. It goes a lot further than that.

    As for asking for a response, I’m a passive faith guy, so I don’t believe in asking for a decision to believe; that’s a contradiction in terms. What I do is explain the truth, introduce them to the person, and keep right on going. You may notice, if you study GJohn, that there’s no clear separation (in terms of presentation) between evangelism and discipleship. This is not to say that a person is saved by works, nor is it to suggest that we ought to confuse an unbeliever. But surely Jesus also didn’t want to confuse unbelievers, nor did John the Baptist, yet they unabashedly preached good works, even to people to whom they had not yet preached the basic “believe in Him” message (Mt. 3:8, Jn. 8:11). It is right to preach good works. God has expressed His opinion on this matter: people should do good works and they are accountable if they do not. It makes for a better world and a better society.
    Many FG folks have gone so far off the beam that they’re afraid to mention good works to an unbeliever. The reasoning, as far as it goes, sounds pretty good: good works don’t get anyone into heaven; believing in Jesus does; therefore preach about believing in Jesus and leave out the good works, lest they get confused. Unfortunately, Paul, Jesus and John the Baptist, among others, refuse to cooperate (Ac.17:30, added to the two passages referenced above).
    Regarding Paul’s practice, Ac. 17 is a good example: some wanted to hear more, others scorned him, and ultimately some believed.

    So introducing someone to Jesus, and helping him to learn to love and believe in Jesus, takes time — it’s a process. My role in the process is to give him the next thing, to help him to take the next step to expand his understanding. There are some who have convinced themselves that they can’t understand this kind of thing, and the job is the same as with anyone else: encourage their faith — teach them to believe, not to doubt. And continue in the process. At some point in that process, he will pass from death to life, and as far as I can tell, there is no hard-and-fast scientific proof for when this happens. God knows, of course, and in due time, so will you. You may not know exactly what time the sun crossed the horizon, but when it’s high noon, you can still tell that it’s daytime out.

  18. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,

    Thanks for waiting on this response. The delay was some “think time,” but mostly a trip overseas, and the necessary recuperation time.

    C. S. Lewis’ outstanding arguments notwithstanding, sometimes theology is poetry, and trying to tell which position is better by comparing the two poems line-for-line is a bit dodgy; it’s more of a holistic kind of thing. You hear better music in one than the other. But we’ve each read the other’s poem, and we each still think our own is better. So maybe this is a good time to dig in and see how they scan.

    In the details, I would point out a couple of things:
    As far as I can tell, you’ve just not dealt with the precipitating situation in the wheat and the tares: Jesus sowing His people in a pristine world. How are you interpreting “world” here, such that this tracks with the present?
    You seem to have imputed to me a need to interpret the mustard tree itself as evil, and I don’t; the seed is the growing kingdom; the birds are evil entities that find shelter in it.
    Not sure where you got birds=nations; conversely, I have a pretty strong contextual argument for birds=the wicked.
    I’m not hung up on a hermeneutical need to see leaven as always representing sin — leavened bread was part of the daily ascension offerings, after all — but in this context, coming right after the wheat and the tares? Of course it does, unless it’s making exactly the opposite point of that parable, which seems unlikely (see below).

    The paragraph that begins “In order to keep your interpretation coherent” seems the crux paragraph of your post, and I considered going through it point-by-point, and still will if you think it would be helpful. I have some comments to make on it, but first: I respect you and I listen closely to your handling of Scripture, so please don’t construe any of the following as disrespect or attack. I’ve not yet mastered the nuanced art of being unfailingly respectful whilst also being completely clear in this medium; I find myself a bit hampered by the medium’s inability to transmit a respectful tone and a smile.
    That crux paragraph reads to me as a highly synthetic reading that completely misses the immediate context. It’s a triad of parables in which item A exists, and then item B is later introduced. In the first of the triad — the only one for which Matthew gives an interpretation — item B, the later-introduced element, is evil. We are meant to read the next two parables in light of the interpreted first one. What you’ve done is start with the last two, synthesize an interpretation, and then go back and look at the first. You’re right that your reading of the wheat and the tares “follows logically” from your reading of the other two: that’s the problem. The wheat and the tares is meant to lead; it’s the hermeneutical control on the other two. If I’m reading you right, your basic hermeneutical control here is your sense that righteousness is the dominant note in the passage, and I don’t think that stands up to the structure or the details.
    Evil does hold full sway in this world, but He’s not describing this world; He’s describing the kingdom of heaven. No one in Jesus’ audience was in any danger of mistaking their present situation for the kingdom. Their fervent desire for the kingdom demonstrates eloquently that they knew all too well they weren’t living in it: no reason to pray “thy kingdom come” if it’s here. As to surprise, the surprise here is that even with a perfect beginning (wheat sown in a pristine field) evil will enter, and even flourish for a time before the final reckoning. In that setting, starting out teeny and growing is exactly what evil does; hence the tares. This unexpected development furnishes a greater-to-lesser argument that those who believe should not find present (i.e., pre-kingdom) unbelief disconcerting, and should expect a similar reckoning in due time.

    Let me know what you think.
    His,
    Tim

  19. Jim Reitman says:

    Hi, Tim

    I also must ask your indulgence for my late response; I just finished a paper for Bibliotheca Sacra on “wise advocacy” in pastoral care and counseling and was busy finishing it up when your last post came in….also presenting it at ETS this fall (the Psychology, Counseling, and Pastoral Care section). As you know, you can edit “until the cows come home” and still not do nearly enough, so I finally just sent the thing in and will have to tweak it as time and the Bib Sac editors permit.

    Regarding your disclaimers about the potential polemical “tone” in your latest response—”Keine Angst.” From where I’m sitting, you came across as remarkably irenic. Remember, I’m used to “duking it out” with the likes of Rene. In this response, I will only deal with epistemology and hermeneutics in this response and then wait for your reply before: 1) identifying the “proper” referents for each of the seven parables and then 2) deciphering how they contribute to Kingdom truth….once we agree that my hermeneutical approach is plausible and that my interpretation can be consistent with my hermeneutic.

    I will begin by agreeing with your comments about “poetry” and “music” and then point out that your “B” follows “A” lens for viewing the parables is remarkably Cartesian in its epistemological approach to what in my mind is clearly narrative theology (with which I assume you have already agreed, for the most part).

    The second is a closely related hermeneutical point. You are bent out of shape by my supposed wrenching of the interpretation of individual parables from out of their “immediate context.” However, this would only be the case if one could reduce the integrity of the major “thought units” of the overall narrative to sequential “sub-narratives” in the form of individual parables, and I would dispute whether that is hermeneutically valid.

    My response to your hermeneutical framework for viewing Matt 13 is this: First, the irreducible “immediate” context for the parables is the rejection of the Kingdom offer and the corresponding setting of “blindness” to Kingdom truth. His response is not to whack those who reject the offer but to open the eyes of those who “have eyes to see” but which are still not “open.” This is the main point in his answer to the question “Why do you speak to them in parables?” So, how do you speak narrative theology to blind people who (potentially) have eyes to see?

    My answer is from an “eastern” epistemological perspective: You show the “elephant” (= “Kingdom” truth in the present age) to all six blind men, but only one “facet” at a time. There is less logical “sequence” in the order of the parables than the presentation of six more or less “separate but equal” parables presenting different facets of the growing Kingdom in the present age. So to reduce the parables to “sub-narratives” is to “chop” the elephant into six separate pieces (trunk, tail, tusk, ears, etc.) and then claim that you can put the elephant back together by working your way up from “tusks,” for example, by claiming that “ears” should logically follow from “tusks). Hence, the tares are not determinative of the “direction” of the parables in the same way that the paradigmatic parable (= “big picture”) of the four soils is. Hence, we have six parables that flesh out the Kingdom truths behind the soils from six different “lenses” to help the blind men see—that is, if they have the “eyes to see” (= the “heart disposition” to receive truth about Kingdom righteousness that disrupts the Jewish orthodoxy of the time).

    So, how do we put this together if the “least common denominator” is the entire narrative of all the parables? My answer is to begin with the soils and then take the introductory phrase “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” for each of the subsequent parables as analogous to only one of the blind men feeling a single part of the elephant. It is only one of six facets that will need to be put together to get the whole picture of the elephant. You can’t tell the six blind men what the elephant really “looks like” until each one of them learns the other five facets and then looks at them all as one entity.

    However, I would disagree with your premise that the figure immediately following the word “like…” in each parable is not the intended referent of the parable.
    On the contrary, I see that the key to putting each parable together is precisely to look at the first figure following the word “like…” as the primary intended referent that unlocks that facet of Kingdom truth. Hence, “the Kingdom of heaven is like a tusk…” should orient the blind person that the point of comparison in the metaphor of “tusk” is the key to opening up the dynamics of the parable, which amount to showing how the “tusk” fits into the rest of the elephant…it is not sequential. Thus, you can start with different pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and change the “fitting together” order around yet still come out with the intended overall picture that “fits.” It depends on who’s putting the larger puzzle together.

    For me, the leaven and the mustard seed made most sense, and then I went with the treasure and the pearl of great price, and finally the tares and the dragnet. When I started with the tares and dragnet, I just couldn’t “fit” in the other four, although now that I’ve “felt” all six parables and my eyes opened, I could come back and help some other blind person put the puzzle together, even if they were to start with the tares and the dragnet….if they have “eyes to see.” I must say, however, that without a big picture of “Kingdom righteousness” as the governing concept of the theology of Matthew, I would still flounder a bit on the parables, so the ultimate precision of the interpretation of Matt 13 will depend on one’s synthesis of the whole book—the parables and the overall governing theme of the book are, to a great extent, mutually informing yet also intimately tied to basic OT narrative theology.

    I have a pick for you along these lines (the relevance of OT narrative to Matthean theology): Chris Wright, Old Testament Ethics and the People of God (2004).

    Let’s see how you process that before I proceed.

    Jim

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