In a previous post, I challenged my readers to try explaining “By grace you are saved through faith” without falling back on telling a story.
It can’t be done.
This simple proposition from Ephesians 2:8 points to a wealth of biblical story. “Grace” has no meaning apart from reference to the story: in specific ways and at specific times, God acts to our benefit when we don’t deserve it and can’t earn it. Likewise “saved” refers to the story. The specific way God acts to our benefit is this: we and our fathers sinned, and we are being delivered, bit by bit, from the corruption and consequences of sin. One day that deliverance will be complete. “Faith” speaks of how this salvation, graciously provided by God, comes to a particular person: that person believes God. As the subsequent context shows, this belief is in contrast to earning salvation through good works. Finally, let’s not forget the word “you,” by which Paul places his readers within the story that he is telling. It’s not just a story; it’s their story, which turns out to be a vital point, because Paul wants them to live based on this story (see 4:1-6).
So if it all goes back to the story, why not just tell the story, one concrete detail after the next? Why bother with the abstract statement at all?
Because the abstractions contain less information, and this is a Good Thing. They allow us to look at one particular facet of the story, to highlight particular aspects, and therefore to interpret the story. When God gives abstract propositions, it’s like a math textbook having all the answers in the back of the book. It provides a way to check your work and see if you understood the problem correctly.
If you read the Abraham stories, you ought to conclude that righteousness before God comes through faith, and not through religious works — especially not through circumcision. Paul explains this very clearly in Romans 4, and the clear implication of his treatment there is that he’s not saying anything new. It’s all right there in Genesis. But Romans 4 allows you to check your reading of Moses against Paul, an interpreter inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself. If you’re tracking with Paul, then you haven’t gone very far wrong in the way you read Genesis.
To return to Ephesians 2:8, Paul addresses the very same truth in much shorter form. Here, he doesn’t make explicit reference to Genesis at all, but the effect is the same. If your reading of Torah, of Hebrew Scriptures, led you to the conclusion that salvation comes through currying favor with God through good deeds, Paul says you are very much mistaken. If you perhaps thought that being born into the right race was all that God required, again, Paul says you are very mistaken. Salvation is by God’s grace, through faith, and thus both good works and ancestry are excluded.
Could you have gotten that from the stories? Yes. In fact, you should have gotten that from the stories. But we are at times very thick when it comes to interpreting narrative, and the abstract statement gives you a chance to catch up if you’re a little slow. In it, God interprets the narrative for us.
So if the abstract statement is the interpretation of the narrative, then isn’t it the essential thing? Isn’t it the distilled essence of the narrative, the sine qua non, scrubbed free of mundane details and tucked into a tidy little box?
Nope. Two reasons: first, the abstraction only has meaning by reference to the story. Abstractions are too general to mean anything unless they’re tied down to a particular story, or set of stories (see the treatment of “by grace you are saved through faith” that began this article). Second, because God made the world ex nihilo, entered it Himself in a body, and will resurrect it all one day. But that’s a subject for a future post.