Propositions Matter

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.

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15 Responses to Propositions Matter

  1. Jim says:

    Tim, another great thought provoking post!

    This is the reason I tend to hand out a copy of the John’s gospel instead of trying to use abstractions from the “Romans Road” method of evangelism. There is so much there to discuss. Its no wonder that the early church spent time with people who were seeking to become Christians before they were baptized. They had to make sure they (the seeker) understood the implications of the “story” handed down to them. Seems this has been overlooked in modern Christianity.

    My best friend from junior high on has been talking to me about being baptized. He is such a hurry to get baptized that I told him I wanted to make sure he understood the “story”. He is currently reading through some passages in John with me. There is so much truth in Gospel of John – from Genesis onward that I have started using narrative evangelism almost exclusively.

  2. Jim Reitman says:

    Tim,

    Very nice. Forgive the length of my response, but I can best make my point by going through a “story” of my own interpretive journey which ends in speech-act theory.

    You said: 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.

    Your reflection certainly rings true in my own decades-long journey through OT Wisdom in the books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Both books deal with the inevitable human proclivity to self-sufficiency and both books provide the propositional “answer” to that deep-rooted, Adamic, character-defining trait as we relate to God. That “answer” is the fear of God, whatever that “means”—and that’s the problem.

    Hence, 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…

    Again, this rings very true in my own experience with these two books. In surveying many commentaries on Job and Ecclesiastes, I have all too often noted that [especially Western] expositors run aground in the task of adducing meaning because either they don’t attend to the story/narrative at all or they reach premature closure in moving from narrative to abstraction. (This is also a huge problem in expository preaching.)

    In the case of Job, we are usually left with the abstraction “Don’t expect a one-to-one correspondence between human righteousness and reward in this life; when you witness or experience unjust suffering, simply persevere like Job, and God will ultimately reward your perseverance.” But is it the “point” of the narrative? When we go back and examine the macrostructure of the narrative and the details of the strategically placed Elihu and YHWH speeches in response to Job’s “words without knowledge,” we realize that the point has a lot more to do with Job recognizing and responding to YHWH’s redemptive character and purposes in ex nihilo creation than it does with rewarding his perseverance (hence, kudos to you, Tim, for your final ex nihilo “proposition” above).

    Once we “see” this in the narrative—and only then by identifying with the protagonist in the story, it is finally possible to “see” that the “problem” being addressed is not unjust suffering (this is the “occasion” of the narrative that brings the issue of God’s character into sharp relief) but human self-sufficiency in the face of a created life that is meant to “work” only in the fear of God.

    In the case of Ecclesiastes, Western expositors have huge difficulties seeing “narrative” at all and run even further aground in the task of adducing the intended “abstractions.” But in fact an integral relationship between narrative and abstraction runs all the way through the book! Again, only when we as readers fully identify with the protagonist in his ultimate profound disillusionment—the total frustration of the quintessential self-sufficient Solomon-persona in his human search for meaning and satisfaction in life—can we track the logical progress of his abstractions, the inferences he iteratively draws in response to his sequential observations of life. Only then do we grasp the inevitable challenge of human self-sufficiency in the face of a created life that is meant to “work” only in the fear of God, and only then does the prospect of “joy” and “success” in the work of God make any sense at all.

    So what can we then conclude about the “point” of fearing God in these two books of Wisdom? Only when one recognizes how each protagonist in response to his profound disillusionment in the progress of the narrative chooses to turn—from a rugged self-sufficient determination to make life “work” to the fear of God—does it become possible to define the fear of God as: granting a sovereign Creator His prerogative of defining how we fit into His Creation and accepting the daily opportunities He provides to do His redemptive work and flourish in this life as His chosen agents.

    In a sense, then, the abstraction about the fear of God can ultimately be formulated only when the reader can identify with the protagonist in the story and “turn” in an analogous way in response to the “torque” that God applies to the protagonist in the course of the narrative. For the few who have followed me to this point, this “torque” has been given a name, using speech-act terminology—it is called “illocutionary force.”

    That “thickness” of the reader you talked about can ultimately only be overcome when we as interpreters stop resisting this “illocutionary force.” Ironically, then, we are limited in our capacity to draw accurate (or sometimes, even legitimate) inferences (abstractions) from Scripture until, like Luke Skywalker, we “feel the force.” 🙂

  3. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    I owe you more of a response than this, but let me check something first. If I’m hearing you right, your ending point boils down to this: there’s not substitute for the interpreter actually walking with God in the way this text requires, and only through such obedience will the interpreter become the person who can really grasp the text.

    Is that a fair characterization?

  4. Jim Reitman says:

    In a word, yes.

    The main reason for this is that “meaning” and “application” cannot really be so neatly separated. What the text “requires” in the way of human response is part and parcel of the meaning, such that even though the context of the reader may vary throughout history, it will always be the same kind of response that is desired. Thus, human nature is more alike than different; it is this likeness that “levels the playing field” of meaning in response to Scripture across human generations and cultures.

  5. Tim Nichols says:

    Jim,
    Glad you enjoyed it; I think of you often these days, and you’ve been in my prayers. I hope this finds you well.

    Re. baptism: I understand the sentiment, but this is one of those areas where I’d want to say the early church got it wrong. In the book of Acts, you see baptism happening immediately, even with former pagans (who presumably don’t have an OT background to draw on) — see Acts 16 for an example. The care seems to be on the front end, to tell the gospel story well in the first place. That done, if the guy believes, they instantly start to look around for a way to baptize him. Note in the aforementioned example that it seems to have happened in the middle of the night.
    Later, they started to require a basic confession, which is where the apostle’s creed comes from; the Nicene Creed is a later formulation built on the same basic skeleton — and note that they’re both narratival in framework. Obviously if you’re going to stand your new convert up in front of the elders and ask him “What do you believe?” and expect the apostles’ creed for an answer, that’s going to take some training. And if you expect him to be able to explain what each of the 12 parts of the creed mean, that’s going to take more training yet. There’s no logical stopping point there, and pretty soon people were getting baptized on their deathbeds.
    I kinda rather we follow the Acts practice, myself.
    His,
    Tim

  6. Jim says:

    LOL, yes I remember meeting one of your MA teachers when you were here teaching Greek. I was thinking this guy can’t be that fast!

    Anyway, my friends has been avoiding the encounter…but what you write is basically what I told him…

    He and I go way back so going out to the lake would in the middle of the night would not be out of the question!

    Your note has found me well and doing well to recover. I hope all is well with you and the Mrs. Say hi for me…

  7. Drew says:

    I wonder if the NIV has partly caused this debate. For Genesis 15:6, it says that “Abram believed the Lord” instead of believing *in* the Lord like the NASB says. I’m no linguist, though.

  8. Sanc says:

    Hi Tim,

    Appreciated the comments both you and Jim left in response to my questions last week. Been trying to figure out exactly what it is that I can’t seem to understand in them. Perhaps by “proposition” you are meaning, in another way of saying it, what others label the “bullseye” scripture that transfers the lost into everlasting life. I apologize for being so slow…. Let me know if I grasp the vocabulary to begin with.

    thanks, Michele

  9. Tim Nichols says:

    Michele,
    For all practical purposes, the definition under (a) here is my operating definition of “proposition.”
    The “bullseye” scripture would be a central proposition, and in the terms of some, the “saving proposition.”

    Talking like a proposition died for ’em…it’s kinda embarrassing…

  10. Sanc says:

    Tim,

    Thanks. I was thinking of “proposal” meaning something like making a deal; for instance, “If you accept this, I will do this.” The words are related but you are meaning (logic teaches) proposition to mean something similar to a simple statement.

    I may have another comprehension comment soon if that’s alright.

    Michele

  11. Sanc says:

    Tim,

    You brought up Genesis and Abraham and the proposition that accredited him with righteousness.

    I am extremely concerned about Genesis 12-15 because they are telling me that God did not justify Abraham until after He repeated various expressions of His promise on four(?) occasions? This event of his being “saved” is after Abraham had built an altar to worship and remember the appearing of God to him and the promises He spoke. This is after Abraham had told the king of Sodom that he had made a vow to the LORD and intended to keep it, so, Abraham shows that he obeyed God’s will. And on top of it all, I do not know how Abraham could have obeyed the voice to get up and follow Him to the place He would show him, starting in Genesis 12, if he did not also believe in Him.

    All these things bother me because they show me that Abraham should have been credited righteousness long before Genesis 15. They bother me because they are expressions of his believing in God’s promises and commands.

    If God repeated His promises to Abraham those four(?) times, why only on the last one does scripture confess the apparent truth long established, that “Abraham believed God”? Why only on the forth time did God accredit this faith as righteousness?

    And does this “slowness” on God’s part to “save” Abraham have anything to do with your idea of narrative-based evangelism?

    Thanks, Michele

  12. David Wyatt says:

    Hello Michele, & Tim. I don’t want to sidetrack this discussion, or even speak out of turn. But something came to my mind as I was reading your comment, Michele. It reminds me of Martha’s statement of faith in Christ recorded in Jn.11:25-27. It seems very likely that this was not the beginning point of faith in Christ for her. I believe she was simply affirming a faith that already existed in her heart but that the Lord was about to expand. It may the something similar for Abraham in Ge.15:6. Just a thought, & thanks for excusing my jumping in!

  13. Tim Nichols says:

    David and Michele,
    I think it is often the case that moments we tend to look at as “evangelistic” in Scripture are actually dealing with believers. Nicodemus already was God’s child; he’s one of the guys John 6 talks about who was taught by the Father through the prophets, was given by God to Jesus, and consequently believed in Him. Martha in John 11 is obviously already a child of God as well.
    In keeping with this: Paul invokes Gen.15 to demonstrate that Abraham’s justification was based on faith, not on works, and specifically not on circumcision. For those purposes, the fact that it occurs in Gen.15 at the latest is sufficient to make the point. I know some folks who argue that Gen.15:6 is actually referring back to substantially ealier: “Now Abraham had already believed God, and it was accounted…” I don’t know how good the case for this is, or what the arguments are pro and con, and haven’t time to run it down now. But you might look into it.

    More on this later — my internet access and time are severely constrained for the next week or so.

  14. Gary says:

    I probably should dig back and get my research on this Gen15 discussion, but I’m going to take a shot from memory for now.

    As Tim says, there is the thinking that Gen15:6 is referring back. There is also the thinking that this is an evangelistic verse (which I always had trouble with).

    If you look at how it is used by NT writers, you’ll find that it is used in an evangelistic context (not necessarily Abrahams evangelism), and it is used in another section in the context of a believer’s post salvation faith, and in another section it is used in a context that in a way is both evangelistic and pertaining to a believers post salvation faith.

    I came to the conclusion that what we’re seeing in Gen.15 is simply the all important general principle that righteousness is credited to man by God as a result of man’s faith. And since it is simply a general principle that applies to man’s initial salvation and also to a believer’s experiential salvation in his walk with God, context becomes all important, even in Gen15.

    As mentioned above, some will take Gen15 and say that Abraham’s initial salvation is in Gen12. What I came to the conclusion of when studying this, was that there’s no reason for us to conclude that Abraham was not a believer before Gen12 as a result of being evangelized at some point earlier in his life by the gospel that was surely passed down from Gen3.

    Not certain if that helps, and I hope I haven’t gone out on a limb too far by not locating my notes.

  15. David Wyatt says:

    Gary,

    I believe you may be right, though I wonder, not sure, just wondering, if we can assume about the earlier evanglization of Abraham, since the text does not say. But what I had thought of earlier, in connection with this, is that it may be much like Martha & Jesus in Jn.11:25ff. This almost certainly, by the context & the way the statemenmt is made, isnot her salvagtion, but simply her affirmation of an already held faith. So, Abraham’s faith in Ge.15:6 may be just the same. OK, I surely rambled all over the place to say that, didn’t I?!

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