Third Wave Theopoetics: Guiding Principles

My practice of theopoetics is relatively new — I’ve only been doing this for a few years (and even less time under this term) — and so I couldn’t possibly list all the principles that go into it yet.  However, some of them, and in particular some of the principles that differentiate my present stance toward world-life-Scripture from the posture I was trained to take, are pretty near the surface and easy for me to talk about, because I’ve had to become conscious of them in order to make sense of where God has led me.  Below are a few of those.  I offer this discussion partly as an apologetic for what I do, partly as a recruiting pitch, and partly out of an obligation to honor my fathers, which in this case means explaining to the community that trained me why I have suddenly become such a weirdo.  (Believe it or not, guys, it’s because you did such a great job teaching me to take the Scriptures seriously, obey thoroughly, and where necessary, repent instantly, with no shilly-shallying about.  But more below.)

So with no further ado, some of the guiding principles of third wave theopoetics (twelve of them, for you numerological types):

Charitable Hermeneutics.  Love Yahweh first, then interpret His Word.  This cuts through a lot of the baloney in discussions of hermeneutical method.  It issues in a good-faith submission and desire to obey what we find written in the Word, with no hermeneutical monkey business about beating the text into a shape that better accommodates our sins.  Or our theology.

Divine Authorship.  Yahweh wrote the Word and the World.  The Word gives us an authoritative interpretation of the World; it’s the manual that goes with it.  The motifs, symbols and themes in the Word carry over their interpretive significance into the World.

Story-Centered.  Because we must read the Bible with love for the Author/authors, and because we recognize that the same Yahweh wrote both Word and World, theopoetics must be story-centered.  He is the author of the One Story in the Bible, and He continues to write that Story today.  Every human being, no matter how distant he might think to be from God, is part of that Story.  Our stories only make sense when embedded within the Story.

Obedient Rhetoric.  God’s speech is not just content to be parsed and then communicated how we will; it’s also a model for communication.  We have been given outstanding examples to follow, and we should be obedient to God in this, striving to live up to the rhetoric of Word and World. In simple terms, we are the image of God in the world, and we should speak as God speaks, not just in any way we decide to.  This means we don’t always play nice: there’s a lot of rough speech in the Scriptures.  It also means that we don’t simply cut everything up into topics, because even the NT authors give most of their theological and ethical instruction by situating their readers into the Story.

Trinitarian Metaphor.  The fundamental is/is not relationship that drives metaphor is a reflection of the Trinity in the world.  “If you have seen Me,” Jesus says, “You have seen the Father.”  And yet, Jesus is not the Father; He is the icon of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  Biblical interpreters often talk about symbols, motifs, or types in the Bible; these are sub-categories of metaphor, all of them absolutely pervasive throughout both Word and World.  If you understand Word and World as Story rather than as raw material for a Systematic Theology laboratory, this makes a lot of sense; otherwise it’s going to cause you trouble.  But the biblical authors, especially in the New Testament, make metaphorical connections all over the place.  We can ignore them because they don’t fit our guiding principles, or we can submit to them, learn from them, and get to work.

Poetic Precision. Once the far-reaching implications of metaphor are understood, most conservative evangelical folks get very nervous, and start asking, “Where are the brakes on this thing?”  That’s a fair question, but to be honest it’s mostly born of inexperience.  Just because the hermeneutical controls aren’t the ones you’re used to doesn’t mean there aren’t any.  As I’ve grown in my grasp of biblical metaphor, it has become very plain that the connections are precise, and that you can’t just prove anything with it.  But it is the precision of a well-constructed poem or symphony, not the precision of a logical syllogism, and folks find that unnerving.

Imaging God.  Our primary mandate is to be God’s image, not His chief theorist. “Thinking God’s thoughts after Him” is all well and good, but being God’s image is what we’re actually called to.  The thinking is a portion of that, but it’s not the whole thing.  One of the chief implications of this is that sometimes God leads us to do something before we’ve worked out all the theological theory.  In such a case, obedience is called for–we walk by faith, not by sight–and the action forms our character and matures our theopoetic being in the world.

Hunger for Righteousness.  “Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Jesus said, “for they shall be filled.”  We too often get so tangled up in our pursuit of freedom (even “freedom in Christ”) that we no longer want to hear how we ought to do something.  God loves us and accepts us because of Christ; no amount of commandment-keeping could earn that for us, and nothing whatsoever can separate us from it.  Precisely because that is the case, we ought to hunger for His instruction in how to live well.  “I opened my mouth and panted,” wrote the psalmist, “for I long for Your commandments.”  Amen.

Loving Scholarship.  Scholarship at its God-honoring best is loving enough to Get It Right.  This has been the subject of a post already, so I won’t repeat all that here.

Mystical Union.  There is no substitute for actually walking with God, in fellowship with Him and guided by His hand.  If we’re not doing that, we have no business talking about God.  This has been the subject of a whole series of posts already, so I’ll be brief about it here.  I know portions of my community are still uneasy with the “mystical” term, but I can’t really apologize for it.  If you don’t believe in mystical union with Christ in the sense I’ve talked about it here (with or without assenting to my choice of terms), you don’t believe in the Holy Spirit, the unity of Christ’s Body, or the genuine possibility of real fellowship with a personal God (as over against Christian-life-as-thought-experiment).  If that is the case, then you need to repent.

Living Tradition.  Honoring our fathers means attending to the voices of the saints, past and present.  We are part of a living tradition spanning millennia, whether we know it or not, whether we’re willing to admit it or not.  The Tradition is our broadest fellowship, and like all fellowship it guides and guards us if we love the people in it.  I understand this sounds a bit nebulous, and I look forward to clarifying it in a future discussion.

And last but not least, Growing in Grace, or to put it a little more bluntly, Failing Well.  God calls us to grow in grace, and this means that today’s effort isn’t going to be perfect.  As Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing badly.”  My own practice of the discipline of theopoetics is still young.  I expect to make some mistakes, repent of them as soon as the Lord makes me aware of my errors, and profit from the experience.  I know of no other way to proceed, and I certainly won’t improve by burying my one talent in the backyard, waiting for that perfect, risk-free investment opportunity.  So take the risk of doing the work, out loud and in public, and when I need to repent, I’ll do that out loud and in public too.  It’s how the Body works, and I’m honored to be a part of it.


4 Responses to Third Wave Theopoetics: Guiding Principles

  1. Jeremy Myers says:

    These are good. However, it is like reading an alien hermeneutic. With the traditional hermeneutics we have been taught, it is hard to grasp or imagine how to get anywhere with these guiding principles.

    There seems to be much less systematizing, and more dancing around the story of the text. I think some very good practices could develop from such an approach.

    One question though…in an earlier post, you mentioned using all five senses. Where and how does that fit in to the principles above?

  2. Tim Nichols says:


    It is an alien hermeneutic; it’s not a slight amendment to the existing system we were taught. The system we were taught — the good parts, anyhow — fits inside this one, not the other way round. The critique of the system we were taught is analogous to C. S. Lewis’ critique of materialism in “Is Theology Poetry?” — it collapses under its own weight. If you take the text seriously, the text itself drives you into a different hermeneutic.
    And we need a better designator than “the system we were taught.” “Traditional” doesn’t work, because it’s not in the slightest. “Old” is too complimentary, and untrue anyhow. It’s based in modernist epistemology, with a willful blindness to the consequences. “Old Dallas hermeneutics” is accurate as far as it goes, but too restrictive — it wasn’t limited to the DTS tradition; the DTS tradition was just representative of a larger trend. “Fundamentalist hermeneutics” maybe? What do you think?

    There is systematizing, of a sort, but it works typologically rather than topically. Ecclesiology starts with Adam being an inadequate image of the Triune God, and therefore augmented and glorified with a Helper. An Adam needs an Eve. The Seed line keeps terminating in a woman unable for one reason or another to conceive (Sarai because of age, Rebekah because of barrenness, Tamar because she’s denied a husband, Mary because she’s a virgin, etc.). Then comes a Promised Son, an Adam, who needs to find his Eve: Isaac, Jacob, Perez, etc. Eventually you come to Jesus, the Last Adam, who is the Seed, but dies without taking a wife. But He rises and ascends to the right hand of the Father, and it is still not good for Man to be alone. He is preparing His Bride even now…. So what should the church be? Perfected Eve, the Proverbs 31 woman, etc., and there’s a wealth of wisdom embodied by real women in the Story to teach us.

    Regarding the senses, that’s a fair question. I’m finding that living the answer isn’t hard to get to for me, other than just having the courage to embrace things that are “off the map” for my community. It’s not as if Christianity is short on ideas for embodied spiritual disciplines. But finding a way to express embodied, passionate engagement with God’s World in a blog post is tougher for me, at least at this point. I’m not sure I’ve got an answer that will fit into print. Not to say that it can’t be talked about, but…you don’t learn to fear the Lord by *reading* Deut. 14:23 in the way that you do by *doing* it (or something analogous). Conveying the latter in print is a challenge for me.

  3. Jim Reitman says:

    Very nicely done, Tim. Since I’m a “lumper” more than a “splitter” I immediately start looking for unifying connections in lists like this, but I value your desire to accommodate the “numerological” types. To take one example, I would see “Charitable Hermeneutics” as lumped with the next three, plus “Poetic Precision,” “Loving Scholarship,” and “Living Tradition”—all subsumed under the overarching category: “Respect the Author” . . . which boils down to “Fear God and Keep His Commandments” (Eccl 12:13). Still, it’s nice to see the subdivided principles as various gleaming facets of that overarching principle to unpack its brilliance.

    And for the splitters: After reading Wolterstorff’s Divine Discourse, I might rephrase principle # 3 as “Double Agency Discourse”: God—if he is anything—is a speaking God by nature, which means he is a relational God by nature—not surprising, if we also accept “Trinitarian metaphor.” And since human imaging of God should reflect His nature, it is entirely like such a God in His relationship with humanity to “image” Himself in speaking through human discourse by inspiration of the third Person of that Trinity. This includes both recorded Scripture and prophetic speech throughout human history. And that gets us to mentoring, discipleship, counseling, and other variants of “OJT” prophetic speech—all of them ultimately spiritual formation, “for we speak wisdom among the mature” (1 Cor 2:6).

  4. Tim Nichols says:


    Yeah, they could certainly be lumped. “Imaging God” and “Trintarian Metaphor” could go together too, and so on. But I think the higher level of resolution is helpful at this stage of the game. As we get a little further in, we’re going to need to boil it down to a few ‘big box’ talking points. I like “Respect the Author” for one of them — that’s good stuff.

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