Old theological conflicts frequently reappear dressed in a new outfit. So it is with narrative theologies and their theological output. Currently, in the guise of narrative theologies of one sort and another, we are presented with a version of the 19th century conflict between history and dogma in new dress. Not the denial by history of dogma, but its subtle and sometime not-so-subtle attenuation. This attenuation may not be intentional but it is real for all that. It’s a result of the constraints of the discipline of history.
History is concerned with what is the case, with what has in fact happened, and history ought not to stray beyond that. All else is speculation. History attends to this world, with episodes and narratives of what, in the best judgement of the historians, based on the best available evidence, has in fact taken place. Not with what might have been, but with what was in fact. But a record of what was in fact, or what is in fact, is not strong enough for the purposes of constructing Christian dogma.
To illustrate. A narrative-style study of the Gospel narratives may lead us to the reasonable conclusion that Jesus did not sin. From this we may justifiably conclude: ‘Jesus is sinless’ is true. Will that do, for dogmatic purposes? No, it will not. Crucially will not. For there was a time when it was true that ‘Adam is sinless’, but then he sinned, bringing death into the world and all our woe. If as a result of historical investigation we come to the conclusion that Jesus is sinless, this is indeed a striking conclusion, but it is dogmatically as weak as water. As weak as water even if we are able to conclude, on historical grounds that (unlike Adam) Jesus was always sinless.
Look at it this way. To say that Jesus was in fact sinless, that he never in fact sinned, is to make a statement about the actual world, the world of the historian. But it does not answer the question, Could Jesus have sinned? An account of what actually happened cannot by itself answer that question, for it deals only with what is in fact the case, not what could be. It is quite consistent with the de facto sinlessness of Jesus that he could have become sinful. Although he did not in fact sin, yet perhaps if he had been subject to more temptation, or have been less on his guard, or…then he would have sinned.
Christian dogma, in this case the Christian dogma of the person of Christ, requires us to say more than what is the case. We need to be able to say what could and could not be the case. And the classical dogma of Christ states that it is impossible for Christ to have sinned. Hence the need to talk not only of Jesus’s being without sin or even of his sinlessness, but of his necessary sinlessness. In other words, we need to be able to talk about natures. Jesus’ divine nature was such that he could not sin.
Of course ‘Christ did not in fact sin’ (as a statement about this world) is compatible or consistent with the dogma of Christ’s necessary sinlessness, but it does not entail it. It is substantially weaker than it. It falls far short of it. The historical verdict from examining the narratives may be consistent with Christ’s necessary sinlessness, but it does not deliver it to us.
So here’s one moral. If one’s theological resources are exclusively narrative or historical accounts of what happened, then as a matter of simple logic the theological results will be dogmatically impoverished or substandard. From what is the case it is logically impossible to conclude what must be the case. And Christian dogma embodies statements about what must be the case; statements about natures and essences and necessities. History alone does not give us dogma.
So (someone may be wondering) where does dogma come from? Of course, the language of the dogmatician may be dismissed, as it has been from time to time, as hyperbole, mere rhetoric, as when a person might, licking his lips, say ‘I couldn’t have a better ice-cream!’. Or maybe, it is thought of, more kindly, as the hardening of the language of praise and prayer. To say that Jesus is sinless, is not to speak the truth, but to give honour to his failure to sin by exaggerating the fact. Or alternatively, (and notoriously) the story is that dogma has emerged from the simple narratives of Jesus the teacher due to the intrusion of that dreadful Greek thought which overlays the pure biblical narrative with alien philosophical categories. Where have we heard that before?
So…where does dogma come from? Answering that question in the most general way, it comes from interpretation. And where (for the would-be faithful Christian dogmatician) does the interpretation come from? Answer: interpretations come from the non-narrative parts of Scripture, or from parts of the narratives being taken in non-narrative fashion or interpreted in the light of the non-narrative parts. (Of course these non-narrative parts may come to us in the form of assertions, but they are not assertions that are indexical, that apply to one time or some times only. They are time indifferent, or time invariant. (So Paul’s reference to God’s nature, (e.g. Romans 1.20) or Jesus’ references to the living God (e.g. Mk.12.27) were given on some particular occasion, but they are true of all occasions, and true before time was.)
In the case of the dogma of the sinlessness of Jesus, of the impossibility of him committing sin, it comes from data of two sorts.
One might think, the dogma of Jesus sinlessness comes from explicit biblical statements of Jesus sinlessness. ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin’ (2 Cor.5.21) ‘Which one of you convicts me of sin?’ (Jn 8.46), ’Yet without sin’ (Heb. 4.15), ‘without blemish’ (Heb 9.14), ‘in him there is no sin’ (1Jn 3.5) ’Great is the mystery of godliness’ (I Tim.3.16). These data certainly take us in the right direction. Yet even these are statements about what is the case, about what (from a logical or metaphysical point of view) happens in fact to be the case.
We need to go further into the data of Scripture, to link Jesus’ failure to sin with his true deity, to connect up with other statements about Jesus which, together with statements about God, imply his necessary sinlessness. Arguments of the form:
Jesus is God having taken on human nature:
God is sinless:
therefore Jesus is sinless.
The premises of that argument come from Scripture, but they don’t come from explicit statements about Jesus’ sinlessness, but in a rather more roundabout route. Thus as regards his deity there is the abundant testimony from the Gospel of John – John 1:1-3; 2.24.5; 3.16-8, 5.18.20. From Paul, Rom.1.7; 9.5, I Cor.1.1-3. II Cor 5.10. From the author of Hebrews, Heb. 1.1-3, 4.14, 5.8. And if Jesus is God made flesh, then the character of God’s sinlessness becomes relevant. ‘Majestic in holiness’ (Ex. 15.11), ‘There is none holy like the Lord’ (I Sam 2.2), ‘The holy one’ (isa. 17.7)(Jb.6.10), ‘The Holy one of Israel (Is.41.20), ‘The Holy one of Jacob’ (Isa. 49.23), ‘Of purer eyes than to behold evil’ (Hab.1.13), ‘Holy is his name’ (Lk 1.49), ‘I am holy’ (2.Pet.3.11). And from the fact that Jesus is worshipful (Phil.2.10, Acts 9.14, 1 Cor. 1.2 Rev. 5.13).
These and more such texts are evidence for original and essential divine holiness. Holiness is not acquired by God, nor does he simply happen to be holy. If Christ is divine, then he has such necessary holiness. But such conclusions are not provided by any narrative alone.
Is this proof texting? Of course it is. But it is what might be called ‘open-eyed’ proof texting. The texts are assembled in the light of their theological value, with an eye to what used to be called (rather opaquely, it seems to me), ‘the analogy of the faith’.
It is of course, possible to treat even these normative utterances, the interpretative statements of Evangelists (especially John) and Apostles as merely historical, as a statement of what, at a time, Jesus or Paul or Peter or John believed. The original interpretations are historical, of course. Paul really existed, and really wrote to Rome, to Corinth, to Philippi etc. at roughly around the times we think that he did, and so on. He really said what he is recorded as having said in these letters. All this is history, what is the case, or what was the case in the life of an ex-Jewish Rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, two millennia ago.
But – and this is the important bit – these utterances of Paul are not simply historical, as (say) the utterances of Cicero or Seneca, writing in roughly the same period, are historical. They are (for the Christian, and the Christian church) normative. They are not simply events, or opinions, they are God-given judgments, including God-given judgments about God. As such they are elevated beyond mere narrative, opinions of Paul about what must be the case in respect of Jesus of Nazareth, to what (without qualification) must be the case in respect of Jesus of Nazareth. What’s the difference?
Look at it this way. Think of narratives as enclosed within sets of speech marks. As speech marks mark occasions of speaking, so narratives are made up of sets of such occasions which are shaped into a story. So it is the with the Gospel narratives: this is Matthew’s story, Mark’s story, and so on. Similarly, we can treat the letters of Paul or the reported discourses of Jesus as contained within speech marks, as occasional utterances. But so long as we keep the speech marks in place then the normative status of what Jesus or Paul say is, to put it mildly, endangered. For while the speech marks remain, the question of truth and hence the question of authority may be suspended. It is true that Paul said that God justifies the ungodly, but does God justify the ungodly? For the church Paul’s statements (or at least most of them) take on a normative status in which the speech marks drop away. Paul the Apostle said ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners’. That’s history. But that in fact Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (and what it presupposes and entails) goes beyond history and is, or becomes, revealed truth and so material for Christian dogma.
You might object – but the narratives also contain what is impossible and necessary for God: he cannot lie, or deny himself, or mutate. All things are possible with God. And so on. These are very important, part of the scaffolding of dogmatic theology. But – I realise that it’s irritating – even these must be tweaked. The sense in which God cannot lie is rather different from the sense in which George Washington could not.
Dogma comes through history, but it is more than history. Otherwise we are of all people most to be pitied.
Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists,Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.