Are we really in the era of Postliberal Theology?

Lance Haverkamp

The CUA is a big-umbrella group, all three major schools of Christian Universalism are well represented in the CUA. For the third of us who come from a more liberal doctrinal persuasion, the demise of Liberal Theology is an important topic. Are we really in the era of Postliberal Theology?

Yes we are, let’s look at what has happened: After the Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) the Church was challenged by the Age of Reason, Rationality, and The Enlightenment. That challenge prompted a reaction in a few different directions:

  • The beginning of the end of the Puritanical Protestants
  • Revivals for the more mainstream protestants
  • Experimental Spiritualist movements for the very Liberal
  • And Rationalism became an interpretation within Catholicism

But this push, away from anti-religious Rationality, was most significant in its creation of a liberal group of denominations, many of which were started in the North-Eastern United States. These grew and merged, then declined, and merged some more—as the Spiritualist movements faded.

That brings us up to the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Oddly, some areas of Politics & Theology began to march in near lock-step, which helped the Conservatives, but punished the Liberals. While Conservative Churches and Conservative Politics began to merge, the political Liberals stopped being religious—at all. The politically left drifted-away into anti-religious Rationality, never to return.

Today, the smattering of Liberal Congregations who remain are nearly empty; their current academics have abandoned the Liberal Theology of their past.

We remember Liberal Theology for its most recognizable feature; an attempt to combine Christianity with contemporary society—as believers re-imagine or rethink Christianity in order to conform it to their idea of society.

Since that has failed to gain traction in sanctuaries across America, Liberal professors are teaching their ministry students one of two alternate schools of thought, both categorized as “Postliberal:”

  • Narrative Theology, which has an emphasis on teaching the Biblical Narrative, and interpreting it in light of the Church’s own language and terminology…at the risk of sounding more conservative.
  • Progressive Theology, which doubles-down on the social justice, feminist, and minority politics of contemporary society, at the risk of being even further away from traditional Church teaching.

Will either of these catch-on? Is Liberal Christianity just going to be a minor oddity in the future? Liberal seminaries, at least those in North America, have mostly gone towards Progressive Theology; as have the most liberal American denominations (United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, and others). Students in the CUA minister training course study Narrative Theology. It’s an exceptional middle-ground for both our Liberal, and our Conservative students.

What Is “Narrative Theology?”

Roger E. Olson, Ph.D., an American Baptist theologian and Professor of Christian Theology of Ethics at the Baylor University, wrote the definitive description of Narrative Theology, and explained why it’s the preferred postliberal viewpoint:

    1. Narrative theology focuses on the Bible as a whole (canonical interpretation) as a dramatic account of God’s activity; its main purpose is to identify God for us (i.e., God’s character).
    2. Narrative theology acknowledges that the Bible contains propositions, but it says biblical propositions are not independent of or superior to the metanarrative of God’s saving activity. (Jesus told stories—parables—and sometimes interpreted them with propositions. But the propositions serve the stories, not vice versa. If propositions could communicate the point better, then surely Jesus would have started with the propositions and then given the stories to “illustrate” them.)
    3. A biblical proposition is “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but it needs interpretation. It does not simply interpret itself. What is “love” in this proposition? How is God’s love related to God’s justice, etc.? It won’t do simply to look up “love” in a dictionary. The only way to interpret “God is love” is to look at the biblical story that reveals God’s character through his actions.
    4. According to narrative theology, the Bible contains many kinds of statements—commands, propositions, expressions of praise, prayers, poetry, prophecies, parables, etc. All are included by narrative theology under and within the rubric of “story” or “drama.” They are all parts of the great story of God whose central character (for Christians, at least) is Jesus Christ. Therefore, all must be interpreted in light of that story and its purpose—to reveal the character of God through his mighty acts leading up to and centering around Jesus Christ.
    5. Theology is our best human attempt to understand the biblical drama-story and that includes developing canonical-linguistic models (complex metaphors, doctrines) that express its meaning for the church’s belief and life. But a theologian cannot do that properly unless he or she is “living the story” together with a community of faith shaped by the story.
    6. Doctrines are secondary to the story; they cannot replace it. They are judged by their adequacy to the story—their ability to draw out and express faithfully the character of God as revealed by the story. But the story is primary; the doctrines are secondary and that means always revisable in light of a new and better understanding of the import of the story.
    7. The task of the church is to “faithfully improvise” the “rest of the story.” Christians are not called simply to live in the story; they are called to continue the story in their own cultural contexts. First they must be grounded in the story. They must be people for whom the story “absorbs the world.” Second, they must together (communally) improvise the “rest of the story” faithfully to the story given in the Bible.
    8. The alternatives are to either a) regard the Bible as a grab bag of propositions to be pulled out to answer questions, or b) regard the Bible as a not-yet-systematized system of theology (like a philosophy). Both alternatives fail to do justice to what the Bible really is—a grand drama of God’s mighty saving acts that progressively reveals his character culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
    9. Narrative theology has no need of “biblical inerrancy;” perfection with respect to purpose is sufficient to express biblical accuracy and authority. It is in and through the story that we meet God, especially in Jesus Christ. The Bible is the medium, the instrument, the indispensable witness to Jesus Christ. It is our life-changing meeting with him through the Bible’s Christ-centered story that elevates the Bible over other books. We do not believe in and trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior because of our belief in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because it is the unique instrument and witness of our meeting with Him.

For the CUA, Narrative Theology has additional benefits over the Progressive school: Progressive Theology is closely tied to American politics, Narrative Theology doesn’t have that problem. For the CUA, a global organization, Narrative is a better fit. When preaching or teaching, Narrative allows for a Patristic or Charismatic interpretation—covering all three schools of CU understanding; Progressive can’t do that, since it’s really only a liberal interpretation.

There are books in our coursework lists if you’d like to learn more about Narrative Theology. If you’d like to discuss how to move your sermons in that direction contact me (Lance) at the CUA front office.

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