The Divine Act Beyond the Scope of Human Storytelling


Having examined John Barclay’s treatment of the importance of narrative to Paul’s preaching, we’ll move on to Francis Watson’s contribution to the same volume. In it, Watson asks how the cross as paradigm slots into the scriptural narrative:

The Pauline gospel announces a definitive, unsurpassable divine incursion into the world- ‘vertically, from above’, in Karl Barth’s celebrated phrase- that both establishes the new axis around which the entire world thereafter revolves and discloses the original meaning of the world as determined in the pretemporal counsel of God. So unlimited is the scope of this divine action that it comprehends not only the end but also the beginning- although it takes the highly particular form of an individual human life that reaches its goal not only in death but also in resurrection. The question is whether, for Paul, this life can be presented both as the singular divine action and as a narrative.
(“Is There a Story in These Texts?”, 232)

He examines the vertical and horizontal planes of trajectories within Paul’s preaching- the vertical being the unilateral divine incision into history, the horizontal the self-contained,  linear temporal sequence of history- and highlights how, in a text like Romans 8:3 (“sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,” NRSV) “the temporal, horizontal space between incarnation and death is compressed almost to a vanishing point.” He’s not convinced, then, that the motifs of Romans 8 require a narrative construal to complete their meaning. In fact, he comes close to Barclay’s conclusion when he writes, “When Paul says that God ‘did not spare his only Son but gave him up for us all’, he does not refer merely to a ‘narrative motif’ that needs to be set within an overarching story if it is to be correctly understood. Instead, he refers to God’s saving action in its totality, but under a particular description, that of ‘giving up’.” This is crucial, I think, because the cross is preserved from becoming an element in an inter-defining web of relationship needing further elaboration from something more foundational: the cross’s irreducible complexity is the hermeneutical key for understanding everything else. The cross is both a scalpel incision and the legend on history’s map, a moment in the middle of history which, paradoxically, is the foundational moment of all history. Its meaning isn’t dependent on what came before it: all things find their meaning with reference to it. The difficulty here becomes describing how this moment is linked to redemptive history:

The death of Jesus is not an event within a temporal flow; it is an absolute and unsurpassable event that determines who Jesus is, who God is, and indeed who we are- since the one who died and was raised is… the ‘template’ for the transforming work of the Spirit. For Paul, neither the death nor the resurrection of Jesus recede into the past as they are overtaken by subsequent events within an unfolding narrative. Although they do not lack their own unique spaciotemporal location, they cannot be absorbed into the temporal process, for they are themselves the foundation and the meaning of that process.

It seems, then, that the Pauline gospel is not in itself a ‘story’. No doubt the concept of ‘story’ could be bent and stretched enough to accommodate its idiosyncrasies, but it would hardly be worth the effort. At some point, every concept reaches its limit. Yet, in claiming to be ‘in accordance with the scriptures’, this gospel does align itself with a prior ‘story’, encompassing both the creation of the world and the history of Israel. Scripture for Paul is not simply narrative, but he does draw freely on scriptural narrative texts- especially from Genesis and Exodus. This use of scriptural narrative is not just a response to contingent situations in his congregations, for it is essential for Paul both that his gospel is attested by scripture and that it is itself the hermeneutical key to scripture. For that reason, his gospel must be correlated with ‘the story of God and creation’ and ‘the story of Israel’. These stories, however, are not exactly Paul’s stories. They are scriptural stories; Paul is their interpreter but without becoming a teller or reteller of stories. More specifically, what Paul does not do is to incorporate his gospel into a linear story of creation and Israel as the end and goal of that story. If the ‘vertical’ construal of Paul’s gospel is correct, then the event of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection cannot be located on the same horizontal plane as the events of (for example) exodus, conquest, and exile- or even the creation and the fall. These events are susceptible to linear narration, whereas the event Paul announces is not. Paul’s appeal to scriptural narrative does not incorporate the gospel into that narrative; rather, it aims to show how the narratives in their different ways attest this or that aspect of the gospel.

The crucial takeaway from Watson’s analysis is this: if we situate two figures such as Adam and Jesus on the same horizontal plane, we coordinate the two as foci in an ellipse; that is, we make them interdependent. Thus Watson: “if Christ comes to repair the damage done by Adam, then it is Adam who determines the scope of Christ’s work” (235, emphasis mine). As true as it is that Christ overcomes Adam’s rebellion, Adam’s is not the determining initiative in the economy of salvation: God’s is. As much as there is a logical sequence from Adam to Christ, the typological pattern in Romans 5:12-21 means that “analogy predominates over logical sequence (n.b. the ‘as/so’ statements in 5:12, 18, 19, 21)- although the references to the time ‘from Adam to Moses’ (5:14) and to the coming of the law (5:20) indicate that chronology has not been forgotten” (236). The analogy between the two means their relationship  is radically asymmetrical and incommensurable. Christ’s action is disproportionate to Adam’s because there is no equivalence between them, only analogy. Their juxtaposition serves to demonstrate the outrageous superabundance of God’s grace.

In light of all this, then, Watson concludes that story remains an important element within Paul’s preaching and missionary vision but doesn’t become the determinative framework by which he interprets all things: that remains the gospel, understood as the punctiliar, vertical action that the story of the world and the story of Israel are oriented towards but never transparently so. Emmaus Road happened and had to happen because the hermeneutical key needed to finally unlock Israel’s Scriptures had arrived (Luke 24:13-32). And this is why the apostolic commission is not only to proclaim the salvation made available through Christ but also to expound Scripture precisely in order that its inscrutable endpoint should become visible:

Paul does not incorporate Christ into the scriptural narrative; instead, he seeks to interpret the divine gift and the scriptural narrative in the light of each other. He interprets the scriptural narrative in the light of Christ, but it is more important for him to interpret Christ in the light of the scriptural narrative: for it is his vocation as an apostle to interpret scripture not for its own sake but for the sake of its testimony to God’s act in Christ. Paul finds that scriptural testimony in narrative texts as well as prophetic ones, and in the narrative texts too that testimony is direct. Adam is a type of the Coming One; he is not simply the beginning of a long story that will eventually issue in the coming of Christ, for the Christ event is sui generis and does not exist on the same horizontal plane as the scriptural narrative(s) that nevertheless bear witness to it. The grace of the one man Jesus Christ is the gift of God, and the divine act of giving occurs within the vertical plane rather than the horizontal one.

Paul’s gospel, then, is not itself a ‘story’, since its vertical construal of God’s act as a movement of descent and ascent inhibits the linear, temporal extension that a ‘story of Jesus’ would require. Nor does this gospel become part of a story, its climax indeed, through insertion into a scriptural metanarrative. Paul characteristically appeals to individual scriptural stories rather than to the scriptural story as a whole, and he appeals to them with the sole aim of uncovering their testimony to a divine act that lies beyond the scope of human storytelling.

As much as the gospel is the defining moment of world history and discloses its true meaning, it can never be plotted as one more event in our unfolding (and pathetic) history: it is what it is without ever deriving its parentage in that history. The gospel is God’s capstone on our story but uproots conventional notions of plot development by ironizing the tragic. In so doing it integrates the disparate, fragmented stories our world is composed of (political narratives, identity narratives, advertising promises, etc.) in a way which establishes a brand new beginning to everything that follows and sets what came previously on the trajectory no one could have discerned from the ground level, within that history, without the cross. The cross is a mystery we can’t penetrate and master precisely because its incompatibility with our self-serving, lying stories doesn’t make it continuous with the good beginning Adam brought to ruin. We can’t conceive of a third way beyond this either/or impasse. Thankfully, God can, and did.



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