Being discerning, to think and live critically in light of our deepest faith commitments—a theme that is at the heart of my sense of calling—allows Christians to apply the revelation of Scripture to life even when we need to respond to something that the Bible does not specifically address.
Our lives are a story, and we often speak in such terms, when new friends tell us the story of their lives. We live in a greater story, a story in history in which we play only a small part but that affects our stories, the details, twists and turns, and outcomes. Finding meaning and a sense of direction in life requires that we locate our individual story in some larger story that will give it significance. This is why religious traditions always involve narratives, or myths that give a wider perspective on things. For the Christian the Scriptures provide us with a story—really, The Story—in four sections: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration.
Wheaton theologian Kevin Vanhoozer takes the story metaphor one step further. Instead of imagining faithfulness as being in a story, imagine it as being in a play, a drama telling that story enacted on a stage before the watching world. Think of the canon of the Scriptures as a script, he says, in which we have a part to play. In this vision of things, the Christian story, our beliefs and central doctrines becomes the contours of a worldview that shapes our minds, hearts and imaginations so that we don’t just follow the script, but actually inhabit it.
Vanhoozer’s metaphor won’t make sense if the play we imagine is of the junior high variety in which bored players mechanically go through their paces or some amateur production in which the actors are enthusiastic but still are limited to reproducing the script to the best of their ability. Instead imagine a production in which actors are so immersed in the script that they seem to become their character in a way that only those whose true vocation is the theater can achieve. This sort of actor becomes the character they are playing and the plot becomes their story.
This provides a basis on which the players can go beyond the script without departing from it. The unfolding biblical Story, Vanhoozer argues, “is a guide for the church’s scripted yet spirited gospel performances… The Holy Spirit is both author of the script and the one who guides the church’s contemporary performance—its improvisatory variations—on the script.” When a line is dropped or some unexpected twist suddenly occurs during a play accomplished actors improvise not by making something up, but by remaining in character so profoundly that what unfolds on stage would be in the script had the writer addressed such an event. Christian faithfulness does not entail straining to locate proof texts that apply to our situation, or generating legalisms to generate conformity. Instead, faithfulness means being so steeped in God’s word that our reactions and responses are shaped by its truth. “This is what the canon, the church’s Scripture and the Christian’s script, ultimately provides: the ability to make judgments about the true, the good, and the beautiful that are fit ‘in Christ’.”
Improvisation in this view does not imply moving beyond the Scriptures but rather a display of holy spirited wisdom in fleshing out God’s revelation even when our circumstances do not match any specific biblical text. Rather than moving beyond, the description of moving more deeply into would seem more appropriate. This is what Daniel and other exiles were required to do when they found themselves in Babylon. The Mosaic law was specific about worshipping any god other than God (compare Daniel 3 and Exodus 20:1-4), but offered no particular guidance on how (to choose one example) to respond to being given pagan names (Daniel 1:7). In one case they objected, even though it put their lives at risk, in the other no objection is noted in the historic record, and in both they are divinely noted illustrations of faithfulness. “It is a matter,” Vanhoozer says, “of living well with others in the world to God’s glory.” The exiles properly refused to bow before false gods but also properly did not object when Babylonians acted as Babylonians do, in ways consistent with their own pagan culture, beliefs, and values.
Like the exiles in Babylon we find ourselves in uncharted territory as the culture in which we are ordained to live becomes more pluralistic, post-Christian, and globalized. Uncharted in terms of proof-texts, that is, but not unscripted—and just as the exiles in Babylon could know they had not been abandoned by God, so we can live in the assurance that the love of God as expressed in grace is unchanged, and will remain so, world without end.
Note: A longer version of this piece appears in Critique #3-2010 published by Ransom Fellowship.
Sources: John R. W. Stott, Involvement Volume I: Being a Responsible Christian in a Non-Christian Society, (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1985), 61; Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), xii, 102, 109, 308, 366.