The stories we tell about the past are inevitably distorted, to some degree or another.
Nevertheless, storytelling and ordered remembering are essential cognitive tools, absolutely required for operating in the world. Comprehending the origins and development of things usually helps us to anticipate and prepare for inevitable challenges, not because history repeats (for by and large it does not), but simply because the expertise required for skillful living includes an understanding of how to deal with frequently variable conditions. In sum, it is precisely because of reality’s unceasing cacophony that we must make all efforts to truncate, to compress, to organize, to curate, to narrate, and to process factual and true information.
This miniature treatise sums up all that I’ve learned in my research, except to add that we ought to have regular clinics about how to do all these things more effectively.
To select an example that illustrates the above, let's go back to where I began.
In understanding Pauline eccclesiology, my original impetus was to argue that Christian teaching was too fixated on absolute principles, too willfully ignorant of practical circumstance and actual human experience, and my chosen strategy at that time was to demonstrate that Paul’s approach to ministry and church government (such as it was) was more complicated than our religious principles could allow. Paul's ecclesiology was conditional in each situation. Paul's ideas about elders evolved as he learned more from working with each different church. Paul's efforts to train extra-local itinerant workers also developed over time. He was experimenting and advising up to the level of his growing wisdom with each new set of journeys.
To understand such complexity, however, we begin with a simplified timeline. Paul and Barnabas went to four cities in Galatia BEFORE the circumcision party wreaked havoc on those churches AND THEN Paul found out that brand new baby Christians make terrible elders. AND SO ON. Paul then leaves Titus in Troas and Luke in Philipi and Timothy in Thessalonica and Silas in Berea and Paul himself stays in Corinth AT WHICH POINT he realizes that God's work needs more workers. SO THEN he makes plans for a training in Ephesus and INVITES qualified candidates from various churches to join him in moving to Ephesus so he can teach them, daily, in a rented lecture hall. AND THEN AFTER SOME YEARS OF TRAINING Paul takes them back around the Aegean and appoints elders in all of those churches where he previously left his associates as church planters. AND SO ON. AND SO ON.
The simplified timeline distorts reality in one way, but to avoid thinking about Paul's work in four dimensions distorts history in a way that is far worse. To suppose that "biblical principles" can be extracted and codified as universally applicable would require us to establish an unchanging religious system that forces people to fit into its rigid mold, rather than building a more adaptive method of responding to spiritual need with practical wisdom gained from a variety of hard won experiences.
As I said further up, "the expertise required for skillful living includes an understanding of how to deal with frequently variable conditions." If we wish to live skillfully, we must collect and tell Christian stories that account for differing circumstances, differing personnel, differing social conditions, and differing cultural conflicts. We must collect and tell Christian stories that allow God to remain sovereign rather than placing God in a box of our own principled certainties. If we believe in the biblical stories, then we must observe above all that God's movement is not always predictable.
It is the vanity and fatigue of old authoritarians that insists on crafting an invariable system but a living experience must adapt and allow for adaptation. The choice between these two impulses depends on whether you wish to foster interaction between humans and God, or whether you only wish to get it right on paper.
The way we tell our Christian stories, including our grasp of the New Testament itself, must recognize these undeniable truths.
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