October 20, 2020

William Stacy Johnson: The God, not of foundations but of new things


Theology Week
Part 3: The God, not of foundations but of new things

Previous posts:
Part 1: Some problems with “theology” itself
Part 2: Premises of a “bodily” theology

• • •

It is time that we recognized this foundationalist way of thinking for what it is. In its Christian guise, it represents not the strength of faith but the result of a faith that has lost its nerve. The Christian Scriptures set themselves up not so much as truth claims to be defended by philosophical foundations but as witnesses to the transforming power that no truth claim itself can contain. The gospel is not a “foundation” to render our traditional notions of rationality secure but a remaking of everything, including rationality itself.

• William Stacy Johnson

Today, we consider some thoughts from an essay I find complementary to what I’ve been reading in Luke Timothy Johnson’s  The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art. This is from “Reading the Scriptures Faithfully in a Postmodern Age,” a chapter written by William Stacy Johnson in the book The Art of Reading Scripture by Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays.

Johnson argues that, in reading the Bible and doing theology in the Church we must move beyond “foundationalism,” which Johnson describes as “the modern objectivist attempt to base all our ideas, institutions, and initiatives upon universal all-encompassing, self-evident, and self-legitimating foundations….”

For many Christians, particularly those who hold the doctrine of inerrancy and those who propagate popular presentations of evangelical theology, this is what Scripture is and what it is designed to do for us. As Luke Timothy Johnson put it, the Bible is viewed as a repository of propositional truths that provide an unshakeable foundation for a “Christian worldview,” which it is the Church’s duty to promote and defend. It is the source of “universal, absolute truth” that protects us from the perils of relativism.

If in doing theology we move past seeing the Scripture in these foundational terms, what then do we move toward?

The movement beyond foundations is important not just to our interpretation of the Scriptures but also to our understanding of that to which they bear witness. Neither the Scriptures nor the God to whom they bear witness — in their varying and sometimes conflicting ways — can be reduced to a manipulable “foundation.” Theology’s substantive task today is to gauge the demise of certain classical (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus) and modern (e.g., Descartes, Kant, Hegel) portraits of God that — despite their many differences — had a common tendency to reduce God to an accessible basis on which our world was thought to rest. Theology, in both its classical and modern forms, has had a difficult time freeing itself from pagan antiquity’s assumption that divinity is an abstract aseity, a fixed archē, or beginning, whose essence is to remain forever as it was in the beginning. Eberhard Jüngel has called this the metaphysical concept of God, or the God of theism. Martin Heidegger termed it the God of “onto-theology.” It is the “God” whom we reduce to some sort of “supreme being” — the perfectly timeless, impassible, self-satisfied, self-caused cause upon which the world is thought to rest. Beguiled by this assumption, Western Christian theology has become an inadvertent effort to protect this “God” from the vagaries of finitude and surprise — an effort to free God from any of the attributes or experiences we would ordinarily associate with the ability to have meaningful relationships with others. Throughout the career of Western theology, it seems that the God who says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing” has continued to recede from view. [emphasis mine]

If, on the contrary, we refuse to reduce to a mere foundation for belief the God who is for and with human beings in Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power, we must take the Bible, and the peculiarities of its form, more seriously. First, we must wrestle with what it means theologically that the truth about God is told in Scripture in the form of a story. It is not enough to point to the biblical narrative and say, in effect, “Look, here is our story; take it or leave it.” Rather, a theology that moves beyond foundations must engage a collection of Scriptures that renders a congeries of stories — stories that are not always saying quite the same thing. The testimony of this passage of Scripture is juxtaposed with the “countertestimony” of that passage of Scripture, and so on. Sometimes the stories are disrupting and strange, portraying God, the main character, in provocative and counterintuitive ways. In addition, the stories are accompanied by other materials that reflect upon them, problematize them, and use them in fascinating and creative ways, as we see, for example, in Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. If the Scriptures do not reduce God to a single perspective, then neither can theology. [emphasis mine]

…[W]e must [also] grapple with what it means theologically that the reality to which these stories bear witness belongs not just to the past but to something that is still unfolding today. The stories of Scripture bear witness to a larger story that is living and not yet finished. Hence, theological interpretation must push beyond viewing the Scriptures as projecting a self-enclosed, already accomplished totality of meaning. What is most important are not the past meanings the stories are thought to contain but the present meanings they continually provoke in the community of faith. [emphasis mine] At the heart and soul of reading the Scriptures faithfully is the constant rehearing of stories — and also of sayings, commandments, prophecies, and other materials — whose repetition helps kindle and inflame, right here, at this very moment, the “new thing” that the God who is for us in Jesus Christ is calling into being.


  1. Eckhart Trolle says

    In that case, since there are multiple “communities of faith,” and multiple meanings derived from the same story, does it make any sense to say that some readings are better than others? (Think of Mormonism.)

    • Mormonism takes its signal beliefs and practices not from the Bible but from other sources. It is not, at root, another reading of scripture, but is sourced in an entirely different narrative, to which biblical symbols are added.

      • Eckhart Trolle says

        Mormonism extends the biblical narrative to the Americas, and its own sacred history recapitulates various biblical events. But is this really so different from what other denominations have done? Catholicism has Our Lady of Guadaloupe (among zillions of other saints), and reads scripture in light of Tradition. The Quakers and Baptists do something similar.

        • Yes and no. Mormonism, as originally conceived by Joseph Smith, was at once a recapitulation of biblical themes (since they were familiar to both Smith and his target audience) and a repudiation of continuity with the overall story (the basic Mormon claim that the true Church disappeared soon after the Apostles died, and was only refounded by Smith himself). The others you mention, even the Baptists, claim some connection and continuity with church history.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            …a repudiation of continuity with the overall story (the basic Mormon claim that the true Church disappeared soon after the Apostles died, and was only refounded by Smith himself).

            And Smith wasn’t the only one to use that trope. I remember the exact same claim from Seventh Day Adventist literature. (And the Landmark Baptists manage to mix it with their own brand of Apostolic Succession – to themselves, of course – through a convoluted trace through various fringe groups.) It’s the Standard view of Church History used by every Head Apostle Reverend Joe Soap planting a New Testament Church: the Church went Apostate right after the Book of Acts ended, and all was Satanic Romish Popery until Our Founder got the TRUE Gospel from God Himself. Whether that Founder was elevated after-the-fact (can you say CALVIN?) or recently (Hyles, Mahaney, Wilson, David Koresh…)

          • One of my favorite cartoons, from Doubting Thomas:

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Mormonism extends the biblical narrative to the Americas

          This is a bit of a misstatement. Mormonism is divorced from the church; this is a claim made by itself, not me. It is a recasting of the biblical narrative not an extension. It rejects the continuum and connectivity that is the basis for all Christian sects [however much they may dislike each other].

          • Eckhart Trolle says

            The Mormons consider that they have “restored” the true church of ancient times, and that it is the other churches which have fallen away from it. “Restoration” theology also characterizes Churches of Christ / Disciples of Christ theology. Is this really less Christian than, for instance, the “Trail of Blood” approach of conservative Baptists? Who decides? That is, who counts as a (or “the”) “community” in whom meaning is provoked, and who gets to identify this meaning?

            (Although the historical truth or falsity of any of these claims is apparently irrelevant, I cannot resist noting that the Baptists see continuity where there is none, while the Mormons do the opposite.)

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Something else about the Mormons: The Book of Mormon fits into a common “sci-fi” trope of the 1830s — The Mystery of the Mound Builders.

            When white settlers started expanding/migrating west past the Appalachians, they encountered these great artificial earth mounds left by what’s now called the Missisippian Culture, with no trace of their origins. The trope was that they had been built by a Lost (White) Race — the Mound Builders; which led to a LOT of speculation and fantasy fiction on the subject. (This was also the start of the Victorian Era, where “speculative history” was respectable when there was no actual data or evidence.) They had to be built by a Lost (White) Race because those redskin savages couldn’t have had a civilization that could have built them. (Note: this was long before Eric Von Daniken and Ancient Astronauts.)

            A lot of speculation centered around who the Mound Builders could have been — Anglo-Saxons, Norse, Celts, the Lost Tribes of Israel, anyone except the local natives. And how did they disappear? One thread of thought was they must have become Decadent like the Romans and were ultimately wiped out by the Red Savages.

            And the overall narrative of the Book of Mormon fits right into this 1830s-vintage Mound Builders mythology.

          • HUG, I think there was a similar assumption about great ruins in Zimbabwe. When white explorers found them, they assumed that the Africans could not have built them.

          • Ted, about the ruins of the Great Zimbabwe: sadly, you are correct.

  2. Throughout the career of Western theology, it seems that the God who says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing” has continued to recede from view.

    There’s an irony there that in my observation, Eastern theology hasn’t changed one bit since the initial split, lol. Meanwhile, Reformation occurred in the West’s corner.

    But if we limit Western to just the United States more or less…

    The “new thing” scares me. Because it doesn’t seem to be new thing as in “fresh”, but as in “completely unrelated to what came before but borrowing concepts/labels”.

    If I squint, I can see Jesus as an extension of all that came before. Can we say the same for most things since?

    • Off Topic, but if anyone is into rock and roll, Americana, and Jesus, I’d highly recommend the book Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music. Excellent chapters all up and down the 20th and 21st century about those topics.

      Read it while listening to some Johnny Cash or Patty Cline or Green Day.

        • ( Isaiah 21:5-9:)

          “5: Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
          6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
          7: And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
          8: And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
          9: And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”

          • Outside in the cold distance
            a wild cat did growl
            Two riders were approaching
            and the wind began to howl

      • Burro [Mule] says
    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > But if we limit Western to just the United States more or less… The “new thing”
      > scares me. Because it doesn’t seem to be new thing as in “fresh”, but as in
      > “completely unrelated to what came before but borrowing concepts/labels”.

      Can you contextualize this for me? Or load it with an example.

      As I look at American Christianity – in ‘the big picture’ – I just do not see a new thing; overall it seems frail and nearly lifeless.

      There is the tempest that is Evangelicalism [the natural conclusion of Foundationalism? note their entanglement with constitutional Strict Constructionism and other forms of retro-libertarianism], but that is a sinking ship.

      Within Catholicism I think Pope Francis brings a fresh scent to a continuum of ideas. What will come, or not, from that remains to be seen.

      This Luke Timothy Johnson sounds like the first Theologian I have had any interest in reading in a long time [a category I used to read a lot of before just giving up]. It sounds like an approach that can [re]connect the text with a lived life.

      • David Cornwell says

        I agree about Pope Francis, but I think there are several refreshing theological voices along with Luke Timothy Johnson.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          Perhaps there are others. But it is telling of how much Theology has exited the popular imagination and culture. Without popeness ot some other property none of them will likely get far out if the nich, or likely even spread much within it.

          • Adam o/t, but thanks for recommending American Nations. I’m only a short way into it, but so far, so good. And i actually think the author is better at ackno2ledging the contributions of many immigrant groups than David Hackett Fisher (one of his primary dources, via the book Albion’s Seed) was, in my region, at least.

  3. If the most important thing is present meanings not past meanings why do we care when a book of the bible was written ? Or to whom or in what cultural context ?

  4. Burro [Mule] says

    I dunno. I dunno.

    Johnson’s narrativism sounds like more process theology to me. When you have God as an ongoing project, it becomes easy, if not mandatory, to mistake the Holy Ghost for the Spirit of the Age, and that never ends well. There are times when I feel that this is a feature, not a bug, in the writings of a lot of “progressive” Christians.

    I have absolutely no problem with the “supreme being” — the perfectly timeless, impassible, self-satisfied, self-caused cause upon which the world is thought to rest — as long as the face He presents to me is that of the crucified and resurrected Son of Mary.

    • I might agree that its a feature not a bug 🙂

      I mean, to conflate a zeitgeist with the Holy Ghost would be wrong, but to say that they’re never the same has to be an error as well, right?

      • Burro [Mule] says

        I’m gonna go way out on a limb here.

        They are never the same. Ever.

        The Orthodox Church (and I believe the Catholic) teaches that the Kingdom of God came in power when Jesus arose from the dead. The testimony of the [Orthodox] saints is the same in all centuries – this present moment, here, now, is when you can experience Paradise in union with Christ.

        There isn’t any dialectic or struggle or “progress” that is going to bring it about. The Kingdom of God is perpendicular to all earthly situations; royalty, slavery, riches, poverty, maleness, femaleness.

        Apart from that, I am a cynical believer in the law of the Conservation of Evil, so, yeah. I guess I’m a foundationalist

        • I think there may also be some confusion between my uniquely charismatic / evangelical understanding of “The Holy Spirit” with your Orthodox understanding. The movements of our Spirit are a bit more… banal?

          When I think of the Holy Ghost, I think in terms of inspiration for actions. People do the work of Christ because we were given the Spirit to guide us in His absence. Mix in that bit of Calvinism (total depravity) and some baptist drama, and now all good things are attributed to the Spirit, and all bad things to men / demons / Satan.

          Which simplifies the “is this attributable ‘Of the Spirit'” argument to “Is this action ‘Right’ or not?”. I can see, though, that if I had a higher view (theologically) of the Holy Ghost I might agree with you.

          Not about the lack of progress though. I naively believe in spite of any evidence to the contrary that the world is definitely better today than yesterday, and it will continue that way till there are no tomorrows.

    • And it does to me, as well, Mule. I’m particularly sensitive to process theology, which to me is an extension of the “Emerging” movement, where some really intellectual theologians answered questions with questions. With process theology, there are answers, but the answers are relative to the individual. Foundational perspective is lost, at best; ignored in favor of opinion and cultural trends, at worst.

      Oh, for a Patriarch (or Pope, or Archbishop) to unite us bunch of bickering harlots into a beautiful bride!

      • Open theism and process theology are not the same. I think what we’re dealing with in this post is open theism.

        In my opinion the Patriarch/Pope/Archbishop thing has already been tried, and found wanting.

    • Mule,

      But what does it really involve for that face not to be merely a mask? I think that’s the core issue of this discussion: is God really immersed in the life of his world, looking to an undetermined future with us, or is he just pretending to be with us, when his real life, his interests and real being, are safe and undisturbed in another transcendent and untouchable dimension?

      • Burro [Mule] says

        I think you have that inverted.

        There is no other dimension. Its all of it here, now, His real life, His interests, and His real being are right here, not waiting until the Eschaton or death. It is that postponement of the Kingdom of God until some ideal state of affairs obtains that, to me, is the most important difference between Eastern and Western Christianity.

        Look, I know the vast majority of people who have ever lived on this ball of dirt and water have never had anything remotely resembling life of dignity and value. I believe Christ feels every lash of the whip, every blow of the cudgel, every cold bite of the chains – not just “mystically”, but as we do, mediated by our nervous system to our pain receptors, but I don’t think it reduces His joy and peace one iota. Francis knew this when he went out into the fields to share the toil of the Tuscan field hands. Ignatius knew this when they set the lions on him. Father Arseny discovered this in the gulag.

        I am so coddled. All of my sufferings are self-induced. May God have mercy on me, and through the prayers of His poor, save me.

        • I understand your point. If God’s joy and peace can be diminished, it can also be lost; if the divine joy and peace is lost, then all is irretrievably lost.

          When you say that it’s all here, you lose me. Where is it? Are you talking about a spiritual state of being? What of the body? What of the social body of humanity? If Christ’s joy and peace are here now, they are here in a veiled form, hidden; do we not hope for the eventual coming of that joy and peace to every body and everything, for the shalom when predation and violence no longer riddle everything good?

          As far as I know, Orthodoxy looks forward with Western Christianity to the general resurrection as the fulfilled expression of just this hope. Dostoevsky closes his emphatically Orthodox Brothers Karamozov with the precisely this hope:

          “Karamozov,” cried Kolya,”is it really true that, as our religion tells us, we shall all rise from the dead and come to life and see one another again, all, and Illyusha?”

          “Certainly we shall rise again, certainly we shall see one another, and shall tell one another gladly and joyfully what has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half rapturously.

          We shall also means Not yet. Dostoevsky’s Eastern Orthodox characters, Alyosha and the little boys, are looking to their hope in the future when the We shall will be realized and the Not yet will be no more. That the future is the horizon of that hope, as much for them as for those formed by Western Christianity, is something evident not just at the conclusion of TBK, but throughout the novel.

          In the meantime, Christ is with us as we travel our path into his future; today, he was tear-gassed at the Hungarian border with fellow sojourners as they made their way together along the way of tears.

  5. MIke, re: Isaiah 43:19. Could not the Lord’s reply here be read as sarcasm? In that context, “Forget the former things, don’t dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
    I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland (NIV)” would mean “Geez, Israel, you’re always unfaithful and I am always forgiving you and fixing your screw-ups. I’m always making streams in the desert for you, how come you are always forgetting about it? Nevertheless, I’m going to do this “new thing” again and save your butts from your enemies because I love you and am full of mercy.” Having been in charismatic circles, I’m used to seeing this passage quoted to justify all kinds of extreme nonsense.

  6. “If, on the contrary, we refuse to reduce to a mere foundation for belief the God who is for and with human beings in Jesus Christ by the Spirit’s power, we must take the Bible, and the peculiarities of its form, more seriously.”

    Yet it looks like Johnson is laying out some “foundations” (God, in Jesus Christ, power of the Spirit, etc…). Are we not founded on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Do we not read the Scriptures through that?
    And isn’t “making all things new” based on that foundation of who Jesus was and what He did?

    So it looks like the issue is how one defines “foundations”, and whether this is more about application rather than a new theology.

    • The distinction is between seeing the Bible as a repository for propositional, universal truths (foundationalism) or as a narrative that truthfully witnesses to God’s words and actions in history and human experience.

      • Daniel Jepsen says

        And it is a good and useful distinction, imo.

        However, I don’t see how it has been proven that the two things are mutually exclusive.

        Indeed, without some of the first, is there a valid way to test whether a new idea/movement is really from the Holy Spirit or the spirit of the age?

        • In Johnson’s book, he makes the point that scripture is given as the Church’s source of the “symbolic framework” by which we interpret God’s work in the world.

          So I think he covers that concern. But this is still something different than viewing the Bible as a “foundation” in the way this post discusses.

  7. David Cornwell says

    Take note: the author in consideration today is William Stacy Johnson, not Luke Timothy Johnson. I’ve noticed some confusion. William Stacy Johnson is a prof at Princeton Theological Seminary. Luke Timothy teaches at Candler School of Theology,` Emory University.

  8. I have to confess this kind of writing makes my head hurt. But I speak not out of ignorance but as one who has spent half his life reading theology, and not just Christian theology but Islamic, Hindu and Buddhist as well.

    Eventually serious readers of the books in the Bible notice how little theology there actually is in it. Many questions over which we fret simply never seemed to have occurred to the various writers. I think if you asked the Apostle Paul for “proof” that God exists he would have thought you insane. The Psalms are cries from the heart. Jesus (and of course the earlier prophets) want us to change our behavior. You get a little in Paul’s letters but that’s only because he is concerned with the relationship between the followers of Christ and Jewishness. And that’s mostly a matter of practice.

    Frankly at this point in my life if I want to study the Bible I will go to the textual critics and literary critics and the historians and archeologists rather than to the theologians. By attempting to loose their moorings from history and text they make me less interested in what they have to say not more. But that’s just me.

    • Theology makes my head hurt too, but I speak out of ignorance. It turns God/Jesus into an intellectual mountain to climb. I often wonder why God didn’t make things a bit clearer when I read theological discussions. Then I think (I know this is terribly simple) maybe loving our neighbor and loving Jesus is all the theology we need to know. Otherwise, everything else is a confusing mess.

      • “Then I think (I know this is terribly simple) maybe loving our neighbor and loving Jesus is all the theology we need to know.”

        I would agree, this is all we need to know and I’m pretty sure it says that in the Bible somewhere 🙂 . For so long, I’ve been taught that the proper way to do this is to “see what God’s word has to say” about how to love someone, as if in any given situation we can consult the “magic book” to determine what is right and good to do; in an effort to remain faithful, we have made the same mistake the Pharisees did when “for the sake of tradition they voided the word of God”. I happened to read this from Eugene Peterson (his reflection on Psalm 132) this morning:

        “Christians who master Psalm 132 will be protected from one danger, at least, that is ever a threat to obedience: the danger that we should reduce Christian existence to ritually obeying a few commandments that are congenial to our temperament and convenient to our standard of living. It gives us, instead, a vision into the future so that we can see what is right before us.”

        By God’s grace, I am a new creation–a creature with a heart of flesh not a heart of stone (I know, I know…””the heart is deceitfully wicked’ and that’s why we have to stand on the word,”) and, I fervently hope, I am being conformed into the image of Christ. That means I am learning to love people as He does, with His heart, His mind. If I sufficiently know Him then I should know how to love His people without having to consult the “rule book” constantly.

        • Yes. We are compared to children and sheep. Life is more about learning to love, trust and obey than learning knowledge and understanding… all under the umbrella of the forgiveness and love of our shepherd Jesus.

    • Frankly at this point in my life if I want to study the Bible I will go to the textual critics and literary critics and the historians and archeologists rather than to the theologians. By attempting to loose their moorings from history and text they make me less interested in what they have to say not more. But that’s just me.

      Amen, and ditto. Plus it’s all new and exciting to me, and so far, makes the most sense. Even if “the simple answer is rarely the correct one”.

      Plus, with the Internet…we literally do know more than anyone who has come before us. All knowledge is available at will. Which theologian or notable figure in our past could make that claim? CS Lewis was half right with his chronological snobbery comment.

    • Stephen,
      Luke Timothy Johnson is a New Testament scholar and church historian, not a professional theologian; I think he would be a natural go-to guy, given your aversion to theologians.

  9. I’ve really appreciated the whole series of posts on theology and especially today’s. Today’s in particular demonstrates how tied western Christianity is to the western/enlightenment worldview. Two other authors who challenge that and who have really helped me are NT Wright and, in a very different way, the writings of Sadhu Sundar Singh.

    The western mindset (particularly the more fundamentalists segments of evangelicalism) tends to panic when we get away from the propositional approach. As a result, the power of Scripture as story has been very much neglected. There’s little realization that story, far from abandoning truth, often presents powerful and lasting truths, but they aren’t propositional and they won’t be tamed by our preconceived framework. That can be frightening but also compelling (in an Aslan sort of way).

    Can’t help myself. As someone with a family member very much entrenched in one particular segment of fundamentalism, I’ve realized even more as I read this week’s posts how very much that approach misses and dismisses and how much poorer it is for it. Makes me sad. Not that I have found the perfect way forward by any means, but I have come to appreciate the great worth of wonder and awe and humility and an openness to God working in new ways.