C.S. Lewis called Christianity the “true myth.” By use of the word “myth” he meant to highlight the story, the narrative, with protagonists and plot lines that is the gospel. The Christian faith is not first and foremost a set of doctrines to be believed, but a story in which to be engaged. Far too much theologizing today is detached from this one true story. Theology must be connected to the heart of the story of God for it to have lasting value for us today. Remythologizing theology is necessary for giving meaning to the various doctrines of the church.
Theology has long been subject to a process of demythologization. As far back as the late 1600 Baruch Spinoza had argued that the Scriptures (or at least parts of them) could not speak intelligently about the natural world and must, therefore, be regarded as myth. This myth, for Spinoza was not something to celebrate and treasure but to reject. He meant something altogether different from Lewis. Following Spinoza Immanuel Kant spoke of Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793), again emphasizing the discontinuity between the Scriptures and reality. It was Rudolf Bultmann, however, who most thoroughly developed the hermeneutic of demythologization.
In 1941 Bultmann wrote The New Testament and Mythology, arguing that to take the Bible seriously today we must abandon its “mythical world picture.” He stated:
We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. (p. 4)
The trend, following Bultmann, was to take the principles of the Scriptures devoid of the narrative. This became the popular hermeneutic among liberal theologians, but components of it popped up even among conservative scholars.
In many ways conservative theologians have let the modernists establish the rules of the game, so to speak. They have, perhaps unwittingly, adopted the modernist mindset while attempting still to develop a thoroughly conservative theology. So, Michael Bird writes:
It might seem clever to try and outplay Modernity at its own game. It is perhaps a necessity to take captive the usable elements of modernist philosophy and to press them into the service of Christian theology. Charles Hodges and others made a jolly good attempt at precisely this kind of theological project. He and others tried to walk the line between being in Modernity but not of Modernity. The problem is that they allowed Modernity to define the rules of the game. They enabled Modernity to set the agenda for theology, including its beginning, task, and method. They also ran the risk that the failings of Modernity with its claim to unbridled access to absolute truth could also become the failings of Christian theology. By showing that the Word of God aligned with “reason,” they were in the end subjecting the Word of God beneath reason. (Evangelical Theology, 37)
Theology, under the Modernist paradigm became detached from the narrative of the gospel, and was reduced to facts and principles. This was inevitably what Charles Hodges did. He argued:
Theology…is the exhibition of the facts of scripture in their proper order and relation, with the principles or general truths involved in the facts themselves, and which pervade and harmonize the whole. (Systematic Theology, 1.19)
Of course there are facts in Scripture, the Bible is truth, yet it is not constructed as an encyclopedia of knowledge. Nor is the theology as science analogy a very helpful way of thinking about the task. John Frame expounds on Hodges errors when he writes:
The purpose of Scripture is not merely to give us an authoritative list of things we must believe but also to exhort us, command us, inspire our imaginations, put songs in our hearts, question us, sanctify us, and so on. Surely the work of teaching in the church is not only to list what people must believe but also to communicate to them all the other content of Scripture. (The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 78-79).
When theology is divorced from the “myth” we end up with lists of facts, things that may be true, but which have little or no meaning for us. Theology needs to be remythologized.
It is the narrative of the gospel which gives the various doctrines of the church meaning. The truths of God’s character and acts, the role of the church, the practice of Baptism, and much more have meaning because they come to us as part of a larger narrative. I love philosophy, I love doctrine, I love the study of worldviews, but these things arise out of God’s story of redemption. Theology is not about abstracting from the texts doctrines, theology is about placing ourselves in the story. Yes, there are doctrines, there are propositions, but the heart of theology is about more than just knowing these truths. Theology is about submitting myself to God’s story. God’s Word has emphatic authority, the framework of the Scriptures sets the priorities and emphases of all of existence, but I cannot truly know and understand those apart from the story itself.
Kevin Vanhoozer refers to this approach to theology as theo-drama. Vanhoozer takes his hermeneutical cue from the realm of the theater, and refers to theology as an unfolding drama where we are interacting with God. He writes:
Life is divine-human interactive theater…and theology involves both what God has said and done for the world and what we must say and do in grateful response. (The Drama of Doctrine, 37-38)
This approach to theology is so significant because it reminds us that theology is not an academic discipline of drawing out truths. Theology is, to quote Frame, the application of the Word of God to the world. It is practice. To quote Vanhoozer, theology is about wisdom, “living along the text” (First Theology, 39). This approach connects us to the very story of God and gives those doctrines the lasting meaning that we need.
Remythologizing theology, relating to, living in the story of God restores meaning to the doctrines of the church. Apart from the story the doctrines are still true, but they don’t have specific value to our lives. Doing theology in relation to the unfolding drama of redemption does. If Christianity is “true myth,” as Lewis says, then we need both the truth and the myth to find meaning.