God's Grand Story
by James Wakefield, PhD

Telling God's Grand Story


Shepherd
You are invited. Please join me in a conversation. We didn’t start it. It has been going on for many thousands of years. It circles around some big ideas, posed here as questions: Is there any good news? What is it? How do we gospel people faithfully? Let’s focus this: How do we tell God’s Grand Story to our families, friends, neighbors, and even to those who care nothing for us at all or for God?
 
One goal of this website is to further this conversation. Let’s be respectful. But let’s also keep it real. A second goal is to ask for help. I’m moving forward in keeping my promise to write a book about telling God’s Grand Story. How can you help? I don’t want to do something this awesome alone. I need company, friends and critics who can speak the truth in love. Help me make this useful. Keep me from too many errors and idiosyncrasies. Join me in sharing good news with our world.





Returning to Story (Part 5)

Have you ever had whiplash? Isn’t it a kind of violence done to the spine from too sudden a start, stop, or change of direction? Nothing feels quite right and the headaches last forever. The early church experienced a sort of whiplash about the year 410.

The official persecution of Christians stopped with the Edict of Milan in 313. It seemed the doors were finally open to evangelize the world. With help from Constantine’s troops, the bishops met and agreed on the Nicene Creed in 325. In a fairytale, we would see Christianity expand and flourish in a Christian Empire. It didn’t happen. The Roman Empire began to collapse. The great city of Rome was sacked in 410 by the Visigoths. By 430, even the Roman cities in North Africa had been burned and looted by the Vandals. The classical age of Western civilization was all but dead. What used to be called the “dark ages” had begun. The context for God’s Grand Story changed. And the story being told also changed.

Augustine (Saint Augustine to many of us!) witnessed the end of that age. In the process of his life and work, he changed the story. Those are fearsome words. Don’t hate me for writing them. I certainly don’t hate him. Allow me to explain?

Peter Brown’s masterpiece — Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967, 2000) — begins with a description of the affluence of North African cities at the time of Augustine’s birth in 354. His family was wealthy enough. He received a fine education and became professor of rhetoric in the imperial court in Milan. He was a big success. Like many men in his time, he kept a mistress for many years and enjoyed her company. He sent her away (after 15 years!) to prepare for an advantageous marriage. His conversion to Christianity in 387 and ordination as a priest in 391 led him to abandon his engagement. Returning to Africa, he became bishop in Hippo in 396. He died in 430, just before the Vandals burned Hippo.

Prior to the year 391, Augustine believed humans had free choice. He taught that God foresaw our human desire to believe, and granted grace to enable that belief. Predestination to salvation was based on this foreknowledge.

He begins telling a different story in 395. As a pastor he began to see that humans are far more broken than he had imagined. They are indeed trapped by habits and sins they cannot just choose to lay aside. Searching the Apostle Paul’s letters, he comes to understand that humans cannot delight in God unless God gives them this delight. This is where it becomes difficult: God doesn’t give this delight to all humans. We are not told immediately why not. Eventually we learn that Augustine believed the limited number of souls who will be saved equals the number of angels who fell in the Satanic rebellion (Enchiridion 29). In some of his last books, he tells us God predestines only a few to salvation, and chooses the great masses for damnation. God gives the gift of perseverance to those He predestines to salvation. When thinking about passages like I Timothy 2:4, Augustine tells us that God wants some from all nations to be saved, but not all in all nations (On Rebuke and Grace 44).

But isn’t this a different story?

Many reasons might be offered to explain Augustine’s narrowed view of God’s intentions. One that must be considered is a reflection of the new economic reality. As the classical world was destroyed by invading hordes, Roman prosperity bled away. Those who survived found themselves in a sparse economy. Is it too much to think that this new economy changed the context in which God’s Grand Story could be told and heard?

And this brings us to some critical questions: Which economy are you living in? Is God’s grace super-abundant, or restricted to just a few? Which economy do you want to live in? As you tell God’s Grand Story, how is it heard? Do your hearers believe that God will save only a few? How's your whiplash?
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