Roger Olson has just written a characteristically lucid summary of what narrative theology is. I’ll summarize his summary for those who can’t be bothered to go and read it for themselves: narrative theology deals with the whole Bible as a “dramatic account of God’s activity”; all other literary and theological forms—propositions, commands, prayers, parables, doctrines, etc.—are either subordinated to or subsumed within the story or drama of scripture; theology is only “our best human attempt to understand the biblical drama-story”; and the practical task of the church is faithfully to improvise the rest of the story.
What is missing from this is the one thing that to my mind gives us a solid reason to choose a narrative theology over more systematic or dogmatic methodologies—namely, the intimate relationship between a narratively constructed theology and history. Systematic theologies have very little interest in history—in fact, it is generally treated as an embarrassment. All that’s needed is a beginning, a middle, and an end: creation and fall, incarnation, and second coming. The entire history not only of Israel but also of the early church has been made superfluous to requirements. This was the heart of my critique of Dan Phillips’ The World-Tilting Gospel, for which I was, understandably, subjected to the wrath—or at least the disapproval—of the Pyromaniacs.
There is no reference to history in Roger’s summary. It comes up in the comments when someone admits to finding narrative theology appealing but is not sure “what is doing the work of grounding the truth of the story”. That’s exactly my point. Narrative theology developed as a reaction against the divisive and destructive impact of historical criticism, but it rather threw out the baby with the bathwater. It preserved the narrative integrity of the text at the expense of its relation to history. It’s significant that the example put forward by the commenter is the story of Noah’s ark. Narrative theology now raises a particular type of problem in our minds: did such things really happen or are they just stories?
In his response Roger makes reference to Hans Frei—the “father” of narrative theology. Frei thought it essential that at least some of the events in the theodrama are counted as historical—the resurrection being obviously of critical importance here. Other events, Roger says, may be “history-like without necessarily being historical”. But as a way of grounding the truth, it’s difficult to see how this is much of an improvement on the conventional creedal-dogmatic approach that at best makes passing reference to Pontius Pilate. It is a historically reductionist approach.
I think that a narrative theology has to take its relation to history much more seriously than this, which is why I use the phrase “narrative-historical theology”. But the question of historicity is not to be raised solely at the interface between story and event, which is always going to be empirically and philosophically problematic. Much more important, to my mind, is the interface between story and the community. Here the question addressed is not: Did such-and-such an event actually happen in the manner related in the narrative? Rather it is: What is the community saying about itself by telling the story in this way at this point in history? It is at this interface, I think, that the possibility arises of re-establishing the credibility and authority of scripture as a formative text for the church.