(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Some thoughts on some thoughts of Roger Olson on narrative theology

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.


My mind wanders back to a link I provided for a comment I made on James Dunn’s ‘Jesus Remembered’ - here as there “not entirely relevant, but not entirely irrelevant either”. I agree with you Andrew, except that I find myself reading a different story from the one you say is grounded in the history of Israel and the early church. I find not a story which provides a reduced “beginning, middle and end” subordinate to modern theological requirements, but a story subordinate to the overarching, shaping forces of the covenants (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus), through which God expresses His purposes for the renewal of a broken creation, and which leads to an unexpected climax. (In a sense, the climax which you have in view is not unexpected, but an unbroken continuation of OT history). Philip Greenslade has tried to illustrate this in ‘The Big Story’ - a selection of bible readings and comments for a year’s devotional readings. I don’t know of anyone else who has seriously tackled the idea on a narrative historical framework.

Not sure I follow what you’re saying here. What is the story that you think I am arguing for? What is the climax that I have in view? Why is mine expected and yours not? Are you saying that Jesus is not foreseen in the Old Testament?

This is well trodden ground - but I would summarise your story as foregrounding the immediate history of Israel almost exclusively in relation to Rome, with the central event being the destruction of Jerusalem and the contingent need being the survival of the people of God loyal to YHWH/Jesus. The wider horizon of the renewal of creation, with its ultimate horizon of new heaven/new earth is pushed into the vague and rather misty future - not part of the immediate circumstances of the story.

All the relevant events are taken to support this ‘smaller’ story: cross deals with Israel’s unfaithfulness, to those who avail themselves of it; more importantly, the cross points to the required response to the forthcoming upheavals. The resurrection is more symbolic of Israel’s renewal than literal, although a literal resurrection minus the 1st century martyrs will take place in the misty future.

Maybe climax isn’t the right word to describe the central events of your version of the story: the fact that you question the word suggests to me that you propose continuity more than discontinuity of events from the OT to NT and beyond. Climax might be implied by the judgement on Jerusalem which ended 2nd Temple Judaism, and Israel as a nation state, and led to a different state fo affairs in God’s dealing with his people and identification of them - though I’m not sure you have ever thoroughly explored this. (You suggest that Christendom is how the situation evolved, but that is only looking at events from the ‘outside’, rather than how the relationship between YHWH and his people might have been expected to look from a covenant perspective).

Climax would certainly be implied in the version of the story which I prefer, climax being a better word than conclusion, in the person and actions of Jesus. ‘Climax’ in that this was the way in which fulfilment of the OT narrative took place, and that this was the way in which the new creation realities were ushered in - first in Jesus himself, second in all who believed in him, and received the benefits of being his people - in Christ.

For you, Jesus is presented as being the means of continuation of the OT story, which faced severe threats in the 1st century. For me, it’s a continuation only in the sense that it pointed to everything for which the OT story required a fulfilment, Jesus was the ‘end’ of the story, in that he was the end which the story had in view, and the end in that God’s dealings with his people would now be on the basis of a very different ‘new covenant’, which was not a revitalisation of the old covenant.  

It’s in this sense that Jesus is foreseen in the OT, but much of what he brought was certainly not foreseen, history having been envisaged largely as the worldwide triumph of national Israel over pagan Gentile empires in its own land, with a temple in Jerusalem to which the Gentiles would now come. Hence there is continuity only in what was required for the story to be fulfilled, which was prophesied in a shadowy sense, but there was radical discontinuity in what was produced as the fulfilment of that narrative. This can be seen in expectations about Jesus as the promised prophet/king/’one to come’, the outpoured Spirit (on faithful followers of Jesus - Jews and Gentiles - but not on national ethnic Israel alone), the resurrection (in Jesus first, others at the end of time) and so on.

BTW the relevance of the link to your post occurred at the end of the comment, I think, if you managed to get that far.

That’s not a bad synopsis. A few observations…

I don’t regard the resurrection of Jesus as more symbolic than literal, though I accept that working the “martyrs” into the storyline complicates things. I would also suggest that the literal resurrection of Jesus has clear implications beyond the immediate eschatological martyrdom narrative. It gives us the solid premise and promise of new creation.

I see the New Testament story as climactic, but I would say it has to be followed through the story of Jesus to the judgment of the oikoumenē and the inheritance of the nations by Israel’s king. I see this as the culmination of an Old Testament narrative that begins with Babel and in Isaiah imagines the victory of YHWH over the gods of the nations. Philippians 2:9-11 makes the lordship of Christ the fulfilment of this hope, but in anticipation of the concrete historical outworking. In effect this led to Christendom, but as I think you are suggesting, this is a retrospective conclusion.

So yes, I think that there is much greater continuity between Old Testament and New Testament than is usually assumed. I think Paul envisaged the victory of his God over the pagan world. Where he differs from Judaism more generally is in his conviction that this will be achieved through the faithful, suffering witness of dispersed communities of Jews and Gentiles who believed that YHWH had made Jesus, crucified and raised from the dead, Israel’s Lord and Saviour.

This is something I’ve commented on a few times recently, for example on the post about Samuel and the medium. I think you need to ask both questions – what is the probability that the events happened and what does the story say about the community telling the story.

Where I think I would go further, though, is that I think the questions cannot be separated. The probability that many of the stories are not historical in a modern journalistic sense (let’s be serious, the earth didn’t ever stop rotating, there never was an ark that fit every living creaure in the world) is a critical element in the meaning of the story. It tells us something about the people who wrote the stories, their purpose and their limitations.

It is only after we understand those types of details that we can make an intelligent decision about what it means to us today.