p.ost

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

The narrative-historical method—an outline

This was prompted by a conversation with a London School of Theology student about his dissertation proposal for the distance learning MA in Aspects and Implications of Biblical Interpretation. It’s just another attempt to clarify what I have been calling the narrative-historical method, though from my own peculiar, idiosyncratic, obsessive point of view—others will see things differently. Coincidentally, Mike Mercer posted a piece on Internet Monk today entitled “The Big Picture of Andrew Perriman’s Narrative-Historical Scheme”. It focuses mainly on the content of the narrative. What follows here is an outline of the hermeneutical method underpinning the reading.

1. The narrative-historical method endeavours to determine how the texts of the New Testament, as theological documents, made sense in their original historical context and how to work with the constraints of that perspective. The approach is driven not by historical interest only but by the conviction that the New Testament speaks more cogently and more powerfully to the church today on this basis.

2. The emphasis on narrative draws attention to the fact that historical context is not merely the immediate present circumstances: there are past and future dimensions to it. The teaching and actions of Jesus and the apostles are shaped by a sense of narrative—of what has brought matters to this point and of what lies ahead.

3. The past bears on the present as historical memory. In the New Testament this memory is embedded primarily in the Jewish scriptures, but also in the occasional recollection of historical events (e.g., Lk. 13:1-5) and perhaps in tacit historical or apocalyptic traditions. A major part of narrative-historical reading, therefore, is the recovery of the Old Testament narratives and arguments that have shaped the New Testament narratives and arguments.

4. The narrative-historical method assumes that there is no fundamental hermeneutical shift between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Jesus and the apostles share the same prophetic consciousness as the prophets of the Old Testament. They speak about what God is doing in history through and for the sake of his people.

5. The narrative-historical method falls between historical-criticism and theological interpretation, but relates to them in different ways. It mostly resists theological interpretation as potentially, but not inevitably, anachronistic and weighted in favour of one tradition or other. It makes use of historical-critical tools for the purpose of recovering the historical meaning of the texts, but it resists the inherent scepticism of the method. In other words, the method reads forwards rather than backwards.

6. The narrative-historical method does not have an inherent bias against miracles, penal substitutionary atonement, a high christology, or trinitarianism. It simply asks how such elevated concepts were formed and how they functioned under the dominant narrative-historical frame of the New Testament.

7. The narrative-historical method addresses the meaning of the texts not their authenticity or veracity. It is concerned much more with the relationship between the texts and the historical communities which produced and read them than with the relationship between the texts and the historical reality to which they refer. The method is broadly canon-friendly.

8. That said, the narrative-historical method assumes a historical frame of reference, from the perspective of the New Testament communities, for the theological content of the New Testament. Rather than suppose that the characteristic language and argumentation has reference to universal abstractions, we ask first to what concrete events, circumstances and experiences such words as gospel, kingdom, judgment, salvation, justification, faith, destruction, resurrection, age to come refer.

9. The narrative-historical method also assumes limited historical horizons. It allows for the possibility that Jesus looked no further ahead than the war against Rome, or that Paul was chiefly preoccupied with an eventual victory of Christ over the gods of the ancient pagan world. The method highlights a realistic “political” layer of narrative between the personal story of redemption and the cosmic story of God and creation. The narrative-historical method is not Preterist. It is historical-realist.

10. If we are to be consistent hermeneutically, I suggest that what principally connects the New Testament with the church today is the continuing historical narrative of God’s people. I think it is misleading to accommodate the historical distance by differentiating between what the text meant and what the text means. It means what it meant. Within the narrative frame there are certainly direct lessons to be learnt, and I do not discount analogical reading, but the New Testament is formative for the church today primarily because it explains what happened at a critical moment in the history of the people of God.

Comments

Andrew, thanks for the link to Internet Monk. I have added a link to this article in an update to my post. I also added the following (simplified) summary of the interpretation that results from your hermeneutic. Please let me know if I’ve summarized it accurately:

1. The “Gospel” is not a universal theological message of personal salvation, but must be understood as a message intimately connected to the historical circumstances in which it was given.

2. Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom was a message of judgment and salvation for Israel in the light of the pending crisis of 70AD.

3. The apostles’ gospel was a message to the nations that God had made Jesus King and would, through him, bring judgment and salvation to the Greek-Roman pagan world, which reached its climax in the establishment of Christendom.

4. There is an ultimate day of judgment and salvation coming which will inaugurate the new creation.

5. The church is now witnessing the collapse of Christendom, which is prompting the church to reevaluate how to be a faithful eschatological community of mission in a post-Christendom world.

Mike, that’s not at all a bad way of summarizing the argument. I might quibble over the word “salvation” in the fourth point. We don’t have much to go on, but I’m not not sure anything is “saved” when we get to Revelation 21-22. There is a final judgment and a remaking or renewal of heaven and earth, but I think salvation belongs to the ongoing narrative of history rather than the end of history, so to speak.

The basic claim is that the Bible all the way through tells the story of the troubled existence of the people of God as it struggles to stay true to its vocation under changing and often very difficult historical circumstances. This is easy enough to see in the Old Testament—Egypt, exodus, kingdom, exile, return from exile—but I think we need to read the New Testament in a similar way. The difference is that when we get to the New Testament much of the historical narrative lies in the future—in particular, the destruction of Jerusalem, the colonization of the empire in the name of Jesus, and the eventual annexation of the empire in the name of Jesus for the God of Israel.

It is this whole narrative that primarily determines the significance of the theological content of the New Testament. So the good news, as you highlight, is a public announcement about things that will happen in this narrative. The death and resurrection of Jesus no doubt have cosmic significance—the resurrection, for example, is new creation—but the New Testament is mostly interested in their significance for the political narrative, the story of YHWH and his people in relation to the nations.

Your point 5 highlights the fact that the story of the troubled existence of the people of God continues beyond the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, and I think that we would do well to take the whole narrative into account when we ask questions about the purpose and future of the church, particularly in the West.

Andrew,

One issue I’ve wondered about with regard to this approach (which I like), is, what place does it give the canon of Scripture as unique? Post-biblical theology (systematic and dogmatic theology) has generally worked under the assumption that the canon is closed. Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit and given to the church as complete with the closing of the apostolic age.

But if we take the line that Christendom is to be given the same historical seriousness as OT Israel (which I agree that it is), how are we to understand the closing of the canon? Should we expect more “Scripture” at some point on the level with the 66 books we currently recognize?

I’m not sure how how much sense this question makes. I guess what I’m asking for is a perspective from you on the nature and function and uniqueness of Scripture within the ongoing history of the church? Should we ever expect more inspired texts? How would we know and recognize them? Under what circumstances might we expect them to the come?

Daniel, it’s a very good question. I mentioned that the approach is “canon-friendly”, but I can’t say I have given a lot of thought to what that means in theoretical terms.

It is part of the story of the church that it has afforded this particular set of texts special status. That gives a solid historical basis for the fact, but it also potentially relativizes the canon, as you note.

The New Testament documents in principle are the work of people who “witnessed” the resurrection or had to deal with its immediate aftermath, so they are testimony to what is still for us the most important moment in the history of the people of God. However “inspired” or valuable subsequent writings might be, they will not qualify for inclusion in this particular set of documents.

But it is, to my mind, not the texts but the event that is decisive, and the fact that we think it right to continue to live and act on the basis of that proclamation.

I find it helpful to bracket out John’s Gospel. It seems to me to stand somewhat outside the main historically grounded, apocalyptically conceived narrative that runs from the Synoptics, through Acts, Paul, even Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, to Revelation. It tells the story of Jesus in a rather different way—though it’s possible to overstate the difference. I rather think of it as a bridge text between the New Testament and the logos theologies and trinitarian arguments of the later church and important for that reason.

I think we would do well to worry less about the authority of scripture and give more thought to their place as historical texts amongst other historical texts. How do they tell their story? How do they relate to other texts and non-texts from which we construct our understanding of the history of the period?

So some random thoughts…. Worth taking further at some point.

Andrew, I was struck by a simple thought today when considering what this method means for our reading of the NT today. Generally, Christians are taught to read the OT differently than the NT. Simply put, the OT was not written to us, nevertheless we can glean wisdom from God for our lives by reading it. However, we are taught that the NT was written ​​to us, i.e. the church, and therefore we read it as a direct source of divine communication. It is our mail.

Perhaps we need to see that the NT was not actually written to us, that is, as a document directly addressing the church in all ages, and learn to read it with the same indirect hermeneutic that we use when reading the OT.

Does that work?

Hi Andrew, I’m enjoying and wrestling with the content of your blog posts in equal measure - and definitely enjoying the accessible writing style.

Lots of questions.

But here’s one on this current post: Why do you assume limited historical horizons for Jesus and Paul? Is it possible not to do that within your N-H method? What would happen if it was less limited (towards the future, and possibly the past)?

Thanks, Andrew.

Paul

Thanks, Paul.

Recognizing the limitations of historical horizons is really at the heart of the approach that I am recommending. It’s the essence of the thing. Remove those limitations and we are more or less back where we started from with a generalized and generic theology of one form or another. We would be back with “gospel” as a universal, quasi-gnostic message about personal salvation rather than a public, political announcement first to Israel, then to the nations about what YHWH was about to do in history.

Hi Andrew, thank so much for your reply - that’s sort of what I wondered.

I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t a bigger historical thread and narrative sweep running through the Scriptures, as well as coming through the proclamations of prophets, Messiah, apostles and should be coming through the church today.

I agree with you that there is something bigger and fuller going on than individual salvation and individualistic Christianity. And I do agree with you that the gospel was and is a radical call away from the world and to Christ as God’s king. The confession of Jesus is Lord could have - and no doubt did for some - cost followers their lives in the NT era, but even in death they overcame by holding fast their testimony. I think your reading is powerful and potentially transforming in that sense.

But I wonder if it is God’s story - not merely Israel story - that should be at the heart of the interpretative framework.

In the kind of language of Devern Fromke, Barney Coombs and Frank Viola - God has an eternal purpose, for himself - and that the apostles and the New Testament scriptures start to reveal it.

To focus in on something specific, I have a feeling that the kingdom narrative starts much earlier than the story of Israel. After all Adam and Eve were given the commission to rule the earth (under God’s rule).

So, I would see a kingdom narrative running from Genesis 1 through to the new creation - and believe that has a bearing on both the message the proclaimers were bringing and God’s action in history.

For example, as well as addressing socio-political forces, the gospel also deals with spiritual powers, namely the serpent from the garden who usurped Mankind’s rule, and the kingdom of God through his people, becoming the god of this age and enslaving humanity and keeping them in bondage - yes, through the world system, but not only through the world system.

On your presentation of the meaning of the kingdom and the gospel of the kingdom (as best as I have understood it to date) - as a past event or events in history of God’s action to judge and to restore, I would say that:
It sounds more like the day of The Lord than the kingdom. Both come through the OT prophets, but the former seems more climactic as you present, whilst I think the kingdom narrative is:
a) More person-focused (King, Christ, Son of David, root of Jesse - and on that note, I don’t thing that Jesus death and resurrection is the picture, type or shadow of what God is doing for his people, rather it is the reality, the seed, the fountainhead of the new creation;
b) Being (inner reform - God being our God)
c) Doing (outer transformation).

And likewise, I would suggest that the proclamation of the kingdom was more God-focused than predominantly focused on God’s action in history on behalf of his people. I would see it as about God’s kingdom, the Christ, and God getting his world back through him - which is truly good news because it means the end of evil and suffering and better still reconciliation with God and one another and God making his dwelling with people. (I imagine I might not have represented your position overly well there - so please adjust me on that.)

Your presentation does really make me think and question (though again I do think it resonates more with the day of The Lord than fully representing kingdom). However, it does seem to me (apologies again if I am hearing it wrong) - that your reading deals with some of the kingdom Scriptures, but not others. I.e. I don’t think you could overlay your definition onto every occurrences of kingdom in the NT and it still make satisfactory sense (- though that could be a case of me reading them with the wrong hermeneutic glasses on). Or would you see it otherwise?

For example:

a) Luke 17:20-21 Now having been questioned by the Pharisees as to when the kingdom of God was coming, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

b) Seek first the kingdom…

c) The kingdom is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. On that note, in the gospels, kingdom seems to me to be linked very closely with the activity of the Holy Spirit - i.e. the rule of God through his appointed man/king, Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

d) You have delivered out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of his love.

e) The several entering into the kingdom scriptures - not least what Jesus talks with Nicodemus about (which again ties into the kingdom and a connection with the Holy Spirit).

What do you think? Does your reading make sense of these and others.

Sorry for the long post. There was more that I’d like to get on to the table for your thoughts - but I thought I’d spare you ;)

I’m not a theologian, so I apologise if I’m being ignorant. But I am a Christ follower (or at least I’m working on it!) and I am a thinker and reader and I’m open to learn from others - and have changed my viewpoints as a result of the input of others. That’s just to say, I’m open - so it’s not a complete waste of time to dialogue.

Best wishes,

Paul

Paul, thanks for the response. I plan to address the issues you’ve raised in three parts. The first can be found here.

Hi Andrew… as always thanks for your insights.

Given your historical-narrative and in particular politico hermeneutic, do you see within the biblical texts any scope for understanding “resurrection” and “rising-up” more in terms of “insurrection” and “up-rising”?

PS: I think Michael Mercer’s comment above is bang on the money with regards to the NT text, i.e., in kind with the OT text we are “reading someone else’s mail”.

No, I don’t—not in the New Testament context. However, I think the rhetoric could be put to good use in our own context as rhetoric.

I agree with you about Michael’s comment.