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

10 good reasons to switch to a narrative-historical hermeneutic

First, what do I mean by a “narrative-historical hermeneutic”? I mean a way of integrating the Bible into our self-understanding as the church—that is, a way of doing theology—that takes it to be the story told by a community about its historical existence over time, reaching back to the promises made to Abraham, and reaching forward—at least as I see it—to the confession of Christ as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

That last part is too historical for most people and perhaps has to be regarded as optional for the time being. The point, though, is that our defining theology is to be constructed as a story about history that looks both backwards and forwards: it remembers what God has done in the past; it accounts for what God is doing in the present; and it imagines what God will do in the future from the perspective of the particular prophetic community.

This is in contrast to hermeneutic methods—models of interpretation—that, wittingly or unwittingly, subordinate the Bible as a historical text to a theological system (eg. Calvinism), or to an ideological construct (liberation theology, feminist theology), or to an absolutist epistemology (fundamentalism), or to an evangelistic agenda (early modern evangelicalism), or to spiritual experience (Pentecostalism), or to a missional praxis (the whole missional-incarnational thing, which is very good, but…).

Now we know what’s on offer, here are ten good reasons to make the switch, complete with a colourful infographic.

1. You get a theology that is grounded, then and now, in the lived experience of a historical community.

2. You get honest, transparent biblical interpretation as a work-in-progress, controlled not by reductionist rationalising orthodoxies but by historical context and perspective.

3. Paradoxically, you also get a hermeneutic that respects the contexts and perspectives of later traditions of interpretation. Under the circumstances, the Greek and Latin Fathers were absolutely right to come up with Trinitarianism. The preoccupation of modern evangelicalism with personal salvation was a good thing while it lasted. So what’s to complain about?

4. You get access to the real Jewish apocalyptic Jesus, who was born of a virgin, who spoke as a prophet to Israel, who believed himself to be the decisive agent of impending eschatological reversal, who was killed by his opponents in Jerusalem, who was raised from the dead, who was seated at the right hand of God and given supreme authority to judge and rule over both Israel and the nations, who came to be seen as both the beginning and the end. In other words, you get the whole New Testament Jesus, not just the cool missional dude who hangs out with prostitutes and parties with sinners.

5. You get a viable interface between post-Sanders New Testament scholarship and the life and mission of the church. You get to do something useful with the New Perspective on Paul and its successors.

6. You get a much better way of dealing with many of the doctrinal puzzles and stumbling blocks that beset the modern evangelical church. The atonement makes much better sense when understood as part of the biblical narrative rather than as a theological abstraction tied to one post-biblical moral framework or another. Justification by faith ceases to be an incomprehensible metaphysical transaction and finds its place in the concrete experience of a historical community. And as for the unbiblical doctrine of hell….

7. You get a way of factoring the collapse of western Christendom into our theological outlook so that we don’t have to keep pretending it didn’t happen. It’s not business as normal. If all we have are deeply traditioned, locked-down orthodoxies, we have no way of describing or responding to the massive cultural realignment—and marginalisation of the church—that has taken place over the last 200 years.

8. You get an eschatology that takes seriously the historical outlook of the community. The future horizon of the disciples in Judea was not the same as the future horizon of the churches in the pagan world. Our future horizon is different again.

9. You get a model for mission that cannot be reduced to personal evangelism but embraces the full social, ecological and historical existence of a community given the extraordinary privilege, freedom and responsibility of being a new creation.

10. You get a praxis for discipleship shaped by a prophetic understanding of the challenges facing the post-Christendom church as it seeks to reimagine a credible future for itself in an increasingly secular world.

Comments

Andrew,

As always, very articulate and clear. Just to clarify something, why is the focus on Western Christendom? Where would early Middle Eastern Christianity or even Far-Eastern/Oriental Christianity fit in? Would calling your approach “retrospective evidentialism” be unfair?

Thanks

Why is the focus on western Christendom? For three reasons.

1. I think that New Testament eschatology, its view of the future, has the Greek-Roman world specifically in view, which means that its trajectory is basically the story of western Christendom.

2. The history of Christianity is largely the history of western Christendom and its global expansion, not least riding on the coat-tails of western imperialism. There is not much that falls outside the sphere of the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and post-Protestant traditions.

3. I am writing mostly for a readership that is having to come to terms with the collapse of western Christendom and its chaotic legacy.

Would calling your approach “retrospective evidentialism” be unfair?

On the strength of points 2 and 3 above, no, it would not be unfair. But point 1 asserts that western Christendom was exactly—well, perhaps not “exactly”—what the Biblical narrative had in view: judgment of the classical pagan oikoumenē and the public worship of the God of Israel because of the faithfulness of Jesus (Phil. 2:6-11). The new arrangement lasted, ironically, not much more than a thousand years. But that’s still quite a long time.

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AWESOME PHIL!!!!

A a London Vicar I am forever asking ‘what’s the job?’ As a consequence, I am working hard to understand what it might look like to seek lead a church within a narrative-historical hermeneutic framework - not than many folks in the congregation would be necessarily know that!

An attempt has been made, however, to identify our collective raison d’être as a worshipping community in terms of ‘the story we find ourselves in’ (to borrow a useful Brian McLaren phrase). This has informed both preaching, small group discussions and preparation for Holy Communion and Confirmation. There have been positive out-workings from seeking to understand our purpose as being in continuity with Abraham’s calling to be a blessing to the world. It has, for example, encouraged engagement with Streetpastors; the establishment of a foodbank; support for a night shelter and the use of the the church campus a venue for a Forest School, serving disadvantaged young people within a multi-cultural community. The church has taken its responsibility for carbon reduction seriously and has been awarded a Green Corners award for its ‘creation care’ initiatives. A new church mowing regime has rewarded us with a surprise crop of orchids growing within yards of a busy grimy orbital road. A beehive generates suburban honey. Community art exhibitions have provoked conversation and discussion. Jeremiah 29:7 and Romans 8:19 have been formative texts. Occasional experiences of healing have been interpreted in terms of prophetic glimpses of God’s to-be-renewed creation breaking into the present. And yet, here I guess is the rub. However rooted we might try to be in an earthy narrative-historical hermeneutic - trying to self-identify as an all too imperfect representation of rather compromised and fitfully renewed humanity, an eschatology that focuses on God’s ‘one-day’ perfect future can, at times, seem as much casual pie-in the sky as is/was heaven when you die. How do we muster the energy and imagination to inject a more urgent reality into our eschatology? How might gently (for the most part) advancing well received programmes and plans for the good of the community, of which we are an integral part, be enthused with Christ/Pauline-like urgency? What do we need perhaps to identify as the ‘wrath that is to come’ from which we/society needs to be rescued? How might we embrace the ‘in our generation’ eschatological horizon that informs the narrative-historical hermeneutic? How might we better recover our Christian relevance? Just some passing thoughts…

Bringing Christianity into sync in the 21st century post Christiandom age will really need to involve a holistic appraisal across the board. It is not only a matter of a fresh hermeneutic of the existing canonical Bibical text (of Hebrew Bible and New Testament), though, that’s an important part. Really, the big story of the latter 20th century and 21st century are the concerted efforts made by numerous groups and individuals to better understand the nature of consciousness.

To an ever growing minority perspective, consciousness is something that appears to be more fundamental than matter/energy of the perceivable cosmos; this is a realization that ultimately relegates 19th centrury Materialism - the currently reigning paradigm of Western Civilization - to a status that is essentially that of a Flat Earth paradigm status: something that had a superficial appearance of veracity based on everyday experience, but does not stand up under more refined scrutiny.

Besides the matter of how there is a camp that is interpreting Quantum Physics from a primacy of consciousness perspective (the information processing perspective of QM), since the ground breaking book of Raymond Moody, Life After Life, which brought the Near Death Experience phenomena to wide spread attention, study and analysis of the NDE phenomena has become a very important way that spiritual exisistence is now being considered in the 21st century mindset. The works in this area are in effect constituting a new gospel of spiritual understanding, which in the modern mind supercedes the ancient religious text.

That brings us to the Christian mystic Emanual Swedenborg. Raymond Moody has a section in his Life After Life book where he reviews prior existing reports that look to be similar to the NDE accounts of his research. One chapter in that section is devoted to Emanual Swedenborg; Moody does find Swedenborg’s reports of spiritual reality to closely correspond to his modern era NDE reports. Swedenborg died in 1772.

In respect to what I have seen discussed at this web site, and my personal study of Swedenborg and his report that the spiritual side was in process of helping mortal humanity in our reality context attain a new church consciousness, my view is that Swedenborg was a few centuries ahead of your current efforts in what the second half of his life became devoted to.