“Could you please help me understand the practical consequences of the narrative-historical approach?” The question was put to me by a student at a conservative theological college. I realise that most of what I write here is of a “theoretical” nature, but I have tried occasionally at least to outline the practical implications—a few such attempts are listed below. I’ll have another go here.
The basic “narrative-historical “ thesis is fairly simple. Modern “evangelical” theologies read the Bible on the understanding that it is mainly concerned to tell an all-encompassing cosmic or universal story: God created the world, humanity sinned in the persons of Adam and Eve, in the fulness of time God sent his eternal Son into the world to redeem fallen humanity and establish the church, and at the end of time Jesus will return to judge the world and inaugurate a new creation. The evangelical church1 then defines its purpose in accordance with this narrative: people are saved by their faith in Jesus, they congregate together as church, in which context they are progressively sanctified, and they do their best to save others, all the while vaguely thinking that Jesus might return at any moment.
I appreciate the fact that modern evangelicalism has in recent years evolved beyond this paradigm, in different directions, but I don’t think that I have set up a straw man here. In my experience it still constitutes the core creedal assumption of people who call themselves evangelicals.
The fundamental problem with this theological paradigm is that it has no use for the massive, complex storyline that makes up the bulk of scripture—that is, the story of Israel and its relation to the nations, from Abraham through to the New Testament period and beyond. It has no interest in history. In that respect, it is structurally much more like a Gnostic redeemer myth, though perhaps (I stress perhaps) without the rigorous cosmic dualism.
In contrast, narrative-historical methods maintain that the “theological” content of the Bible cannot be properly understood apart from history. It belongs to a long story about the people of God which comes to some sort of climax in the New Testament period, but which doesn’t stop there. It runs into the historical future of Jesus and the early church, which to a large extent is the concern of New Testament “eschatology”. The cosmic superstructure remains in the background, and in important ways impinges upon the historical narrative, but it is primarily the concrete experience of the people of God over long periods of time that provides the interpretive frame for the theological material that we find in scripture.
This hermeneutical reorientation often makes good sense to people who want to take the Bible seriously, but it presents evangelicals with major problems, roughly speaking on two fronts.
First, it raises doubts about certain traditional doctrinal formulations: atonement, hell, justification, godhead, second coming, to name but a few. It doesn’t dilute or dismiss these concepts—they are integral to the biblical narrative—but it certainly reframes them in some quite startling ways. As my correspondent said, “I feel that if I take your approach, which I believe has a lot going for it, I have to start all over again on formulating thoughts, doctrines, etc.”
Secondly, people find themselves wondering whether a thoroughly historical reading of the New Testament has any practical relevance for us today. Can we do church on this basis? Can we do evangelism or mission on this basis? Does it teach me how to please God?
I think change more or less in this direction is inevitable. It is driven partly by developments in biblical studies, which as a scholarly discipline has almost entirely bought into some version or other of the historical paradigm (there is still plenty of scope for disagreement). The disconnection between the constructive critical interpretation of scripture and the shallow, narrow dogmatism of the church cannot be sustained indefinitely. But also it seems to me that social-cultural change and the steady marginalisation of the church are pushing things firmly in the same direction—towards a radical reappraisal of the concrete existence of the people of God in history.
So let’s consider how the narrative-historical method reorients some of the core components of belief on which evangelical practice is based. If it all still feels too abstract, too theoretical, then in my defence I would say that I expect behavioural changes to happen more or less spontaneously as the larger structures of thought are transformed.
The approach keeps a “literal” reading of the whole Bible at the heart of the church’s self-understanding. By “literal” I really mean something like “as it was originally intended”. This allows for the fact that the original sense may have been figurative or even mythical, bearing in mind the difficulties of applying these categories in ancient contexts. But we are not free to allegorise, spiritualise, demythologise or ignore the ancient texts just because they do not fit our rationalist, theological, cultural or moral preconceptions.
The approach also requires us to take seriously the built-in historical constraints of the text—the limited perspective from which it was written, the limited horizons that it had in view.
But this attention to scripture ought to be reassuring to evangelicals, and it ought to provide a bridge between the traditional theological model and the practice of disciplined historical interpretation. It’s not so much the meaning of the biblical material that changes as the perspective from which it is considered.
The big difference for teaching in the church is that scripture is thought of primarily as a historical narrative that needs to be told, retold, summarised, explained and enacted, not as a disordered and largely opaque resource for the exposition or defence of doctrine or for the illustration of spiritual and moral precepts. Centrally, evangelical teaching must tell the story of the apocalyptic prophet who was sent to the mismanaged vineyard of Israel but who became judge and ruler both of Israel and of the nations. The whole narrative as narrative, reaching back through centuries of pagan domination and forward to the conversion of the Greek-Roman world, is constitutive for “ecclesiology”.
If that is the case, then perhaps the main driver of change in this necessary reformation will simply be telling the story differently—slowly, patiently, judiciously, imaginatively, working back and forth between the two ends, the past and the present, of the story of God’s people.
This, I guess, is a standard two horizons hermeneutic but with the recognition that these are the horizons that accompany a community as it travels through history, conscious of where it has come from, challenged by the circumstances in which it finds itself, and curious—fearful, hopeful—about the future. Churches need to be taught how to function as credible communities of faith wherever they are situated. How should we worship? How should we pray? What constitutes wise and righteous behaviour? That can certainly be done as a dialogue with ancient Israel or with the New Testament apostles. But the narrative-historical reading of scripture also suggests that instruction should always be conscious of where we are in the story, how we got here, and what lies ahead.
A people saved by the blood of the Lamb
The concept of “salvation” needs some quite radical reworking. In the historical narrative it is, in the first place, the family of Abraham that is saved by Jesus’ death, not at the personal, existential level from death or hell but at the national level from the looming catastrophe of the war against Rome. Because the God of Israel would then also judge Rome and the Greek-Roman world, individual Gentiles were also saved from an obsolescent civilisation—a world that was passing away, destined for destruction. Jesus’ death was not only an atonement for the sins of Israel, it also removed the dividing wall of the Law, which allowed Gentiles to become part of the renewed people of God through faith in the risen Lord Jesus and the new future which he represented. So personal outcomes were determined by large-scale historical events and developments.
By extension, it seems to me reasonable still to say that people today are “saved” from a world in rebellion against the creator when they become part of a community that was historically redeemed by Jesus’ death on a Roman cross. But the central evangelical idea that Jesus died for me personally, for my sins, has to be regarded now as at best an accommodation of the biblical material to a post-biblical salvationist metaphysic, refracted through the pervasive individualism of modern culture.
What would be good news today?
Shifting salvation from the personal to the historical axis requires us to rethink the mission of the church. As I see it, the people of God was called into existence, in Abraham, to serve the interests of the one, true, living creator God as a priestly people—to represent that God in the midst of pagan nations and cultures, to worship him, to learn to walk in his ways, to mediate his powerful presence to the world around, to give an account of his character and intentions, his joys and sorrows, his compassion and anger, and so on. At critical moments in its history this people has needed to be saved—and I rather think that, in the West at least, we are facing one of those moments now. But salvation is secondary to the priestly vocation.
The “good news” proclaimed in the New Testament, therefore, was that Israel’s God had set about rectifying the mess that his people had gotten themselves into: he would deal with unrighteousness in Israel, he would raise up the humble and downtrodden, he would renew the covenant, he would install his own Son as king both of Israel and of the nations, and so on. That all added up to a powerful proclamation in the ancient world, but from our point of view it is a thing of the past. We live with the enormous consequences, but there is no point proclaiming it as “gospel” today.
Does that mean that we are left with nothing to say? No, of course not. But it does mean that the modern church has to ask itself some hard questions about what really—and realistically—sounds like good news in our context. To my mind, the main message that needs to be heard by the divided, dwindling, disregarded and demoralised modern church is that the creator God is as real as he ever was, that he has not given up on his people, and that he is with us as we go through a period of massive upheaval, overhaul and reformation. We have a long way to go, but eventually we will find a new, credible, sustainable modus operandi as his priestly people in an overwhelmingly secular environment. Is that also good news for the world? Yes.
Jesus is Lord
The defining moment in a narrative-historical christology is neither the incarnation of the Word of God nor the atoning death of Jesus for the sins of Israel but his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father. This highlights the fact that the biblical story is not about redemption primarily but about “kingdom”. Jesus did not proclaim that atonement was at hand. He proclaimed that the reign of YHWH was at hand. As I see it at least, the biblical story from the exile onwards is directed towards one supreme outcome—the rule of YHWH over the nations of the ancient pagan world.
This means that Jesus is present and real for us today primarily as the one who has been given authority to rule in the midst of his enemies, for the sake of his people, until the last enemy, death, has been destroyed—at which point it will be safe to deliver the kingdom back to the Father.
Most of the christologically significant historical “action”, however, happened a long time ago: the judgment and restoration of Israel, the triumph over Rome, the vindication of the emissaries to Israel and the suffering churches. My argument is that we remain in contact with this seminal series of events by continuing the story, but for now people are sometimes left with a sense of detachment.
I saw, for example, this comment on Reddit: “Perriman’s revisionism leaves me cold because in my own experience, a personal relationship with Jesus has been deeply comforting and life-affirming.” I can understand how that impression arises, but it’s not intrinsic to the model. If anything, the narrative-historical approach gives us all the more reason to engage as church with our risen Lord during a difficult period of transition. But this begins not with personal comfort, it begins as a political engagement with Christ as the Lord who safeguards the historical existence of his people. As individuals we can personalise that engagement as much as we like, but if we treat it only as a matter of personal salvation and spiritual well-being, we have denied the primary significance of Christ’s lordship.
Life in the Spirit
The way of life of the community that was saved from destruction by the faithfulness-unto-death of Jesus is determined not by the Law of Moses but by the Spirit. There is a contextual aspect to the gift of the Spirit—Pentecost, for example, needs to be seen principally as the giving of the Spirit of prophecy to enable the Jerusalem church to continue Jesus’ mission to Israel. So today we expect the Spirit not only to inspire, instruct, discipline and empower the corporate life of the church but also to enable it to respond well to the particular crisis of the rising tide of secularism.
- 1. I realise that “evangelical” is a problematic term these days. I use it simply to define the church insofar as it seeks to remain faithful to the “gospel” witness found in the New Testament. My main criticism of modern evangelicalism is not that it has been hijacked by cultural-political interests but that it has not properly understood the gospel.