Ask yourself: What interest does your pastor have in the New Testament texts? What does he or she want to do with them? What does he or she need to do with them? Or if you yourself are a pastor or minister or vicar, what interest do you have professionally in the New Testament? Whom do you need to impress or persuade or instruct or keep quiet? And then ask yourself: Is it likely that your or your pastor’s interest in the New Testament matches the interest that the authors of the New Testament had in the story that they were telling? Is it likely that we have the same perspectives or presuppositions or preoccupations or pressures? No, of course not. We use the Bible in our churches and in our personal devotional life today in a manner and to an end for which as a historical text it was not designed.
Many will argue—or at least assume—that this doesn’t matter. The Bible is above everything else the Word of God, and if God speaks to us through his Word, why should we trouble ourselves with the constraints and complications of historical perspective? Of the numerous objections one could raise against this argument I will mention two here. First, it is never just the Word of God. It is always someone’s version of the Word of God, no matter how “orthodox” that version may be. Secondly, I think we should be troubled when the Bible says one thing and the “Word of God” says something else. If you use something in a way for which it was not designed, you risk voiding the warranty.
So what is the solution? The solution, I suggest, is that we learn to read the Bible differently—not as a source of beliefs but as the narrative account of our historical origins. How do we do that? Well, here are some guidelines.
1. Suspension of beliefs
A narrative-historical approach…. Ah, I should point out to newcomers that it is not enough to counter systematic theology with a mere narrative theology. The story has to be grounded historically, or people will do whatever they like with it. A narrative-historical approach trusts the Bible to tell its own story, in its own words, at its own pace, from its own point of view, for its own purposes. So we should begin by assuming that we do not know what we are about to read. We should forget, if only temporarily, everything that we have been taught, everything that we have absorbed from the Christian culture in which we are likely to have grown up and been converted. Above all we should suspend that tidy package of beliefs that we have been taught to prioritize over scripture.
2. It is not humanity’s story, it is not my story, it is Israel’s story
The Bible tells the story of the people of the God YHWH, beginning with the calling of Abraham and ending, at least as I see it, with the victory of that people and that God over pagan imperialism. It’s likely that not everything happened quite as it’s narrated, but we can be certain that a historical community told this developing but more or less coherent story about itself over a period of a thousand years or more. The theological content of the Bible, therefore—the stuff that gets re-engineered into systematic theologies and statements of faith—belongs to that community’s self-understanding. It is the product of i) the community’s reflection on ii) its relationship with its God as iii) part of a historical narrative.
This is quite different to a theology that is directed either towards humanity in general or towards the individual. To give an example, according to the leading storyline of the New Testament Jesus died because of the sins of Israel and for the sake of the salvation of Israel. The soteriology operates primarily on a corporate level, and individuals find their own condemnation and salvation in relation to that narrative. It is only through the story of the people that salvation gains a universal dimension and then only in limited ways.
3. Taking it apart is easy, putting it back together is more of a challenge
Theology as we know it has a strong tendency to break scripture down into its constituent parts. I am currently helping to prepare a series of studies with Community Church Harlesden looking at encounters with Jesus—six or seven vignettes from Luke’s Gospel. It’s a classic approach and it suffers from a classic shortcoming. It encourages us to explore what is internal to the passage but not the relation of the passage to the various containing narratives: the story of Jesus, the story of the renewal of the people of God, the story of Israel and the nations. We end up not being able to see the wood for the trees.
A narrative theology, therefore, has to work hard at reconstructing the expansive stories that account for who we are as the people of God. The biggest intellectual failure of the church today is that we do not know and love and retell the whole biblical story. We know and love only incoherent, mismanaged bits of it.
Modern theology is like a man who was given a bicycle. He rode around on it for a while, loving the freedom it gave and the rush of the wind through his hair. But then he began to wonder how his bicycle worked. So he dismounted, found some tools, and set about dismantling it, carefully cataloguing the various parts: tubes, bolts, nuts, cables, ball bearings, and so on. Some time later it struck him that, for all his diligence in sorting and labelling the many components, he had no idea how to put the bicycle back together again. In fact, he had only a hazy notion of how it used to look. When he died, his children inherited his boxes of bits but had no idea of what it felt like to ride a bicycle.
4. Let the Old Testament flood in
Systematic theologians—the men (I don’t know of any women) responsible for cooking the beliefs that are served up to us by pastors and teachers—generally extract their content from the Jewish context of scripture. They uproot the ingredients from the ground that nurtured them, they pluck them from the bushes and trees, they fish them from the rivers, they hunt them from the forests, then they chop them up and toss them into their doctrinal stew.
A narrative theology needs to develop strategies of replacement—of putting it all back where it came from. One such strategy is to bring into view the larger narratives from which the countless Old Testament quotations and allusions that we find in the New Testament are taken. Each quotation is a sluice gate: open it, and the field of the text will be flooded with narrative meaning. It will become apparent that the writers of the New Testament make reference to the Jewish scriptures not simply to prove that Jesus is the messiah but to tell the story about Israel that accounted for the death and resurrection of Jesus—a story that goes forwards as well as backwards.
5. Stories go forwards as well as backwards
The handsome prince cuts through the dense forest surrounding the enchanted castle, makes his way to the gloomy chamber where the princess sleeps, and awakens her with a kiss; they get married and live happily ever after. Traditionally, no one’s interested in what happens next, in the happily-ever-after. It is a very modern custom to break the back of a good story with the burden of ponderous sequels.
We are beginning to grasp the fact that the death and resurrection of Jesus do not constitute an isolated saving event dropped randomly from heaven into the middle of history. They are the culmination of the story about Israel that is told in scripture. But it’s not a fairy story with a happy-ever-after ending that no one cares very much about. The biblical story runs back from Jesus through the history of Israel all the way to Abraham. But it also runs forwards. Jesus has much more to say about Israel’s future than he does about Israel’s past. Paul has much more to say about the historical future of the people of God than he does about the past event of the crucifixion—Jesus’ death and resurrection are important precisely because they guarantee certain climactic future outcomes.
A narrative-historical theology is bound to ask what comes next—both within the horizons of the New Testament and beyond those horizons. This is the only way to get our eschatology right. And while we are on the subject of horizons….
6. History happens at ground level
Evangelical theology has no need for historical horizons. Evangelical truth is universal; it transcends the limitations of history. Let me give an example of evangelicalism’s high-handed disregard for the narrative shape of scripture. In a new book edited by Grudem, Collins and Schreiner called Understanding the Big Picture of the Bible: A Guide to Reading the Bible Well Vernan Poythress argues that Moses could stand in the presence of a holy God only because Jesus would eventually come and make atonement for Moses’ sin:
The benefits of Christ’s work were reckoned beforehand for Moses’ benefit. And so it must have been for all the Old Testament saints. How could they have been saved otherwise? (16)
Nowhere is this stated in scripture. It is an inference from the defining premise of modern evangelicalism, that it’s all about personal salvation. How could Moses have been saved otherwise? It only makes sense in the virtual reality of modern evangelical theology.
Poythress is right to insist that “there is only one way of salvation, throughout the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament”, but it is not that God saves individuals through Christ. It is that God saves his people, more often than not from the historical consequences of their sinfulness. The salvation of individuals from catastrophe or death is important but it is incidental.
Poythress simply misses the point of Acts 4:12. When Peter tells the rulers and elders of Jerusalem that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”, he means that only by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus will Israel be saved from the coming disaster of divine judgment—war against Rome and the destruction of the city. So the theology of Poythress, Grudem, and frankly most of us, says one thing; the Bible says something else.