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

Guidelines for preaching: first get the biblical narrative more or less right

Goaded by a comment to the effect that my Christmas story “doesn’t preach as well” as the traditional sentimentalized God-in-a-manger version, I want to try to develop in a few posts some thoughts about preaching from a narrative-historical perspective. The basic problem is this: the more we confine the biblical narrative and its associated theology to its own historical context, the less direct relevance it has for the modern reader or congregation.

Usually the historical distance has been overcome by reducing the complex narrative of scripture to a universal argument about God and humanity and allegorizing as much of the detail as possible. The basic error of interpretation made by modern evangelicalism is to think that the story of scripture can be translated into a sequence of theological abstractions—creation, fall, redemption, final judgment—which then provides the frame for every personal story: we are sinners in need of Christ’s atoning death if we are to escape eternal death or worse.

This allows us to place ourselves in the biblical story, but at a cost: we have to read scripture as something other than what it really is; and we forfeit the ability to make sense of our own historical circumstances in the way that scripture makes sense of the historical experience of Israel.

The narrative-historical approach, by contrast, affirms what should really be obvious—that the Bible gives us the troubled history of a people, running from Abraham through to the crisis of the New Testament period and whatever future is envisaged beyond that. A central task of biblical preaching and related activities is simply to tell that story, not as theology dressed up as narrative but as theologically interpreted history.

We relate to that history now primarily on the basis of the continuation of the narrative. Scripture is meaningful for us, and formative for the church, because we are part of the same story—it is our story. More needs to be said about this, clearly. Here I simply want to outline the story again. More or less this argument is set out in my book Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for the Post-Biblical Church (see below).


God is the creator before anything else.

The people of God was brought into existence in Abraham to be a new-creation-in-microcosm in the midst of nations, cultures, and civilizations which do not know God, which foolishly worship creatures rather than the creator. That gives us the fundamental raison d’être even for the church today.

Almost everything else in scripture is the story of the historical existence of this new creation people. What we call “theology” is a form of reflection on the historical narrative.

The story begins in the shadow of the tower of Babel, and its course is mostly shaped by Israel’s traumatic relationship with the great powers of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Greeks, and lastly the Romans.

Reflection on this historical experience gave rise to something like the following theological narrative: 1) Israel fails to keep the Law; 2) God punishes Israel by the agency of an imperial power; 3) God restores his people out of faithfulness to his promises; 4) God will judge and rule over the nations.

In scripture the final iteration of this pattern during the period of Rome’s ascendancy is decisive. It will culminate in a final judgment on pagan empire and the establishment of God’s rule over the nations. It is essentially the story of how the kingdom of God comes about.

The New Testament relates how this victory over pagan empire is to be achieved, not by the sword—or the Kalashnikov—but through the faithful suffering of an eschatological community, chosen and empowered by God for this purpose. Much of the telling is futuristic, prophetic, apocalyptic.

First, the parable of the tenants in the vineyard is a clear and straightforward statement of the fact that Israel’s rebellion against YHWH is coming to a head. For a long time the owner has been sending his servants to get the fruit to which he is entitled, but the tenants assaulted and killed them. Finally, he sends his Son, whom they also murder. In response the owner will “come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mk. 12:9).

Secondly, Jesus warns his people that most of them are on a broad road leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans as YHWH’s final judgment on second temple Israel.

Thirdly, by his radical faithfulness as the “Son of God” Jesus opens up a way of survival for the family of Abraham, but the path leading to life is a narrow and difficult one, and he expects few to have the faith to travel along it. Crucially, however, he has gone before them in his suffering and death. He has been raised from the dead by his Father; he has been given authority over whatever powers in heaven and on earth may threaten the life and mission of the eschatological community, including death; and he will be with them until the completion of their task.

Finally, the apostles are sent out into the world in effect to claim the empire on behalf of the God of Israel, who has elevated his Son to his right hand to judge and rule over the nations on his behalf. Just as Jesus achieved his goal through suffering, so the churches across the Greek-Roman world will fulfil this political-religious missio Dei through faithful suffering.

Gentiles are included in the eschatological community because they believe that the God of Israel is taking control of events in this way and to this end. When God eventually judges the nations, Gentile believers will be justified because they had this faith in a radically new future for the world.

The Holy Spirit is poured out on the eschatological community to enable it to fulfil its calling. The Spirit gives “life” to people who have “died” to a world which is passing away. The Spirit gives prophetic vision and boldness to proclaim a different future for the nations of the empire. The Spirit strengthens the weak in the face of opposition and suffering.

The height of the apocalyptic vision is judgment on “Babylon the Great”, the deliverance and vindication of the eschatological community, and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the formerly idolatrous nations.

This sets the stage for the next “age” of the historical existence of the people of God, which is the Christendom age. And after that we get to us….

Comments

Thanks for this. It is very helpful. I am leading a class/small group on Re: Mission and this will be a great introduction to your approach and perspective.

Thanks, Kevin. I’d love to hear how it goes.

Do you think the modern error stems in part from the desire of pastors to preach? As much as I’ve benefited from learning from the narrative-historical approach, I think that at some point soon I will have mastered the basics, at least sufficiently to make them a part of my everyday life, and won’t need to hear further sermons on the subject. I have the same objection to modern preachers–after 25 years I’ve heard everything they have to say, and remember it quite well from week to week–but at least their preaching can pretend to be relevant.

Just to be clear, I don’t raise this as an objection to the narrative-historical approach. In fact I think it may be an advantage–a simpler story, more easily mastered, allowing us to set aside sermonizing sooner and move on to something more edifying for the congregation.

Rick, I almost included a statement somewhat along those lines. I agree with you—apart from the bit about the story being simple. It may well be that the preaching model is half the problem. There are numerous other ways in which we narrate our existence, and perhaps the most important ones are implicit. However, I don’t see anything wrong in principle with a person telling and interpreting and drawing inferences from the biblical narrative for an audience. I think we are making some progress towards that end in our little church in West London, though the teaching has been at its best when it has degenerated into a free-for-all conversation. Wouldn’t work so well in a personality-driven mega-church.

I would also add that much of the story-telling needs to be contemporary—it needs to be about the state of the church in the West today. That is a hugely rich and challenging theme, and there is something seriously wrong with us if we allow it to become dull and repetitive.

I think this could definitely have a shortening effect on the length of sermons.

Some things I thought of in reading your own thoughts:

1. I think there is value in repeating the same story, as we see the community of Israel doing with her key defining events (and still doing to this day). It ties generations together, keeps it fresh in our own memories, dusts off our affections, and we get new things out of it because we are different than when we heard it last time.

2. While we are beyond the scope of the historico-eschatological situation described in the Bible, we are not beyond the scope of the identity of God’s people. We are still a new people of Jew and Gentile recreated together to be New Creation in the world, the heirs and executors of the promises to the patriarchs, and Jesus is still our Lord, so there is still a lot of -identity- information in the Bible that, in varying levels, can still inform and impact us, and some of our more interesting discussions and work as preachers and lay people could be in this area. In what senses are we discontinuous with NT believers, and in what senses are we in the same boat?

3. Even the contemporary church in certain countries finds themselves oppressed by “the beast,” and even though God is not likely to send them a Messiah or deliver faithful Israel out of them, a rather lot of the exortations to faithfulness in an atmosphere of persecution and the comforts offered in the faithfulness of God are still very pertinent, and while we do not hope in a soon to come judgement of the oppressor, we do look forward to a new creation.

I guess that’s my long way of saying that I think I’d continue to get a lot of value out of hearing the same story, especially if it were coupled with thoughtful integration and interaction with our current narrative.

I think this version of the biblical narrative rests on a false antithesis, namely that the alternative to a narrative historical version of the story is “a universal argument about God and humanity and allegorizing as much of the detail as possible”, and so on. The enemy is “modern evangelicalism”, which apparently is responsible for this theological abstraction.

The new narrative summary proposed says something which I think should be at the core of every critique of it: that the atoning death of Jesus on the cross was not for the world but for Israel alone in her history. At this point, the alleged distortion of the biblical narrative is not in “modern evangelicalism”, but in every version of mainstream, orthodox Christianity that has ever existed.

However, to look more closely at the new narrative-historical approach being proposed. I would say that something else is lacking, which again goes to the core of the story itself, and how it would be preached. Very little is said of the foundational role of the story of Abraham, how that relates to the preceding part of the story (the first 11 chapters of Genesis), and its relationship with Israel under the Law.

When we see how Paul treats this part of the story, we begin to see a rather different picture from the one being proposed. The mainspring of the story then becomes the promises given to Abraham for worldwide blessing through his seed. The blessing looks backwards to the withdrawal of blessing following the Eden expulsion, and the future restoration of blessing. The Law then is not the central focus of the story, but an interruption to the onward development of the Abraham narrative. This is clearly Paul’s interpretation of it in Galatians and Romans in particular.

Paul brings the focus of the narrative back to God’s worldwide intentions, through the story of Abraham, which Jesus brought about through his death and resurrection. Yet it is not as though the period of Israel under the Law was a massive parenthesis, or digression, according to him. The Law was doing something, which, to use the language of N.T. Wright, was concentrating the problem of the world, its rebellion and sin, in one place and amongst one people.

The death of Jesus released the narrative to continue according to its Abrahamic origins, by removing the roadblock which the history of Israel had put in the way. Yet paradoxically, the problem which Israel had raised, that the people who were intended to illustrate God’s solution to the world were actually illustrating its problem, became the means of saving the world.

The death of Jesus on the cross removed the roadblock placed in the way by Israel under the Law. It was for her in her story that he died. Yet that death also became the means of entry into the Abrahamic promises for non-Jews, for whom Jesus also died, because the death was “the righteousness of God apart from the law”, namely, “the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe”. When Paul follows this statement immediately with “There is no difference”, he means no difference between Jew and Gentile in relation to Christ’s death: he died freely for all.

Yet it should also be noted that Jesus died for Jews in a way that was unique to their story. Galatians 3:13, for instance, speaks of Israel, not Gentiles, when Christ became a curse to redeem Israel from the curse by becoming a curse for them. Yet sometimes there is overlap in the two stories. Romans 7 speaks of Israel under the law, yet also reaches back to the primal disobedience of Adam. The warnings from Israel’s history in 1 Corinthians 10 include gentiles as well as Jews in the warnings they present to the mixed church of Jews and Gentiles at Corinth.

When we look carefully at the story of Jesus’s death on the cross, we can see that it was for both Jews and Gentiles. The sin of Gentiles needed to be atoned for just as much as the sin of Israel, and still does. Jesus is ruler of the nations precisely because the sin which held the whole world captive in rebellion against God had been dealt with for the whole world. “God has consigned all men to disobedience so that he might have meercy on them all”. The prison door is open. The captives can walk free. This would not have been the case if Jesus died for Israel alone.

It may be argued that very little seems to be said about this wider story in the gospels, and the narrative of Jesus himself which they contain. It can also be argued that very little is said about the meaning and purpose of Jesus’s death on the cross for Israel in the gospels. The nearest we get to a commentary is not in explicit teaching at all, but in a passover meal. The meaning of the death of Jesus was contained in other actions and developments too: principally his resurrection. For Paul, this was the key to the meaning of Jesus as not only Israel’s messiah, but messiah to the whole world. His apostolic commission was contained in Isaiah 49: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob … I will also make you a light for the gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

What did it mean for Paul to “bring my salvation to the ends of the earth”? In the terms of the story outlined, the salvation brought to Israel was also the salvation brought to the world.The death of Jesus was for Gentile as well as Jewish sins, the resurrection of Jesus was for Jew and Gentile, and the doorway to the new creation. The significance of Israel’s story was that it was within Israel and her history that God was drawing together the world’s drama, and about to let it loose on the entire world. This was the meaning of “the fulness of time” in Galatians 4:4. The pivotal axis of this story can be seen in Romans 7, where Israel’s ‘struggle’ under the law, delighting in its precepts yet never able to deliver its requirements, reaches back to the primal story - verses 7-13 in particular.

Was Paul preaching a different gospel from Jesus? The one having the end of Jerusalem and the temple in view, the other pagan Rome? Nonsense. The death and resurrection of Jesus provided the key to a scriptural story which was larger than both, and still is today. It is this story which we should be preaching, and not at the expense of an Israel whose story was an essential part of it all.