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

Defending the narrative-historical definition of the kingdom of God

The last post on (re-)defining the kingdom of God in nine words elicited a couple of fair and well articulated objections to the narrative-historical approach on Facebook. I was invited to respond. The basic complaint, I think, is that the method is reductionist, leaving the church with too little to work with today. My response in a nutshell is that 1) in certain respects, yes, it is too reductionist; 2) in other respects the reductionism is necessary; and 3) the church needs to find new ways of working with the historically reduced narrative of the New Testament. Now in a bit more detail….

The first criticism is that the narrative historical template, which emphasises the political and sociological elements, lacks “transcendent power”: “it is earth-bound to the degree that God is only spoken of doing something in the current structures of this world and not mentioning the spiritual slavery and working of God in the heart and spiritual realm.”

There is nothing in the “template” that in principle precludes a strong emphasis on the transcendent. If it appears that way, it is largely because the method, as I have presented it, is a correction to an over-spiritualised, over-individualised, de-historicized presentation of faith-in-Christ in the modern era. The transcendent aspects can easily be re-instated.

1. Within the larger “political” narrative about God’s dealing with his people in relation to the nations we still encounter spiritual powers in the heavenly places that operate “behind” the earthly realities. In the ancient context the political and the spiritual, the mundane and the transcendent, are inseparable, not least when seen through the lens of Jewish apocalypticism. Jesus and the apostles believed that God’s people were enslaved to a malign supernatural power that came to be so closely identified with Rome that the overthrow of Rome resulted immediately in the subjugation of Satan (Rev. 20:1-3).

Gnosticism, I guess, was a sort of caricature of what biblical faith needed to become in order to gain traction in the Greek world—and as a caricature it highlights the extent of the rupture from the Jewish worldview.

2. My argument is then that it is this historically construed version of the kingdom narrative—not the abstract, existential dilemma of human sin—that frames and gives meaning to personal experience in the New Testament. If first century Jews and Gentiles came to believe in this outrageous story about the kingdom of God, how were they to respond? By repenting, confessing Jesus as the future Lord over the nations, calling on his name, and beginning a radically new life in the power of the Spirit.

So, for example, the faith of the Thessalonians was that the wrath of God would soon come on the whole system of pagan worship, but they would be delivered from this wrath by his Son from heaven (1 Thess. 1:9-10). The narrative defines the faith, for the simple reason that the faith is for the sake of the narrative. The seriousness of the personal dimension for the paradigm is also evident from the consistent emphasis that I put on suffering and martyrdom.

Whether it is meaningful for us today to speak of spiritual or angelic forces at work behind the historical experience of the church is something we can discuss. I doubt the Western church would do a very good job of it, but you never know. But there is no reason why the narrative-historical method should downplay the personal spiritual dimension: it merely insists on focusing it as a personal engagement with the God of history.

Secondly, it is argued that the template lacks hermeneutical subtlety. “It interprets everything in one way.” So in this case, the kingdom of God is interpreted too narrowly, and other important biblical themes are excluded. Exception is taken especially to a statement in this post: “Historical study gives us a historical Jesus who is the solution to a first-century Jewish problem.”

This criticism always irritates me a bit, if I’m honest, but it raises an important hermeneutical question. What is the purpose of a biblical text? We have been taught to read scripture in a certain way, and to expect certain things from it. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the dominant modern evangelical hermeneutic is a form of reader response theory: God has given us the sacred and inspired text, and we have the freedom and the responsibility to draw from it, as the Spirit leads, as the fancy takes us, the arguments, defences, stories, illustrations, definitions, etc., that will illuminate the sustain an elliptical theological programme centred around the two focal points of incarnation and redemption.

How about that for reductionism!

The standard evangelical template is so remote from the meaning of the Bible as to have more in common with second century Christian gnosticism than with the historically grounded, apocalyptically interpreted narrative that was generated by Jesus and his followers in the first century. Gnosticism, I guess, was a sort of caricature of what biblical faith needed to become in order to gain traction in the Greek world—and as a caricature it highlights the extent of the rupture from the Jewish worldview.

So when it is said that the narrative-historical hermeneutic lacks subtlety or is too restrictive, I suspect (though the suspicion may be unfounded in this particular case) that what is meant is that the reader is upset at not being allowed to do with the text what he or she wishes. We can’t make the Bible say theologically what we want it to say. We can’t make it serve our personal and ecclesial agendas.

My general approach, therefore, would be to impose a tighter hermeneutical discipline on the interpretation of scripture. I think the Bible makes more sense and is more credible when read historically. It is historically correct to say that the Synoptic Gospels present Jesus as the solution to a first century Jewish problem. Only once that point has been firmly established can we begin to explain—by way of the whole story—what he means for the world.

But I would also affirm theological creativity and the diversity of spiritual experience in the narrative spaces that open up after scripture: in the intensely fecund period of the church fathers, for example, or in the current traumatic reformation of the church in the West after Christendom.


re: “We can’t make the Bible say theologically what we want it to say. We can’t make it serve our personal and ecclesial agendas.”

Well, we can, if we don’t mind being post-modern. In that sense, I am tempted to think that the Church became post-modern while the rest of the world was still pre-modern.