Why the narrative-historical method is not a suppression of theology

In a new comment on an old post entitled “The battle between theology and history for the soul of the church: 24 antitheses” Matthew makes a sensible observation about the theological process. It comes, I guess, in response to the tendency I have to polarise “theology” and “history” as hermeneutical methods, as approaches to reading the New Testament: theological interpretation sets out with the aim of confirming or developing already established convictions about what constitutes “truth”; historical interpretation proposes to read the texts with a more or less open mind about what they “meant” in their original context. Resolving that tension is a key challenge facing the church today.

Matthew suggests, however, that it is not as simple as that. Here is what he says:

Even when using a narrative-historical approach to biblical interpretation, aren’t we still creating theological paradigms and drawing theological conclusions that are designed to make a spiritual difference both individually and corporately in lives and church communities? It seems we never, as the church, completely disengage from the theological process regardless of how we engage with the biblical texts interpretively speaking.

I think the simple difference is that we always ask how the theological paradigm relates to historical context—rather than simply allowing it to override historical context.

Some theological paradigms that arise within scripture effectively transcend history: God is creator, humanity seems consistently to reject this original cosmic premise, God has chosen a subsection of humanity since Abraham to represent his interests in the world and will sustain, redeem, reform, his people for that purpose, come what may….

But it is the “come what may”—the roller coaster ride of communal experience through history—that dominates the Biblical narrative, with the crisis of the first century being definitive in many respects but certainly not unique.

The historical substructure for the outlook of the New Testament is clear enough: Israel under Roman occupation, war against Rome, destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, eventual conversion of Rome to worship of the living creator God, etc.

So the “theology” that emerges in the New Testament is in effect an attempt to square the historical crisis with the “transcendent” convictions. Basically, how at this time will YHWH prove himself true to the promises made to the patriarchs? How will he ensure the continuation of a priestly-prophetic witness to himself in the world? How will he resolve the crisis?

Answer: by sending his Son, by raising him from the dead and exalting him to his right hand, by accepting his death as a propitiation for the age-old rebelliousness of his people, by pouring out the Spirit of prophecy and of a new covenant, on both Jews and Gentiles, to sustain and inspire the witness against Jerusalem and against Rome, and so on.

In other words, the whole story about Jesus—and the “theology” generated by it—is a response not to universal human sin but to the long history of Israel’s sin and the conflict between Israel and the nations. That is the crucial narrative-historical insight.

But the theology is not all transient, not everything is left behind. The coming of the Son of Man as a symbol of vindication and enthronement has come and gone. The confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the empire has ended, and a new age has dawned. Even the death of Jesus, arguably, as atonement, was a historical event that transformed the basis for participation in the people of God rather than a transcendent act of salvation to be appropriated personally.

But other aspects of the spectacular transition outlined in the New Testament remain firmly in place as the new conditions under which the people of the living creator God operates. Jesus died for the sins of Israel, but we benefit from that indirectly by participating in a redeemed people. We are accountable to him as Lord. We go about our communal priestly-prophetic work in the power of the Holy Spirit.

So here we have the basic narrative frame for our own theologising—our own constructive and creative reflection—at the tumultuous transition between the Holocene and the Anthropocene. The work of the Spirit of prophecy is not to impose ancient paradigms, whether biblical or patristic or Reformational or evangelical, whether they fit the context or not, but to inspire the continuing intelligent and faithful telling of the story.