The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1

Read time: 4 minutes

A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament, which I strongly advocate, perhaps too strongly at times, makes the straightforward assumption that the theological content of the New Testament—its proclamations, arguments, instructions, doctrines, etc.—cannot be properly understood apart from the historical narrative by which, explicitly or implicitly, this material is framed.

This means that in order to understand what the New Testament is saying about God or Jesus or salvation or mission we have to take into account the past, present and future of the texts: i) the past story of Israel as interpreted through the Old Testament and other Jewish writings; ii) the present circumstances of the emerging communities that produced and read the texts; and iii) the foreseen future of these communities, their historical horizons. The future dimension still gets consistently overlooked, even in narrative approaches such as Tom Wright’s, which is remarkable given the thoroughgoing apocalyptic character of so much of the New Testament.

One basic consequence of the narrative-historical approach is that what we find in the New Testament is not primarily a gospel of personal salvation or teaching about how to live a good Christian life. What we find is the story of a people going through a protracted and traumatic historical crisis, a crisis which is radically reinterpreted in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The theological content of the New Testament all belongs to that reinterpretation: “wrath” has reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of pagan imperialism; “gospel” is the announcement that God is about to transform the status of his people vis-à-vis the nations; Jesus’ death is an atonement for the sins of Israel, the means by which the people of God would escape complete destruction; “justification by faith” has reference to the historical vindication of those who believed that Israel’s God would make his Son, Israel’s king, Lord of the nations; and so on.

But where does that leave us as Christians today? What’s in it for me? Well, the simple answer is that we are the people that went through the eschatological crisis that is narrated in the New Testament—and, indeed, a number of other crises, not least the collapse of Christendom, since the overthrow of pagan imperialism and the conversion of the empire. We bear the scars. We live with the consequences of the transformation that was brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus, just as Old Testament Israel lived with the consequences of the exodus as a defining redemptive event.

For evangelicals today, however, conditioned by their history, theology and culture to prioritize the interests of the individual, this way of relating to the New Testament sounds much too detached and depersonalized. We have become theologically reliant on a paradigm that makes personal salvation the unmovable centre of Christian thought. It requires a considerable leap of the imagination to shift from a universalizing, concentric, synchronic theological model to a particularizing, linear, diachronic historical model, but it has to be done. Certainly it has to be done for the sake of an intelligent and consistent understanding of the New Testament, but I would also argue that in the long run the personal dimensions to our theology—pastoral and evangelistic—should also be reconstructed in keeping with the narrative-historical reading.

This imperative simply reflects the fact that our intellectual culture has moved beyond the Christendom mindset that has dominated since the Jewish-Christian movement was first Hellenized. A major element in the breakdown of the Christendom mindset was the rise of a critical historical consciousness; but I think that the critical historical consciousness, having undergone some post-modern adjustments, is now working for us rather than against us, guiding us towards a much more robust and cogent way of constructing our theology.

So what does it mean in practice to live with the consequences of the eschatological transition described in the New Testament? In a comment a couple of days ago I put together a rough and ready list of ways in which we might begin to speak of personal application consistent with the narrative-historical approach:

Under the narrative-historical reading, if you enter a transformed people, you have to be transformed…. You have still to deal with the legacy of personal sin. You have to trust that the death and resurrection of Jesus have completely changed the terms and conditions for knowing God. You have to reckon with the supreme lordship of Jesus over the forces that rule the old creation. You have to deal with the indwelling, life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. You have to stand in worship before the creator God. You have to learn a new type of obedience to righteousness.

In the next two posts I will try to unpack these thoughts a bit further, beginning with personal sin and the death of Jesus. I do not think that the narrative-historical hermeneutic leaves us without a viable practical theology for today.

There is much that I like about your “narrative-historical” approach to the Scriptures.  There is also, however, a subtle misalignment that, if corrected, would open more of the Scripture and advance more of your agenda.  That misalignment is that you have as the focal point of your interpretive view the people of God.    The proper alignment, however, would be to focus on Christ.  

As I say, this misalignment is subtle and some might consider it irrelevant.  I ask, however, that you give it consideration.  

@Mike Gantt:

Mike, this post was written largely in response to the charge that the narrative-historical approach has no practical pay-off, which is why the emphasis here is primarily on the communities that had to make sense of their existence in the light of the story that was being told about God’s annexation of the Greek-Roman through Jesus. I also think it is important for evangelicals to put the people of God and not the individual at the centre of the biblical story. But the community story is precisely the story by which Jesus came to be confessed not only by Israel but by the nations as the one to whom authority had been given to judge and rule. In the end the story of the people and the story of the Christ are inseparable, but I have no problem giving theological priority to Jesus.

@Andrew Perriman:


Thanks for your response but I’m not sure you are taking my suggestion seriously.  Try thinking of it this way:  As focusing on the people of God is an improvement over focusing on the individual, so focusing on Christ is an improvement over focusing on the people of God.

@Mike Gantt:

I’m not sure I see your problem. How does “I have no problem giving theological priority to Jesus” not meet your objection?

@Andrew Perriman:

It sounded like you thought your current approach already accomplished what I was suggesting.  Perhaps it does, but imagine that someone told you, “I like your narrative-historical approach which causes you to focus on the people of God but my approach of focusing on individual salvation already incorporates it.”

Nevertheless, I don’t want to make a nuisance of myself.  If my suggestion makes no sense to you, just regard it.  Perhaps we can interact on other issues in the future, or even return to this one if either of us can find a fresh angle.  There’s no sense in our butting heads.

Doug in CO | Mon, 06/04/2012 - 21:26 | Permalink

I think the weak part in your theory is the role of Israel in redemptive history.  It seems to me that the Old Covenant nation was set up as a foil to teach the rest of humanity about how God wants to work.  The work of Christ unwinds the problems of both groups because the Israelites were meant to teach the Gentiles how God was going to save.  So, if you opened up the scope of the narrative to the time before Abraham I think the pieces would fall into place better.

But, you have a very good point about the American habit of making membership in the people of God a sort of individual quest for knowlege or growth (can you say Gnostic influence?).  I recently read through the Didache with a friend who’d never seen it before.  For those of you who are unfamiliar, it was a sort of new believer’s guide written very early in church history and was widely respected for hundreds of years.  Here’s a copy:…

You’ll notice a distinct lack of “personal relationship with Christ” (the Invisibilibuddy approach) or other things that we consider mandatory.  It’s not canonical, so I’m not saying that there aren’t some problems with it.  But, it’s working looking at to appreciate what they considered to be important. 

peter wilkinson | Tue, 06/05/2012 - 09:14 | Permalink

I anticipate reading the subsequent posts, Andrew. But I think it’s time to move on from caricaturing those who disagree with you, such as:

evangelicals today, however, conditioned by their history, theology and culture to prioritize the interests of the individual

Rather than caricature disagreement as an obsession with the individual, why not seriously respond to the constructive criticism that your narrative historical account has weaknesses when applied to the on-going life of the believer beyond the 1st-3rd centuries?

I look forward to seeing how subsequent posts develop the theme.

@peter wilkinson:

“…your narrative historical account has weaknesses when applied to the on-going life of the believer beyond the 1st-3rd centuries?”

Good point on which to focus, Peter.  I, too, hope Andrew will address this.  (I say this from curiosity and interest, not polemics.)

@peter wilkinson:

Hi Peter,

I’m guessing you can’t see the irony in going in to bat for the ‘life of the (individual) believer beyond the 1st-3rd centuries’…

It seems to me that Andrews observation, which you unfairly put in the negative as ‘caricature’, is a fairly reasonable summation.

I genuinely don’t want to come off as nasty but have you ever considered a blog to air your criticisms?

@peter wilkinson:

I don’t regard the statement that modern evangelicalism is over-preoccupied with the “interests of the individual” as a caricature. It seems to me that there is widespread agreement, even among evangelicals, that this is a fair analysis. I have heard very few sermons that do not make reference to the New Testament with the sole purpose of addressing matters of personal faith and conduct. Someone in the group of grown-up sensible Anglicans in Chelmsford made the point that much of our current theology merely connives with our individualistic culture in focusing on personal needs. No one seemed to disagree.

I also have to say that I do not regard the statement “your narrative historical account has weaknesses when applied to the on-going life of the believer beyond the 1st-3rd centuries” as “constructive criticism”. A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament does not have to apply beyond its own historical horizons. It only has to make good sense within its proper historical horizons. It does not stand or fall by whether I can demonstrate its applicability to people today. A historical reading only has to demonstrate the applicability of the New Testament writings to the communities for which they were actually written.

It is another question, then—a perfectly reasonable question, but another question—whether the later church can still make practical use of the texts. I have no doubt that it can and should, for the simple reason that scripture as a whole assumes the continuing existence of the people of God beyond the eschatological crisis of the 1st to 3rd centuries. Indeed, the eschatological crisis was precisely so that God’s new creation people, called through Abraham, would have a viable future, as I argue in my book The Future of the People of God.

@Andrew Perriman:

We can be glad that the priests and Levites in Nehemiah 8 did not take this “Marie Antoinette” attitude.

The true people of God always want to know how to please Him and are not content with merely hearing about how other people pleased Him.

@Mike Gantt:

Mike, I really think you’re missing my point. I’m not saying for one minute the post-biblical people of God only knows or pleases God vicariously, through the experiences and words of the biblical people of God. Quite the opposite. The debate here is over how our experience of God relates to their experience of God. How is our identity determined by what was written to the people of God two thousand years ago under very different historical or eschatological conditions?

@Andrew Perriman:

I don’t regard the statement that modern evangelicalism is over-preoccupied with the “interests of the individual” as a caricature

You actually said:

conditioned by their history, theology and culture

which I do regard as a caricature: of myself and many others. I don’t regard a group of ‘grown-up sensible Anglicans’ meeting in Chelmsford as necessarily representative of the Christian community as a whole.

A narrative-historical reading of the New Testament does not have to apply beyond its own historical horizons. It only has to make good sense within its proper historical horizons.

Exactly. This is the substance of my criticism. Not only does it not have to apply to people today, but my argument is that, as you have presented it, it doesn’t, and that my criticisms still stand.

@peter wilkinson:

Peter, I don’t see what is so offensive about “conditioned by their history, theology and culture”. Aren’t you over-reacting? We are all conditioned by our history, theology and culture.

I actually think that evangelicals have had good reason, especially in view of their history, to place a central emphasis on the personal response of the individual in order to revitalize the institutional church. The mistake has been to allow that correction now to become normative for theology and determinative for New Testament interpretation.

I also made the point in the post that the possibility of a narrative-historical reading is itself historically conditioned—it is the evolution of intellectual culture that has enabled us to develop and defend an alternative to the dominant theological paradigms of Christendom.

@Andrew Perriman:

Maybe I was becoming rather narrative-hysterical. I think the accusation of evangelical individualism is overdone, though. An individual personal response to God is a scriptural response — as the history of individual responses in OT (Noah, Abraham, Moses, Gideon, David, Elijah, psalms, the prophets etc), and NT (Jesus’s interactions with individuals, Peter’s restoration, Philip in the desert and the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul’s conversion and his Philippians declaration etc) testify.

As far as I can see, the great evangelical reformers and their multifarious descendants were all developing theology in an ecclesiological as much as individual context. This is true of Wycliffe, Huss, Anabaptists, Calvin, Wesley, Whitfield (or his followers), Edwardes, Finney, Jeffries brothers, today’s neo Pentecostals and neo Calvinists. What happens to the individual is of direct importance to the church which is being built around their faith and experiences. Revivals in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries arose from the reformed (or modified reformed) presentations of the gospel, and were mass movements. The Welsh revival likewise a mass movement.

Although a greater emphasis is being given to a corporate understanding of the NT in particular today, the various messages of the NT have to be filtered through an individual understanding and application in the first place. Nobody can respond to God corporately, in the first place. But an individual may be part of a group of people making a response, and an individual response leads directly to participation in a corporate entity — the body of Christ, the church.

I think we have Enlightenment culture and thinking to blame for individualism, not evangelical interpretations of scripture, and should direct our artillery at the targets accordingly.

@peter wilkinson:

Its is a really interesting discussion here. The case made by this blogpost is really important as I see it. I see so much individualistic lenses as we read and understand the bible that many of us evangelisals cannot see the coorperate view of how we as people of God live out the mission of God. I would have hundreds of examples of how this is played out in leading a church, doing evangelism and other areas. Just one for now: In my homechurch ( I am a missionary in Asia) preachers would only talk to individuals gathered together, but not to us as a whole group. Mistakes where only individual mistakes, but not mistakes as a whole church. Is is always something wrong with the indivudual, that can easely be exluded, but never be something wrong with us as a community. Jesus is adressing the  churches in the Johannine relevation as a coorperate groups, not as individuals. It often played out to blame individuals for mistakes, that we as a church did. Someone was sinning, so the misery of the whole church was to blame on him, and he could be excluded. Many have suffered under this kind of individualistic understanding of the NT. In fact it does not lead to loving communities that practice compassion and help to bear each others burdens.

In my missionary experience, this is really confusing to Asian people, because they think the gospel destroys they communities and families. But when they read the bible they see a very different picture. like the first church in Jerusalem, where faith in Jesus was all about community and breaking down the social barriers.

Mark Horton | Sun, 11/08/2020 - 19:00 | Permalink

I wish I had read this eight years ago!  The debate between Christ or His People centricity is moot.  The two are now one flesh.  The gospel of individual salvation can never properly teach the eternal purpose of God.  He reigns spiritually on earth by indwelling sanctified and purified believers. We must go forth boldly now as the prophets of old, a minority voice in our own land.