Is the promise of the narrative-historical approach real or illusory?

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I'm participating in a small forum on, among other things, critical realism somewhere in the damp, green depths of the English countryside at the moment. Critical realism can be addressed from different angles, but one major area of relevance for Christian preachers, teachers, and theologians is the current movement towards historical readings of the New Testament. Critical realism has been used by people like Tom Wright to situate such readings between the naïve realism of modernist historiography and the radical epistemological scepticism of postmodernism.

But the question still arises: What is the relationship between the historical reading and other more devotional, pastoral or theological readings? The example was given yesterday of a woman in theological education who had felt led by the Spirit to give a verse of scripture to someone in desperate need of comfort and encouragement, looked at the narrative context, realized it was contextually inappropriate, didn't give the verse, and then regretted it later. So does the historical reading have any sort of priority or greater authority than other readings? Do we still have to fall back on a hermeneutic pluralism if scripture is to be comprehensively formative for the church?

Others arrive at the same dilemma by a rather more pessimistic route. Given the fragmentation of Christian "truth" and the current hermeneutical disarray, why should we think that the narrative-historical approach is anything other than one more despairing attempt to shore up a radically failing system? So the question is not whether all methods are equally good but whether all are equally pointless.

This is partly where Joseph Miller ends up in a thoughtful and articulate email that he sent to me. I don't usually do "guest posts" as such, but I think this is worth quoting in full. I won't attempt to give any direct "advice" here, but the questions he poses are very important. What is the epistemological status of the the narrative-historical approach. How does it relate to other readings? And more troublingly, is our current interest in it a sign of hope or a symptom of despair? Is the promise real or illusory? Here is Joseph's piece...


With respect to the narrative-historical hermeneutic, I sense that it possesses a greater degree of sensitivity to the actual storyline of scripture and the ancient mindset behind it, as opposed to what we understand (or can understand) through the prism of modern evangelical definitions of the “literal, grammatical, historical” method of interpretation. As you have pointed out in previous posts defining narrative theology, much of what evangelicalism today calls faithfulness to the Bible and Christian truth is actually more of a faithfulness to a form of theology extrapolated from the text, which has been developed within the confines of historical/cultural movements peculiar to particular communities within the western (Caucasian) world. Consider in the United States, for example, how much attention has been given to working out a literal and scientific interpretation to the Genesis account of creation in the face of fundamentalist atheism in the last 100 years, and how much bearing acceptance of a literal six-day creation narrative has on someone’s identity as a Christian theist in those circles. The definition of what it means to even be a Christian has become more and more narrowly defined as a result of the conclusions wrought from such culture wars.

From what I have personally experienced growing up in an evangelical church exposed to strict definitions of what it means to be a Christian based on the understanding of salvation as a personal, individualistic “love relationship” with Jesus Christ, I see that a culture has developed which views alternative approaches to the Christian narrative framework with intense suspicion and distrust. This could be the result of the inadvertent placement and relationship between various epistemological nodes within the fabric of their Christian reality, but it largely has to do with the absolute primacy placed on “salvation” from “a Hell you deserve to a Heaven you don’t.” In fact, within that culture, almost any issue considered important to a Bible-believing Christian becomes an inviolable standard in a long row of tenets requiring surveillance lest any-one fall and topple the entire structure of Christian belief and identity. When the Heaven-Hell salvation paradigm stands at the core of Christian truth, there is indeed no higher ultimatum and no more relevant question than what becomes of our “eternal destiny.” Other questions pertaining to immediate issues in this life, such as those relating to social justice or volunteerism, can easily be minimized as a mis-focusing of our Christian mission to preach the Gospel and fulfill the Great Commission.

Preoccupation with the question, “What must I do to be saved?” in the evangelical context I’m familiar with has driven into the ground the ability of many believers to relate to society and engage with diverse mindsets in an understanding, intelligent way, to the effect that many of those I have seen grow up in the church end up becoming disaffected with Christianity because they don’t have the tools to actually makes sense of their Christian identity in a way that is consistent with its teachings yet able to make distinctions in the world without oversimplifying the categories or narrowly grasping the labels they’ve always applied to it. The strongest Christians, unfortunately, are often the ones who are least in touch with their own social and historical context, and who are therefore out of touch with the application of their faith in living communities of people outside of their own church congregation.

Because of this background experience with Christianity, I have struggled much in finding a way to reconcile my desire to know God, serve Christ and relate to others (Christian or non-Christian) with the perceptions of my own Christian communities that I find to be highly affected by our intellectual history and cultural viewpoint. As far as seeking grounding in a Christian universe is concerned, as well as developing convictions about doctrinal truths and a definable Christian viewpoint on a given subject, I find myself existing within the space of Christian identity but floating without course and possibly drifting towards some landmark outside of that domain.

This all brings me to the question, why hold on to any hermeneutical approach to the New Testament at all when the manner in which Christian communities have held onto their own throughout the centuries is largely aberrant in some fundamental sense from the perspective of some other disassociated and equally self-assured Christian community? In a tangential sense, I feel like a narrative-historical approach to the NT is actually the same situation working out in the thoughts of disaffected evangelicals, in which we are responding to a cultural/historical intellectual crisis of our own and are merely developing ways of coping with the difficulties of holding on to Christian conviction in a postmodern age. Is the struggle even worth it after all? It seems that embracing all approaches to Scripture as meaningful within the communities that embrace them is the only way to find a middle ground. Will we ever be able to land on any “true” understanding of the Christian narrative as long as culturally—and perceptually—bound Christianity exists?

Obviously, I believe it is worth it to find a middle way and correct the excesses of any approach to Christ and his message, but at what point does the constant tweaking and readjusting of our perceptions trail off into an inane pursuit that has no measurable result over however many years we are engaged in it? Is that not the perennial struggle Christians have faced even up to the present day? What is your advice to a man who is not willing to push Christianity out and still sees its premises as more valid than those of any other worldview meta-narrative, yet finds an increasing disenchantment with Christianity itself due in part to the meaningless struggles it seems to generate between professing Christians?

re: “Will we ever be able to land on any “true” understanding of the Christian narrative as long as culturally—and perceptually—bound Christianity exists?”

The writer’s core question is one of the oldest: Will the real God/Jesus/Christianity please stand up? What is the One True Truth? We long for certainty, for a single static answer. But the universe is not built that way; it operates by change and creativity.

As long as human beings are culturally embedded (which is as close to One True Truth as we seem to have), we will have varying understandings and interpretations of what Christianity is for us. It can be no other way. On one hand, we can continue the poignant longing for a single answer, as the writer does. On the other hand, embedded in the fact of our obvious God-given cultural diversity we might also see another One True Truth, which is that God has so designed things that God’s expression happens in more than one voice, both within Christianity and without. Maybe it’s time we get used to that.

Doug in CO | Sun, 06/17/2012 - 01:57 | Permalink

It seems to me that the drift from the original narrative began very early.  I have pitched “Moral Transformation” by Wallace and Rusk,…

in the past.  My point was that I think it provides a very good critique of modern, sterile theology that ignores what the early church believed.  Though I think that a synthesis of the approach of  Andrew, Wright, Brondos, and Wallace and Rusk (and maybe VanLandingham) is very powerful, it still leaves us with the questions presented above:  is it necessary? and is it the point God is after?

Another nagging question is the emphasis on the history of the church and its doctrine west of Jerusalem.  It’s worth remembering that for the first 1,000 years the largest portion of the church was east of Jerusalem, so the significance of our recent misfortune might not be what we think.

“Maybe it’s time we get used to that.”

Yes and no.

Yes, it is the reality in which each generation lives. We cannot escape not only diversity, but divergent approaches to life and faith in general. Sometimes that results in Christians taking more of their local cultural baggage on than should be — and become syncretists who argue for the primacy of their position. And sometimes we get nasty, because we want to protect (or expand) our local turf.

No, if that’s a short way to push the agony aside. Each generation needs to find it’s own ways to weed through conflict and diversity. The narrative/historical model is for me — at least as much as I understand it — an attempt to do just that by reminding us of story and context, and challenging us to think afresh about the core issues of being a follower of Jesus. And the next generation will have to do the same again. My hope is that some of us can leave enough of a pattern of critical thinking about our own assumptions to challenge others to do the same. But it will, and should produce agony — that’s one of the means for prodding us to think again.

‘“Maybe it’s time we get used to that.” Yes and no.’

For me it is more NO than Yes. I am very frustrated by the church’s dis-inclination, resistance, or sometimes even refusal to pursue an historical, 1st C. Jewish understanding of The Gospel. I’m encouraged, on the other hand, by theological efforts in that direction: N T Wright, Scot McKnight, J D G Dunn, Richard Hayes, Chris Wright, others, and their forbears and successors.

If we decide to just get used to a multiplicity of equally valid voices speaking for God then there may not be a God other than the god of pan-entheism, a god evolving within everything else that is evolving. That would be easy to get used to since it would literally be a “No Brainer.” Loving commitment to God’s Word, proclaiming the Gospel of God’s love, faithful discernment of who God is and what he asks of us through his/er self revelation would be easy since there would be nothing to get used to.

In the words of Cole Porter

“that’s why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love

Cold Cape Cod clams, ‘gainst their wish, do it
Even lazy jellyfish do it
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love”

with God’s Word. REALLY??