The strengths (and weaknesses) of the narrative-historical method

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In a discussion of John 14:6 on the podcast site Home Brewed Christianity Justin makes this comment with reference to the narrative-historical hermeneutic that underpins much of what I have written on this blog and in my recent books:

…what I think is good about Andrew (as well as being his ultimate weakness) is that he advocates for an unflinching focus on the narrative-historical context of the text which circumvents any particular theology or doctrine by saying ‘what is the historical-narrative trajectory of the story’ and allows it to shape and define how we see God acting in scripture. Andrew attempts to remove any theological bias and fights against a practice of reading our theological orthodoxy and history backwards into the text. So in short… he advocates that for as much as humanly is possible we must allow the narrative to say only what it is saying to only the people it is saying it to only in the historical context it is said in. Many say they do this but I’ve not found anyone else that does it so methodically as he does.

This seems to me to be a pretty good summary assessment. Thank you, Justin. I want to address that parenthesis about the “ultimate weakness” of the methodology, but first I will outline what I take to be the essential theological content generated by the approach and then briefly list what I think are its main strengths. I have set out my understanding of the “I am the way and the truth and the life” saying here.

The theology of the narrative

  • At the centre of things is the continuing narrative of a people. Our “theology” is not about how individuals relate to God. It is about how a people from Abraham—whether or not he is to be regarded as a historical character—related to God. Past, not present, notice.
  • The dominant biblical narrative has to do not with salvation but with kingdom. From Babel onwards it is the story of how YHWH, the God of Israel, came to rule the pagan nations, not through the political and military strength of his people but, paradoxically, through their weakness; not through their religious superiority but through their sinfulness.
  • Jesus is a turning point because he embodies in himself the narrative of Israel’s failure and restoration. He dies because of the sins of Israel. He is raised from the dead for the sake of the future of God’s people.
  • According to Jesus’ analysis, Israel in the early part of the first century is travelling a broad path leading to war and the final collapse of its covenantal relationship with God, in the land promised to them, as determined by the Law and temple system.
  • Jesus forms around himself a radically different community—a community of faithfulness—which will have to find the narrow and difficult path leading to the renewed life of God’s people in the age to come, beyond the wrath of God. This is where the language of salvation comes into play.
  • The apostles of the early church find in Israel’s crisis of judgment and restoration the potential for an even more extraordinary outcome—the victory of Israel’s God over the Greek-Roman world.
  • Because Jesus made himself a servant to Israel in obedience to YHWH, he has been given authority by God to judge and rule the nations as “Lord”, as the one to whom every knee should bow.
  • The unforeseen inclusion of Gentiles in the family of Abraham is a sign that YHWH is God of the whole world and not of the Jews only.
  • The New Testament narrative climaxes, therefore, in judgment on Rome, when the churches are delivered from their persecutors, the martyrs are raised to reign with Christ, and the nations confess that Jesus is Lord.
  • We now live after that eschatological crisis. In fact, we live in a post-Christendom context, when the nations no longer confess Jesus as Lord. But the story of the family of Abraham continues: the churches are communities of a new creation people, under Jesus as King, empowered and governed in their corporate life by the Holy Spirit, always subject to grace, serving the true and living creator God.
  • That is a public, prophetic and priestly existence. It bears witness to God. It sets standards of righteousness—not self-righteousness—for the world. It offers people an alternative way of living, not subject to futility and death, but in the service of goodness and life, not alienated from God but reconciled to him.
  • There will be a final judgment of all the dead, the final destruction of all that is evil and hostile to God; and there will be a new heaven and new earth.  

The narrative-historical approach is good because it gives us…

  • Within the proper limits of enquiry, a historically and theologically coherent understanding of the New Testament and of its place in the overarching narrative of the people of God.
  • A stronger epistemological basis for a postmodern self-understanding.
  • An ecclesiology that reflects the full creational life of God’s people and the whole biblical narrative, not New Testament dynamics alone.
  • A narrative framework that embraces the unedited history of the church, that is not restricted to its more or less glorious Reformed or evangelical moments.
  • Grounds for making sense of and speaking prophetically about the current crisis of identity, credibility and purpose that the church in the West faces.
  • An approach to mission that does justice to the full social-political existence of the people of God in the world.

Weakness? What weakness?

Justin doesn’t explain why he thinks my “unflinching focus on the narrative-historical context of the text” is also my “ultimate weakness”. I presume he means that if we insist on allowing the narrative to say only what it is saying, only to the people it is saying it to, and only in the historical context it is said in, it will have nothing to say to us. 

If that’s what he means, then I think that he’s wrong, for three broad reasons.

1. There is much in scripture, even when narratively interpreted, that speaks directly and universally to the people of God. It is a fundamental premise of the narrative, for example, that there is only one God, who is to be worshipped and obeyed. That doesn’t change. The narrative tells us that Jesus will reign at the right hand of the Father until the final enemy, death, has been defeated. That isn’t going to change.

2. The narrative of history is linear but it is made up of analogous events. History repeats itself. So it is always going to be possible to learn from the past. For example, Jesus makes use of Daniel’s highly symbolic account of a second century B.C. crisis faced by Israel in order to make sense of a new but analogous first century A.D. crisis faced by Israel. That is standard prophetic practice, and I think that we are licensed to do the same.

3. The biblical narrative, from Babel to the victory of YHWH over Rome, is and always will be formative for the church. Peoples and nations never acquire a different founding narrative. There may be modifications and corrections in the light of better historical understanding or to acknowledge founding injustices—the decimation of aboriginal peoples, for example. But the people that now confesses Jesus as Lord can only ever be the descendants of the biblical people of God. We define who we are and what we are called to do by telling that story.

The narrative-historical paradigm will never do what the modern theological paradigm does. It is not designed to provide a reassuring account and defence of personal faith. It does not allow the willy nilly selection of texts in support of our various theological agendas. But that does not mean that scripture is thereby rendered powerless to inform and direct the life and mission of God’s people today. On the contrary, I think it gives us a far more powerful impetus to live fully in the world as God’s new creation people.

Justin vR | Mon, 11/19/2012 - 21:25 | Permalink

Hey Andrew, great post.  I hope by responding to it it means the guys at Homebrewed have contacted you to have a chat on the podcast?  Hope so cause I still think it woud be great.

Let me clarify what I meant by weakness, and sorry that I didn’t clarify it at Homebrewed.  

I don’t think it is because the end result is that the bible has nothing left to say to us.  In fact I think the opposite, I think it hones and sharpens what the bible has to say to us and effectively removes the incorrect focus on personal salvation and individual spirituality that the West is addicted to.

I guess what I mean (and this is my own refelction) — and I find this hard to articulate — is that as an approach it can feel very exclusive in the sense that it seems like it would shut the door on any conversation between Narrative-Historical and say, religious philosophy or rich religious thought that seeks to understand modern meta-physics and how it informs our perception of God like Process Theology.

So I suppose maybe my critique is how do we take our Narrative-Historical understanding, which is looking at a first century worldview, and integrate it with a 21st century worldview of science, meta-physics, politics, social understanding, human evolution etc etc?  I hope that makes sense, though I’m not sure it does…

@Justin vR:

Justin, that makes a lot of sense—I take your point entirely. Sorry I jumped to conclusions.

I think I would want to argue that the narrative-historical approach offers perhaps the best way to hold in tension the normative origins of the people of God and the various means by which we now contextualize our self-understanding.

Scripture is normative not in the sense that it provides a comprehensive and limiting blueprint for the life and thought of the church today. It is normative in the sense I suggested: it is the unalterable story of our origins and it puts in place some fundamental parameters for the corporate existence of the church.

That’s Wright’s 5 Act play model in effect, though I think we need to to compress scripture down to the first couple of Acts. There has been a lot of human history since then and possibly a lot more still to come.

How we engage, critically and constructively, with our own context is how we continue to tell the story. It seems to me that the new creation model encourages recourse to the full range of human intellectual and artistic expression. As I see it, this corresponds roughly to the function of Wisdom discourse within the ancient Jewish worldview, or perhaps to the work of a writer like Philo.

So very briefly, and at risk of over-simplification, I suggest that the narrative-historical approach establishes the diachronic dimension to our self-understanding as a people; the broadly philosophical approach that you describe constitutes the synchronic dimension.

@Andrew Perriman:

Hi Andrew,

Following on from the conversation with my brother Justin, the problem we have been wrestling is how we talk about God, and how does God really act in our world. When modern methods such as Process theology or Radical theology (which we both find interesting) attempt to articulate God’s action or character they all generally try to use scripture as the “backdrop” to their articulations. This obviously requires a certain hemaneutic lens.

The problem is that the way God is articulated within the Narrative-historical method tends to be Ontologicllay at odds with these other articulations of God.

Let me be specific, Justin and I had a sister who died as she waited for God to heal her of a treatable disease. Her theology was such that with the right amount of faith God would heal her. Her theology and what I feel the narrative-historic path leads to, is a God that is or can be unilaterally active when He chooses to be. This is problematic not only based on experience but ethically.

The question we are wrestling with is, can what we say, in light of these other philosophical methods of talking about God, be accomodated within the Narrative-historical framework? For us the issue is the tension between the way we talk about how God acted in the past and way we talk about how he acts now.

Hope that makes sense.

@Daniel vR:

Daniel, thanks for the further reflections and for the personal background. Very sad. We faced a similar situation years ago when a young woman in a Chinese church we attended in the Far East died of a brain tumour. The church attributed her physical condition to supernatural causes—demons, or something like that. When they eventually got her to the hospital, it was too late.

But that seems to me to be an example of bad theology, or of biblical theology very badly applied. I’ll try to write a separate response to your general questions, but I don’t think that the narrative-historical path leads us to an arbitrary or determinist God. That seems to me to be rather the product of a systematic theological method that is insensitive to the human-historical context. My argument is simply that, biblically speaking, this context is not merely personal. It is, in the first place, social and political.

What does the narrative-historical approach do for the individual? 

That bald question does not necessarily hide an individualistic agenda. In my study of the Psalms, it seems clear to me that there is a narrative arc, but the psalms do not ignore individuals either — David and his troubles (3, 51, 130), the unnamed individual as the voice of the exilic people (42, 43), the individual of Psalm 91 and so on.

For me, today, to study the psalms is to recapitulate these narratives, outlaw, abuser of power, and repentance (re David), exile and restoration, and confience in the context of the failure of the people as a whole (Psalm 91 responding to Psalm 90, itself a response to Psalm 89).

This study is potentially full of that same Spirit that informs the NT in which Jesus himself participates as individual and us in him (John 17). Altogether, one cannot have a community of the merciful without the individual as merciful. (Psalm 12:2h)

@Bob MacDonald:

David, of course, is not your average individual. As king he embodied the fate of the people in ways which would not have been true for every Jew. But that said, it’s clear from the Gospels and Acts that individuals featured in the story of Israel’s failure and redemption. The significance of the Pharisee in the temple is that he belongs to a wealthy complacent elite that will lose everything in the war. The significance of the widow is that the salvation of Israel is taking place at the margins.

peter wilkinson | Wed, 11/21/2012 - 09:29 | Permalink

So in short… he (Andrew) advocates that for as much as humanly is possible we must allow the narrative to say only what it is saying to only the people it is saying it to only in the historical context it is said in. Many say they do this but I’ve not found anyone else that does it so methodically as he does.

Even on these grounds, I think Andrew’s analysis is flawed. For instance, I pointed out in a recent comment that the role of Jesus in creation, finding its corresponding counterpart in his inauguration of the new creation, provides a broader narrative context which the NT radically foregrounds than Andrew allows. For Andrew, it’s a rather dim and distant horizon.

With this focus of creation/new creation in the immediate foreground, the role of faith is not primarily religio/political, as Andrew describes. Indeed, far from overthrowing pagan idolatrous empire, believers were to “submit (themselves) to the governing authorities” — Romans 13:1,5, and to “honour the emperor” - 1 Peter 2:17.

A much more radical narrative message emerges therefore in the NT through Jesus, and a more radical confrontation with the modus vivendi then and now.

All this is before we have even begun to unravel the inconsistencies which emerge in how being part of a people in Andrew’s account has any transforming effect on the persons which make up that people. The possibilities of such a transformation are precluded by the limitation of Jesus’s life/teachings/cross etc to their immediate 1st century recipients.

Much as I admire Andrew’s creative and innovative slant, and the methodical exegetical basis on which it rests, I’ve just got problems with it as soon as you start asking some very basic questions.

@peter wilkinson:

Fair enough Peter.  Where would a Berean start looking for theological framework that you personally would agree with?

@peter wilkinson:

…the role of Jesus in creation, finding its corresponding counterpart in his inauguration of the new creation, provides a broader narrative context which the NT radically foregrounds than Andrew allows. For Andrew, it’s a rather dim and distant horizon.

What the New Testament “radically foregrounds”, virtually on every page, is not new creation but kingdom—the coming reign of God, Jesus as King and Lord, the submission of the nations to Israel’s God. “Kingdom” in scripture, by any reckoning, is a religious-political category. It is about who is in charge, who reigns.

Kingdom is not new creation, for very good theological reasons, though the coming of God’s kingdom, as it turned out, entailed a unique act of new creation in the resurrection of Jesus. One of the things that God may do when he acts sovereignly is restore his people, to make them new, to make “her wilderness like Eden” (Is. 51:3).

My argument, however, is that from our point of view, after the coming of the reign of God, “new creation” is very much the issue. It was a dim horizon for the New Testament churches because religious-political concerns were much more prominent—the fate of Jerusalem, the hostility of the pagan world towards YHWH and his people. But we are very much concerned with the renewal of creation, as I have stated on countless occasions. This is exactly the horizon that we have to deal with.

…far from overthrowing pagan idolatrous empire, believers were to “submit (themselves) to the governing authorities” - Romans 13:1,5, and to “honour the emperor” - 1 Peter 2:17.

Yes, and why does Paul tell the Roman believers to bless those who persecute them—to bless men like Nero? Because vengeance belongs to the Lord. He will repay. Leave it to the wrath of God (Rom. 12:14-21). And what is Revelation about if not political judgment on the enemies of God and his anointed?

All this is before we have even begun to unravel the inconsistencies which emerge in how being part of a people in Andrew’s account has any transforming effect on the persons which make up that people.

Again, I have explained repeatedly (see, for example, The narrative-historical reading of the New Testament: what’s in it for me? Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) that the approach advocated here takes nothing away from the personal transformative power of the gospel. Nothing I have written limits the effects of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection to the first century.

@Andrew Perriman:

“Kingdom” in scripture, by any reckoning, is a religious-political category. It is about who is in charge, who reigns.

Yes, but you oversimplify “kingdom” by limiting it to a religious-political category. Nobody is suggesting an absence of power encounters between Jesus and authority systems, but the defining characteristics of the kingdom were illustrated in what it actually looked like, in Jesus’s earthly ministry, and in his on-going ministry through the church in Acts. It was not primarily a ‘religious-political’ challenge to the powers that be, though it could not avoid being that where they opposed him.

You are right in saying that the kingdom of God is not synonymous with new creation, and you are also right in saying they are nevertheless closely connected. You are significantly wrong, or incomplete, in how you define them. The kingdom of God, as brought and continuing to be brought by Jesus, releases the new creation, beginning with his earthly ministry, vastly and centrally accelerated through his death and resurrection, which formed the basis of unbroken continuity until today. The executive core of the new creation, as it was of the old creation in Genesis 1:2, is the empowering life of the Spirit, released on, in and through Jesus (Luke 4:18-19, Acts 2:33), being imparted to others through his victory over sin and death, which were Israel’s nemesis as they have been of creation, of the nations, and of ourselves.

You say

we are very much concerned with the renewal of creation, as I have stated on countless occasions

but actually, by the historic disconnection you have proposed between what Jesus did then with what we do now, you have removed any explanatory basis in content or in mandate for the current involvement of the church with the renewal of creation.

This historic disconnection also applies to your assertion

that the approach advocated here takes nothing away from the personal transformative power of the gospel

Leaving aside what you mean by ‘the gospel’, you have not provided any explanation for personal transformation today as it is coherently explained and provided for persons comprising the historic 1st century community. Simply to say that Jesus has become Lord for the new community is as much as to say God can do anything He wants without providing any explanation of how He does it.

@peter wilkinson:

Simply to say that Jesus has become Lord for the new community is as much as to say God can do anything He wants without providing any explanation of how He does it.

Peter, it’s very difficult to engage with your persistent criticisms when you don’t read what I have written. There is far more in those three posts to which I linked than the statement that Jesus is Lord for the new community. There is no historic disconnection: the situation established in the New Testament is still in force. We exist as God’s people under the same conditions, and one of those conditions is the indwelling, transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus died so that the people of God might be saved from condemnation. We are beneficiaries of that death. We have forgiveness of sins in his name, because he died for Israel. That is the explanation. We leave behind an old creation, we become enculturated into a new creation, we receive the Spirit, we learn the ways of God. We are transformed.

@Andrew Perriman:

We have forgiveness of sins in his name, because he died for Israel.

Andrew — as you know very well, this is no explanation at all, and you have never at any point explained how transformation for a believing remnant in  Israel (not Israel itself) becomes transformation for us, when the means of that transformation which apply to them do not apply to us.