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.