This was prompted by a conversation with a London School of Theology student about his dissertation proposal for the distance learning MA in Aspects and Implications of Biblical Interpretation. It’s just another attempt to clarify what I have been calling the narrative-historical method, though from my own peculiar, idiosyncratic, obsessive point of view—others will see things differently. Coincidentally, Mike Mercer posted a piece on Internet Monk today entitled “The Big Picture of Andrew Perriman’s Narrative-Historical Scheme”. It focuses mainly on the content of the narrative. What follows here is an outline of the hermeneutical method underpinning the reading.
1. The narrative-historical method endeavours to determine how the texts of the New Testament, as theological documents, made sense in their original historical context and how to work with the constraints of that perspective. The approach is driven not by historical interest only but by the conviction that the New Testament speaks more cogently and more powerfully to the church today on this basis.
2. The emphasis on narrative draws attention to the fact that historical context is not merely the immediate present circumstances: there are past and future dimensions to it. The teaching and actions of Jesus and the apostles are shaped by a sense of narrative—of what has brought matters to this point and of what lies ahead.
3. The past bears on the present as historical memory. In the New Testament this memory is embedded primarily in the Jewish scriptures, but also in the occasional recollection of historical events (e.g., Lk. 13:1-5) and perhaps in tacit historical or apocalyptic traditions. A major part of narrative-historical reading, therefore, is the recovery of the Old Testament narratives and arguments that have shaped the New Testament narratives and arguments.
4. The narrative-historical method assumes that there is no fundamental hermeneutical shift between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Jesus and the apostles share the same prophetic consciousness as the prophets of the Old Testament. They speak about what God is doing in history through and for the sake of his people.
5. The narrative-historical method falls between historical-criticism and theological interpretation, but relates to them in different ways. It mostly resists theological interpretation as potentially, but not inevitably, anachronistic and weighted in favour of one tradition or other. It makes use of historical-critical tools for the purpose of recovering the historical meaning of the texts, but it resists the inherent scepticism of the method. In other words, the method reads forwards rather than backwards.
6. The narrative-historical method does not have an inherent bias against miracles, penal substitutionary atonement, a high christology, or trinitarianism. It simply asks how such elevated concepts were formed and how they functioned under the dominant narrative-historical frame of the New Testament.
7. The narrative-historical method addresses the meaning of the texts not their authenticity or veracity. It is concerned much more with the relationship between the texts and the historical communities which produced and read them than with the relationship between the texts and the historical reality to which they refer. The method is broadly canon-friendly.
8. That said, the narrative-historical method assumes a historical frame of reference, from the perspective of the New Testament communities, for the theological content of the New Testament. Rather than suppose that the characteristic language and argumentation has reference to universal abstractions, we ask first to what concrete events, circumstances and experiences such words as gospel, kingdom, judgment, salvation, justification, faith, destruction, resurrection, age to come refer.
9. The narrative-historical method also assumes limited historical horizons. It allows for the possibility that Jesus looked no further ahead than the war against Rome, or that Paul was chiefly preoccupied with an eventual victory of Christ over the gods of the ancient pagan world. The method highlights a realistic “political” layer of narrative between the personal story of redemption and the cosmic story of God and creation. The narrative-historical method is not Preterist. It is historical-realist.
10. If we are to be consistent hermeneutically, I suggest that what principally connects the New Testament with the church today is the continuing historical narrative of God’s people. I think it is misleading to accommodate the historical distance by differentiating between what the text meant and what the text means. It means what it meant. Within the narrative frame there are certainly direct lessons to be learnt, and I do not discount analogical reading, but the New Testament is formative for the church today primarily because it explains what happened at a critical moment in the history of the people of God.