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How “liberal” is the narrative-historical method?

Friedrich Schleiermacher

What’s the difference between “liberal” and “progressive” Christianity? It’s a good question. Roger Olson, who knows a thing or two about American liberal theology, vents his frustration with a publisher who insists that “progressive” is the new “liberal.” Nonsense, Olson says. Progressives are mostly disaffected young evangelicals who are in favour of the unqualified inclusion of LGBTQ people. Liberal Christianity is a long-established theological tradition, going back to the nineteenth century German theologian Schleiermacher, and he briefly lists what he regards as its ten defining characteristics.

Since my approach in this blog has sometimes led to some unconventional theological conclusions, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to measure the output of the narrative-historical method, as I have implemented it, against Olson’s ten point liberal yardstick.

1. A naturalistic theism, belief in a God who does not intervene supernaturally in history or nature.

For the narrative-historical method, it is more important to affirm that God intervenes in history than that he intervenes in nature. Against the standard modern evangelical insistence on a personal relationship with God and the confession that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour, I argue that scripture witnesses, from beginning to end, to the dynamic presence of the creator God in the historical experience of his people, for better or for worse. It is far more significant that God judged his people by means of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome than that Jesus walked on the water. In fact, the “miracles” of Jesus depend for their meaning on the larger “political” narrative about the failure of first century Israel and the traumatic process of healing and restoration.

2. An emphasis on God’s immanence over God’s transcendence.

The point here is that liberalism is much more comfortable with the idea that the kingdom of God is something that happens in human hearts rather than in human history. The old liberal interpretation of Jesus’ saying about the kingdom of God being “within you” is wrong (Lk. 17:20). The saying, however exactly it is parsed, is part of the story about the future vindication of the Son of Man. Conservatives, of course, also fail to take the God of history seriously and get Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom wrong by deferring its fulfilment to the end of the world.

3. A critical stance toward the Bible as primarily human but “our sacred stories,” inspired insofar as inspiring.

The narrative-historical method reads scripture in the first place as the testimony of a changing historical community over a long period of time. The validity of the method hangs crucially on the recovery, in the last several decades, of the essential Jewishness not only of Jesus but also of the apostolic mission in the wider Greek-Roman world. The liberal tradition has yet to come to terms with this, and although progressive Christianity is probably more aware of the new perspectives, it is still too committed to modern ethical agendas to let the New Testament speak for itself.

The narrative-historical method, therefore, is in a “critical” relationship with multiple modernising strategies.

It is important to establish as best we can the historical relationship between the text and the individual or community which produced and first read the text. It is also important to understand the genre of the text, which means not least understanding the messy nature of historical testimony. But I am more interested in why the ancient Israelites told—or more precisely, retold—a story about a great flood than in whether the catastrophe happened in quite the manner described. I am more interested in the meaning of the story of Jesus calming the storm than in whether the incident actually took place.

4. A low Christology in which Jesus Christ is NOT God incarnate but the model of humanity.

Here’s another unnecessarily restrictive dichotomy. On the whole, I am not persuaded that the New Testament presents Jesus as “God incarnate.” I think that the core witness is that the Son who was sent to the vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of Israel’s God, eventually to act as judge and ruler over both Israel and the nations of the ancient world. That is the kingdom of God theme. It dominates the New Testament from beginning to end and constantly needs to be asserted against traditional orthodox readings.

But the liberal idea that Jesus models an ideal humanity is just as flawed. What Jesus modelled for his immediate followers and for the early churches, in Palestine and in the wider world, was an ideal Jewish faithfulness in a time of eschatological transition. The image of Christ to which the apostles and churches were being conformed was the pattern of faithfulness, opposition, suffering, and death, in the hope eventually of sharing in his resurrection life, vindication, and public recognition or glory. Jesus was not everyman, nor even every Jew.

5. A belief that “salvation” means spirit overcoming nature; the human person becoming his or her best self in relation to God.

Again, I maintain that both the essentially humanistic soteriology of liberalism and the conservative absolutising of personal salvation miss the point. Both perspectives are essentially modernist; they presuppose Enlightenment convictions about the autonomy of the individual.

Salvation in the New Testament is a political matter. Israel faced destruction because of its long history of rebellion and sin against YHWH. Through his life and death Jesus opened up a narrow and difficult path leading to a new future for the people of God; and Jews would be saved only by taking up their own crosses of persecution and following him.

The success of this salvation-of-Israel-by-suffering introduced the possibility that Gentiles might in turn be saved from the wrath that would come subsequently on the pagan world. If the resurrection of Jesus brought into view the eventual rule of YHWH’s Son over the nations of the Greek-Roman world, the death of Jesus’ was found to have removed the dividing wall of Torah (Eph. 2:14-16), allowing Gentiles as Gentiles to share in the hope of this future kingdom.

I think that we face a similar quandary today, at least in the West. Will God save his people from obsolescence? Will those who are saved be few? What is required of us to be part of any new future that might be in store?

6. Symbolic realism—belief that religious symbols, especially Christian ones, have power to transform persons even if they do not “connect” with historical events….

This takes us back to point three. It may well be true that Christian symbolism has the power to transform persons, but the question is whether the early churches believed that political-religious transformation was happening through the power of religious symbols. It seems to me that there is no question that they believed that the man Jesus had been raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father, and that this would soon have world-shattering consequences both for Israel and for nations of the Greek-Roman world. This historical conviction, inspired by the Holy Spirit, interpreted through the language, narratives, images, and symbols of the Jewish scriptures, led to all sorts of personal transformations.

7. Belief in eventual universal salvation (no hell except lack of God-consciousness in this life).

As soon as we start thinking in narrative-historical terms, universal salvation becomes a non-starter. The nearest we get is Paul’s waning hope that if not before then after the catastrophe of judgment “all Israel”—that is, Israel as a nation and not as a faithful remnant—would repent of its apostasy and confess Jesus as Lord and Christ (Rom. 11:26-27). See also my critique of David Bentley Hart’s universalism. I agree, as it happens, that there is no “hell,” but the liberal solution is no more useful exegetically than the traditional doctrine.

8. Elevation of ethics over doctrine to the point that doctrines do not really matter very much; they are always changing in every generation and culture.

This highlights the fact that modern liberalism is largely a reaction against modern conservative theologies which, as a mark of their profound intellectual insecurity, have reduced biblical faith to a pointless grid of doctrines. I’m not sure what is supposed to be “changing in every generation and culture”—ethics or doctrines? But the narrative-historical method, if applied consistently, has to reckon with major changes of direction in the storyline, one way or another. You cannot have historical testimony without historical change.

So, for example, I argue in End of Story? Same-Sex Relationships and the Narratives of Evangelical Mission that the rise of modernity has the same narrative weight as the expulsion of Israel from the land and the establishment of Christ’s rule over the nations of the Greek world—and therefore must also be factored into our evaluation of same-sex relationships.

The same goes for the shift to the Anthropocene and the immense challenge to human culture presented by climate change. The liberal-progressive prioritisation of ethics will get the problem noticed, but at the expense of biblical testimony. Conservatism clings to an atrophied biblical testimony and is deaf to the intense roar of historical change. The narrative-historical method, I humbly propose, offers a way to hold these two things together, to the glory of God.

9. “Witness” as social transformation—toward liberation from poverty and oppression.

So here we are, still stuck in a dead-end debate between those who think that Christian witness is primarily to social justice and those who think that it is to the atoning power of Jesus’ death. Biblical witness in the public arena is always to the action of YHWH in history, as judge, deliverer, and ruler. The “good news” is always that YHWH is about to act in history to judge, deliver, and rule. We know what he did two millennia ago. He judged his own people, he judged the pagan oikoumenē, and in time he gave his Son the nations as his inheritance. The question we have to ask is what is God doing, or about to do, in our world, in our future. Then we can get on with the serious business of formulating good news.

10. Christianity devoid of miracles including the ontological incarnation, the historical resurrection, Christ’s exorcisms and healings, etc.

The narrative-historical method is probably neutral with respect to such matters: it asks about the meaning of the events, not whether they actually happened. But I made the point earlier that divine action in history is much more significant than exorcisms and healings. The resurrection of Jesus has to be asserted as real, but the biggest “miracle” in the perspective of the New Testament was to be the overthrow of classical paganism through the faithful witness of the churches to the coming rule of the resurrected Jesus. The apostles were making this prediction a few years after the death of Jesus. It was one thing to believe that Greek-Roman polytheism was on its way out. It was quite another to proclaim that it would be replaced by worship of a crucified Jew. Quite extraordinary!

The idea of an “ontological incarnation” as traditionally understood is, to my mind, moot, though it is right to affirm that the primal creative word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, arguably at the moment of his baptism. I think that the Greek fathers had no choice but to translate the eschatological relationship between Father and Son into the rational categories of trinitarian orthodoxy, but now we need to go back to history.


So how liberal is the narrative-historical method? Well, the answer is not very liberal at all. Nor very progressive. Nor even very conservative. But I venture to suggest that it offers a way to resolve many of the problems that liberalism, progressivism, and conservatism are wrestling with, while maintaining the full force of scripture’s historical testimony. Of course, that is easier said than demonstrated.

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