Narrative theology is the new game in town. Theology used to be drawn and quartered by propositions and topics but in the late 20th Century and into the 21st Century many concluded that theology is better done by narrative than separable topics. Not that topics are ignored for they aren’t but they are relocated by narrative approaches.
The other way of “doing theology” was to do critical history, and by that I mean bracketing theological conclusions of the church and starting all over again with the quest merely to reconstruct the author’s intention. That, some say, is the only kind of theology to do. But more and more even historians are admitting that they, too, are doing narrative theology for their quest is to reframe Jesus or Paul or Peter into a narrative that makes sense, even if it ignores or disagrees with the church’s regula fidei. (Which it often does.) Still, it is a narrative.
But which narrative? That’s the question.
David Steinmetz, in Taking the Long View: Christian Theology in Historical Perspective, is on to something when he calls our narratives a Second Narrative. He’s right and it matters, and he begins by comparing traditional and historical readings:
An important difference between historical-critical interpretations of the Bible and the church’s traditional exegesis rests on the difference between their valuation of the role and importance of a text’s reception. Traditional exegesis is quite willing to read earlier parts of the Bible in the light of later developments, while historical criticism is very reluctant to do anything of the kind.
Historical criticism attempts to set texts in their own place and time. It can do this properly only if it avoids anachronism: that is, reading back into earlier texts the views and assumptions of texts from a much later period. Traditional exegesis, on the other hand, assumes that no one can properly understand earlier developments in the biblical story without reading them in the light of later ones. How the story ends makes a difference for the beginning and middle of the story as well as for its conclusion. From the perspective of historical criticism traditional exegesis seems hopelessly anachronistic, while from the perspective of traditional exegesis historical criticism seems needlessly disoriented and fragmentary.
In his chapter “Miss Marple Reads the Bible” Steinmetz contends reading detective fiction is not unlike Bible reading when done well. There are two narratives in a piece of detective fiction:
The first is a sprawling ramshackle narrative that does not seem to be leading anyplace in particular. It is filled with clues, false leads, imaginative hypotheses, and characters who frequently seem overmatched by what appear to be quite ordinary criminal minds.
There is a second narrative, invariably recited by the principal investigator in the last or nearly last chapter. This narrative is crisp and clear and explains in considerable detail what was really occurring while the larger narrative was unfolding.
It is important to understand that this second narrative is not a subplot, even though it is short. It is the disclosure of the architectonic structure of the whole story. Therefore the second narrative quickly overpowers the first in the mind of the reader, who can no longer read the story as though ignorant of its plot and form. The second narrative is identical in substance to the first and therefore replaces it, not as an extraneous addition superimposed on the story or read back into it, but as a compelling and persuasive disclosure of what the story was about all along.
This is where Richard Hays’ “reading backwards” has its place:
What appeared on first reading to have been an almost random succession of events now proves to have been nothing of the kind. If one reads the last chapter first, one discovers a complex and intelligible narrative guided unerringly to its destined end by the secret hand of its author. Under the circumstances, reading backward is not only a preferred reading strategy; it is the only sensible course of action for a reasonable person.
His point? The New Testament is a “second narrative” and its basic summaries — say Acts 7, Hebrew 11, or even Galatians 3 — are second narratives that retell the Old Testament narrative. The gospel narrative of 1 Cor 15, Steinmetz knows, becomes the regula fidei which becomes the Creed. It is now no longer possible to read the Old Testament or even the New Testament without them … no one can ignore them. It is impossible for us not to know how the story turned out. Once we know that we can’t ignore it. We may distrust anachronisms but we also can’t avoid them.
Heretics get the second narrative wrong, and that’s what makes them heretics.
Do we need to have three? First narrative, the Bible’s “ramshackle” story, the Second narrative (the gospel that puts the First into a new narrative), and the Third narrative, the church’s Creed-al reading of Scripture as well as one’s Confession or doctrinal statement? I say, Yes, what say you?
Steinmetz is right there: Revising one’s view of past events is what the Bible does all along!
His last point is a stunner:
I am inclined to think that biblical scholars who are also Christian theologians should worry less about anachronism and more about the quality of the second narratives they have constructed.