Narrative theology: following up on my review of Smith’s book about biblicism

Narrative theology: following up on my review of Smith’s book about biblicism October 14, 2011

In The Bible Made Impossible Christian Smith does touch on narrative theology, but I think it may offer more (to an evangelical approach to the Bible that avoids some of the problems he discusses) than he suggests.  Here is my summary of narrative theology:

Some Thoughts about Narrative Theology

1. Narrative theology focuses on the Bible as a whole (canonical interpretation) as a dramatic account of God’s activity; its main purpose is to identify God for us (i.e., God’s character).

2. Narrative theology acknowledges that the Bible contains propositions, but it says biblical propositions are not independent of or superior to the metanarrative of God’s saving activity.  (Jesus told stories—parables—and sometimes interpreted them with propositions.  But the propositions serve the stories, not vice versa.  If propositions could communicate the point better, then surely Jesus would have started with the propositions and then given the stories to “illustrate” them.)

3. A biblical proposition is “God is love” (1 John 4:8), but it needs interpretation.  It does not simply interpret itself.  What is “love” in this proposition?  How is God’s love related to God’s justice, etc.?  It won’t do simply to look up “love” in a dictionary.  The only way to interpret “God is love” is to look at the biblical story that reveals God’s character through his actions.

4. According to narrative theology, the Bible contains many kinds of statements—commands, propositions, expressions of praise, prayers, poetry, prophecies, parables, etc.  All are included by narrative theology under and within the rubric of “story” or “drama.”  They are all parts of the great story of God whose central character (for Christians, at least) is Jesus Christ.  Therefore, all must be interpreted in light of that story and its purpose—to reveal the character of God through his mighty acts leading up to and centering around Jesus Christ.

5. Theology is our best human attempt to understand the biblical drama-story and that includes developing canonical-linguistic models (complex metaphors, doctrines) that express its meaning for the church’s belief and life.  But a theologian cannot do that properly unless he or she is “living the story” together with a community of faith shaped by the story.

6. Doctrines are secondary to the story; they cannot replace it.  They are judged by their adequacy to the story—their ability to draw out and express faithfully the character of God as revealed by the story.  But the story is primary; the doctrines are secondary and that means always revisable in light of a new and better understanding of the import of the story.

7. The task of the church is to “faithfully improvise” the “rest of the story.”  Christians are not called simply to live in the story; they are called to continue the story in their own cultural contexts.  First they must be grounded in the story.  They must be people for whom the story “absorbs the world.”  Second, they must together (communally) improvise the “rest of the story” faithfully to the story given in the Bible.

8. The alternatives are to either a) regard the Bible as a grab bag of propositions to be pulled out to answer questions, or b) regard the Bible as a not-yet-systematized system of theology (like a philosophy).  Both alternatives fail to do justice to what the Bible really is—a grand drama of God’s mighty saving acts that progressively reveals his character culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

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