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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  • John

    your post resonates well with me. where would you point someone interested in learning more about this?

    • rogereolson

      The classic text of narrative theology is Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. Kevin Vanhoozer’s The Drama of Doctrine incorporates some elements of narrative theology. Google “narrative theology” to find more books about it.

      • The work of Graeme Goldsworthy is in a similar vein. I particularly liked “According to Plan”.

      • Joe Perdue

        This seems similar to post-liberalism, are the terms narrative theology and post liberal theology interchangeable? If not what are the differences?

        • rogereolson

          I would say narrative theology is an ingredient in postliberalism, but postliberalism is more than just narrative theology.

          • Joe Perdue

            What books can you recommend for people who want to explore narrative theology in depth?

          • rogereolson

            Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. It’s the “Bible” of narrative theology.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Very good blog, Roger. Thank you for studying, thinking, and then writing it up for our benefit.

    It seems that what you put forward about Narritive Theology (NT) all hinge on point 1, “Narrative theology focuses on the Bible as a whole”. While NT might be right in that the whole is more important (to learn) than any of the parts, the whole is created out of the parts. Change (or reinterpret) any of the parts, and the whole is affected. The whole cannot be used to shape the parts. Of course, those parts are the books of the Bible. It is the proper understanding of those books that give rise to the whole. If there is ‘complexity’ within and among the books, then the whole cannot be seen as merely simple and must also hold the tension of this complexity. In a similar way, NT cannot stray further than the books allow, and must accept parameters to the actual contents of the books.

    What I’m trying to say is that a good NT must begin with a good understanding of the books. Otherwise, NT would be a lovely post-modern building with staircases to nowhere and no foundation to keep it from falling.

  • This is uncanny…I’ve been trying to come up with a term to express my theological approach to Scripture, and “narrative theology” just popped into my head one or two days ago–and now I find this!

    I self-identify as a conservative Evangelical and for lack of a better label, a “Calvinist”; but I’ve become increasingly disconcerted with heavy layers of systematic theology that start with biblically-derived principles, pass through four centuries tradition and hyper-rationalism, and end up arriving at conclusions that are sometimes manifestly contrary to Scripture and yet read back into Scripture, all the while professing that the whole from beginning to end is “sola scriptura”!

    I’m also disconcerted with some of the excesses of narrow-tent exclusivism that sometimes do indeed imply an attitude that we Calvinists are the only ones who have it right, and everyone else has a deficient theology in some way (something I see you’ve touched on in the past)–especially we ourselves are culturally contextualized, fallible human sinners prone (and sometimes blind) to our own intellectual and spiritual pride, relying upon a theological system that (like any other) is subject to the limitations of human reason.

    Ironically, I’m at this point now precisely because I affirm that same ultra-high view of Scripture professed by all Calvinists–the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture–and the same hermeneutical principles: the perspicuity of Scripture; let Scripture interpret itself; reading in context; paying due regard to author, time, place, and genre; and so on.

    And so I’m trying to find a new label for my reading of Scripture. And it is as you say. God in His grace and wisdom has not given us a book of systematic theology, although certain important doctrines can certainly be clearly read from it (the sovereignty and foreknowledge of God; the nature of the Trinity; salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone; and so on).

    Rather–and here I draw upon my secular Jewish upbringing–He has revealed Himself to us through a grand, sweeping narrative: the story of His redeeming a people unto Himself from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, starting with His covenant with Abraham, the redemption of His people through the Passover and Exodus (which are THE great Old Testament story of the redemptive power and purpose of God, bar none), the establishment of a Kingdom and His promise of a Messiah, His great purposes proclaimed through the Prophets–and then the birth, life, suffering, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, imminent return, and coming Kingdom of Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest and Redeemer, the Atonement for our sins and our Passover Lamb.

    May we be reminded to always turn back to the Cross and Jesus Christ, and remember how undeservedly privileged we are to be counted among the growing worldwide body of believers of every variety and from every generation, whom God is redeeming for His great and glorious purposes!

  • Excellent overview of the purpose, place and importance of narrative theology.

    I particularly appreciate this line, “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.”

    It seems that many of us all too often switch the order by making doctrines primary and closed to any future development. When we do this, we provide a place for doctrine (a human invention I might add) that scripture alone should have. However, if the story of scripture is allowed to retain its primacy, then we should humbly admit that our theology will never be finished; at least until the eschaton, as our interpretations of those same scriptures will always be open to the possibility of being re-worked based on new interpretive models.

    Making doctrine a closed system of belief seems like an arrogant debate tactic that hopes to push people into a corner and silence any suggestion of something new. At the risk of losing memberships in cherished society’s, people normally opt to take the ‘path of least resistance’ and recite the society’s creed.

    However, by making scripture primary in the constructive task of theology, we at least create space for new ideas to be presented and discussed in a forum of openness and grace, and doctrine is given its proper place as a secondary and supportive discipline.


  • JenG

    I too found this book very useful and I appreciate the amount of time you have devoted to it in your blog. I must say I am also relieved to see that I am not the only one that thinks PIP is unavoidable no matter what method you use – and frankly, doesn’t have to be considered a bad thing. The recent movement in some scholastic circles towards a more spiritual theology naturally both allows and necessitates a certain amount of PIP. Granted, there are always “better and worse” interpretations – or perhaps we should say “more or less plausible/useful” interpretations – but I disagree with Smith on what seems to be his position that PIP is somehow inherently a bad thing. What PIP of course DOES do well is to prove his point that biblicism is a dead end approach to scripture.

    It is on the point of inspiration/inerrancy that I find useful Kenton Sparks’ (God’s Word in Human Words) use of the word “adequate” in regards to the scriptures. It something to consider that perhaps “inspired” necessarily has to also mean “perfect and indisputably clear”. For example, most Christians, after enjoying a particularly moving sermon, will walk out of church that day saying “My goodness pastor, that sermon this morning was so inspired! You were really listening to God this week and that message seemed like it was written just for me!”. They would NOT then go tell all their friends they heard a “perfect/innerrant” sermon – perhaps the pastor messed up the opening joke or stuttered or misquoted a scripture and later corrected himself – no big deal in their mind. The bottom line what that somewhere in the message, spiritual truth was conveyed and resonated in their hearts and minds. No one faults their pastor for being a fallen human imperfectly delivering what they perceive as a divine message. But somehow those same people expect that from fallen humans conveying a divine truth over thousand of years through oral and written traditions. It’s a strange double standard in my view.

    This is a fresh analogy that just popped in to my mind – so I humbly submit it for tearing apart as it may not be as fully thought through as it should be. As with all metaphors/analogies, it will always break down and fail at some point! But I think it supports your view of narrative theology well. The Bible is an adequate narrative which sets the theological foundation and trajectory for the body of Christ to then move forward in a way which is both faithful to the past and innovative in looking to the future.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      When you say “adequate”, would you say that any other stories or philosophies would also be adequate or possibly more adequate?

      • Nicolas

        I wonder if JenG’s “adequate” is the same as I H Marshall’s “sufficient” or the NT’s “useful” at 2 Tim 3:16 !!

  • JenG

    Hmmm… I see my analogy falling apart already… perhaps the pastor’s message was so “inspired” because he was using an “inspired” text to base his message on. Who knows where the inspiration lies? When/where/how scripture could be or is inspired is a different problem for a different day!

    Classic rookie mistake. I really should think on my posts for awhile before posting them!

    How about this…

    “The Bible inspired and inerrant in so far as it is an adequate narrative which sets the theological foundation and trajectory for an understanding salvation and a way for the body of Christ to then move forward being both faithful to the past and innovative in looking to their own present and future contexts.”

    I also wanted to add that I am printing off this summary of narrative theology for future reference – I appreciate the clarity and simplicity of your explanation.

  • Nicolas

    Wonderful summery, very helpful, THANK YOU !

  • Not to praise you too much, but this is one of the greatest summaries of Narrative Theology I have ever read. Very nice.

  • Rob

    I have always found narrative theology appealing but I am not sure what is doing the work of grounding the truth of the story. I have asked biblical scholars who suddenly become really evasive when the truth of the story is brought up. I guess I want to know what we mean when we say the stories of the bible are true.

    For example, I just don’t think that the story of Noah’s Ark is any sort of historical episode. I don’t think it is true in the sense that there really was a guy with a boat that contained the ancestors of every living animal today. But I accept that the fictitious story illustrates something true about God. I trust that the person who came up with the story really knew enough about God to pull it off. But where did he come by such knowledge?

    I always thought that such knowledge came from first hand experience of God’s dealings with Israel. I have never doubted but that the D-history relates historical acts of kings, battles, miracles, utterances of prophets, etc about as accurately as one could expect from ancient writers. I take it that we learn something about God by how God dealt with Israel via the prophets.

    But I know that many scholars view the utterances of the prophets and miracles of God in the D-history the way I view Noah’s Ark–fictitious additions that reflect the theological interpretation of history by the author. But then it seems that we end up with a naturalistic history devoid of genuine miracles and inspired prophecy. All the stuff about God acting and speaking are “interpretations” inserted into the story by later editors and authors. In other words, they didn’t happen. So how can some scholars then maintain that the stories tell us anything useful or true about God?

    I take it that the stories can tell us something true about God because either He really did the things in the story or the author has some knowledge about God that he can express in fictional stories. But where does this knowledge come from if God never acts as He is portrayed as acting in the Old Testament? I could really care less about the theological conjecture and imaginative retelling of historical episodes with flourishes of made-up prophecies and miracles coming from some Jew in Babylon. Might as well read tea leaves or study goat entrails.

    Yet I never get a straight answer from biblical scholars who emphasize understanding the “story” of the bible over and against what actually happened. They just tell me that all that matters is what the story tells us about God and what it tells us about who we are. I don’t see how made up stories can tell us anything true about God so I guess I just cannot see where they are coming from.

    • rogereolson

      The “father” of narrative theology, Hans Frei, wrestled with this issue and insisted that SOME events of the theodrama had to happen in time and space as their real historicity is essential to the story. Other events may be history-like without necessarily being historical (a la Frei). The historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, is crucial to the theodrama. See his The Identity of Jesus Christ for the argument. Other narrative theologians have not always been as insistent on connecting the theodrama with real history. But I argue that there is nothing about narrative theology that requires a lessening of historicity. “Narrative” does not have to mean “fiction.” Real events can be and often best are expressed in realistic narrative.

      • Rob

        Do you think the Exodus and giving of the covenant at Mt Sinai are necessary? Along with Jesus’ life, death, and ministry that seems like the bare essentials.

        • rogereolson

          I don’t think I’ve ever thought about the issue of their necessity. Maybe you could elaborate on the question a bit more.

          • Rob

            I guess I am thinking that if there never really was a covenant made with Israel, it is hard to see how Jesus could fulfill it. So it seems like the story of the covenant being given on Mt Sinai had better contain some kernel of historical truth. It is hard for me to make sense out of Mt Sinai without the Exodus and so I figure we need the Exodus too.

          • rogereolson

            I finally get it–i.e., the point of your query about the necessity of Moses and the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. Yes, I’d say that must have happened–whether every detail of the recorded story is historically accurate or not is another question.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      You may as well ask what is true about the parables – they are stories also. Does Jesus have some special insight in to Lazarus and the rich man that he begged from? Or what about the man who sold all he had to buy a field that had some treasure in it? The Prodigal Son? They may not be historical, but they are true because the lessons of the story are what is to be focused on.

      For myself, I’m quite convinced that the Garden of Eden, the Flood, Babal, Jonah, and Job are in this vein. I think that Daniel may also fall into this category as well.

      The theophanies are sometimes the point of the story – like when God filled the first temple with His glory. And when the ax head floats on the water – that it is a miracle – this is the point.

    • gets

      Rob, good questions.

      I think there comes a point when it becomes obvious that the only thing we can say for sure about the bible writings is that they reflect the way that particular people at a particular point in time wrested with the big questions of life. They reflect the culture and ideas of the authors, nothing more or less.

      To think otherwise creates the need for a huge hermeneutical framework, which basically means creating theories to explain why the writings are contradictory or make little moral sense from a modern point of view.

      • rogereolson

        I certainly hope the Bible is more than that! If that’s all it is, why pay any serious attention to it except as ancient literature?

        • gets

          Why indeed?

          Look, I used to think it was the word of god and studied it as such. But eventually it became too difficult to hold all the disparate pieces together. Why don’t we sell women or kill our kids or commit genocide or have rules about menstruation or see the world as flat and on and on?

          You can come up with a host of dispensations and mysteries and paradoxes, or give in to the most simple of truths that can explain everything on a postage stamp: the writings reflect the ideas and culture of the authors, nothing more or less.

          • rogereolson

            That completely overlooks that many of the ideas of the Bible (e.g., the prophets, Jesus and the apostles!) completely go against the cultures of their times.

  • Brian Small

    A more popular approach to narrative theology can be found in Bartholomew and Goheen’s, The Drama of Scripture.

    • rogereolson

      More popular than the one I offered here? Geez. I thought mine was pretty “popular.” 🙂

  • lck

    I have used the paradigm of narrative theology for several years and find it to be a very helpful hermeneutic. I would recommend Christopher Wright and Scot McKnight as two theologians who use it well. (I understand that McKnight backs off of narrative theology a little in his recent book, but I haven’t read it yet).

    After finishing Smith’s “The Bible Made Impossible,” I decided to do a little mini-course in hermeneutics and worked through “Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology,” and N.T. Wright’s “Scripture and the Authority of God” back to back. I will be moving on to VanHoozer soon. I find that narrative theology provides a secure foundation for interpretation but also allows for other methods of interpretation that might be applicable to a certain text. On top of all this, narrative theology is, by nature, christo-centric, since Christ is the climax of the story.

  • One of the reasons why I came to appreciate a narrative approach to theology over the systematic approach was that the former seems to allow the Bible shape the theology. Whereas in the early days of my education, the systematic theology textbooks I was reading seemed to categorize theology (doctrines, propositions, etc…) and then force the Bible to fit within those categories.

  • myles

    I remember the first time I read Frei’s Identity of Jesus Christ, and how it shook me of ever wanting to say the term “Christ figure” again. As Frei, argues, that’s a term which exhibits the flaws Smith’s book wants to point out–treating the work and person of Christ as an instance of moral law.

    This is to say then that Frei’s work is powerful in recovering the drama of Scripture; I wonder, however, if the term “narrative” does not present a new kind of “proposition”–that the life of God is not now confined to a ‘narrative’ form to which it must cohere, in the same way that propositions do. I’ve been re-reading Barth’s CD I/1, in which he provocatively interlaces critiques of certain kinds of dogma with certain kinds of modernist theology: both, in Barth’s mind, do the same work–confusing the creaturely form of our confession with the work of God in the unique (and to use Frei’s term–‘unrepeatable’) person of Christ.

  • David Sherwood

    Thanks for the clear, thoughtful expression of narrative theology. Once again, you do us all a favor.

  • I do appreciate the insights of narrative theology, and Vanhoozer has particularly seized my interest.

    However, some of the loose talk above about historical reality is troubling. How much “just pretend” can the Bible have? And who is going to claim the ability/authority to tell us which is fact and which is fiction? To me, that is a fool’s errand!

    We all know about metaphors and figurative language, but playing games with reality and history is a short road to knowing nothing reliable.


    • rogereolson

      Are Jesus’ parables “just pretend?” Do we know for sure their historicity or lack of it? (That is, do we need to know if there really was a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus?) Doesn’t everyone recognize some non-historical narrativity in the Bible that nevertheless carries important spiritual truth? Isn’t much of hermeneutics about just that–attempting to decide fact from “fiction” (parable, allegory, etc.) in the Bible?

      • Point taken about parables! But here is my counterpoint: how much of the Bible consists of parables? Obviously — or so I thought — the huge majority of the Bible is not telling a story detached from historical events. That is my metanarrative about the Bible!

        Also, I don’t personally think that identifying fiction takes up very much interpretive bandwidth. Jesus’ parables or the little tale Nathan told to David are easy to spot.

        I like the insight that narrative theology offers, but I am not carried away with it. At least not yet.


        • Tim Reisdorf

          “Jesus’ parables or the little tale Nathan told to David are easy to spot.”

          Maybe they are easy to spot, but that neither makes them so or not so. We must have better reasons than that – considering we are talking about literature produced by cultures that haven’t existed for at least a couple thousand years.

          What is historical about the stories in Revelation apart from the first few chapters? You would get honest disagreement from good and trustworthy people.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Barry,

      It is not an easy question to resolve and there may be good reasons to believe this or that about any of a number of books and their historicity.

      It was hard for me to come to the conclusion that Job was just a story. Surely, there was a person Job that the book was roughly based on, and he did have some qualities that were borrowed for the story. But the Biblical story is not about that person, it is about a blameless man – his trials, his arguments with his friends, and eventual face-to-face encounter with God. The lessons learned from the story are real; but to me, the story is highly stylized and pushed to the extremes just to make the point that much more emphatic. Some would be uncomfortable holding this position for themselves – and I would not begrudge them this one bit. Some attach different importance to the issue of historicity.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    Your help in rethinking and re-conceiving how we understand biblical content and purposes is appreciated. I want to thank you especially for the line with which you concluded this overview: “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.” Excellent.
    Thanks again, in Christ

  • Pat Pope

    Amen to #6!

  • Thank you for aptly describing narrative theology. This is what we teach to college students through our campus ministry, the CCO ( It never fails — no matter how many times I’ve heard it described, or how many times I teach it to others — I STILL get excited! Understanding the Biblical narrative in the context of a greater story has completely turned my world upside down (in the best of ways). When I finally interpreted Scripture in this way, suddenly my role in the greater narrative made sense in a deeper, more tangible way.

  • The works (books and articles) of John H. Sailhamer are also very helpful, especially his Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach.

  • Brian W

    Concerning point #4: I don’t think we can simply say that all biblical statements must be interpreted in light of the biblical narrative because all of those statements make the biblical narrative; we have no biblical story without the wide variety of statements. So, it seems to me that a more reciprocal approach is needed where we integrate that 1) the story is made, understood, communicated by the various biblical statements (which would emphasize the necessity of incorporating all biblical statements, not just the one’s that I think fit) and 2) the biblical statements are primarily meant to tell the story (which would emphasize the need to integrate biblical statements in light of the story and not isolate statements from the unfolding drama for my own purposes). Is this fair, you think?

    • rogereolson

      Okay. So far it sounds like what I was trying to say very briefly.

      • Brian W

        I’m thankful you agree, and thought you would. Its important to me to make this explicit because I think the gospel story or narrative can easily be assumed. And when that happens, the gospel story is more about what I think it should be rather than what the biblical statements weave together. Thanks for the conversation.

  • As others have said, this is a helpful summary. I’m a serious theology/religion/Bible student of several decades (age 62), and I’ve read a lot about narrative (or NT) and a bit by it’s proponents–yet I like this kind of summary.

    I must express some frustration that NT (and other, even more “progressive” theologies like Process, which I find much affinity with), still operate from a key assumption… and one that I think there are plenty of reasons to question or disallow: the assumption that, basically the “story” or “drama” in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures is the full story–that human civilizations arose only several thousand years ago (ca. 6-7000), and the Bible touches on all the major developmental points in Adam, Cain/Abel, Nimrod, etc. to Noah and then to Abraham and “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel”.

    I won’t go into the various disciplines and many data points providing strong evidence to the contrary (partly because it is often buried or “forbidden” info even within those supposedly scientific or “objective” fields such as archaeology, and thus marginalized). Suffice it to say that there is a world of in-depth information available, and some decent beginnings of more explanatory and very helpful models that indicate a MUCH longer (and quite complex, sometimes mysterious) story. Do a few Google searches, pursue books via Amazon (even the reviews can be very instructive), search academic databases, etc. Pretty soon one realizes that the entire “Western” set of assumptions and boundaries, methodologies, etc. for not only the former “queen of the sciences,” theology, but virtually every other discipline emerging in the Renaissance/Reformation/Enlightenment period has Greek/proto-orthodox/Roman Catholic and Mediterranean/Persian-oriented parameters. Parameters that have blinded us to our much longer human history, at most just hinted at in the Bible. I know that’s a lot of labels, but I think it summarizes at least one main reason we still operate within this ridiculously recent (and wrong) time-line and related assumptions. And it all distorts the much broader and very important “story” within which the Bible is only one recent chapter–not the full story of God’s saving interactions with humanity. (Oh… and there is every likelihood, with this, that the “rapture,” Millennial Kingdom, literal physical re-creation of the world, etc., are all humanly-generated symbols… Hal Lindsey, Amillennialists, Postmillennialists, and probably all of us will die–and perhaps come back–before any of this happens, so we’d best take all the care of our environment that we can.)