The limits of narrative theology

Many theologians discussed positively on this blog, and many who have commented here as well, have discussed and supported a form of theology known broadly as “narrative theology”. Various forms of theology can go under this name, but in general they seem to have in common a kind of gestalt of scripture as one narrative (commonly contrasted with a view of scripture as a series of discrete propositions).

I want to state upfront that I sympathize with this view of scripture; I have learned a great deal from various representatives of what is called “Biblical Theology” (sometimes distinguished from “systematic theology”), which seeks to bring out intertextual relations in scripture, thematic patterns, etc., and especially to emphasize the things that scripture itself emphasizes.

However, I think that narrative theology can be excessively pressed to the point where it distorts what scripture actually is. Upon reflection, it ought to be obvious that if one read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, one would not read a continuous narrative. Most obviously, the wisdom literature and the epistles are not narratives. The Psalms are not narratives. Arguably, the prophets are not narratives (they are records of speeches). Thus, the Bible as a whole cannot be plausibly called a narrative. The Bible contains a large narrative that spans many books within itself, but it is not, as a whole, a narrative.

John Frame makes some helpful comments along this line (and I should give credit where credit is due: Frame was the one who made this entire thought obvious to me):

The historia salutis model also fails to do justice to the wisdom literature, as has often been noted. The Psalms don’t fit easily into this model, for they certainly do more than narrate historical events. And as it is often presented, it is weak in the area of biblical ethics as well. Some of the more extreme proponents of the historia salutis model … have insisted that in preaching one should never apply biblical principles to the ethical lives of the congregation; one should simply set forth the narrative, the historia, and allow the Holy Spirit to make the applications himself. I think that is both unscriptural and a violation of the nature of the historia model. It is unscriptural, because much of the Bible is ethics: the law. And 2 Tim. 3:16-17 tells us that the very purpose of Scripture is that the man of God may be equipped for every good work: an ethical purpose. But this extreme redemptive historicism is also untrue to the actual nature of the historia salutis. For as I said earlier, the historia is a narrative of the coming of a King. Everything turns on our response to that King, whether in obedience or disobedience. That is ethics. …

Part of the problem is that both the ordo model and the historia model focus, not on the actual nature of Scripture itself, but on events to which Scripture bears witness: events in eternity, in the individual, and in the world at large. It is not wrong to focus on those things. Scripture itself is not salvation; it bears witness to saving events outside itself. But the salvation it witnesses to is multifaceted, and its complexity is not easily grasped within the categories of decree, historical event, and individual experience, at least as these are defined by advocates of the historia and ordo models. At some point, we need to focus on Scripture as text, as the definitive, infallible revelation of salvation, the means God has chosen to communicate both ordo and historia and much else besides.

So my colleague Richard Pratt, in his introductory lectures on theological method, suggests that coordinate with ordo salutis and historia salutis, we need also to study the Bible as a group of literary units. In that study, genre plays a major role. We come to understand Scripture not just as a dogmatic treatise (ordo) or a pure narrative (historia), but also as song, parable, epistle, apocalyptic, prophecy, love poem, court drama, confession, genealogy, lament, riddle, wisdom. All these genres, not just doctrinal propositions and narrative statements, communicate salvation to us, if Matt. 4:4 and 2 Tim. 3:15-17 are to be believed. Parables, for instance, make no historical claim, and they certainly are not dogmatic pronouncements. But they tell us truly and powerfully what the kingdom of God is like. The wisdom literature shows redeemed people how to live: not merely how to keep the letter of the law, but how the fear of the Lord works its way into all our conduct. The Psalms show, among other things, how a believer should express his emotions. It’s not enough for Scripture to narrate the Exodus in prose. Salvation must also be narrated in verse, as already in Exod. 15 and frequently through the Psalms. We need models to express our praise, as well as our sadness, anger, and despair.