Narrative (Historical) Theology Is…?

by Paul Fromont

William Stringfellow IconAndrew Perriman recently highlighted a blog post by Roger E. Olsen. Olsen provides what Perriman describes as a “characteristically lucid summary of what narrative theology is”. Olsen lists the following characteristics. For the full list, go here.

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).

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.)

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.

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.

Perriman himself, concludes his own post with this pithy thought; it’s one I have a lot of sympathy for, and is a central theme in all the creative and thoughtful work that Andrew has been doing over a good number of years:

He writes:

“…I think that a narrative theology has to take its relation to history much more seriously than this, which is why I use the phrase “narrative-historical theology”. But the question of historicity is not to be raised solely at the interface between story and event, which is always going to be empirically and philosophically problematic. Much more important, to my mind, is the interface between story and the community. Here the question addressed is not: Did such-and-such an event actually happen in the manner related in the narrative? Rather it is: What is the community saying about itself by telling the story in this way at this point in history? It is at this interface, I think, that the possibility arises of re-establishing the credibility and authority of scripture as a formative text for the church…”

You can read Olsen’s post here, and Andrew’s here.

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