Contemporary, postliberal narrative theology, a movement that rightly seeks to adopt standards of truth and reasoning from the biblical narrative itself, often errs in rejecting the biblical position of objective truth and veering into relativism by disconnecting the truth portrayed in the narrative from the eternal truth that gave rise to the narrative of Scripture.
The Bible, as a book of different genres, is largely made up of narrative. In fact, main structure of the Bible itself is that of a narrative, moving through creation, fall, and redemption to consummation. A contemporary theological movement called narrative theology has sought to avoid the evangelical emphasis on objective truth, which they see as falling prey to foundationalist epistemology, and the liberal denial of objective truth by seeking to adopt standards of truth and reasoning from the biblical narrative itself. In seeking to do theology simply from the narrative itself, the postliberal narrative theology has often erred by denying the importance of inerrancy and by veering into relativism. Because all that matters is the truth portrayed through the narrative, there is little attention paid to the eternal truth behind that narrative that is objectively true for every individual, regardless of whether they accept the narrative as true or not.
The Bible includes literature of many different genres: theology, poetry, prophecy, apocalyptic, correspondence, and others. But arguably the main structure of Scripture, including within it these other genres, is best described as a narrative: an account of a series of important events. Scripture presents the story of God’s involvement with the world, beginning with creation (Gen. 1:1), and ending with new creation, the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:1). In the narrative, the story of the Fall of mankind (Gen. 3:1–24) presents the issue to be resolved through the rest of history. The resolution of the issue, the redemption of God’s people, comes through God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who becomes incarnate, speaks authoritative words from God, dies on the cross for sin, rises from the dead, ascends to Heaven, and will come again in God’s own time. When he returns, he will bring final judgment on the wicked and final blessing on his people. The Holy Spirit of God enters the narrative often, at the creation (Gen. 1:2), in the inspiration of the prophets (Eph. 3:5), the conception of Jesus (Luke 1:35), his empowerment (Luke 4:1–2, 14), his resurrection (Rom. 8:11), and the equipping of the church (Acts 1:8) to carry out their mandate (Matt. 28:18–20), to bring the good news, the narrative, to everybody in the world.
By definition, a narrative may describe either truth or fiction. What is remarkable about the biblical narrative is that it embraces all of world history and it claims to be entirely true (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Traditionally, most theology has sought to analyze, describe, and proclaim the biblical narrative, but it has not itself been in the form of narrative. People have sometimes complained while Scripture itself tells a wonderful “story,” theology rarely tells stories. Rather, it tends to be written in academic prose. According to this criticism, it often attempts to set forth timeless and general (and therefore ahistorical) truths, in the form of a series of intellectual propositions.
Because of this criticism, some theologians have tried to write in a way that emphasizes the historical-narrative character of the message of Scripture. This concern is plain in the writings of Irenaeus (approx. 130–202 AD), in some of the works of the Protestant Reformers (particularly their development of covenant theology), and in Jonathan Edwards’s A History of the Work of Redemption, developed from a series of sermons preached in 1739. More recently, the concern to stress narrative developed in the “biblical theology” or “redemptive history” movement. Graeme Goldsworthy describes it thus:
Biblical theology, as defined here, is dynamic not static. That is, it follows the movement and process of God’s revelation in the Bible. It is closely related to systematic theology (the two are dependent upon one another), but there is a difference in emphasis. Biblical theology is not concerned to state the final doctrines which go to make up the content of Christian belief, but rather to describe the process by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal which is God’s final revelation of his purposes in Jesus Christ. Biblical theology seeks to understand the relationships between the various eras in God’s revealing activity recorded in the Bible. The systematic theologian is mainly interested in the finished article—the statement of Christian doctrine. The biblical theologian, on the other hand, is concerned rather with the progressive unfolding of truth. It is on the basis of biblical theology that the systematic theologian draws upon the pre-Pentecost texts of the Bible as part of the material from which Christian doctrine may be formulated (see The Goldsworthy Trilogy, 1:45–46).
But the more recent “narrative theology” takes this interest a step further. Narrative theology is often called “postliberalism,” because it not only focuses on biblical narrative, but sees this focus as a way beyond the theological divisions between orthodoxy and liberalism. Postliberals reject both the orthodox understanding of Scripture (an inerrant book that gives us a divinely authoritative account of redemptive history) and the liberal view (which became prominent in the “Enlightenment” period 1650–1800) that theology must defer to autonomous human rationality, especially as practiced in secular science and philosophy.
The postliberals argue a third alternative: that Scripture presents to us a language governed by a distinctively Christian logic, which governs Christian thinking about God and Christian practices. (One could compare this to the “language games” of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who argued that the meaning of language is its use in human practice.) That language is concentrated in the narrative of creation, fall, and redemption. But it is not important whether that narrative is objectively true or false. To discuss such things as “inerrancy” or “objective truth,” which the orthodox affirm and the liberals deny, is to impose upon Scripture theories of truth that owe more to the Enlightenment than to the Christian story. In their view, defending the objective truth of Scripture assumes a “foundationalist” epistemology—the idea that all knowledge is based on absolutely certain premises, universally available to human reason. But biblical truth, according to postliberalism, simply takes the narrative as a model for theological speech and action, without being bound to the assumptions either of orthodoxy or of enlightenment liberalism. Postliberals emphasize that we ought to do theology without philosophical assumptions (either ontological or epistemological), using forms of reasoning that emerge from the narrative itself.
The narrative theologians are right, in my view, to seek standards of truth and reasoning from the biblical narrative itself, rather than from philosophical sources that pretend religious neutrality. But in their positive account of truth, these theologians often veer sharply into relativism as they seek to avoid foundationalist formulations. Although the phrase “objective truth” is not in the Bible, the idea is, and that idea is not negotiable. The Bible presents its narrative as truth revealed by God (e.g., John 17:17; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). To the biblical writers, it is vitally important that the events of redemptive history really and truly took place. In 1 Corinthians 15:12–20, for example, Paul says that if Christ is not raised, our faith is dead and we are yet in our sins. It is important that the events of the biblical narrative really and truly happened, just as the biblical writers have stated and interpreted them.
Something should also be said about the isolation of “narrative” from “eternal truth” that one hears in postliberal writings. Narratives may treat either factual or fictional sequences of events. In the Bible, there are some fictional narratives (such as Jesus’s parables). But Scripture presents the main narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation not as fiction but as truth, indeed the most important truth we know as human beings. Narrative presents these events in a temporal sequence. But this sequence of events is a fact. For all eternity, that sequence will always be true. Further, the events of the narrative presuppose further truths, the truths of eternal realities. The work of Christ presupposes an eternal plan of God (Eph. 1:11). God’s providence presupposes his eternal omnipotence and omniscience (Ps. 139). Theology gives an account of the narrative, but also of the eternal realities behind the narrative. That theology not only states truth, but also serves as a criterion for all other truth, a standard of human knowledge.
Thus, systematic theology and biblical theology are not as far apart as they are sometimes thought to be. Every systematic theologian has given an account of the history of Jesus’s incarnation, his death, resurrection, ascension, and certain return. Every biblical theologian presents the work in history of the Triune God, a God with the attributes of aseity, eternity, and unchangeability. Systematic theologians typically give more attention to divine election, and biblical theologians typically give more attention to covenants, but this is a matter of emphasis. And there is no reason in principle why theologians of one type should not mention topics emphasized by the other. More generally, narrative is a subset of truth, and eternal truth is a presupposition of narrative. You cannot understand narrative without eternal truth, and vice versa. Any systematics worth its salt must present the narrative, and any account of the narrative must present it as a narrative determined by God’s eternal truth.
Postliberal Narrative Theology, as noted above, is generally not committed to theological orthodoxy or to biblical authority in the evangelical sense. I would therefore urge caution to those who would read the titles listed below.
- Alan Jacobs, “What Narrative Theology Forgot”
- Berny Belvedere, “What Narrative Can’t Say: the Limits of Narrative Theology”
- Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible
- Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology in Crisis
- Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture
- Gary Comstock, “Two Types of Narrative Theology”
- George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age
- Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: a Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics
- John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, 453–456
- John Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 380–81
- Ra McLaughlin, “Narrative Theology”
- Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory L. Jones, eds., Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology
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