Theology: More Than Narrative, But Not Less

What is the relationship between theology and narrative? In recent decades there has been a turn toward narrative as the primary category of theology and the primary purpose of biblical revelation. I perceive this as a reaction to a form of systematic theology that abstracts timeless principles from Scripture and virtually ignores categories like redemptive history and narrative. Any theology that marginalizes narrative is a poor theology, because narrative is embedded into the canon. By the same token, I would also argue that any theology that marginalizes doctrine falls into the opposite error, because doctrine is also embedded into the canon. Theology depends on the biblical narrative, but it also depends on the doctrinal interpretation of that narrative. To adapt a saying from Immanuel Kant, narrative without doctrine is blind; doctrine without narrative is empty. We must not be forced to chooe one or the other.

I imagine narrative as the skeletal structure of theology. And by this I don’t mean just any narrative. I mean the narrative of redemptive history, the story that runs from creation through fall and then to new creation. It focuses on Israel, then centers of Christ, and then radiates outward through the age of the Spirit and the church to the final consummation. This is not the narrative I was taught in Sunday School as a boy. Unfortunately, what I most often learned from godly, well-meaning Sunday School teachers were individual narratives abstracted from their canonical context and probed for moral lessons. Slay your giants like David. Answer the call like Moses. Pray like Elijah. There may be moral lessons in all of these stories, and these lessons may be important. But abstracted from the whole story of creation, fall, and new creation, they do not communicate the gospel as God intended. They do not tell us of Christ, and that is the primary purpose of Scripture.

I am thankful for the turn toward narrative. Actually, it has many historical antecedents in Reformed theology. Covenant theology, which arose during the Puritan age (if I am not mistaken) represents an attempt to view Scripture and theology through the lens of redemptive history. I don’t agree with all of the details of it, but I like the approach. The same goes for Dispensationalism, which arose quite a bit later. Jonathan Edwards left unfinished at his death a treatise entitled A History of the Work of Redemption, which was an approach to theology via history. Geerhardus Vos, of course, is a major figure in this tradition, and his work has been followed by a number of others. In our own day, Graeme Goldsworthy has published some excellent material on the unfolding plan of God through the ages, culminating in Christ.

All of these figures represent an approach to biblical narrative that is not afraid to probe the details of doctrine. Without doctrine, redemptive history is naked and unintelligible. It must be interpreted, and Scripture provides us the interpretation. Doctrine is the flesh on the bones of narrative. How can we understand the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ if we do not have some grasp of concepts like original sin, the hypostatic union, the Trinity, substitutionary atonement, imputed righteousness, and justification by faith? I fear that a turn toward narrative that results in a marginalization of doctrine may be a veiled attempt to refuse to deal with details and cover over significant areas of disagreement within the Christian tradition (and outside of it as well). Paul and the Judaizers had the same narrative, but they worked with it in different ways. Their disagreement over doctrine was the difference between the true gospel and a false one that provoked Paul’s most vehement response (the letter to the Galatians).

We cannot afford to marginalize either doctrine or narrative. They go together like blades in a pair of scissors. Either one, without significant attention to the other, will distort Christian truth and ultimately to harm to the church. But when held together under the authority of Scripture, they bring blessings untold.

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4 Responses to “Theology: More Than Narrative, But Not Less”

  1. Luke Smith Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I am curious what reason you would provide for the absence of any sytematic theology from Judaism? It seems to me that when people try to create a “Biblical Theology” of the Old Testament they are engaged in a project that is not very Jewish. I think the argument that the systemizing impulse that one sees wihtin Christianity comes not from Paul or any of the Biblical writers but from the appropriation of Greek Philosophy.

    Blessings,
    Luke Smith

  2. Aaron Says:

    Let me try to answer this piecemeal:

    “I am curious what reason you would provide for the absence of any sytematic theology from Judaism?”

    I did not make that claim, nor do I believe it. There is systematic theology in Judaism.

    “It seems to me that when people try to create a ‘Biblical Theology’ of the Old Testament they are engaged in a project that is not very Jewish.”

    Correct. A “biblical theology” of the Old Testament would necessarily anticipate the revelation of Christ in the New Testament; otherwise, it would not be a “biblical theology” in the true sense. If you mean “Jewish” in the sense of modern Judaism, then you are correct that such a thing is not very Jewish; it is, however, very Christian.

    “I think the argument that the systemizing impulse that one sees wihtin Christianity comes not from Paul or any of the Biblical writers but from the appropriation of Greek Philosophy.”

    I don’t know what you are saying here. This is not a complete sentence; are you making reference to an argument that is often made but that you reject, or are you claiming this argument as your own? If you are claiming it as your own, then it seems to contradict what you said in the previous two sentences.

    In any case, I would respond to that argument with partial agreement but with partial disagreement. Yes, there was some illegitimate importation of Hellenistic philosophy into Christian theology. But this does not mean that the whole task of systematic theology is unbiblical and misguided. Rather, when doing systematic theology, we must allow the concepts and categories to arise from within Scripture’s own horizon and not impose upon what Scripture is saying. I think we can employ tools from philosophy to help, but only so far as they stand under Scripture’s authority and not over it.

    One more thing: are you equating biblical and systematic theology? The two are not the same. You may not be saying this, but it is hard for me to tell from what you have written.

  3. Luke Smith Says:

    k sAaron,
    I appreciate your responding to my assertions with your equally well documented assertions. Judaism does not have systematic theology. Any kind of dogmatic formulation of Jewish thought is at the earliest Medieval. But hey once again I am making assertions with out providing documention. So for support I will simply appeal to the Talmud and Mishna need I say more…..but hey please let me know your favorite Jewish systematic theologians!

    My grammar is notoriously poor. However the example you cite is I would suggest a complete sentence! All be it potentially confusing. James Barr’s A Theology of the Old Testament (I believe) argues that there any “biblical theology” of the Old Testament is…impossible. I would definitely agree with you in arguing that the Old Testament must be read in light finally of the New Testament (although often this is used to extend what strikes me as ideas tending toward a Marcionite revision of the OT).

    The impetus in Narrative Theology…as I understand it is emerges out of the “post-modern” philosophical skepticism of the ability to know anything apart from one’s own “storied” existence. One does not simply use narrative to illustrate a point. Narrative gives meaning to community.

    blessings, luke smith

  4. Anonymous Says:

    There is much talk of narrative theology these days but I wonder whether the real difference between Paul and the Judaizers was not Jesus rather than any theology, theological methodology, theological presupposition etc.?

    Paul really knew Jesus and they didn’t. Anyone who knows Jesus as we have see Him in the gospels will have to have a better theology.

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