What is narrative theology?
Question: "What is narrative theology?"
Answer: Narrative theology, or what is sometimes called “post-liberal” theology, was developed during the last half of the twentieth century. It was inspired by a group of theologians at the Yale Divinity School. Its founders, George Lindbeck, Hans Wilhelm Frei, and other scholars were influenced by Karl Barth, Thomas Aquinas and to some extent, the nouvelle théologie, a school of thought proposing reform in the Catholic Church, led by French Catholics such as Henri de Lubac.
Narrative theology is the idea that Christian theology’s use of the Bible should focus on a narrative representation of the faith rather than the development of a set of propositions reasoned from the Scriptures themselves or what is commonly called a “systematic theology.” Basically, narrative theology is a fairly broad term, but oftentimes it is that approach to theology that primarily looks to the meaning in story. This then is typically joined by a rejection of the meaning derived from propositional truths or its systematic theology.
At other times, narrative theology is associated with the idea that we are not primarily to learn principles, rules or laws from Scripture, but rather we are to learn to relate to God, and how to play our part in the greater panorama of our salvation. Other combinations of such a theology are also common. As such, there have been many debates and critics of the narrative or post-liberal theology-centered issues including that of incommensurability, sectarianism, fideism, relativism, and truth.
Nonetheless, when used correctly, narrative theology can provide building blocks for systematic theology and for biblical theology (i.e., the progressive history of God revealing Himself to humanity). Narrative theology teaches that the Bible is seen as the story of God’s interaction with His people. Supporters of narrative theology maintain that this does not mean the Bible doesn’t make propositional truth assertions, but that the primary purpose of Scripture is to record the relationship between God and His people and how we today, in this post-modern world, can continue in this story. This then is to take precedence over the more exacting analysis of systematic theology. Supporters of narrative theology go on to argue that narrative theology is less likely to pull verses out of context to support doctrinal positions.
There are other aspects of narrative theology that are beneficial. For example, the Bible’s stories are there to teach us truth; we are supposed to learn from those truths, and to apply these lessons to our lives. As such, we should interpret and apply these stories according to the original intentions of the authors of Scripture—this is why the stories have been preserved for us (see Romans 15:4). Another positive influence of narrative theology is that it strengthens the value of community. In modern times, people have often made Christianity into that of one’s individual faith, but the Bible’s story of God’s relationship to His people reminds us that community is essential.
It is true that the Bible contains huge portions of narrative that are intended to convey truth to us, so it is important for us to adopt some form of narrative theology. However, narrative theology does have its problems, especially when it has been used irresponsibly. And, without question, this even occurs in conservative circles. This is especially true when its teachers and preachers are unconcerned with the Bible’s original meaning and are driven by their own intuitions or by their own responses to the Scriptures. As a result, narrative is often used in harmful ways.
Narrative theology has also been misused when people determine that the narrative does not have an underlying systematic theology, or that its underlying theology cannot be known. In such cases, it is implied that the lessons of narratives can be understood apart from the worldviews of the original writers or authors of the text itself. Basically, this results in false teaching with some proponents of narrative theology moving straight from story to application and doing away with more reasoned analysis of the Scriptures. But in reality, this can’t be done. Perhaps the most obvious influence of narrative theology is found in the emerging church with its distrust and relatively low regard for systematic theology.
Advocates of narrative theology, especially in the emerging church, claim that theology is not something that we can be dogmatic about. They say that “good” people have come to different conclusions over the years, so why bother to make conclusive statements about theology at all? Thus, from their perspective, theology is not something concrete, absolute, and authoritative. They maintain that in the past, people believed one way or another; somebody was right and somebody was wrong.
As a result of all this, in some churches today, we have relativism gone rampant. Nobody seems to know who is right and who is wrong. And what’s worse is that it doesn’t seem to concern anyone. Consequently, the church falls prey to secular postmodernism, where what is true for one, may not be true for another. It’s where the church tolerates anything and everything and stands upon nothing.
Some supporters of narrative theology, such as in the emerging church movement, do away with preaching altogether. Somebody might sit among a circle of peers and share what they think God is all about for them that particular day or week. They might even reference a Scripture which relates to their journey. But their experiences and feelings are the focal point, not the Word of God. They narrate a story or read a passage of Scripture and stop. There is no need to exhort, rebuke, or call to action. It is not about conforming to an authoritative statement of Scripture but rather using Scripture to reinforce fleshly desires of a journey that they take on their terms.
The church is supposed to be the pillar and supporter of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15), and truth is a body of doctrine as laid forth in the Bible through the Person of Jesus Christ. Though it has its benefits in other ways, as we’ve seen, narrative theology tends to appeal to postmodernists who like to shape their religion and their “God” based upon how they feel on a given day or about a certain passage of Scripture.
Recommended Resource: The Moody Handbook of Theology by Paul Enns
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Questions about Theology
What is narrative theology?