Friday, February 17, 2006

What Do They Mean By "Story"?

One of the many confusions amidst Old Princeton-style pastors and theologians concerning postconservative and postliberal models is in regard to the word "story" or "narrative". Common misconstruals of contemporary use of these terms include seeing them as genre categories, or as a subjective "feelings-oriented" approach to life and the text of Scripture. Another tendency is to see the invocation of "narrative" as fundamentally opposed to historical fact; thus Hans Frei has been labelled a "liberal" because of his seemingly ambivalent disposition toward whether the events in Scripture "actually happened". The same sorts of accusations have been levelled at Barth in a previous generation. With these words in greater currency among theologians, along with the more opaque "metanarrative", which is used to talk about everything from very important stories to "worldview" in general, it might be helpful to settle on some working definitions.

Firstly, references to "story" are emphatically NOT the arbitrary exaltation of one type of Biblical literature over another, such as propositional or poetic genres. While attention is typically drawn to the overwhelming percentage of the Bible that is actually in narrative form, this point should be seen as supporting a larger claim about the fundamental nature of reality itself. Instead of seeing our world through the a canon of abstract universal laws, detached from any particularity, these theologians are claiming that the make-up of our rationality is itself a "storied" one. Our attempt to make sense out of data is to fit it into our understanding of our individual stories as well as our broader story of the world. Every individual sees the world as inhabited by key characters interacting in such a way as to drive forward a plot. Our understanding of the world has a beginning, it carries on according to the plot with various themes weaving in and out of it as challenges are overcome toward some desired final conclusion. Nothing, it is said, is exempt from this sort of thinking, no matter how empirically detached it may appear. Scientists carry on according to their own "grand metaphysical stories" by which they can make sense out of notions like "progress". Because the structure of our minds is story-like, our observations of the world are always "storied" observations - and in that sense there is no "way it is" apart from the way these events are interpreted by and fit into our understanding of "the story".

These claims impact biblical intepretation and theologizing because they reverse the priority of explanation in doing theology: instead of appealing to abstract "attributes of God", soteriological concepts, etc. and then using individual accounts in Scripture as illustrations of these definitions, narrative theology commends particular stories about God as our primary definitions with the propositional content being the commentary. Our doctrine of redemption isn't an abstract category in which "God's purchasing sinners by the death and resurrection of Christ" is one instance - we only know what redemption is because of Christ's death and resurrection! God isn't omnipotent with specific instances of God acting powerfully in the Bible - those instances define what we mean by omnipotent (a definition which includes powerfully conquering sin through weakness on the cross). In this way postmodernism's critique of "Enlightenment rationalism", which claims to operate without cultural factors and biased accounts of the world (like stories), happens to share presuppositionalist critiques against evidentialism and Christianity's critiques of secular science.

But isn't this idea antithetical to postmodernism? Isn't Christianity a "metanarrative"? Lyotard's famous definition of postmondernism, namely "an incredulity toward metanarratives", isn't the denial of this - that there are these larger stories in which people see the world - it is, at least according to Merold Westphal, rather the rejection of "totalizing" accounts which say that their view of the world is outside the mediation of a narrative. It is, as it has elsewhere been called, "the view from nowhere". Thus whilie many theologians continue to use the word in reference to a "worldview", making Lyotard's conception of postmodernism the utter denial of "grand stories" of the world (like Christianity), it might actually be rather the opposite; namely a denial of scientific rationalism that can open a space for Christianity as a "worldview". Christians don't take the Gospel writers to be recording what happened in a detached way - they're writing theologically, describing the events of Jesus' life as part of a larger narrative of God's work in the world. They weren't simply robotic biographers, noting details for the sake of accuracy - they were heralds of the Son of God, proclaiming His arrival, death and resurrection in order to defeat sin and death. Moreover, any attempt to get "behind" the text to reconstruct what really happened (something conservatives do through excessive harmonization and liberals do through radical biblical criticism) isn't a way of achieving "what really happened"; it's simply another ideologically motivated account which competes with the Gospels ideologically motivated account. All history-telling is revisionist. One either chooses to believe the account given by the Gospels as a product of divine inspiration, or one chooses to weave one's own equally ideological account.

So how does story relate to historicity? Isn't concieving as Christianity, and the Gospels in particular, as "story" tantamount to denying that anything actually happened in time and space? In Hans Frei's 1987 exchange with Carl F. H. Henry, the issue of historicity obviously became a central part of Henry's critique. Consider Frei's response, which I'll quote at length:
Of course I believe in the “historical reality” of Christ’s death and resurrection, if those are the categories which we employ. But they weren’t always the categories employed by the church. There was a time when the church didn’t talk about “the Jesus of history” and “the Christ of faith.” There was a time when we didn’t talk, as many people have talked for nearly two hundred years now, about Jesus Christ being “a particular historical event.” And it may well be that even scholars won’t be using those particular terms so casually and in so self-evident a fashion for much longer. In other words, while I believe that those terms may be apt, I do not believe, as Dr. Henry apparently does, that they are as theory-free, as neutral as he seems to think they are. I do not think that the concept”fact” is theory-neutral. I do not think that the concept “probability” is theory-neutral. I do not think that we will talk theologically in those terms, perhaps, in another two generations. We didn’t talk that way 300 years ago. One talked in that day and time much more nearly about one person in two natures, undivided, but also unconfused. And that was just as adequate and just as inadequate a way of talking. If I am asked to use the language of factuality, then I would say, yes, in those terms, I have to speak of an empty tomb. In those terms I have to speak of the literal resurrection. But I think those terms are not privileged, theory-neutral, trans-cultural, an ingredient in the structure of the human mind and of reality always and everywhere for me, as I think they are for Dr. Henry.
Frei was pointing out that the language of "factuality", divorced from distinctly Christian ways of talking, is to import an ideology - namely that of the Enlightenment rationalism which dominates biblical criticism - into the discussion to the neglect of the biblical text. Apologetics and criticism concerning the "historicity" of the Gospels took the authoritative focus from the Gospels and placed it upon the historians' own reconstruction, whether conservative or liberal. And that, thought Frei, was the chasm between the text and the reader which one ought not to fall into.

Again, in reading Frei I hope you can hear the faint but shrill voices of Van Til and Schaeffer crying out against the evangelical acceptance of the "brute fact" and the "theory-neutrual", "common ground" interpretations which we claim to reject in our apologetics. I also hope you can discern the difference between this boldly Christian approach and the subjective existentialism with which it's often wrongly associated (as recently as in a popular lecture series I've just heard). These, and not some other touchy-feely motives, or parroting of "Phil Donahue" (talk about a generational insult!) are what drive many "emerging Christians" to speak so passionately about the importance of "story" and how Christians fit into it.

There are, of course, some difficulties with seeing the theological task this way (as there are with the "Old Princeton" hyper-propositionalism), but I'll leave those for the comments (and the mostly ignored previous post about David Kelly Clark and narrative theology)!


bobby grow said...


Nice post! While in Bible College and Seminary I sat under and TA'd for a prof named Ray Lubeck--his ThD dissertation was formed and shaped by the canonical critical approach/literary analysis that you speak of here. He was good friends with Dr. John Sailhammer, who taught at Western Seminary at the time, and both of these men were deeply influenced by the writings of Hans Frei, Brevard Childs, amongst others.

My point is, is that I have been influenced by the hermeneutical methodology you are speaking of here in your post. And I must admit there are certain emphases that are helpful and healthy that can be gleaned from the Canonical Critical approach (such as recognizing the textuality of the scriptures, the recognition of various types, genre, forms of literature within scripture--thus providing a "structure" to "get at" original authorial intent, etc.).

But, how is it that one (you) can maintain a healthy balance between the "realism" that the text of scripture is rooted in, and the "hyper-rationialist" approach provided by people like Frei. In other words given the "Kantian" approach that Frei and other PoMo's of today have bought into why would I need to see Moses, David, Jesus, etc. as anything more than "literary constructs" provided by the various editors of the scriptures. In fact I have seen this fall out in more than one person I graduated with who took this epistemological framework to heart--this seems to be the logical conclusion to the approach forwarded by people like Frei (history as a mediated human construct).

It seems that if one embraces this "anti-realist" approach, and buys into the nihilistic suspicion that must deconstruct and reconstruct all of history and reality must then relegate "meaning" to my particular "sub-culture" which then is able to imbue meaning for my particular "sub-narrative" (Bible for Christians, etc.); this is evinced by people like Stan Grenz and his work: Beyond Foundationalism.

I just think, Raja, that "critical realism" (correspondence theory of truth)and "literary only" approach you are discussing here are incompatible.

TheBlueRaja said...


I think you may have missed what I was saying here. I don't think anything I said entails seeing Biblical figures as "literary constructs" in the sense that they're somehow fictional figments of author's imaginations. I'm also not advocating "anti-realism" in the sense that there are no "referents" to which the texts speak of. This is, in fact, pretty straightforward critical realism - namely that we experience reality through a narrative framework which attempts to make sense of the data we recieve. All events are interpreted events. It's also to say that historical reconstructions outside the Gospels are every bit as "tainted" by faith commitments and ideologies as the Gospels' own presentation. None of this should imply that historicity is irrelevant (in fact I said as much) as much as it should imply that there are no "brute facts" of history which should get priority over the biblical presentation. I know that some, including Crossan, are ambivalent about the historicity of the bodily resurrection, etc., and I know that Frei is often read this way as well. But the fundamental point he's making doesn't have to take us there, and I tried to point that out in the fifth paragraph.

Thanks for your comments!

bobby grow said...

Thanks for your response, Sharad!

So I take it that you're not in favor of the Literal Grammatical Historical methodology of interpretation?

I actually I'm tracking with you, Sharad, and that's why I'm wondering WHY, from your perspective, I would have to see the Gospel Story as anything more than a story of "fiction" (as Crossan does)if I hold to a competing "meta-narrative" that would not allow for the super-natural communicated in the scriptures. In other words my "story", hypothetically, is one where the universe is closed; and the happenings on earth are caused by the inter-relationship of "natural" cause/effect forces.

What makes the Christian story anymore plausible than the naturalist story or the Muslim story, et al? And I realize I'm delving into the very rationalist abyss (by asking you these questoins) you're trying to avoid by your postulant here in this post.

I realize you're trying to unfetter the scriptures from the redactionistic higher critical history of religions approaches that dominate even "Evangelical" seminaries of today--but I guess I just don't understand, unless I'm already a Christian, why, given the competing already ideologically biased truth claims "out there", I should choose to accept, and thus interpret the text of scripture on its own literary terms, when I'm already predisposed and entrenched in another belief system that just as accurately, from its own self-referentially biased interpretation of history, provides just as a legitimate narrative framework that the Bible provides for the Christian; which is what you're saying here, right?:

". . . Moreover, any attempt to get "behind" the text to reconstruct what really happened (something conservatives do through excessive harmonization and liberals do through radical biblical criticism) isn't a way of achieving "what really happened"; it's simply another ideologically motivated account which competes with the Gospels ideologically motivated account. All history-telling is revisionist. One either chooses to believe the account given by the Gospels as a product of divine inspiration, or one chooses to weave one's own equally ideological account. . . ."

So what it really comes down to, if I'm hearing you, Sharad, is that you're arguing from a presuppositionalist (Van Til?)epistemology--and abductively scripture, and its interpretation of salvation history, provides the greatest ethical explanatory power--thus one should choose to be apart of the narrative framework and interpretive lense that the Christian sub-culture provides. And once safely couched within this framework one shouldn't worry about apolegetically evidentially "proving" the scriptures, after all this is a chasm that only rationalists fall into, but rather we are now free, given my "Christian" presupposition to come to the text of scripture and take it on its own terms and categories (i.e. types, genres, forms, literary devices, etc.)

I'm assuming then, Sharad, that you follow the "presuppositionalist" way? What if I don't, can I approach the scriptures, interpretively, as freely as you? I mean, if I am an evidentialist, so called, am I stuck with the LGH and redaction/form criticism?

I'm being serious here, Sharad, not trying to joust with you (I wouldn't even attempt that ;).

J. B. Hood said...

Cheers, mate--great post. Okay, I'll bite: where did you get the Frei and Henry interchange?


exegetical fallacy said...

Raj and bobby,

Great post and great interchange! nothing really to add but a brief side note. At least in Gospel studies, more and more scholars are beginning to use narrative approaches without ditching the historicity of the events. So for instance, the symbolic meaning of the miracle is maintained, without denying the corporeal event (the later is a hub for the former). Matthew, Mark, etc, would not have distinguished the two, and thankfully, more and more critical scholars aren't either.

thanks for your insights, guys!

TheBlueRaja said...


It's in Trinity Journal, volume 8.


Thanks! An example of what you're talking about, for those who might be interested, might be in Joel Willit's article about Historical Jesus studies - I think it's in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3:1.


Thanks for your insights! I hope a summary response will do - I'm not the jouster I used to be! But I'd say:

1) Historical grammatical interpretation isn't antithetical to narrative approaches as long as they take the form of the text seriously. Read, for example, Joel B. Green's commentary on Luke in the NIGTC - he's perhaps one of the more outspoken advocates of narrative approaches in evangelicalism, and I'd say his commentary falls into the literal, historical, grammatical category.

2) The spectre of relativism can be avoided because the events we're trying to explain are real events which gave rise to the impact and apprehension recorded in the gospels (see Dunn's, "Jesus Remembered"). The point is that there's no neutral description of these events. Without getting pulled too deeply into the evidentialist/presuppositionalist debate, I'd say that there's no getting around the priority of faith in seeking for understanding. Why accept a Christian vs. a Muslim story? Because YHWH is God, not Allah. How do I know that? The internal testimony of the Holy Spirit and the consequent repair of my cognitiive equipment (see Plantinga). What about falsification? The Christian story makes the best sense of the evidence (see William Lane Craig).

3) What if you're an evidentialist? Well, I guess I'm saying that that's not the way to go! ;)

Seriously, though - I think anytime an apologetic (or interpretive!) encounter calls for you to theoretically "pause" your Christian commitment in your explanations is an unwarranted and unnecessary approach, as well as something of an artificial attempt at "neutrality", which (as in my last several posts), you've heard why I reject.

Does that help explain, if not convince, Bobby?

bobby grow said...

Thank you Sharad . . . your response is well put;

but, and let me qualify quickly, I am not "primarily" an evidentialist--if anything a qualified fideist (seeing rationality as instrumental to a changed heart, i.e. changed values), why do you want to follow the Molonist trajectory (middle knowledge) is this not built upon the same "rationalist" epistemology that you are decrying relative to biblical interpretation.

In other words it seems you affirm one thing, middle knowledge, and the "faith seeking understanding project", only to deny it once you get to your methodological approach in interpreting scripture.

Why even engage the rationalist tradition at all?

TheBlueRaja said...


We may be using the words "rationalist" in different ways. I think Christians shouldn't be ashamed to ground their research projects, interpretive strategies and theological pursuits in the starting point of their faith. That doesn't mean they shouldn't employ logic in their research projects, interpretive strategies or theological pursuits. Molinism employs seeks to give a theological account of human freedom. That's not "rationalistic" in the sense I was using the term, namely in the putative objectivity of secular Enlightement rationalism.

bobby grow said...


Yes, maybe I did come off sounding as if I'm advocating irrationalism, or that I'm operating out of a reductionistic understanding of "rationalism"; but I'm really not.

Like you, I'm in process, and I have certain "influences", i.e. former profs, areas of personal study, etc., that have shaped my thought thus far. Like you I believe our faith should serve as a starting point, I'm operating out of an "Affective Theological" anthropology that leads me to this conclusion (i.e. heart, mind, will).

Molinism comes out of the nominalistic tradition that drives a wedge between God's de potentie absoluta and de potentia ordinata (His absolute power and ordained power)--middle knowledge, from my understanding picks up on this ambiguity, between God's revealed (economic) will/character; and His "private" (imminent) will known to Himself alone. This some how creates space for positing other worlds, etc. (Huge oversimplification, I know).

All and all, the relationship of human freedom and God's sovereignty might be an application of Molinism--but there is more to it than that--such as understanding God's ontology. From my perspective, again, it's incompatible to assert that we want to come to scripture on its own terms (allowing it to establish its own categories--i.e. relative to God's nature); and at the same time use middle knowledge as lens to understand God's workings in time and space. I say this, because from my perspective, Molinism creates an artificial dichotomy that is unwarranted by God's own self-disclosure of Himself in His Word. Furthermore, Molinism engages in speculative "negative theology" that necessarily starts with man analogically as the referent by which we try to understand God (i.e God is an actual infinite, why because I'm finite--He is what I'm not, etc.).

We need to let scripture establish its own categories, I don't think Molinism allows for that--this is historically demonstrable.

Like I said I'm in process, Sharad, you have opened a huge can of worms, with all kinds of implications . . . sorry if I've veered off track a bit!

TheBlueRaja said...


Ah-ha! I think I see what you're saying now. I hope it doesn't sound like I was ruling out either speculative theology or abstract propositional reflection on Scripture - I think the epistles (authoritatively) engage in this all the time when they "pause" some element of the story to theologize about some element of it (i.e. the death of Christ, the resurrection, God's promise to Abraham, etc.) I don't think this is a failure to allow Israel's Scriptures or the Gospel proclamation to establish the categories. Habakkuk and Job wrestled with the inner workings of God's will based on their reflections on His actions in history. What I was arguing for, though, was a conceptual priority on narrative over abstract theologizing. Does that make sense?

Wonderful comments to think about. Thanks again, Bobby!

bobby grow said...

Thanks, Sharad! Yeah it seems Grenz is sensitive to your desire in his systematic theology--but really doesn't cut it from my perspective.

I see all your asking is what, "Athens has to do with Jerusalem"? A tough nut to crack. Thanks for the dialogue . . .

TheBlueRaja said...

When I mentioned Joel Green ealier, I should have said that his Luke commentary was in the NICNT. Sorry about that!

marc said...

I like to come by here just to watch your brains working. Thanks Bobby and Sharad. I get smarter just by hanging out here for a few minutes. Although I got a little lost after:


Nice Post...

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, Marc; how kind! Now if I could just get HALF the traffic of purgatorio . . .

christy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
christy said...

Hey, Sharad.

Looks like another intriguing post ... unfortunately I've not the time to read it in its entirety -- yet. Soon, I hope. However, I want to compliment you on the pictures/graphics you choose to go along with your insights. Very artful. Truly.


marc said...


Where do you think my readers come from? They wander in from various deep theological blog discussions and see the pictures and say "shiny" and never leave. It like the Raccoon and tinfoil ball trap, he sees it, grabs it, and can't let it go.

TheBlueRaja said...

When that sort of distraction takes place in conversations with our wives (we've only got one each, smart aleck) my brother and I lovingly call it "the shiny nickel syndrome".

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks Christy! For REAL artsy pinnache and pictures galore head over to the brilliant Marc Heinrich's blog

HZ said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
HZ said...

Sorry, that didn't show up correctly...

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks Heidi! That article looks excellent!