Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Reformed Epistemology and Narrative Theology

SINCE THIS ARTICLE GOT SUCH LITTLE FEEDBACK (being sandwiched between two more "controversial" posts on the Master's Seminary's take on Emergent), I THOUGHT I'D MOVE IT UP HERE AND HOPE IT GETS SOME MORE ATTENTION!

It's been my suspicion as of late that much of what narrative theology has to offer by way of answering the problems of Enlightenment modernism comport well with the presuppositional style of Reformed apologetics. While browsing through my Theological Journal Disc I came across an intriguing article by David Kelly Clark called "Narrative Theology and Apologetics" (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, no. 36 (1993): 4). I remember enjoying reading Clark in my apologetics and evangelism class while in seminary.

In this article Clark, a presuppositionalist apologist and Reformed philosopher of religion, described both the promise and the pitfalls of narrative theology. He draws upon the interchange between Hans Frei and Carl F. H. Henry, giving an even-handed appraisal of the benefits of both approaches. After giving considerable time to pointing out the potential problems with narrative approaches (1. the unclear nature of what that might mean, 2. the detachment of narrative approaches from history 3. conceputal realtivism, "too much Wittgenstein") he goes on to say: "Despite all this, narrative theology does have some things right. Evangelical apologists would do well to develop their thought and strategy in light of these themes . . .":

1) Narrative theology focuses on concrete modes of understnading and communication - traditional apologetics are too abstractly philosophical

2) It encourages us to learn how to work in relativistic and pluralistic milleus - narrative can translate biblical truth into postmodern models of rationality without giving in to relativism

3) It highlights how difficult and complex apologetics really is - modernistic apologetics often prove futile in postmodern contexts

4) It promotes a flexible apologetic strategy, one that responds to particular needs in specific situations - Clark says, "The validity of a multiple-perspectives approach at a limited level (though not at the comprehensive level of worldviews) offers the apologist some flexibility in argument even though the goal, an experience with Jesus Christ, remains constant."

5) It allows for more varied sorts of evidence, including religious experiences - shedding straitjackets of foundationalist (evidentialist) critiera for knowledge means introducing the reality of religious experience can count as evidence.

6) It alerts us to the uniqueness of Christian thinking - narrative approaches refuse to imbibe secular standards for rationality

7) It reminds us that apologists often assume much cultural baggage - Clark says, "at our point in history this baggage includes Enlightenment foundationalism . . . if general culture shifts to postmodernism, however, those we meet may hold cultural presuppositions of which we are utterly unaware."

8) It suggests possibilities for significant cross-cultural apologetics - Again, Clark: "Let us build Christian defense not on traditions that are dying even in the west but on culturally appropriate understandings and strategies."

After concluding that "several significant movements are writing prapgraphs in the Enlightenment's obituary. In philosophy, Reformed epistemologists are decisively demonstrating the self-referential incoherence of classical foundationalism", Clark goes on to say "evangelical apologetics must adapt to a postmodern context. This does not mean jumping on bandwagons or chasing fads. It does mean concieving of apologetics so it functions in the conteporary mileu."

Is it possible to take what's good from narrative approaches while refusing to pitch notions of historicity (i.e., "it doesn't matter if Christ 'really' rose from the dead, it's entering the narrative world that counts) or cave to relativistic tendencies (i.e. "different stories have different criteria for rationality within those narrative worlds")? I hope so! While narrative theology isn't a panacea, it has exerted many positive effects on Biblical studies which shouldn't be neglected, least of all in its response to radical Biblical criticism. Conservative approaches by Kevin Vanhoozer, Joel Green, Richard Hays and others have attempted to develop these insights without falling into the ditch of postmodernist skepticism.


flathead said...

Thanks for the summary and the reference to Clark's article.

TheBlueRaja said...

My pleasure, of course!

HZ said...

'People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are. Life may sometimes legitimately appear as a book of science. Life may sometimes appear, and with a much greater legitimacy, as a book of metaphysics. But life is always a novel. Our existence may cease to be a song; it may cease to be a beautiful lament. Our existence may not be an intelligible justice, or even a cognizable wrong. But our existence is still a story. In the fiery alphabet of every sunset is written, "to be continued in our next."'

-G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

It is interesting to note too that Christ told us stories while He was on earth, to communicate truth; and that the book of Revelation reads very much like a fairy tale. All the stories are all the story of Him, as the article by M. Horton said much better than I can. This has been a good thing to think about lately: it seems to fit well with your posts on objectivity.

marc said...

I seem to have come accross this a few years back reading Sailhaimer's "Pentatuch as Narrative". Is that the same approach as what you are describing here?

metalepsis said...

If I could import this discussion into the realm of biblical studies, taking as a starting point your last paragraph. It seems as if the critic will have to wear two hats if she wants to honor both narrative and historicity of the biblical accounts.

If you look at those who do narrative criticism really well, like Polzin for example, there is no prima face reason to conclude that the narratives are not historical. For Polzin there is no drive to find the route of the Re(e)d Sea crossing, what is more important is to understand what the texts means. If there is such a thing as narrative meaning, or narrative truth, then there is no need for the critic to acquiesce to the historicity of the account.

One supposes with Frei that he really believes that the resurrection happened in history, but the meaning of that event can be found only in the narrative substructure of the account. For Frei to argue for historicity would be pointless, because there is no meaning outside of the narrative (not theoretically speaking, as if meaning can only be found in narratives, rather just for Frei’s project).

An interesting possible starting point for combining the two approaches may be found in Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, which I haven’t read, and I don’t think Dunn combines the two in this project purposefully, but I wonder with the new found interest in memory as an historical category, if someone could use this theoretical framework to combine the two? I think Joel Green did a paper on this at ETS in 2004, using some cognitive theory?

The flip side are those who take the gospels as pure histories, they seemingly don’t have the imagination to read the gospels in their narrative forms, and have the tendency to want to harmonize all the gospel accounts.

The scholars you mentioned at the bottom seem more inclined to use narrative models without denying the historicity of the accounts, but they rarely argue for the history of such events using historigraphical models.

TheBlueRaja said...


Yeah, Sailhamer's approach tries to hold these two strains together (narrative and historicity) with a more conservative appropriation of Brevard Childs.

I would love to read some Polzin, and my sense is that you're right about the compatibility of historical claims with narrative criticism. There are, though, complications with the idea that "narrative truth" is fundamentally distinct from historical claims. The fact is that all history-telling is narrative. And because this is true, it seems to me that either we've got to conclude that there is no such thing as a truly "historical claim" or that "narrative truth" can in fact include historical claims and be seen as giving access to history. The question of verifiability or falsification is a related question, but one that shouldn't be confused with the task of interpretation - in other words, we can apprehend the world projected by the narrative, but we don't have to believe it. I believe, for instance, that the historicity of the resurrection is an important component to understanding the Gospel narratives, but I don't beleive that I have to muster a pile of corroboration in order to properly interpret it. I do, however, think that choosing to see the world the way its projected by the author involves believing that Jesus in fact rose from the dead. In that way I believe that the critic must acquiesce to the historicity of the account if he's to adopt the narrative as speaking truly about the world.

I was going to mention "Jesus Remembered" as I read your thoughts on Polzin and Frei, and I have wondered about the fruitfulness of cognitive theory in this regard as well. I listened to the Dunn session at ETS with some of these questions in mind and found Dunn's approach to be very provocative. I don't remember Joel Green mentioning cognitive theory at the paper you mentioned, but as I remember he did speak of "stepping into" the narrative in a way that necessarily involves adopting the historical claims of the text.

As for those that read the text only in order to "get behind it", as in an archaeological dig, I agree that this is to use the text for something other than it was intended to do. The scholars I mentioned were precisely because they use narrative models while at the same time giving the sub-category of historicity its due. They, more than many, take the narrative seriously.

Thanks for these comments, Bryan - very helpful!

metalepsis said...

I think you are right that in order to understand the narratives, you must seek to do so on their own terms, and for a coherent reading of the NT then you must see that Jesus in fact rose from the dead. The problem that most conservative evangelicals have when reading Frei and, Barth for that matter, is they want them to give the gritty historical details, when they are not necessary for understanding the narratives of the texts themselves.

The problem though with holding both a historical approach and a narrative approach can be seen in the journeys of Israel to the Promised Land. Do they really cross the Jordan that many times, or is this a literary convention in the narrative meant to point beyond the historicity of the event to something different? Some more conservative evangelicals might not be comfortable going there.

Keep digging into narrative theory. I enjoy your thoughts.

bobby grow said...


You seem to be saying the text of scripture is not less than, but more than historical narrative, true?

If so, how is one, i.e. what criterion, is an individual to use to determine whether an event in scripture is indeed a "real" historical event; or rather "just" a literary device? This seems to set one on a slippery slope of indeterminancy--relative to the historical nature of scripture; and the historical nature of Christianity in general.

DavidJ said...

Is there any chance of finding Clarks article online? I am about to write an assignment for my MA on narratives and apologetics. And I am considering using the Reformed Epistemology of Alvin Plantinga and looking at how narratives can be used in the kind of apologetics "allowed" or promoted by this epistemic system.

TheBlueRaja said...

Sorry David - I looked everywhere and couldn't find it online. I'd be happy to email it to you, though! Simply write me a note at yadavfamily at msn dot com and I'll reply with the article.

Blessings in your study!