Posted by: duncandrews | February 1, 2011

The authority of Scripture as narrative, I

Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

Evangelicals (rightly, I believe) hold to the Bible as the authoritative word of God. This includes a commitment, before the fact, to believe whatever the Bible is shown to teach, regardless of how kooky it seems, how much it disagrees with philosophical trends, or how much it offends my comfortable white middle-class Australian sensibilities.

And that would be a fairly uncomplicated thing if the Bible were a text-book; a list of abstracted, super-temporal propositions given by God to humanity outlining what we ought to believe. To submit to an authority like that is, if not morally easy (or possible), at least cognitively straightforward. God says it, we believe it, ’nuff said.

But anyone with a passing familiarity with the Bible will know that just isn’t the case. The Bible’s burden is not to give a list of propositions but to tell a story. It is, at its heart, a narrative – it includes many different genres, but they weave together to give one overarching story.  Its narrative arc reaches from the very beginning to the very end, from creation to new creation, from the garden of Eden to the heavenly city come down to earth; and within this framework it tells the story of God’s incredible, forgiving grace in response to humanity’s terrible, culpable disgrace.

In what sense, then, can we see the Bible as authoritative? Often, I think, the answer is given in terms of proposition: where Scripture asserts a proposition, or where we can infer a proposition from the narrative (or other genre) of Scripture, we are bound to believe it. And that’s good as far as it goes – but I don’t think it goes far enough, particularly if we are to listen to Scripture in the form it is actually given, and read each part in its context, within its overarching narrative.

So what does it mean for Scripture as narrative to to have authority? And how do we submit to the authority of this narrative, not only for the propositions we can infer from it, but on its own terms as a narrative? What are some of the implications of this narrative form of Scripture for how we ‘do’ our theology? I’ll attempt to explore these questions over subsequent posts… but in the meantime would love to hear your thoughts!

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Responses

  1. Hey dunc,

    Very important question to explore. Have you read n.t. Wrights little book on this? He seems to be exploring the same question… If so, what were your thoughts?

    • Hey Matty,
      Haven’t read Wright’s book – what’s it called?

  2. Hi Duncan,

    greetings from a Pom living in the States. a Google alert led me to your post, which raises a subject dear to my heart. and i’m with matt – n t wright has deeply shaped my own narrative theology. my wife and i have been leading people through a narrative introduction to scripture for the last ten years, and it was just published in the States last september. you can read more here if you’re interested: http://www.ivpress.com/cgi-ivpress/book.pl/code=3632

    unfortunately it’s not currently available in Australia. however, my mentor is Australian – Mary Fisher – and she has a bunch of copies, and might be willing to send you one. let me know!

    all the best as you tell – and live – the Story!
    sean

    • Hi Sean,

      Thanks for dropping by! Thanks for the link to your book also – it looks great, the sort of thing I’m thinking about here. Looks like I can get it on Book Depository US, so not being published here shouldn’t matter too much.

      One question for you – have you thought much about how a narrative theology intersects with holding to the actual text of Scripture, originally given, as the inspired word? Ie, what are your thoughts on the danger of focussing so much on the meta-narrative that we neglect the details; or miss the trees for the wood??

      Not sure if that makes sense, but it’s one of the questions floating around in my gray matter…

      • Duncan,

        Your question is important, and one of the points of contention raised by critics of narrative theology. My practice has been to read scripture daily for many years now, and it seems that fairly regularly I encounter a text which doesn’t seem to ‘fit’ within my understanding of the metanarrative thus far. My temptation is to be lazy and just bypass that text. On my better days, I pause and ask, “what does this mean?” I.e. is there something about my understanding of the Story that needs to change? Does my understanding of the text in question need to change? Is there a healthy tension to be maintained between both places that I need to sit with for a while? (It’s usually the latter of the three.)
        Having said that, I think narrative theology, and having a sense of the metanarrative has helped me to read individual texts over the last decade far more faithfully than I did prior to that. I wrote a guest piece for a blog this week that illustrates that – you can find it here if you’re interested: http://thepangeablog.com/2011/02/10/the-story-of-god-and-capital-campaigns-guest-post-author-sean-gladding/

        Hope that’s helpful.

  3. Duncan,

    i have a PDF copy of the article N T Wright wrote on the question of how scripture is authoritative – i’d be happy to send it via email.

    sean

  4. Loved your first paragraph but your second seemed to contradict it and may be a flag for a later invitation to ignore everything that you find difficult to believe in and/or which is in conflict with, say for example, “what modern scientific investigation has demonstrated to be absolutely beyond doubt”.

    • Hi John, thanks for your comment – appreciate your input! Just so I can get a grip on what you’re saying, would you be able to clarify in what way/s the second paragraph contradicts the first?
      Thanks, and God bless.

  5. I mean that the first sets out what appear to be the most responsible and God-honouring Christian attitude to take to God’s word because it is God’s word while the second seems to say, “Well, we have this world to contend with and we have to be mindful that certain ideas from this world will inevitably clash with a number of propositions from God’s word.”

    I gave science propositions as one example. No matter how one looks at it, the second seems to be a watering down of the strong defence set up in the first to honour God’s revelation. It seems to allows the possibility that if a “scientific truth” conflicts with clear biblical statements, we automatically defer to the scientists. And the evangelical world does this very same thing when it addresses Genesis 1. It may do it one or 2 steps removed e.g. taking “consideration” of literary devices or author’s intention etc, but it does it because science, so-called, has brought the Genesis 1 account into question.

  6. Hi John, thanks for the reply.
    Leaving aside the question of theological or exegetical implications for the moment (I’m hoping to get to these in a future post), all I’m really saying here is:

    a) The bible, in essence, is a narrative
    and…
    b) any attempt to understand how the bible functions as authoritative in the Christian life has to deal with Scripture on its own terms, and take account of the form it is given to us in. Any other attempt – e.g. seeing the bible essentially as a vehicle for abstract propositions – in the end twists Scripture into something it is not and as such not only dishonours the bible we have been given but the God who gave it.

    I’m certainly not saying that the claims of modern science – or for that matter of post-enlightenment rationalism, logical positivism or any other ‘ism’ – ought to hold sway over the bible. In fact I think I’m saying exactly the opposite! We need to learn more and more to read the bible on its own terms.

    So, (I hope I’m not dodging your point – just trying to bring the discussion back to the post), what do you make of these two points?

  7. […] authority of Scripture as narrative, II Back here, I asked the question: what does it mean for the Bible, as a narrative, to be authoritative in the […]

  8. 1. What do you mean by “has to deal with Scripture on its own terms, and take account of the form it is given to us in.”?

    2. And if you identify the form, to what epistemological or hermeneutical touchstone do you rely on to provide the text’s meaning?

    3. And where do these touchstones lie?

  9. Hi John,
    1) I guess I was trying to restate here the main point of the post – that the bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is not a list of rules or doctrines, but a story. In places it certainly contains rules and doctrinal statements, but even these are never purely abstract. They occur at a particular point in the story – as the Israelites are gathered around Mt Sinai, or as Paul is writing to a particular gathering with particular needs – and can only be properly understood and applied in reference to that particularity.

    What I’m wrestling with here is simply the question: what does it mean for a narrative to be authoritative? I think I know what it means for a list of rules/doctrines to be authoritative – you just memorise them and do/believe them. But, as I’ve said, I don’t think that’s what we’ve got when we read the Bible – we have a story.

    2) Not sure what you mean by ‘epist. and herm. touchstone’… I can think of a few hermenutical/epistemological implications, though. Will try to get to them properly in a post soon.

    But in brief, in terms of hermenutics, one implication is that any particular passage needs to be understood with reference to its point in the overarching biblical narrative. Really all I’m saying here is that we need a Biblical Theological framework to locate particular passages in.

    In terms of epistemology, I think this character of the bible (that it’s a story, not a text book) should lead to an epistemic humility. If the bible was a series of timeless propositions, there would be no need for humility, no need for hermenutics, actually. But it’s not – and I think this is what sets the Bible apart from other religious texts, which are more concerned with imparting doctrinal/ethical propositions. The fact that the bible is a narrative means that it’s always a possibility that someone else has a better reading of the story than I do – a better sensitivity to its parts and how they weave together. It means that we bear with one another in love as we in community immerse ourselves in this story and by God’s Spirit think about how it directs our lives.

    Brother, not sure if I’ve answered your questions properly but I have to go! Sorry for the long comment.

  10. Sorry Duncan for the delay but, you know, life and all its problems, blah, blah, blah…

    I’m a bit confused about what you’re getting at as it’s all too general for me and I can’t pin you down. And I guess that is what I was trying to determine right from the start. For example, how does your understanding of ‘narrative’, with respect to the Bible, influence what, say, Genesis 1 says about the age of the earth? And what weight does this ‘narrative’ have in reflecting the ideas of secular, materialist scientists who have only express a negative attitude to all things theological and whose beliefs about the earth and life’s origin would put them in direct conflict with the plain reading of Scripture?

    And what about objective truth? When the Bible says, for example, that God craeted evrything in 6 days and someone else says something else because his reading of the Bible says differently, who is closer to the truth? And why?

  11. Hi John, no problem re delay – you can probably tell I’m a pretty infrequent blogger myself!

    Yes, well I’ve intentionally tried to be general – in the sense that I’m not dealing with specific implications but with the broader issue of how Scripture functions as authoritative, particularly taking into account its narrative form. This does have specific implications, and I appreciate you pushing me on them – but so far you haven’t really engaged with this broader issue. I feel you’re wanting to jump ahead of where this post is at – can I ask again, do you agree that Scripture, when taken as a whole, tells a story? If so, how is it that a story can be authoritative in your life? What does it look like to submit to the authority of a story, as opposed to abstract rules/doctrines such as found in other religious texts? For my part, I’ve tried to suggest something of an answer in the next post…

    I started writing an answer to your specific questions just now, but want to give it some more thought, so I wonder if you could answer my questions in the meanwhile?

  12. Duncan asked: “do you agree that Scripture, when taken as a whole, tells a story? If so, how is it that a story can be authoritative in your life?”

    Not trying to be a smartie, but I believe the whole tells a story when the particulars are trustworthy. If the “minors” are false, then no matter how cleverly you fudge the maths, the Big Picture isn’t going to be accurate or make sense. After all, a Big Picture story can’t arise in a vacuum or from a reader’s desire to see his own interpretation forced onto the screen alla postmodernism.

    Many an atheist has stated that if Genesis 1 is not straightforward real history then accepting the Gospels as historical is pointless. So, if the origin of life didn’t occur the way Genesis and Exodus describe it (i.e. happened quickly and there is no genetic connection between higher order taxa i.e. most likely above species) then I can see no reason to believe Paul and John when they declare Jesus the Creator who brought everything into existence by Wisdom.

    I can’t imagine going to the text with a Big Picture already formed (?from what?). Authoritative Big Pictures come from the smaller.

  13. […] I started by affirming Scripture’s authority as the word of God. God’s word is living and active; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart; and it ought to be read with reverence and expectation, in fear and trembling and joyful thanks. […]

  14. Hi John – sorry not to reply earlier. Can I point you to my latest post on this for my thoughts? Basically, I’m with you in terms of the importance of letting the parts direct the whole – but I also think the influence flows the other way. We need to let the overarching story provide a framework for how we read the parts, and at the same time let the parts shape that story so that their distinctive contributions aren’t flattened out.


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