Narrative Theology

Question
What is narrative theology? Where does this discipline fit within the scheme of other theological disciplines (i.e. biblical, historical, systematic theologies)? Is narrative theology valid?
Answer
"Narrative theology" is a fairly broad term, encompassing a variety of specific approaches to theology, interpretation and application. Most generally, it is that approach to theology that finds meaning in story. Sometimes, this is coupled with a rejection of meaning derived from propositional truths (e.g., systematic theology). At other times, it is associated with the idea that we are not primarily to learn ethics from Scripture, but rather to learn to relate to God, and to play our part in the great meta-narrative of salvation. Other combinations are also common.

In general, the idea that we learn theology from narrative portions of Scripture is not only sound but biblical (Luke 24:27). 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 (e.g., Mark 2:23-28). We are supposed to 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 (Rom. 15:4).

Used rightly, narrative theology provides the building blocks for systematics and for biblical theology. We might say that systematic theology tends to default to drawing theology from more propositional literature (e.g., the New Testament letters). On the other hand, Old Testament biblical theology tends to depend primarily on narrative for its theological building blocks.

When we recognize truth in narratives, we call our recognitions "theology." When we formulate our recognitions into logical relationships, we are doing "systematic theology." When we formulate our recognitions along historical lines, we are doing "biblical theology." When we apply these recognitions to our lives, we are sometimes said to be doing "practical theology," or even simply "theology."

Narrative theology has become problematic at times when it has been used irresponsibly. When interpreters are unconcerned with the Bible's original meaning and are driven by their own intuitions, and even by their own responses to the literature, they often use narrative in harmful ways. Liberalism and neo-orthodoxy have both been guilty of this on a grand scale, but conservatives have done it too. Nevertheless, 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.

Narrative theology has also been misused when people imagine that 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 authors. This error is common in conservative circles as well, especially among those who subscribe to mechanical inspiration rather than organic inspiration, although conservatives more often apply this mistaken idea to systematic theology.

This error has resulted in some proponents of narrative theology moving straight from story to application, and disparaging more logical analysis. But in reality, this can't be done. Unless we find a correspondence between the text and our lives, we can't apply the text. And any such correspondence can be described in some manner, even if we don't bother to do this at the time we make our applications.

So, in summary, narrative theology is not all good or all bad (just like systematic theology and biblical theology). When used rightly, it provides helpful insights and true understanding. Used wrongly, it causes as many problems as any other misused approach to theology. These days, it seems to me that it is more popular among those who would undermine the traditional stances of systematic theology, so that it is obtaining a poor reputation by association. But as long as we don't use it independently of systematics and other approaches to theology, and as long as we don't ignore legitimate literary concerns (e.g., the author's theology and intent), we can make responsible use of it.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.