Narrative Theology and Transformed Meaning

In practicing a narrative theology, the overarching conviction is that the revelation of God is a story: the story of the creator God, at work in Israel, to redeem and reconcile the world through the story of Jesus.

Part of what this means for me is the possibility of transformation, reconfiguration, and even leaving behind of earlier moments in the story as later scenes show us the way forward and, ultimately, the climactic saving sequence.

This is one point at which I differ from N. T. Wright.

Regularly in Wright’s writing we will find statements such as, “This is what God was up to all along.” I don’t disagree here. But what often goes unspoken, and where I think we need to be more clear, is that one only knows “this is what God was up to all along” once one is already convinced that “this new thing is actually what God is up to.”

The work of Jesus is not merely a saving act. For a people who are convinced that the saving work of Jesus is what was “prepromised in the scriptures” (Rom 1), the Christ event becomes a hermeneutic. It becomes a lens by which we reread the Old Testament and discover what can only be seen by the eyes of faith.

In light of the climax of the story, we reread the earlier moments and discover things that would not have been visible to the original audience. We boldly read those as indications of God’s work in Christ, nonetheless, because we believe that the same God is at work in the same story to bring it to its culmination in him.

Image courtesy of The Open Fiction Project tofp.org

This brings me to a point at which my version of narrative theology differs from the work of some practitioners of what is sometimes called “theological interpretation of scripture.” Here the specific example who comes to mind is Kevin Vanhoozer.

Confronted with the incongruity between “behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son” as it is used in Isaiah and in Matthew, Vanhoozer appeals to authorial intention to say that the Matthew meaning was, in a sense, the meaning intended for Isaiah as well. Of course, by “authorial intention,” Vanhoozer means God as author.

This, it seems to me, is cheating.

Instead, I propose a multiple-reading strategy. Allow the text to mean what it meant in its first context, as much as we can determine this. Do the historical critical work that sheds light on why, for example, an eighth century BC audience would formulate matters just so–and then recognize the freedom of later readers to reread those texts differently in light of later events.

Reading Vahoozer or Dan Treier, I sometimes fear that theological readings become a way to circumvent critical issues. But even if the demands of the church push us toward a final, post-critical reading, where we reincorporate the difficult message of an earlier day into the story of the church by a dramatic rereading of the text, I want to contend that we must still be first critical in order to be post-critical.

To my mind, narrative theology allows for such transformations. We are part of a story. Later moments take up, fulfill, recapitulate, and transform earlier. We can say both, “Isaiah 7 has nothing to do with a person born hundreds of years later to someone who has not had sex,” and, “the virgin birth of Jesus fulfills Isaiah 7.”

Reading a book on theological interpretation by a scholar across the pond, I was struck by a claim that we are to read the Bible as a book addressed to us–that the ideal audience is those who proclaim and profess to follow Jesus Christ as Lord.

This, it seemed, to me, was half right.

Yes, we are like the first and ideal audience: those expected to respond in faithful following of Jesus.

But we are also not like them: we are not first-century Romans; we are not first-century Jews; we are not fifth century Jews in Babylon. There is a specificity to the particular audience that sets us apart from them. To the writer, there would have been a hope that first-century Galatians would respond by “kicking out the slave woman and her son,” even as Abraham did. That word is not directly addressed to us in the same way.

What I propose for reading the Bible itself also pertains to reading it for our communities. We are part of a long story. This means that the retellings will involve some measure of transformation.

And this is, itself, faithful and living renarration of the story of God.

15 thoughts on “Narrative Theology and Transformed Meaning”

  1. I’m nodding in agreement. Without the historical critical work first, the Bible becomes irrelevant. It is just the text that happens to be open.

  2. Is the reason for that I am very familiar with your writing here that I learned “the first” and “the second reading” from Westminster? Actually can’t I agree more to you because I believe that the second (or theological and christological) reading should not be loaded on the same block of the cricritical first reading of the Old Testament narrative. The first reading must be there independently, but it also have to be transformed where the second reading is being done.

    One thing I want to ask is if you think N.T. Wright considers “what God is up to all along” as it is even without presupposition of understanding “what is new”? I hope to hear “yes” from you in that I got an impression that Wright’s excessive stress on Historical Israel and Jesus drives himself to draw a meta-narrative even without understanding newness of the Christological narrative.

  3. “Reading from the New Testament or rabbinic sources back to Genesis or Isaiah is a legitimate theological move, but it should serve to complement, rather than substitute for, the meaning the text would have had to its original audience” (Levine and Knight, ‘Meaning of the Bible,’ 138).

  4. Wow. Excellent stuff. Our thinking is pretty similar. I am convinced of narrative as well. I’m not sure I see very clearly where you disagree with Wright. Perhaps that could be expanded upon (I see clearly the distinction with Vanhoozer).

    Also, I would love to see you flesh out the importance of historical-critical study. As a minister, this is a constant issue on the local level. That individuals take the Bible as though it is addressed directly to us – and need no historical background work or to understand the original audience. I see several problems with this: 1) We can’t escape historical critical analysis – our very translations in English demand it – so we are using it already; 2) We are inconsistent because in many areas various faith groups subconsciously use historical background (e.g., seeing Jesus’ literal foot washing as an ancient cultural phenomena and translating that to other acts of humble servitude today). 3) When we don’t do historical-critical work, as NT Wright points out, the text can float away from its moorings and we manipulate it to fit our own cultural perspectives – when it may not be actually addressing some of these questions – we actually become more subjective in our interpretation. And many other issues (of course, I’m well aware of the caveats – that we can’t know everything in this area – but then such is true if we just read the Bible alone – I think grace and humility are the keys in all this). Would enjoy a discussion from you in this area.

    Excited to have discovered your work and look forward to reading more from you (found you through a review of your book on the Jesus Creed). God bless!

  5. Jean: I get the imression Wright makes the story into something that had to happen, just that way, necessarily, and thus all the parts explain all the other parts. This seems to me to be too tight a scheme.

    Daniel: There doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. If he hadn’t been, then there would have been no New Testament ‘fulfilment’ of Isaiah, but then nobody would have thought there should be one! I’m inclined to think ‘fulfilment’ should be reserved for things that are more compellingly part of what God seems to have been doing.

  6. I like where you’re going with this. It seems to me that this is in line with how the story of faith unfolds in our lives as well. The story of a particular event has significance on its own at the time I experience it, but it may be reinterpreted and given new or deeper meaning in the light of later events.

  7. Tim Gombis recently posted this from James Thompson’s commentary on Hebrews:

    The historical-critical reading of scripture has been an invaluable instrument for the reading of the Bible, for its insistence on discovering the meaning of a passage in its original context often prevents arbitrary readings and provides a common method for interpreters from a variety of religious traditions to examine the same texts. While few today question the validity of historical-critical exegesis, many interpreters now challenge the view that a text has only one meaning, insisting that the meaning of a text depends on the questions we ask. Interpreters increasingly recognize that the meaning of a text is not exhausted by our attempts to hear the word in its original context. Early Christians maintained that what had occurred in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus was of such importance that it transformed their entire biblical story, becoming a lens for reading all of scripture. The author of Hebrews read scripture through his knowledge of the plot of the entire narrative. Thus the meaning of the text was not frozen with the original readers but took on additional meaning when interpreters read it in light of the entire plot. With the faith that Jesus was the Messiah, the ultimate king, the author gave a messianic interpretation to the royal psalms. Because of his faith that the exalted Christ was equal to God, he read passages praising God as references to the one at God’s right hand. The author neither claimed to interpret the passages in their original context nor spoke of them as predictions fulfilled in Christ. As a preacher, he read scripture on behalf of the community in order to find a word for his own time. He anticipated the later church as it interpreted scripture on the basis of the church’s faith in Jesus Christ. Thus the author’s method of interpreting scripture through the eyes of faith is not a practice to be jettisoned but a model for interpretation within a community that asks not only what scripture once meant but also what it means for those who seek its guidance in the present.

    1. Excellent observations from Thompson. Thanks for posting, Joey. Clearly the cross & resurrection of Jesus became an interpretive lens through which Christians read Scripture (what we commonly refer to as the OT). I do think we can do the same with the Scripture – all must be seen through Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and kingship. But, that still is a restraining model. One can’t read the text to suit one’s own proclivities (recognizing, of course, we do that anyway because we are imperfect and impacted by culture – this humility should never leave us). But, the historical-critical approach does ultimately lead to seeing the Bible through the lens of Jesus and the great story of God becoming king and redeeming creation.

  8. Daniel,

    Thanks for these posts. Reading this one and the previous on your understanding of narrative theology, it sounds very much like a version of a “theological interpretation” of scripture which is not merely beholden to the “historical-critical” methods nor is it merely a biblical theology. You mentioned Trier and Vanhoozer (which is a very conservative version, although is some sense don’t we want to affirm that God really is the author?), but Stephen Fowl who reads with the creeds and focuses on the communal interpretation of Scripture is another option.

  9. I am excited about this series of posts. You’re helping me rethink a lot. You put into words my discontent with biblical theology and theological hermeneutics while maintaining what they get right.

  10. Just one question to clarify. This reading of Isaiah 7 sounds like dual fulfillment of prophecy. This is the same type of conviction that many Pre-Millennial scholars will discuss as a reason that these prophecies are “still to come.” I find this a very dangerous proposition that can lead itself into numerous misreadings of the text.

    Is it possible that the expected fulfillment of these passages was not the actual fulfillment, but only a shadow? How would you differentiate your view from a reading of Daniel that suggests that the abomination of desolation referred to is both referring to Maccabean situations and future situations for our day?

    1. I’m not sure how much I would differentiate, Matt. Except that I would see Daniel’s Abomination of Desolation referring first to the Maccabean context and then AD 70, since that verse is reappropriated in Mark 13 and parallels. Dispensationalist views of the future have numerous problems, but I’d pin those more on thinking we can have explicit understanding of what the future will hold rather than realizing from history that the “multiple fulfillments” or whatever you might call them, are surprises that could not have been predicted.

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