Narrative Theology and Instruction Manuals

Did you ever have one of those experiences in youth group?

You go to camp. It’s awesome. The speaker brings serious A game. He stands in front, holds open the Bible, and proclaims the importance of reading this book:

This is the maker’s instruction manual for your life! If you want to know how your life is supposed to work, what you’re supposed to be doing with yourself to make things work correctly, read this!

Think about your car. You don’t put antifreeze in the gas tank or gas in the radiator. The owner’s manual tells you what to put where so that the vehicle will run appropriately.

That’s what God has given us in the Bible!

How many of us have celebrated that Bible? I know I did. And, I went home and did as I was told. I began to read.

It’s an old joke that many a well-intentioned reader of the Bible has run aground on the rocks of Leviticus. Indeed, before that there is quite a stack of tabernacle-building instruction that is not for the faint of heart.

And, frankly, there’s very little to that point that has anything to do with how I’m supposed to live my life.

Does the Bible show us God’s intentions for humanity? Undoubtedly. Is it the maker’s owner manual for living life on earth? The metaphor is hard to sustain (to say the least).

Narrative theology attempts to articulate an ethic that does justice to the diachronic (across time) nature of the biblical texts, the developing nature of theology across time, and the storied nature of our faith.

In other words, it calls us to a way of life that is not an add-on, but integral to the defining Christian story.

One of the perpetual conundrums of the Christian story is the question of (dis)continuity between OT and NT. Across Scripture, however, there is a relatively constant movement: the imperative (what we’re supposed to do) flow from the indicatives (what God has already done for us).

In narrative theology, recognize that the great saving act of God that defines us as a people is now no longer what it once was. No longer do we swear, “As the Lord lives who brought us up out the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” As Jeremiah anticipated, the people of God now look to a greater deliverance as the defining marker of the identity of God (Jer 16:14; 23:7).

The defining moment of our narrative is the climactic story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Our God is now quintessentially the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, the God who justifies the ungodly, the King whose kingdom has come near.

To treat the whole Bible as an owner’s manual is sort of like trying to run your 2010 Camry by the Model T owner’s manual. Yes, you’re dealing with cars. Yes, there are some basic similarities across time. But there is a new moment that demands a new set of instructions.

In Christian terms, the Christ story transforms human vocation, or crystalizes human vocation, with Jesus cross-centered call to self-giving love so that the other might live.

While both OT and NT summon us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” it is only with the cross that we learn what divine love fully looks like, and what the great call of neighbor-love fully entails.

28 thoughts on “Narrative Theology and Instruction Manuals”

  1. Excellent, excellent post. This really is capturing nearly precisely where my thinking has come – evolving (can we say that?!) over the past 30+ years. I used to buy into the “owners manual” schtick many moons ago. It sounds great superficially but it leads to so many potential misconceptions and mis-readings – it becomes a frustratingly poor and even detrimental analogy. Much better is the unfolding story / narrative that climaxes in the cross – simply because this is what the Bible actually is.

    One of the powerful points behind narrative theology is that it arises from asking the simple question – “What is the Bible in actuality?” It certainly is not a simplistic instruction manual or series of dos and don’ts. The Pharisees (some at least) famously broke down the entire OT into a series of positive and negative commands. Reducing it to that caused them to miss the weightier features – such as, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Mt. 12:7) and “justice, mercy & faithfulness” (Mt. 23:23-24). this distortion must not be lost on us. Rather, the Bible is a complex narrative formed through a variety of different documents in different times and places, with a myriad of genres within it. But, the essence of the story is there – as you noted above.

  2. I am very intrigued. Could you suggest more readings or a book(s) for a non-theologian? I think I would like to know more how it works out in practice as well.

  3. In my fellowship, the tabernacle instructions are used to promote the “instruction manual” approach to reading scripture. “The detailed instructions,” it is said, “are an indication that God has specific requirements for how to do church.”
    I taught a class, however, making use of the 13 chapters of tabernacle text to make the point that the Bible is NOT an (exhaustive) instruction manual and to promote a narrative approach to reading scripture.

    1. Joey, my fellowship does not use the tabernacle text in this way, but does use the story of nadab and abihu in this way. My comment is that God certainly had very detailed instructions for the tabernacle, thus God CAN show great detail in how God wants things done. If God does not describe the workings of the church in such painstaking detail, to me that seems to be an indication that God is NOT requiring quite the same level of detail. So, we read the narrative and try to live into the overall narrative of God’s people in our worship and in our lives, which includes the narrative arc through the Bible, through church history, through today, and looking towards heaven.

  4. If I understand the gist of what you are saying here, it is that we treat the text incorrectly in how we read the narrative. What if the cause is not our treatment however?

    This article says “One of the perpetual conundrums of the Christian story is the question of (dis)continuity between OT and NT.” What if this conundrum is not the fault of how we read the narritive, but something else; perhaps a defect with our presuppositions, or defective historical knowledge which leads to false belief, or perhaps something else. What if the theology we construct, is defective because of these other reasons and this, rather than our treatment of the narritive lthat eads us to the conundrum you pose?

    It is not a given, for example, that we DO recognize that “the great saving act of God that defines us as a people is now no longer what it once was. That is a presupposition, and if an incorrect one would lead to conclusions other than the one you arrive at.

    I personally do not sense the conundrum you sense, nor do I accept that the saving act of God that defines us as a people is no longer what it once was, but then I would also paint my treatment of the old and new covenant scripture as reflecting that attribute of God that is timeless, changeless, without shade or hint of variation (ala James 1:17); differences between the narratives explained by differences in opacity, one self-same image revealed in degrees of perfection only. I’d also portray views that see the old covenant as anything other than an more opaque version of the new covenant as defective in the same sense the Pharisees and the Sadducees had their understanding. (for example see Messianic Hope, by Michael Rydelnik).

    This means though that our treatment of the narrative is as much our presuppositions as textual approach, which means we must examine them to determine if they are getting in the way.

    1. Andrew T. said: ” … nor do I accept that the saving act of God that defines us as a people is no longer what it once was”

      You do know that, with that statement, you are arguing that Christians are defined by the exodus from Egypt, right?

      1. Matthew, I think your reading of his statement contributes to a fallacy of logic. Because he said “nor do I accept” does it mean that he in fact believes the exact opposite. I won’t attempt to defend Andrew’s points, but I will state that I think the original author is creating a dichotomy that is not necessary or accurate. The author doesn’t seem to go to the extreme that the NT negates the OT, but I get the impression that he is proposing something along those lines.

        Is it possible instead that the NT is a more complete version of the same narrative, begun in the OT, but coming to completion and clarity int he NT? If so, would it not be possible to still consider many of the teachings of the OT relevant, without having to jump to the ultimate interpretation that Gentiles today must keep all of the Levitical law?

        1. Oh, I certainly don’t think that the NT cancels the OT or anything similar to that line of thought.

          It would appear that J.R. Daniel Kirk was arguing that, while the Hebrews found their identity in the saving power of Yahweh exercised in the exodus from Egypt, Christians now find their identity in the saving power of Yahweh exercised in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I cannot speak for Dr. Kirk’s position, but my reading of it is not one of cancellation but of continuation.

            1. Yes, I would say that there is change in continuation; Spirit of the law stays the same while the letter of the law changes. We are no longer set apart because of circumcision, much like we no longer look back to the exodus event for our identity. We are set apart through are faith in Christ as we look to his life, death, and resurrection as our identifying saving event.

              The idea of being set apart remains while the manner in which this takes place changes.

    1. After reading all of the responses and the link to the other blog, I agree with you. I can’t see how this is different than what I got from something like “How to Read the Bible for all it’s worth.” Parts are narrative, parts are poetry, etc. As a scientist, I long ago had to reconsider the opening of Genesis and make peace with a different world view and context. Often we are looking for the principle behind the word it seems.
      Isn’t adultery still a bad idea, or murder? So some “instructions” or prescriptions still seem to stand up. The fact that many people abuse the Bible doesn’t mean we have to have a new way to cope with it.
      But I am not a theologian so no doubt this is like when I was a college freshman at an IVCF retreat lost by arguing about translations, and I am not quite smart for this.

  5. I have been blogging my way through the Bible and I’m seeing this a lot. Particularly in Deuteronomy. There is a part where Moses tells the Israelites that one day their children will ask them what the law means. Moses tells them to tell the story of How God brought them out of Egypt.

    And even before that, before Moses gives them the law again, he reminds them of their story, of what has happened to them. 10 chapters in and the only law they have is the 10 commandments. He has spent almost a third of the book retelling the story to them.

  6. Jeff – Some of what I did: I read a short section of the instructions – a section on the utensils. I made the point that, however detailed the instructions, they were not exhaustive. AS WRITTEN, the instructions were insufficient for complete construction. Should the forks be three-pronged or four? Big or little? Decorated or plain? Round it straight? Should the pots be deep or shallow? Etc, etc….The crafts people and artisans had to work these things out in light of, among other things, the instructions they’d been given. They had to work it out.
    We do the same thing: We are shaped by the Story (in all the ways that happens) and we work out our faith. MOST of our faith has to be worked out. We are manifestly NOT given exhaustive details on how to live out our faith. Should a Christian support war? Be a republican or democrat? Believe in Hell? The questions are infinite.
    This was part of what I said.

    1. Thanks. Very similar to what I try to get across in other biblical teachings. So easy to think God has given us all the details because we read statements in the NT through the lens of our own traditional practices and then say, “aha, it’s just exactly what we do!”

  7. No. I am only arguing against your understanding of it … or perhaps an ecclesiastical orthodoxy (which is really just tradition having been established by the church).

    Assume for a second, you could sit down with me over a coffee, given my position, and challenge my position to your hearts desire. It would start out something like, “Don’t you realize how unorthodox your position is?”,
    “Of course” I’d say “but being orthodox doesn’t make something true, rather it makes it ‘convention’. What makes something ‘true’ is if it is biblical.

    So then I’d be challenged to prove my position is entirely biblical. We’d hash through the bible for a bit. As long as I could show you every thing I said was biblical and true, you’d be forced to concede (at least), my position was plausible.

    Perhaps we’re not going to have that chance for a coffee; but don’t assume I lack foundation for asserting that statement. I must have warrant, or else I am simply irrational.

  8. I’ll also point out my reference to Michael Rydelnik’s book: it was merely one example of how we (Christians) mis-understand the old covenant in relation to the new.

    Michael Rydelnik argues (convincingly) that the OT was primarily a messianic document, that was canonized for its messianic content. He points out that Jesus Himself states this [Luke 24:44]. After Jesus’ death, who (largely) spends the next couple of millennium translating and interpreting the OT narritive, but the same disbelieving Jews who rejected him in the first place. What would happen if the same Pharisees who had rejected Christ were trusted with the translation and interpretation of scripture? Would it not start to take on the appearance of a narrative of disbelief, excised of messianic content?

    Translators such as Rashi saw it’s messianic content, and removed it to reenforce presuppositions of anti-Christian hermeneutics. Jesus rejected the position of the Pharisees, so why do Christian’s then see the OT through the same lens (as though the OT was not a sign post for Christ)? Could it be because, as we read it now, it isn’t the sign post it was?

    If Michael Rydelnik’s thesis is correct, it would certainly pose at least one challenge to the claim above that some type of (dis)continuity exists between OT and NT. I believe there are many others.

    1. Thanks for the Rydelnik refrence, Andrew.
      Alleged discontinuation between the OT/NT never made sense to me.

      Folks, its all one story, big enough for us AND for Israel.

  9. Thank you, Daniel, for this concise & well-written piece. The other problem w/ the instruction manual bit, is that someone frequently gets conked over the head w/ it by another person who considers the 1st one to have bungled it beyond repair!

  10. I agree wholeheartedly. The problem is that we are asking it (The Bible) to do something that was never intended. We treat it as if it were some kind of talisman that if we can just use correctly it will do something for us. The Bible is only powerful to extent it brings us into relationship with God. As Jesus said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me.” (Jn 5:39 NASB). We can know the Bible in detail – read it, study it, memorize it – but it is all useless if it does not bring us to an intimate, daily, conversational relationship with its main character and protagonist, God Himself.

  11. Thanks for this post.

    I have been fighting the fight against the “instruction manual” metaphor for years. Sometimes, just when I think things have begun to change, I’ll hear some well-intentioned Bible teacher use it and I’ll get depressed all over again.

    There are so many reasons why this metaphor is awful, but one of the worst is that it creates false expectations in the reader. And false expectations lead to frustration. “If it’s an instruction manual,” the reader wonders, “then why do I have trouble understanding it?” The reader then just gives up on the Bible all together.

    And by the way, the place that I always “ran aground” was Genesis 6. Nephalim? Really? :)

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