What is narrative theology?
Narrative theology originated during the last half of the twentieth century and is an approach to theology that finds meaning in the master story of the Bible1. It asserts that the Bible is the story of God’s relationship with His people (Abraham, Israel and then the Church). Scripture is not primarily to teach us principles, rules or facts about God, but rather to form us in to people and communities that relate to God. Within God’s story we learn how to play our part.
My journey into story
For the last 20 years, my husband and I worked with training young adults with Youth With A Mission (YWAM). In 2009, I experienced a shift in our students. Increasingly they would pick and choose what truth they believed, layering it on top of Western culture as it suited. Their ‘systematic’ theology (although not understood as such) was often contradictory in rather profound ways. It also contradicted how they live. For example, while most of our students would say that we are brought back into relationship with God through the life and work of Jesus, as an act of grace – their imagery is of a God who withdraws from us when we sin, and their ‘lived-out’ Christianity sees much of their energy expended on trying to ‘feel’ good enough for, and close to, God.
At the same time, the rate of abuse, addictions, depression, low-self-esteem, etc., amongst our student bodies within YWAM’s entry level training schools reflected the same percentages as non-Christian U.S. society. It appeared the inadequacy of our belief system to make sense of life leaves people looking elsewhere to find peace and alleviate pain.
As I discipled students from this generation, I was asking: How do we communicate Christianity, spiritual formation and growth to this generation in meaningful language, imagery and concepts that will address their issues and bring transformation?
Facts vs Intimacy
The influence of Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment on the Church has divorced practice from belief and left us with categories to know about God and little input on how we grow in intimacy with God. As Dallas Willard said,
We’ve exchanged knowing, experiencing, and participating in God for doctrine of God. We’ve substituted the good news of the kingdom of God as a foundation and reality to build life on, to lip service to a set of beliefs.
This ignores character development, disrupts deep transformation and conveys imagery of an arbitrary, distant God. I realised I needed a way to start pulling all the threads back together and help those I discipled make sense of Christianity and their lives in a way that transformed them. I needed a way to facilitate this generation toward intimacy with God, toward maturity, toward community and toward meaningful vocation. I found that in the meta-narrative or master story of the Bible.
Stephen J. Nichols, president of Reformation Bible College shares similar sentiments. When he first began teaching theology, he quickly realised students were not as excited about the topic as he was. He says, “I would talk of theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, anthropology, hamartiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, angelology, and eschatology. They would clock out.”
He also grew discouraged that students were not making connections as they journeyed through the curriculum. He longed to see students make connections to prior learning, connections across the curriculum, and connections to life. He concludes that the way he was teaching was the barrier to them making connections:
“Mention the categories of encyclopaedic systematic theology and people are lost. Theologies are a language of the guild, by the guild, for the guild. Conversely, mention creation, fall, redemption, and restoration and you’re speaking a language of the people, by the people, for the people.”
There are obviously criticisms of narrative theology. Unfortunately, some people move from story to application without regard for culture, context, or Scripture’s original intent. This can be abused by those more interested in sharing personal belief and opinion, and can lead to teachings that are unbiblical and harmful.
More extreme advocates of narrative theology argue that theology has changed throughout history, and that we shouldn’t make definitive statements at all … about anything. They promote that no absolute truth can be known, and that theology is something we shouldn’t be dogmatic about. To some extent I agree. My Dad used to say, “Where godly people differ, we can’t afford to be dogmatic.”
However, I knew it was implied that we would indeed be dogmatic about certain things! God is creator; God is three in one; Jesus is fully God and fully man; among other things. With no absolutes, church can end up looking much more like modern culture than like Christ and deep community. Still others have raised story as the over-arching banner and lifted personal testimony to the level of Scriptural authority. When I talk narrative theology, this is not what I mean.
How narrative theology supports discipleship
So, we shouldn’t be quick to throw the baby out with the bath water. Narrative theology can provide healthy support for systematic theology when used correctly. Many advocates do believe the Bible contains propositional truth, but claim the Bible’s primary purpose is to disclose the relationship between God and His people and to show how each of us fits into that master story. In fact, they advocate that narrative theology is less likely than systematic theology to pull verses out of context to support doctrinal positions and personal agendas. I have found this to be true in my own ministry context. If you read through my Blogs, A Story to Live in (Part 1-5), you’ll start to get the gist of how telling the Bible narrative helps weave themes throughout the Bible, binding various portions together in ways that deepen our understanding and help keep hermeneutical integrity.
Several other aspects of narrative theology are beneficial. First, the premise of relating to God as a person in a story is helpful for people struggling to see Him as real, close, loving, good, or faithful. In my own ministry experience, when we start and end with propositions such as ‘God is love’, young adults are prone to running the proposition through the grid of their own life experience. Based on how it measures up, they determine if they believe it is true. Our current students have little Bible knowledge, and we need ways of teaching and discipling that acknowledge this. They have no anchor (other than their own life experience) in which to hold all the propositions together or measure the truth of any one proposition against. Narrative theology provides that.
Second, the Bible narrative reveals who God is, how His kingdom works, and who we are intended to be as His image bearers. It teaches us truth to transform how we imagine, what we love, what we desire, and more. It is to be applied to every aspect of our lives to form us into God’s people who incarnate His kingdom on earth. Jesus incarnated the kingdom and invites us to do the same. In this way, Bible narrative can be a doorway to real transformation, rather than just the acquisition of knowledge.
Another positive influence of narrative theology is that it strengthens the value of community. Current Western Christianity emphasises ‘my individual faith’, but the Bible story is of God’s relationship to His people. Community is central to Christianity and maturity. Wheaton Professor Alan Jacobs shares,
“The “Christian story” is a communal one: We Christians “tell God’s story,” or participate in God’s own telling, in and through the Church. The life of the individual Christian makes sense and achieves meaning through participation in this communally recounted narrative.”
Further, this emphasis on the people of God and community of believers brings healing to the rampant damage that Western individualism has done to Christian formation. Even modern neuroscience has caught up with the communal nature of humanity that is presented to us in Genesis 1 and 2. We are created in the image of a communion-in-being God. When we lose the story of the community of His people, we lose ways of being human and of healing one another and of presencing God to His world.
Lastly, narrative theology is fantastic for oral learning cultures. When we think of our mandate to make disciples of the nations – we need to acknowledge that the majority of the unreached and least-reached in the world today are in story telling cultures, and that story should be the basis of how we reach them. (See Toward Effective Teaching and Discipling of Oral Learners in South Asia by Elena Ciobo for more on this).
As with any ‘form’ of theology, we need to utilise narrative theology in a responsible way that recognises the original intention and context of Scripture. For those involved in discipleship, it is useful in providing a unifying anchor to make sense of life and God. It provides a foundation that can support this generation’s questions and help them reflect on what and how they believe, in order to mature. It helps combat current cultures of individualism and turn our attentions back to community. It also gives meaning to vocation as we see how we play our part in the larger story of God and His kingdom.
The Discipleship Training School (DTS) Centre will soon be releasing the DTS Curriculum Reframe. This will help tie the different elements of discipleship in the DTS into God’s story. It will be a fantastic resource for anyone involved in discipleship. Keep an eye on the International DTS Centre site for its release in 2019.
For further reading on support and criticism of narrative theology we recommend:
- Frei, H.W. (1980). The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics.
- Goldberg, M. (1982). Theology and Narrative: A Critical Introduction.
- Hauerwas, S. and Jones, L.G., ed. (1997). Why Narrative? Readings in Narrative Theology.
- Murphy, FA. (2007). God is not a Story: Realism Revisited. (Read a review of this book)
- Wright, J.W., ed. (2012). Postliberal Theology and the Church Catholic: Conversations with George Lindbeck, David Burrell, Stanley Hauerwas.
- Narrative theology is also known as postliberal theology and emerges out of neo-orthodoxy. Although it represents a broad perspective on a number of key issues, advocates agree and seek to reassert the significance of biblical narrative to Christian thinking, experience and action in the world. ↩