Within Protestantism (and more specifically Evangelicalism) there has been a tendency toward the abstractions of doctrinal confessions from our very beginning. Perhaps this is due in large measure to the medieval theology, the Renaissance and Enlightenment.
Theology has most often tended toward bullet pointed statements of confession.
While this has its place it fails to grapple with the revelation of God that we confess as such: the Scriptures. The nature of Scripture itself is not first and foremost abstract universal claims, but primarily story. According to Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart (1) over 40% of the OT is narrative proper (which does not even include the songs, commands, and prophecies which are often undergirded by narrative substructures). Why is this and what should it mean to us? Should it affect the manner in which we reflect upon our theological confessions? How might the storied nature of our Scriptures be better reflected without simply becoming (like so many sermons) three points and a poem?
The following were listed by David F. Ford (2) as reasons offered “for the attractiveness of narrative” in theological reflection (ironically enough offered in bullet-pointed fashion):
- it is the main genre of the Bible
- it is the underlying structure of the Christian creeds, baptism and eucharist
- its concreteness and particularity deserve primacy in relation to the more abstract, generalizing approach of much doctrine and theology
- it gives a proper prominence to people in interaction, to specific contexts and to actions and events, all of which tend to be marginalized or treated too generally and abstractly by traditional theological discourse
- it provides a way into doctrine and ethics which is definite, imaginative and well-suited to the gospel while not claiming an exclusive or imperialistic universality
- it is the basic, irreducible way to express human experience and identity
- it enables a fresh approach to the relationship of historical fact to Christian truth
- it provides a forum for encounter and discussion, not only between very different types of Christian theology, but also between various religions and cultures (all of which have their stories) and between theology and other disciplines (e.g. literary studies, history, psychology, anthropology).
I found Ford’s claims to be an accurate summary of my own reasons for having a preference for narrative approaches to theology.
It is the basic, irreducible way to express human experience and identity
We find ourselves in this story of God’s redemption and often lack the ability to speak of it. Stories aid that telling. This is not to suggest that we neither can nor should deal also in simple statements (even though how simple are the creeds and confessions on the trinity after all), but that we should give greater care to finding creative ways of theologizing in and as story. I believe this becomes a way to offer theology in a contextually thoughtful manner within a post-modern context bent on its own forms of story-telling. It also offers a way forward in carrying out the mission of God into the world to evangelize (with narrative approaches to gospelizing the nations being particularly key in contexts that are illiterate).
After all, what culture does not identify with stories for instruction and formation?
Several potential avenues this might open before the Church are in areas of discipleship training where we begin to allow stories to form the disciple without having to always state a moral to the story or even the supposed “universal principles” behind such stories. This could take such a shape in our Sunday Schools or in our preaching. This is not to suggest it should replace our other methods of discipleship, but only to recognize it has a rightful place in communicating the good news as story rather than steps. The steps should have their own place, but where are stories told as stories without such steps to transform in the very ways the Scriptures often function?
1 – G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), p.78.
2 – D. F. Ford, ‘Narrative Theology,’ pp.489-91 in R. J. Coggins and J. L. Houlden, eds, A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (London: SCM, 1990), pp.489, 490.