Friday, July 31, 2009

The Usefulness of Biblical Narrative

Peter Mead has some helpful words on preaching narrative, part of the problem is that we tend not to preach it at all, but if we do we tend to mine it for meaning and nice phrases rather than read it as a text...  

"the greater challenges involved in telling a story effectively such as vivid description, maintaining tension, etc. Thus it may be slightly harder to preach well in this way. However, the strengths of this approach are significant. The original force of the passage can be recreated for listeners, whether or not they already know the end of the story. The inherent tensions and intrigue in a narrative can become strengths of the message..."
Which presupposes that we're looking at narrative in the first place (it is most of the Bible). Probably we get stuck in the same mindset as Tom Gledhill's angle on The Song of Songs: "It is far safer to look for spiritual stimulus, encouragement and rebuke concerning the spiritual life in the straightfoward and explicit admonitions of the NT." - and think it's safer to draw doctrine from Romans and Ephesians than from Genesis, Esther or Mark.

Andrew Larkin explores this further in his unpublished dissertation on The Holy Spirit:
[it is argued that] biblical teaching and doctrine should come from the didactic parts of Scripture, i.e. the Epistles and not from historical or narrative portions of Scripture (See, Sinclair Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, p.84) that ‘we are to find doctrine that is already formulated elsewhere illustrated in the historical narratives.’. Many would agree with John Stott’s comment that:
[The] revelation of the purpose of God in Scripture should be sought primarily in its didactic rather than in its descriptive parts. More precisely, we should look for it…in the sermons and writings of the apostles, rather than in the purely narrative portions of the Acts. What is described as having happened to others is not necessarily intended for us.
Stott is not saying that the narrative material has no value, only that ‘what is descriptive is valuable only in so far as it is interpreted by what is didactic.’ (Stott, Baptism and Fullness, p.15) There are serious objections, however, both to the view that what is descriptive relies on the didactic for its value, for often the descriptive can be didactic; that the Epistles are to be referred to for the primary source of God’s revelatory purposes; and that one should examine Acts both after, and in light of, the Epistles. Graham Cole’s reminder that, ‘Narratives are descriptive, but may contain prescriptive or proscriptive elements as actors in the narrative comment or command’ (Graham Cole, Engaging with the Holy Spirit, p.42) is a helpful one.

It would be a false move to limit Acts to being purely narrative or didactic, descriptive or prescriptive, for it can be both. Whilst some may wish not to look to Acts for doctrine, surely such an approach is not an acceptable option for evangelical Christians. Indeed, to go further, to argue that doctrine cannot be built on narrative would render much of the Old Testament and the Gospels to be null and void on the issue! Few, if anyone, would consider this as a serious option. A crucial verse in the Bible for evangelicals can be found in 2 Tim. 3:16-17: “All scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” Acts clearly comes under the category of all scripture and is it, therefore, to be considered profitable for teaching.

...This does not mean that one should expect to encounter a systematic theology of the issue as that is not Luke’s purpose. What it does mean is that observations can be made and conclusions drawn from the relevant passages but what it does not mean is that all of Acts is set out as normative. Such hermeneutical and theological decisions are not based in the text itself as Acts itself does not offer an answer as to whether the patterns and events it describes are meant to be emulated or not. On matter such as these Luke himself is silent. One example will suffice. From Acts 5:15 it appears that people were healed just by Peter’s shadow falling on them and in Acts 19:12 people were healed and demons were driven out by handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched Paul. It cannot be proven from the text that there is a “one-size fits all method,” that any garment touching a holy man can be used to heal people, but rather there is a demonstration of the variety of ways in which people were healed. People may be healed by such things and they may be healed by other means but it is all part of the variety of the ways in which the Spirit works in healing.
 The narrative majority of scripture is indeed useful to the church, it should be preached, and it should be preached in a way true to it's form - which means with all the colour and character, tension and teaching it contains. God has spoken.


  1. Perhaps a compromise. Maybe individual narratives do not yield doctrine "per se", but in the progression of the biblical narrative, we can see the ways in which God works consistently (like with, say, election or divine providence). And even if God works in an extraordinary way (eg. through a burning bush), there might still be lessons to learn, but only if the passage is held in its context.

    Maybe it is also interesting to consider that it is uncommon that you see large portions of scripture read out in church, and not "expounded" in the ordinary way (unless you're attending a more traditional, liturgical church). Maybe that's something more devotional which is lacking in modern churches. It would be well suited to passages of biblical narrative.


  2. Agreed - it'd be great to see a lot more Bible read.

  3. Surely the Stott quotation should read "descriptive" rather than "prescriptive"?