Goaded by a comment to the effect that my Christmas story “doesn’t preach as well” as the traditional sentimentalized God-in-a-manger version, I want to try to develop in a few posts some thoughts about preaching from a narrative-historical perspective. The basic problem is this: the more we confine the biblical narrative and its associated theology to its own historical context, the less direct relevance it has for the modern reader or congregation.
Usually the historical distance has been overcome by reducing the complex narrative of scripture to a universal argument about God and humanity and allegorizing as much of the detail as possible. The basic error of interpretation made by modern evangelicalism is to think that the story of scripture can be translated into a sequence of theological abstractions—creation, fall, redemption, final judgment—which then provides the frame for every personal story: we are sinners in need of Christ’s atoning death if we are to escape eternal death or worse.
This allows us to place ourselves in the biblical story, but at a cost: we have to read scripture as something other than what it really is; and we forfeit the ability to make sense of our own historical circumstances in the way that scripture makes sense of the historical experience of Israel.
The narrative-historical approach, by contrast, affirms what should really be obvious—that the Bible gives us the troubled history of a people, running from Abraham through to the crisis of the New Testament period and whatever future is envisaged beyond that. A central task of biblical preaching and related activities is simply to tell that story, not as theology dressed up as narrative but as theologically interpreted history.
We relate to that history now primarily on the basis of the continuation of the narrative. Scripture is meaningful for us, and formative for the church, because we are part of the same story—it is our story. More needs to be said about this, clearly. Here I simply want to outline the story again. More or less this argument is set out in my book Re: Mission: Biblical Mission for the Post-Biblical Church (see below).
God is the creator before anything else.
The people of God was brought into existence in Abraham to be a new-creation-in-microcosm in the midst of nations, cultures, and civilizations which do not know God, which foolishly worship creatures rather than the creator. That gives us the fundamental raison d’être even for the church today.
Almost everything else in scripture is the story of the historical existence of this new creation people. What we call “theology” is a form of reflection on the historical narrative.
The story begins in the shadow of the tower of Babel, and its course is mostly shaped by Israel’s traumatic relationship with the great powers of the Ancient Near East and Mediterranean—the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Medes, the Greeks, and lastly the Romans.
Reflection on this historical experience gave rise to something like the following theological narrative: 1) Israel fails to keep the Law; 2) God punishes Israel by the agency of an imperial power; 3) God restores his people out of faithfulness to his promises; 4) God will judge and rule over the nations.
In scripture the final iteration of this pattern during the period of Rome’s ascendancy is decisive. It will culminate in a final judgment on pagan empire and the establishment of God’s rule over the nations. It is essentially the story of how the kingdom of God comes about.