Before we knew the terms “narrative theology” or “emergent church” or “postmodernism,” we knew the stories and events: “In the beginning was the Word …”; “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah …”; “A farmer went out in his field …”; “The rich man died and was there in Abraham’s bosom …”; “There was a man who had two sons …”; “So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross …”; “And then I saw a new heaven and a new earth ….”
We must return to these stories and events to remember not just the Bible stories, but the story that contains them all—the One Story of God’s incomprehensible, outrageous acts of redemption, the stories of a God gathering a people for his name. Here in its pages appear fierce and unlikely heroes, terrifying battles, pilloried prophets, resistant saints, miraculous healings, a foot-washing King, a bloodied God on a cross, a hollow tomb, the final wrath and glory judgment, and a denouement that ends more miraculously than anything we could imagine: the coming of a new city with open gates and a purified people now called sons and daughters who, needing no other light, will enter and walk by the light of the Lamb.
Not everyone will be there. It is not a safe or simple story. Yet the story is for all of us to hear and to heed. We are invited into these pages, not as editors with red pens in hand, but as supplicants seeking understanding and truth. We are invited to live into this narrative, but not to rewrite it, either to gut it of its offense or to reshape it for short attention spans and better sales.
When we read the Bible through the lens of any single genre, agenda, or need, distortion will result. It is critical to grasp the Scriptures’ narrative unity to resist our culture’s counterstories, but we need not reduce the Scriptures to a single genre to grasp its One Story. God gave us stories indeed, but he also gave us proverbs, poetry, law, exhortation, prophesy, lament, riddle, letters, visions, genealogies, and prayers. Man lives by every word that proceeds from God’s mouth. All Scripture makes us wise unto salvation. We need to say, with the apostle Paul, that “we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word” 2 Cor. 4:2, ESV.For reasons we will likely never know, God, who could have placed in our hands any kind of book he wanted, chose to give us a plurivocal, polyphonic, multilinear anthology, a magnificently irreducible book that contains as many rhetorical forms and voices as we have temperaments and experience. God knew—of course!—that we need them all. It’s time, then, to replace the term “narrative theology” with “literary theology” to include all the literary genres God chose to speak through.
Clearly, God’s truths are both propositional and incarnational, both theological and experiential. Each is necessary to the other. Each interprets the other. In Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Mark Noll reminds us that doctrinal creeds are needed now more than ever because they “concentrate with fearsome energy on the themes that define the heart of Christianity.” Doctrine can do what Bible stories alone cannot: take us beyond the time-and-place limits of human events to encompass the full scope of God’s magnificent redemption.
Finally, following the concern of Edith Humphrey, professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary: All of us must examine ourselves, that our human love for God’s story does not obscure the God of the Story, that our love for the written word does not displace our love for the Word of God himself. We can be so distracted and dazzled by narrative theology that we neglect the living, indwelling presence within and beyond the story. “We don’t participate in a story,” she writes, “we participate in him.”
It is not the story but the living Christ who saves us.