Narrative and Propositional Theology

The topic of reflection today is the contrast sometimes made between narrative and propositional theology. My thought was simply this: If theological propositions (statements about God) are intended to be articulations of the teachings of Scripture, then they will always have a narrative context even if this is absent from their articulation. Furthermore their interrelatedness will always require an explication of this narrative context. 

This is so because the knowledge of God which comes to us through the Scriptures concerns God in his active engagement with creation in its history, we know God only as the one who concretely created, commissioned, blessed, liberated, judged, promised, etc. in past events. God’s character, who God is, is revealed in God’s actions, and the communication and understanding of actions always takes narrative form. Whenever we recount what has taken place we are telling a story.[1]

There is a sense then in which all Christian theology is narrative theology, because it is simply not possible to abstract talk of God from the story in which God is known. To do so will either result in an incomplete picture of God or, if it does attend to all aspects of the Scriptures testimony to God, as a collection of propositions it will nevertheless form a story when read together.

So I am uneasy about the dichotomy sometimes drawn between narrative and propositional ways of exploring/organizing our knowledge of God. Perhaps theology that has been characterized as propositional leaves the story in the background whereas theology that has been characterized as narrative brings the story to the foreground? I speak out of relative ignorance, having read little on the topic.

Regardless, any telling of the biblical story will use propositions and propositions must be grounded in the biblical story. Perhaps the real matter for concern is the question of what means of articulating the teachings of Scripture not only brings them out most clearly for our audience (and ourselves), but which is most fruitful in forming God’s people.[2] If as human beings we all “inhabit” a story and it is out of this story that our lives take their shape, then the renewing of our minds through the re-narrating of our world and ourselves is the most important task for theology. And to this belongs the Scriptures story of God’s redemptive mission.

Please share your thoughts…


[1] This says nothing about theology that seeks to move beyond the teaching of the Scriptures in asking fresh questions about God, such as those tackled in books on science and theology.

[2] We should not imagine that current models of propositional and narrative theologies are the only two options available.

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3 thoughts on “Narrative and Propositional Theology

  1. I know this was posted a while ago, but I was browsing and found it.

    Good stuff. It seems to me that God (in the entirety and essence of the name) is not either/ or, but rather “yes”.

    That’s why there are two major streams of thought from which we learn, the western, more analytical Aristotelian Greek thought, and the Eastern, more narrative, Jewish tradition. More than debating the two and separating them, God has provided us with both and we should take advantage of that.

    I think you’re spot on that you can’t have narrative without propositional theology or vice versa. I just wish more people realized that.

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  2. Dear Eddie,

    I agree that any telling of the Biblical story must be grounded in the Biblical story. I have done some interesting reading of late that caused me to consider the importance of telling the Biblical story in an authentic way, to not compromise the hard truth of God’s word but rather to open it up in all it’s fullness.

    Perhaps in a desire to ‘win’ people to the gospel message, some have watered down the message to make it more palatable. In doing so some leave out key truths while others embellish the story with things that do not exist in the Word.

    The Bible narrative is all we need and nothing brings greater revelation that reading it and asking God to speak to us from it.

    I recently read this quote from a young atheist who left the Christian faith. He said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.” In a study reported in The Atlantic the journalist discussed the desire for authenticity in the Christian church. It raises the question, “in our story telling, have we left God out of the picture?”

    You can read the article here: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/06/listening-to-young-atheists-lessons-for-a-stronger-christianity/276584/

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  3. Dear Eddie,

    Jesus the teacher, applied the Narrative (story telling) and Propositional philosophies (knowledge of God in the sense of revelation of Him); within his journey on earth. God has used the philosophies within his Word and thus I need to apply his ideas within my life and Religious Education classroom.

    Yet, then and now; His creation does not hear the message, no matter how the story is told (Narrative) or published (Propositional). So what hope have we mere mortals; with our theology and ideals, ensuring that God’s narrative endures without editing. God’s revelation to us will endure. We can hypothesis a worldview on the basis of the biblical narrative, but we must never identify this worldview with revelation itself. Worldview will always be subjected to further elucidation but God’s word is the Alpha and Omega, the begging and the end.

    Narrative and Propositional Theologies could well find an appropriate place in the Religious Education classroom. I would draw an analogy from my field: Teaching, or more specifically, Religious Education. To call the Bible a really good book with a redeeming view of life is a succinct way of describing Jesus. But that description doesn’t hold a candle to the Biblical metanarrative power of listening, speaking and experiencing the redemption story of Jesus and his followers. The short description of Jesus; but reading and telling the Biblical metanarrative seems to be worth the extra time having a better understanding of ‘Propositional Theology’ generalised concepts as abstractions for communication and the ‘Narrative Theology’ narration of special cases, but not forging the idea that the Bible must be interpreted on its own terms and from its own perspective; as the source of all authority.

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