Olson on Narrative Theology and Inerrancy

For those interested in the nature of narrative theology and how it is distinguished from propositional theology, this online post Roger E. Olson outlines that nature of narrative theology in a very clear and helpful way.[1]

I appreciate his ninth point that “Narrative theology has no need of ‘biblical inerrancy;’ perfection with respect to purpose is sufficient to express biblical accuracy and authority.’ I have had similar thoughts along these lines. I personally feel no need to believe or assert biblical inerrancy. Not because I find arguments for it unpersuasive, but primarily because I’m not concerned whether the Scriptures are inerrant or not. I do not see why we would need such a thing as an innerrant set of Scriptures. Reliable yes, but in every minute detail?? And I think it comes at the issue from the wrong angle and direction. As Olson writes:

We do not believe in and trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior because of our belief in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because it is the unique instrument and witness of our meeting with him.

It is within the canonical narrative that we know who God is. This being the case, our confession of faith in God is concurrent with trusting the Scriptural testimony. They are in a sense inseparable, because it is the God of Scriptural testimony to whom we are entrusting ourselves, even if this is not immediately clear to us analytically.

It seems to me that the concern inerrancy seeks to address is hermeneutical. If there are features of Scriptural teaching which are false, then are people not going to pick and choose which teachings they want to affirm/follow and appeal to errors to justify this? Yes, some will. But innerancy is no defense against such picking and choosing. Many a hermeneutical road can be traveled to get to the same destination.

I have previously shared some of my own thoughts regarding the relationship between narrative and propositional theology here.

[2] While I found it slightly humorous that he outlines narrative theology in a series of numbered propositions, there is no irony here. Narrative theology is not opposed to propositions of course, that would be absurd.

The Historical Character of Christianity

The uniqueness and the scandal of the Christian religion rests on the mediation of revelation through historical events. Christianity is not just a code for living or a philosophy of religion. It is rooted in real events of history. To some people this is scandalous because it means the truth of Christianity is inexplicably bound up with the truth of certain historical facts. And if those facts should be disproved, Christianity would be false. This, however, is what makes Christianity unique because, unlike other world religions, modern man has a means of actually verifying Christianity’s truth by historical evidence.

George E. Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection (Downers Grove: Eerdmans, 1975), quoted in Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan (Baker, 1998), p. 24 [im not sure which book this page number is from…]

Rough Thoughts on the Gospel

What is the Gospel? This is perhaps the most important question we could ever ask, for the answer we give shapes all that we do and are as Christians (At least it should!).

The gospel focused on the individual

In my experience the most pervasive ‘gospel’ presented in New Zealand (and i suspect in the West in general) is characteristically individualistic. It is typical to focus on the individual or personal aspect of God’s redemptive mission. It is the news of God’s love for you enacted in Jesus’ death on the cross. Of your personal relationship with God. Of your eternal future in heaven rather than hell.

The consequences

This ‘positioning’ of the individual at the center/forefront of the gospel neglects and pushes the cosmic and social dimensions of God’s redemptive mission to the periphery/background. Furthermore, the cosmic scope is distorted and shrunk. The ‘eschaton’, the summing up of God’s purposes for creation in the future is no longer seen as the establishment of God’s reign over all creation, the presence of his glory throughout, and moral, social, and physical transformation of humankind. Instead the eschaton, if it comes into view at all, becomes the moment of final individual judgment where ones eternity in ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ begins. More often than not this event is located at the point of death (‘where will you go when you die?’).

An individualizing of the gospel thus has the effect of distorting both ecclesiology (in belief and practice) and eschatology.

This coincides with a concentration on the cross and a neglect of the proleptic character of Jesus’ resurrection which, as a re-affirmation of the goodness of creation, grounds God’s promise of the redemptive transformation of creation, not its abandonment.

Perhaps the most destructive consequence is that where the ‘gospel’ is about God’s forgiveness for my sin and the resultant personal relationship between me and him, from the get go we can get the idea that it is about what God has done and can do for me. It is then all too easy to incorporate God into my life rather than his incorporating me into His mission to the world.

I have heard many testimonies where the believer expresses their joy at now having God on their side. Now, lets not get this wrong, God’s love for us extends to all aspects of our lives. But their is something fundamentally wrong about the orientation to life which is expressed in such a testimony.

The gospel in eschatological perspective

Perhaps in evangelism we should begin with the cosmic dimensions of God’s mission, which will then provide the proper context for the individual dimensions of God’s mission. Rather than announcing God’s forgiveness for the individual, we announce God’s forgiveness for the world. Rather then inviting one to accept Jesus as ‘personal Lord and Savior’ we need to invite people to embrace Jesus’ vision of God’s reign as Lord of the world. The individual aspects should not be lost in a violent swing of the pendulum, but the cosmic dimensions should provide the proper context for the individual dimensions.

The decision to follow Jesus is therefore an acceptance of God’s invitation to be part of his promised future and to become a part of its anticipation in the present through the power of His Holy Spirit.

A presentation of the gospel with a proper eschatological perspective (orientation towards God’s promised future) may prevent the assimilation of ‘God’ into ones life, as often occurs atleast in part because of an individually oriented gospel (if not only because it does not challenge consumer culture). One’s life is transformed by the call toward’s God’s promised future by the power of His Spirit among his people in the present. This ‘call towards promised future’ replaces whatever orientation to life was previously formative for one’s life.

Your thoughts please…

Confessions of a Young Student of Scripture

A mentor of mine has long stressed that there is a problem with academic study of theology/Bible that results in a mass of “head-knowledge” that has not been “experienced” as “heart-knowledge.” Essentially, one can learn a lot about God without ever knowing the reality of this in ones life. Such knowledge is fruitless and ultimately counts for nothing.

I grant the concern, and there is a depth of knowledge that only comes with personal acquaintance. But I would say that the problem is not inherent in academic study of the Scriptures. Rather the danger arises when we start to think that having an intellectual grasp of the truth is the goal and so fail to press on to embody and experience the reality. It also becomes a danger when we become so consumed and focused on gathering truth that we give little time to follow its lead. The truth, we might need reminding, is a person we must come to know and serve.

Still, knowledge of the truth beyond our “experience” of the reality may very well keep us from the danger of heresy. It also means that we have the means to rightly interpret our experiences when they come about, after all, “experience” is constituted both by what comes to us through our senses and how we make sense of it with our mind; there is an irreducible element of interpretation in experience.

Furthermore, we need to be subject specific. For example, growing in familiarity and understanding of Colossians so that one can receive from it in no way requires immediate or subsequent experience of the theological realities it refers to, even while these would deepen our understanding. An understanding of the text brings us to engage the realities it speaks of.

Now for my confessions of those dangers I have at times succumbed to.

I have often read, studied and written, only for the benefit of others, to prepare my mind for teaching by gaining the necessary knowledge so that I can competently and helpfully assist them in their discipleship. My error; not seeking to prepare my heart by learning for my own discipleship.

I have at times become so focused on interpreting the Scriptures correctly that I have given little time to seeking the realities they point to.

I have often got lost in the aesthetic appeal of a theological system, hermeneutical program, or exegetical and historical details, when the point of such in-depth research was to ensure that I was rightly grasping the simplicity of the gospel.

What confessions do you have to make?

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.

Rowan Williams on the need for continual theology

Scripture and tradition require to be read in a way that brings out their strangeness, their non-obvious and non-contemporary qualities, in order that they may be read both freshly and truthfully from one generation to another. They need to be made more difficult before we can accurately grasp their simplicities. Otherwise we read with eyes not our own and think them through with minds not our own; the ‘deposit of faith’ does not really come into contact with ourselves. And this ‘making difficult’, this confession that what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense, is perhaps one of the most fundamental tasks for theology.

Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001. p.236.