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.

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The Story of the Saints in Colossae

Paul writes of their prior life of estrangement and hostility to God manifested in evil deeds (1.21; 3.7). They were dead in their trespasses, unable to partake in the blessings of the covenant with Israel (uncircumcision of their flesh) (2.13), but having received the gospel through Epaphras (1.5), God raised them to life, reconciling them to himself (1.21), forgiving their sins through Christ’s death (2.12-14; 1.14). God has enabled them to share in the inheritance of his people (1.12), which is now the share of all in Christ, where ethnicity and rank/class is no longer of significance (3.11). They have become part of this new worldwide family (1.6; 2.2; 3.15) that belong to the kingdom of God’s Son, who is supreme over all powers (1.16-17; 2.10), having rescued them from the kingdom of darkness (1.14). This new life means that they have stripped off the old self with its earthly dispositions and practices and have been clothed with the new which is being renewed in the image of their creator, seen in Christ (3.9-10). All of this so that one day they may be presented as holy and mature in Christ (1.21, 28). In keeping with this he writes of their present faith, hope, and love (1.4) and of there moral and firmness of faith in Christ (2.5) which is the fruit the gospel has been bearing among them ever since they truly comprehended Gods grace in Christ (1.6). While their life is presently hidden with Christ in God, when Jesus is revealed so will they be in glory, this is their hope and future to which they now look forward (3.4; 1.5, 27).

The Story of Paul and his Co-workers in Colossians

Paul became an Apostle (1.1), a servant of the gospel (1.23) and of the church (1.25) by the will of God (1.1, 25). God commissioned him to make fully known to the Gentiles His word, the gospel about the hope of glory found in Christ (1.25-27). Paul, along with his co-workers proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with the goal of presenting them mature in Christ (1.28). For this he continues to toil and struggle, empowered by God (1.28), for the Colossians and for those in Laodicea and all those he has not met face to face (2.1). His desire is that all would be encouraged and united in love, and remain assured and steadfastly focused on Christ in whom all wisdom and understanding are found (2.2-3). As such he rejoices to here of their current firmness of faith (2.5). Ever since hearing of their faith Paul and Timothy have not ceased praying for them, thanking God for their faith, love, and hope (1.3-6), and asking that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and receive Gods empowering so that they may live lives pleasing to God, continuing to bear fruit in every good work, and being enabled to endure all things as he has and is, while sharing in the joy and thanksgiving which comprehension of their salvation brings (1.9-12). To this end he writes to the Colossians, in order to encourage and instruct them towards maturity in Christ (2.6-7), and to make them wise to the dangers of teachings and practices that are not rooted in Christ (2.4, 8, 19). He is currently undergoing suffering for their sake and the church as a whole, a prisoner because of the gospel (3.4, 18), yet rejoices in this (1.24). He requests prayer as one who is as much a recipient of grace as all in Christ (1.13), looking forward to the future asking that the Colossians would pray for him and his co-workers in their work of proclaiming the gospel  (4.3), and for himself personally that he will be able to do so clearly (3.4).

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.