"Narrative Theology" approach to Scripture

Continuing the discussion from Under what (if any) circumstances is the making of a myth justified?:

@Mervin_Bitikofer, @GJDS, @johnZ

Roger Olson just posted a lovely summary of Narrative Theology over at his Patheos Blog.

I would love to hear people’s thoughts on this approach to Scripture and how useful you think it is in responding to concordism/literalist approaches to Genesis. Point 9 is especially provocative:


I really enjoyed reading the article, thankyou @Christy. It made me think, in my own simplified way, the bible is not God saying, “here are some facts for you to investigate and interpret” - rather it’s God saying “this is who I AM”



Yes … thank you for that link. I was most struck by points 6 and 7.

6: Doctrines are secondary to the story; they cannot replace it. They are judged by their adequacy to the story …

That will feel inverted to our “guardians-of-doctrine” customs. But the point stood well, I thought. Point #7 I’m not sure I accept as is.

7: The task of the church is to “faithfully improvise” the “rest of the story.” Christians are not called simply to live in the story; they are called to continue the story in their own cultural contexts. First they must be grounded in the story. …

That is a lot of initiative placed on believers … but at least there is a passive voice mention of their being “called” --presumably by God hopefully.

There is much to chew on here.

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I will have to read more about this. I do not know if I agree yet; however, it sounds like it has some merit. I shall read about this tomorrow afternoon. I am going to a Baptist men’s breakfast in the morning.

In the authors I have read that expound upon this idea (most recently Timothy Tennent), they would say Christ continues God’s story in our time as he is embodied in the Spirit-filled and Spirit-directed Church. So it is still God “writing” the story and doing the revelation through his human ambassadors. Most of the authors who advocate it also advocate a much more robust Trinitarian theology and a much more central role of the corporate Church than has been typically emphasized in Evangelical circles.



This is a useful starting point for reading and understanding the Bible. My main concern is on story telling - scripture contains accounts by specific people, especially the NT. These people act as eye witnesses and for a select few, are also given apostolic authority by Christ himself. It is understood that the way these people express themselves is not restricted to following a particular school of thought or culture. For this, and many other reasons, Christianity has been subjected to enormous heretical input, and it is important for the Church to acknowledge apostolic and eye witness accounts.

Thus while narrative is preferred as a term over the nowadays use of myth=fiction, we need a deeper historical understanding of the efforts of the Church to identify scripture as given to us by God through those He called for that purpose.

Patristic writings are especially important, as the Church understood from very early times, that any form of human expression (oral and written) was inadequate to fully communicate the Gospel. The work of theologians authorised by the Church, is important in ensuring error does not impact on the Christian faith.


Ephesians 3:10-11 comes to mind - ‘God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.’


Let me make a suggestion and that is "narrative theology as practiced by Jesus is a powerful tool because narratives point to relationships, not “truths” as we Westerners tend to think.

I remember a very short parable that Jesus told. Paraphrased: A man had two sons. He asked both of them to do him a favor. The first said Yes, but failed to do as he promised. The second said No, but later changed his mind, and did it anyway. Which son did what his father asked him to do?

The point seems to be, it is more important to do right, then to just say that you are going to do right. We see the background of the Jews who said that they honored God, but rejected Jesus as opposed to the Gentiles and the “sinners” who accepted Jesus even while rejected by Pharisee “church.”

However we still need to ask, What is God asking God’s people to do now?


I was recently talking with the president of a major origins organization (not Ken Ham) about Genesis, and I pushed him on the issue of the “firmament” being a solid dome. He said, “Brad, if the firmament is a solid dome, nobody will come to Christ because of that.”

I love Roger Olson. He’s the reason I left Calvinism. Probably my favorite professional theologian alive today, along with N.T. Wright (who is technically a biblical scholar).


I took a translation theory class last semester. It touched on some very interesting things. Evidently “metaphor” is a big topic in philosophy of language. We learned that we can “capture” a metaphor by rephrasing it as a proposition, but in doing so we always lose some of the potentially intended meaning. By their nature, metaphors (parables are a kind of extended metaphor for teaching) are what we called “weak guidance” toward the speakers’ meaning. They require the listener to fill in a lot of gaps that are intentionally not made explicit. When we reduce them to explicit propositions, and try to pin them down, we impose limits on their meaning, which, when left as a metaphor, is inexhaustible.

It seems to me that this idea has important implications for theology since so much of our revelation about really important things (what the Kingdom is, who God is, who Jesus is, what the Church is, what atonement is) are given to us in metaphors and symbols and parables and stories. I really like the idea of inexhaustible meaning. It seems to me to be an important corrective to modernity’s misconception that absolute truth was something we could neatly package and put on our shelves. But it is also a rejection of postmodernity’s infinite plurality of meanings that spiral into meaninglessness. It’s an invitation to keep looking because there is always more to find.



Thank you for your excellent response.

I am glad that “metaphor” is a big topic in the philosophy of language. I agree that modernism based on the absolute nature of language does not work. I agree that postmodernism based on the relative nature of language does not work.

The question then arises as to why does “metaphor” or the language of the Bible work? It should be noted that Hebrew is a poetic language and most of the OT is written in poetry and poetry is metaphoric language. The NT is written in Greek by ethnic Jews who spoke a form of Hebrew and certainly thought in more Hebrew mode.

All of God’s speaking through the prophets is poetry as well as the Psalms. The Greek language is a prepositional language suited for science and philosophy. It was the universal language of the ancient Gentile world. Christianity became a fusion of Greek and Hebrew thinking, but today it is more Greek than Hebrew which causes problems when we try to understand the Gospel and the Bible.

Modernism does not work because there is no Absolute Truth as the Greek philosophers sought. Absolute means free from relationships, static Perfection. That is not what the Hebrew God, YHWH, is all about. YHWH is about covenantal relationships and love, which are not Absolute or static.

Post Modernism based on relativism as about change. It captures the truth that there are no absolutes in nature or life. I read that Newton decided that time and space were absolute, based on false theological concepts. Newton’s universe worked scientifically for a while, but no more. However it is still the universe that most Christians live in, which causes problems as the evolution debate indicates.

Relativist post modernism does explain change like evolution, but not continuity like faith and truth. Each side has part of the truth, but not the whole truth. In a sense each side represent half the Western dualism, Modernism reflects the Mind, idealism, the One and continuity of Reality. Post Modernism reflects the Body, practical science, the Many, and the discontinuity of Reality.

How does Metaphor bridge this gap if it really does? It can and does since it is relational. This is the hidden answer that it appears that you did not learn in your class, because few people understand it, even though some people are beginning to talk about it.

In the synoptic gospels Jesus teaches by parables and actions. John is different. Jesus says things like “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” This is not parabolic speech or so it seems, unless you look carefully at it. It is relational language as all language is relational. It tells us not eternal propositions, but how we are to relate to Jesus, to God the Father, and indirectly to other people.

Most people think that language is abstract, but Jesus the Word/Logos demonstrates that it is not. It is relational. It is how we relate to others and even to God as we think though language. That is why we need to understand Language as relational and the Universe as relational and ourselves as relational and God the Trinity, Father/Creator, Son/Logos, and Holy Spirit/Love as relational (rather Absolute or Relative.)


Thanks @Christy for sharing this. I think there is a lot of truth in what Olson is saying there. I also think that last point on inerrancy is especially interesting. Sometimes I think people are in too much of a hurry to describe those areas of Genesis which, when taken literally, conflict with science as either poetry or some other literary device. Perhaps some of it was intended to be taken literally by the ancient author. In my opinion we don’t need to rule out factual errors. I’m not sure how useful this would be in responding to a literalist directly, as this would be akin in some circles to calling God himself a liar. But I think it is a perfectly valid response to the literalist approach in general.

Right. Because everything has to be fiction or non-fiction. And non-fiction is true and fiction is a lie. I wish I had a good illustration, or example, or word picture, or something that could help a person step out of that paradigm for a moment.

Perhaps this is an adequate example:

Mel Gibson’s movie, THE PATRIOT, is a “based on history” movie.

Mel Gibson’s character portrays “The Ghost” - - rather than the actual personage known as the “Swamp Fox”. But it’s still a historical movie, yes?

One reviewer said: "The film takes place during the real-life events of the Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War but attracted controversy over its fictional portrayal of historical figures and atrocities. Professor Mark Glancy, teacher of film history at Queen Mary, University of London has said: “It’s horrendously inaccurate and attributes crimes committed by the Nazis in the 1940s to the British in the 1770s.”

But the movie does include real life events of the Southern theater. So is the movie a lie?

There is a climactic battle … but it appears to be a combination of TWO battles… (Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse). Is the movie a lie?

The Americans defeat the British at Yorktown… is the movie a lie?

Let’s suppose we at last conclude that the movie is a “true enough”…

But does this mean we must believe there WAS a heroic character named “The Ghost” … and that there was ONE major battle, rather than TWO?

I think not.



The Prodigal Son (and his brother) are fictional, but true. Most likely so are Esther, Job, and Jonah.

If you don’t believe God works directly with chromosomes, why should I believe God works directly with large fish?

Jonah appears more like a parable than most any of the books…

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Roger, what percentage of the OT would you say is written in poetry? Has to be at least over 75% if you say “most of the OT is written in poetry.” Just wondering how you figure that? I know believing that is convenient for your style of biblical interpretation, but what are the facts/data that lead you to that conclusion?

“All of God’s speaking through the prophets is poetry as well as the Psalms.”

I’ve never heard this before! All of God’s speaking through the prophets is poetry? Roger, how do you define poetry?

I certainly recognize that there is a lot of poetry in prophetic literature, but claiming the prophetic books are all poetry strikes me as a bit overboard!

Fictional, but true? What in the world does that mean? It’s a parable - is that what you are trying to say?

Esther is fictional? Job & Jonah too?

My oh my! Ye of little faith! There is not the slightest hint anywhere in Scripture that these are fictional. Jesus did not take Jonah to be fiction!

I’m just curious, but how do you determine whether something is fiction or non-fiction in the Bible? What standards do you use to make that judgment?

I presume you think Jonah to be fictional because of the claim that he was alive in the fish’s belly for 3 days.

Let me ask you a question. When are you willing to allow for a miracle and when are you not willing to allow God to do miracles?

This is a very important incident. Jesus uses it to prophecy his 3 days in the grave. Mt. 12:40 “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

I know. I should know better. Quoting Scripture makes no difference on this site because you just reinterpret it to fit your beliefs, but the meaning of the text is very clear! “Just as Jonah… so will the Son of Man…” But if Jonah was not in the belly of a great fish for 3 days, then why do we believe that Jesus was in the grave for 3 days?

This is like calling Jesus the Second Adam when there never even was a First Adam. It’s similar to claiming that humans are sinners because of some imaginary sin of some imaginary person.

Biologos sure loves to detach Scripture from reality! More and more of it is becoming fiction these days.


Most of the OT is 51% so how where so you get 75%?

I define poetry as the Hebrews defined poetry, Hebrew poetry, which is different from English poetry.

The King James Version does not stylistically indicate which verses are Hebrew poetry, but the newer versions do. Look at the Psalms and see how they are printed. Then look at Isaiah which is the longest prophetic book, and you will see what I mean. There is also prose when narration is required, but the prophetic word of God is poetic

There is also Hebrew poetry in narrative books.Genesis 1:27-28 (NIV2011)
27 So God created mankind in His own Image,
in the Image of God He created them;
male and female He created them.

There is also a remarkable amount of poetry in the NT. However if I did go a bit overboard forgive me and attribute it to artistic license,

Roger, you have a funny way of defining “most”. Perhaps Half of the OT is poetry would be more accurate? I’m just giving you the impression I got when I read the word “most”. I pulled that number out of thin air. How about if we try and be a bit more accurate as oppose to overstating things to try and make a point?

Yes and there is narrative in prophetic books too, so what’s your point?

And, by the way, you do realize that simply because something is poetry does not mean it is not historical, right?

I’m not arguing that there is no poetry in prophetical books or historical books in Scripture. I’m arguing with your free use of words to try and make some kind of a point.

Oh, and where do you get the 51% figure from? Do you have a source to site that? Or are you just defining what “most” means to you? Perhaps I misunderstood. To me, it doesn’t mean 51%.