Thursday, November 10, 2005

RP Part 2a - Biblical Faith and the 'Narrative Shape' of the Bible

Finding Direction

It goes without saying that the Bible is not your average book. For millennia, it has been treated as a revelation from God, a book of divine origin. But what sort of book is it? A quick skim through its pages reveals that it is not like most. It is neither a continuous narrative comparable in form to a novel, nor is it like a textbook or manual, with an ordered system of laws or instructions. Within the Bible we have a diverse range of genres including narratives, prayers, proverbs, songs, prophetic oracles and vision reports, and letters.[1] It is most comparable in form to an anthology, a collection of writings connected by some central feature, whether it be a single author, or a topic of discussion.

Setting aside the notion of divine origin, we can see clearly that the writings do not come from a single author. It is more appropriate to speak of the origins (plural) of the Bible because this better reflects the creation of the Bible as it manifested itself in history.[2] Yet, we can still speak of a common authorship if we envisage this in communal terms. All of the biblical writings have their origin in a single religious tradition, and as canonical, represent the ideal of that tradition.[3]

This brings into focus a further aspect that needs to be considered when formulating an answer to what we should use the Bible for and how. It is certain that we do not wish to be arbitrary in answering this question, but where then do we look for ground on which to base our answer? If there is any “objectivity” to be found in this process, I suggest that it will only lie in allowing the Bible to be itself in fulfilling its role within its religious tradition. The nature of Biblical faith must be the primary directive in determining what we use the Bible for and how, because as a product of that faith, it reflects it and is designed to sustain it.[4] It can be expected then, that the literary ‘shape’ of the Bible reflects the nature of the faith, and provides the key to unlocking the Bible.

The Narrative Shape of the Bible

If we ask as to the ‘general shape’ of the Bible, we may point out that the majority of the material is in the form of narrative, and that these narratives are concerned with history.[5] It is here that I suggest both the unity of the Bible, and the nature of Biblical faith lies.[6] At the centre of the Bible is a set of narratives that together tell a single coherent story.[7] This story is both grand in its scope, looking back to the creation of things and forward to their renewal, and particular in its focus, recounting the history of God and his people as he outworked his purposes through them. Further, this particular history is of universal significance as it concerns the outworking of God’s saving purposes for his dislocated world. What The Old and New Testaments together narrate “stretches from the creation of humanity and its turning away from God, through God’s implementation of a purpose to restore the lost blessing of creation in and by means of the Israelite people, to a climax in the Christ event, with a coda… in the story of the early church awaiting the final revealing of Christ and the new creation.”[8]

Given the presence of this ‘narrative core’, can we now speak of the Bible as having a ‘narrative shape’? Or would this be to repeat one of the shortcomings of ‘authority’, imposing a one-sided characterization once more? This need not be the case, as Trevor Hart comments: “this does not mean forcing a wide variety of different literary genres onto an interpretative bed of which Procustes would have been proud. Not all texts are “narrative” in the technical sense. But treated as “a whole,” scripture, in all its diversity of types, offers a narrative world the reader is invited to indwell, and from within which she is now expected to view things.”[9]

This “narrative world” consists first and foremost of the over-arching story, which becomes the defining characteristic of the Bible, and all non-narrative material within take their place in relation to this story. Hence, Richard Bauckham has sought to locate all of Scripture within this framework:

“The category of story includes not only biblical narratives… but also prophecy and apostolic teaching insofar as these illuminate the meaning of the story and point its direction towards its still future completion. This total biblical story is also the context within which other biblical genres - law, wisdom, psalms, ethical instruction, parables, and so on - are canonically placed. Story is the overarching category in which others are contextualized.”[10]

Not only do the prophets (witnessed to in the prophetic books) illuminate the story and point to its completion, but as characters within Israel’s history speaking into it at particular points become part of the story itself. Similarly, the New Testament letters not only contain apostolic teaching, but also belong to the history of the early Church and are thus part of the over-arching story themselves.[11] Other non-narrative materials are more clearly imbedded in the story, such as the Laws in Deuteronomy and the parables in the Gospels.

Every scriptural document, then, finds its place in relation to the over-arching story the Bible tells, as well as every piece of material including ethical instruction that is given in and directed to particular contexts.[12] The over-arching story is the frame within which all biblical material is contextualized, thus giving the Bible a ‘narrative shape’ and pointing towards its function.

[1] For a good introduction to the basic genres within the Bible, see Marshall D. Johnson, Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type as an Approach to Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002)
[2] Rather than beginning with abstract concepts such as ‘revelation’, ‘inspiration’, or ‘Word of God’, we need to begin with the literary character of the Bible and the nature of the faith its presents. Because of the general nature of these abstract concepts, they are often treated as empty vessels and filled with what we think they must mean. If we are to make use of them, we need to let the character of the Bible shape what they mean, and this may be drastically different than usually envisaged.
[3] Goldingay terms this the ‘formal’ unity of the Old Testament: “Formally, all these writings belong to one history; they are the deposit of the historical experience of Israel in its pre-Christian period. Together they are thus also the deposit of one unified religious tradition, whose development is one aspect of that history. Further, and more specifically again, they all belong to the form of that tradition which came to have the status of a canon of normative writings in Judaism.” (The Theological Diversity of the Old Testament, 30) This notion could be extended to include the New Testament as carrying on that history and development.
[4] “There is no doubt that text and community are dialectically related, that is, that community forms text and text evokes community.” (Brueggemann, The Book that Breathes New Life, 10-11)
[5] On the difference between biblical narratives and modern history, see the many articles in Bartholomew (ed.), ‘Behind’ the Text. On the nature of Old Testament narratives, see Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narratives.
[6] Although often asserted, the unity and coherence of the Bible is rarely explained. But the claim must be given content if it is to have any real meaning. Some have claimed that the scriptures present a coherent theology, but it has been shown that this is not the case (see Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, 1-28). Others have tried to locate its coherence and unity in a single topos such as "love", but this inevitably results in the neglect or rejection of all else that either appears to contradict it or that is not particularly related to it. Further, because this approach does not provide any real framework for reading the Bible theologically, there is also the problem of where in Scripture to draw a definition of love from (On the inadequacy of ‘love’, see Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 200-204).
[7] “Theologically speaking these longer and shorter narrative works are implicitly part of a more extensive overarching story.” (Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 23). In this paper I will not tackle the problems related to claiming that the many individual narratives within scripture form one extended narrative, as the great majority of Evangelical readers, unlike most critical scholars, have little problem with this. Bauckham argues convincingly that “the biblical texts themselves recognize and assert, in a necessarily cumulative manner, the unity of the story they tell.” see, ‘Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story’, quote from 40
[8] Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 23
[9] Hart, ‘Tradition, Authority, and a Christian Approach to the Bible as Scripture’, 197
[10] Bauckham, ‘Scripture and Authority’, 7
[11] The psalms and the wisdom literature all belong to places within the history of God’s people, even if at times they are hard to place.
[12] This frame of reference is necessary for understanding most of the biblical documents. “At the center of Scripture is a set of narratives and these narratives are the frame around which the whole of Scripture is constructed. Apart from these narratives the Prophets would not be intelligible and without the frame of the Gospel narratives it would be difficult to understand the full meaning of the parables, epistles, creeds, and hymns of the New Testament .” (Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology, 145)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what are the narrative shapes of the Abraham, Jacob and Joseph cycles