In our Old Testament Theology seminar, we recently began discussing the book An Old Testament Theology: an exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach by Bruce Waltke (with Charles Yu). In the preface of their book, the authors suggest that one of the reasons that Christians have a hard time understanding the Old Testament is that in the Old Testament, information about God is presented in a narrative (story) format, not in a systematic, propositional format. Since this discussion, I have been thinking about developing an understanding of God (theology) from narrative.
I am using the phrase “theology from narrative” instead of the more popular “narrative theology” because the latter has taken on a technical meaning. I do not want to confuse this technical meaning with our discussion here, although the two may be related.
In the opening discussion of the Old Testament, Waltke states:
Much of the Old Testament is artistic narrative. Through narrative the prophet historian aims to shape the people of God according to Israel’s covenant ideals: Abrahamic, Sinaitic, and Davidic… Israel’s history is full of plots and intrigues, but the inspired narrators expose the human heart and God’s responses. Their narrative plots educate the reader not by preaching or sermonizing, but by showing and enthralling. The narrators rely on a well-disposed, active reader who takes the plot to heart and lets it be inscribed in the soul. (pg 9-10)
Thus, the theology of the Old Testament is presented to the reader in story form – not in a systematized form. By the way, “story” or “narrative” is not the same as fiction. A story can be true or false.
Furthermore, Waltke suggests that most Christians today do not know who they are because they do not read the Old Testament as the story of their own history, but instead attempt to force the text of the Old Testament to fit structures within which it was never intended to fit:
The Old Testament contains much that seems trivial to the modern Christian. That is because we fail to understand the functions of these texts. Aside from teaching us about God, sin, and the need for redemption, a significant portion of the Old Testament recounts the history of the people of God. These are the narratives that constitute the memories of the Christian community. These memories inform our identity as Christians. Thus, Abraham is our spiritual father. His story becomes part of our past…
This is one of the most powerful functions of the Old Testament; unfortunately, it is also one of the least understood among the community of faith. In sum, a goal of this theology (speaking of their book) is to help the covenant community understand their identity as the people of God within the context of the memories and hopes proclaimed in the Old Testament…
Correlatively, I hope to transform the Old Testament from a portrait gallery of isolated icons of the faith like Abraham and Moses to a dynamic, unified narrative in which by-gone heroes of faith and today’s saints – and that encompasses all who are made holy by faith in Jesus Christ – participate. The heroes of the Old Testament began the story, those of the New Testament carried it forward, and the church continues it until God finishes it. This unified history will give the reader a synoptic view of the Old Testament and help make sense of its parts.
To many Christians the Old Testament is an unfamiliar and untamed terrain. Although occasional panoramic peaks of grandeur jut out, its landscape appears to them to be mostly barren rocks and flat desert plains. Moreover, dangers lurk for those who seek to tame the land through strict doctrinal systems; the ground rebels against their hands. (pg 14-15)
In this long passage (and I apologize for the length of the quote, but the entire section is necessary to get the authors’ point across), Waltke consistently stresses the fact that the Old Testament is a narrative and should be treated as a narrative. There are certainly dangers in treating the text as a story (even though it is a story), but as they say, there are also dangers in trying to systematize the text into “strict doctrinal systems”.
If we are to understand God through the story, then any type of summary of the story will necessarily leave out details. Perhaps the one who summarizes decides that those details are not important, but that is an interpretive decision, not a neutral decision. Similarly, there are hermeneutical and interpretive decision that must be made about which parts of the story apply only to the characters in the story (Noah building the ark, for example), and which parts of the story apply to everyone (Abraham being justified by faith, for example). Again, these are not neutral decisions.
There is a reason that we are given Scripture in narrative form. And, here, I would argue that even the New Testament is given to us primarily as narrative – even the epistles have a narrative backdrop that must be taken into account in order to understand what the author is saying. Any time we summarize Scripture we necessarily create a system that does not completely match the text of Scripture, and therefore is not completely revealing what we need to know about God. In fact, in many cases, summaries and systematizations may actually contradict what is taught through the story of Scripture.
When we want people to understand God, our best option is to present them the story as presented by Scripture, not to present them with a list of summary statements. I agree with Waltke that focusing on systematized theology leads to a general ignorance about Scripture and about God. As he says, “The consequence of a general ignorance about the Old Testament among the people of God is a pervasive reduction of the full message of the New Testament to a basic gospel of atonement and individual ethics.” (pg. 16)