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Rightly Understanding God’s Word: Context of Genre: Narrative, by Craig S. Keener


Can We Learn “Teaching” from Narratives?

Distinguishing positive from negative examples takes much work, but is rewarding. It requires us to immerse ourselves in the entire story over and over until we can see the patterns in the story which give us the inspired author’s perspectives.

Some modern theologians have been skeptical about learning “doctrine,” or (literally) “teaching,” from narratives. 2 Timothy 3:16 explicitly declares that all Scripture is profitable for teaching, so to rule out a teaching function for narratives altogether these theologians would have to deny that narratives are part of Scripture! But narrative makes up more of the Bible than any other genre does, and Jesus and Paul both teach from Old Testament narratives (e.g., Mk 2:25-26; 10:6-9; 1 Cor 10:1-11).

If narratives did not teach, there would be no reason for different Gospels. Because Jesus did and taught so much, no one Gospel writer could have told us everything that he said or did (as Jn 21:25 explicitly points out). Rather, each Gospel writer emphasized certain points about Jesus, the way we do when we read or preach from a text in the Bible. This means that when we read Bible stories, we not only learn the historical facts about what happened, but listen to the inspired writer’s perspective on what happened, i.e., the lessons to be drawn from the story. When the writer “preaches” to us from the stories he tells us, he often gives us clues for recognizing the lessons; for example, he often selects stories with a basic theme or themes that repeatedly emphasize particular lessons.

How better to learn God’s heart than to bathe ourselves in his word?

Yet despite considerable historical precedent for using biblical historical precedent, many theologians suggest that one should feel free to find in narrative only what is plainly taught in “clearer,” “didactic” portions of Scripture. Although some of these scholars are among the ablest exegetes of other portions of Scripture, I must protest that their approach to Bible stories violates the most basic rules for biblical interpretation and in practice jeopardizes the doctrine of biblical inspiration. Did not Paul say that all Scripture was inspired and therefore useful for “doctrine,” or teaching (2 Tim. 3:16)? I freely admit that I do not understand some portions of Scripture myself (what is the eternal function of the genealogies in Chronicles?); but other obscure parts came to make sense to me after I understood the cultural context they addressed (for instance, the design of the Tabernacle in Exodus). Some given texts are more useful for addressing common situations today than others, but all biblical texts have a useful function for some circumstances.

Most cultures in the world teach lessons through stories. Most theologians who question the use of narrative, by contrast, are westerners—children of Enlightenment thought.

One of the most basic principles of Bible interpretation is that we should ask what the writer wanted to convey to his contemporary audience. This principle applies to narratives like the Gospels as much as to epistles like Romans. If one could simply write a “neutral” Gospel that addressed all situations universally, the Bible would undoubtedly have included it. Instead, the Bible offers us four Gospels, each selecting some different elements of Jesus’ life and teachings to preach Jesus to the needs of their readers in relevant ways (which also provides us with a model for how to preach Jesus in relevant ways to our hearers). The way God chose to give us the Bible is more important than the way we wish He would have given it to us.

More importantly, we must be able to read each book first of all as a self-contained unit, because that was how God originally inspired these books. God inspired books of the Bible like Mark or Ephesians one at a time, inspiring the authors to address specific situations. The first readers of Mark could not cross-reference to Ephesians or John to figure out an obscure point in Mark; they would have to read and reread Mark as a whole until they grasped the meaning of any given passage in Mark. When we read a passage in such books of the Bible, we need to read the passage in light of the total message and argument of the book as well as reading the book in light of the passages that make it up.

A few hundred years ago many Protestants explained away the Great Commission; today many similarly explain away the teachings of the Gospels and Acts about signs often confirming and aiding evangelism.

This is not to say that we cannot compare the results from our study of Ephesians with the results from our study of Mark. It is to say that we discount the complete character of Mark when we resort to Ephesians before we have finished our examination of Mark. For instance, the opposition Jesus faces for healing a paralytic does provide a lesson for the hostility we can expect from the world for doing God’s will. The opposition to Jesus which builds in early chapters of Mark and climaxes in the cross parallels the suffering believers themselves are called to expect (8:31-38; 10:33-45; 13:9-13; 14:21-51). Mark summons Christians to endure; that Mark provides negative examples of this principle (e.g., 14:31-51) reinforces his point (even if it also shows the inadequacy of Christians to fulfill this call in our own strength).

We grow more accurate as we get more practice, but we should be patient in teaching students how to read the Bible for themselves.

Most cultures in the world teach lessons through stories. Most theologians who question the use of narrative, by contrast, are westerners or those trained by them, children of Enlightenment thought. In fact, not even all westerners find Bible stories inaccessible. Even in the United States, Black churches have for generations specialized in narrative preaching. In most churches children grow up loving Bible stories until they become adults and we teach them that they must now think abstractly rather than learning from concrete illustrations. Just because our traditional method of extracting doctrine from Scripture does not work well on narrative does not mean that Bible stories do not send some clear messages of their own. Instead it suggests the inadequacy of our traditional method of interpretation the way we apply it, because we are ignoring too much of God’s Word.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Spring 2005

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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