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What Narrative Can't Say: The Limits of Narrative Theology

October 29th, 2015 | 6 min read

By Berny Belvedere

I'm pleased to run a second post today from new guest writer Berny Belvedere. You can follow him on Twitter here or catch up on all his online writing here.

From a very young age we learn the difference between narrative and expository writing: A narrative tells a story, whereas an expository text explains using information and facts. The heavy presence of both within Scripture speaks to the ability of each genre to convey transformative ideas. Clearly, though, they’re not communicatively identical—while narrative is the preferred method for gripping the heart, exposition is often chosen in order to inform the mind. Yet as far as identifying who God is, does one do it better than the other?

Two of the twentieth century’s most prominent theologians come in on the side of narrative. In volume one of his Systematic Theology, theologian Robert Jenson argues that God is “identified by narrative.” For Jenson, we are unable to construe God’s identity apart from narrative. Indeed, if it weren’t for God’s words and actions captured in drama, we would not even able to harmonize the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New. This is because narrative has the power to impose a sort of “dramatic cohesion” on otherwise conceptually incompatible accounts, such as the one we find in the Old Testament, which stresses the one-ness of God, and the one we find in the New, which introduces divine three-ness.

The second theologian is Karl Rahner, who in his famous work The Trinity writes: “The 'economic' Trinity is the 'immanent' Trinity and the 'immanent' Trinity is the 'economic' Trinity.” One of Rahner’s intentions through this phrase is to advance the view that God’s revelatory structure is pre-determined by God’s ontological structure. That is, God’s self-communication must follow the pattern of his being ad intra. It’s not that there is nothing more to God than his salvific actions in history; rather, God’s words and actions in history, which follow a trinitarian pattern, necessarily imply a divine three-ness at the metaphysical level. While this doesn’t strictly speaking declare a preference for narrative over exposition, it does suggest that God’s words and deeds — which are experienced firsthand by disciples but discovered only via narrative by the rest of us — are sufficient to reveal God’s inner nature.

Though Jenson and Rahner are not making the same point, their views can be construed as privileging narrative over exposition. This is not necessarily wrongheaded — after all, though this has been disputed since the days of the Reformation, one could plausibly make the case that the passion narratives are more central than other sections in Scripture, even Paul’s christological discourses. Indeed, the passion itself occurred because a simple list of God’s attributes, dropped from the heavens into our laps, would never be as powerful in conveying God’s love as the incarnation. In a sense, then, God himself privileged narrative by choosing to save through actions rather than through decrees.

Yet narrative has its limitations. For one, narrative can only capture historically contingent facts. Reading Jenson and Rahner, one would get the impression that narrative is capable of supplying us with knowledge of who God essentially is. But this is to stretch narrative beyond its natural limitations. Indeed, Jenson sees the sweep of drama as more successful in communicating realities than the discrete enumerations of God’s person and character through exposition, and Rahner’s trinitarian activity is seen as sufficient to tell us of God’s inner being.

But who God is — a question about essential characteristics — is not exhausted by what God has done — which has to do with contingent history. It’s true that through story we learn that God created the world, that he rescued Israel out of bondage, that he came to earth to save it, that he guides believers into truth. Yet we can note two ways in which these fall short of specifying God’s essential attributes. First, apart from exposition — either from a divinely inspired author (i.e. Paul in Romans) or from a theologian systematizing the various biblical narratives into a coherent conception of God (i.e. Calvin in his Institutes) — we have what we might call, contra Jenson, “dramatic imprecision.” Jenson is surely right that drama can unify disparate accounts, but at the same time drama’s forte isn’t being propositionally precise. For a model or conception of who God is, exposition, which prominently features explanation and specification, works best.

The other way that drama falls short of specifying God’s essential attributes is more subtle, though also important. Though God is the creator of the world, he is not the creator of the world essentially. This doesn’t mean that something or someone else is the creator of the world, but rather that it is not a part of God’s essential nature that he create the world. If God is something essentially, then he is that thing necessarily. Yet if God is the creator of the world essentially, he couldn’t have done otherwise than create. Indeed, both Jenson and Rahner stress God’s ultimate freedom — he could have created or not created — yet this is complicated by the epistemic role they grant to narrative. It’s not that narrative gives us a false picture of God; rather, through the project of natural theology — a project not divorced from but supplementary to divine revelation — we establish certain truths about God. Though Paul’s letters aren’t natural theology — since they’re inspired, they’re supernatural theology — they show that God found it necessary to instruct his Church through expository and not just narrative means.

Obviously if one needs to identify something for purely practical purposes, lots of descriptors will do. When you’re engaged in a conversation about the best actors alive today, and you want to bring up Daniel Day-Lewis but you forget his name, saying “the guy who starred in Lincoln” or â€śthe guy in There Will Be Blood” should do the trick. Yet this type of identification is insufficient for establishing deep metaphysical truths about God.

To see why, consider an argument the philosopher Saul Kripke makes in Naming and Necessity. Kripke finds that for an identity of this kind to be true, it must be necessarily true, which means that both terms used to capture the identity must be rigid designators, or terms which pick out the same referent across all possible worlds. In other words, unless the two terms being equated are rigid designators, there is no deep identity of this kind.

Let’s return to our example. Though it’s true that Daniel Day-Lewis played Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, this is only contingently true. Lincoln might have instead been played by GĂ©rard Depardieu, though this would have certainly turned the film from a drama into a comedy. Thus, since “the guy who played Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln” does not pick out Daniel Day-Lewis in every possible world, it cannot function as a rigid designator. Though such a descriptor gives us some idea of who the referent is, when it comes to God, we will need another route in order to arrive at the fullest picture of who God essentially is.

That route is exposition. In redemptive history, there are all sorts of actions undertaken by God that are only contingently true. To say otherwise is to infuse God’s actions with a kind of metaphysical necessity that undercuts his absolute freedom. From Scripture we see that it’s true, and gloriously so, that God’s outstretched arm delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. In Scripture we read that Jesus’ disciples saw Jesus being baptized by a man named John. As important as these truths are, would they give us a full picture apart from the exposition which interprets them for our understanding?

Thomas Aquinas, who took the triune character of God to be a datum of revelation as opposed to a deliverance of reason, constructed a theology of God from what he could assure himself that God is not (via negativa) and from what could be inferred from the proofs of God’s existence (five ways). So the same figure who held that we would not have discovered God’s triune nature by our own lights also organized a natural-theological program by which we can reason our way to some knowledge about who God essentially is. This is apologetically useful, yes, but it’s understated how spiritually useful it also is to have exposition — both biblical and theological — help us understand who God is. The fullest picture of all comes when we prize not just narrative, and not just actions, but exposition, and a reflection on who God is in se. It’s easy to see why our most cherished confessions and creeds rely on both sources.

UPDATE: An older version of this post was first published due to a mistake by Jake Meador. This is the updated version.

Berny Belvedere

Berny Belvedere is a lecturer in philosophy and editor-in-chief of Arc Digital. He has written for the Washington Post, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and more. Follow him @bernybelvedere.