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 “the 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 Gérard 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.

Posted by 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.

  • Thanks for the post. I have a few questions, if you don’t mind, though:

    1. I’m still a bit unclear as to the distinction you’re making about narrative a exposition. Narrative is fairly clear, but exposition as an explanation with “information and facts” seems a bit slippery. This is especially the case when we think of biblical narrative which seems to included explanations within information and facts as part of the story. In fact, the story *is* the information and facts in many cases. So, may I take it that you mean something like a list of propositions, connected in argument form?

    2. On the narratival imprecision, contingent history to in se reality movement, etc, it seems important to note the way that exposition is inherently dependent on the narratives in giving a coherent account of who God is. In other words, letting our exposition of the attributes of God be defined and normed by the dramatic shape of God’s actual revelation to us, is essential to understanding what God means when he reveals himself as omnipotent, a se, holy, etc. It’s precisely the narrative and dramatic doings of God that reveal his character and form the content of our exposition. Otherwise, it seems that the danger of the wrong sort of “perfect being” theology creeps in, where non-Scriptural norms for perfection begin to determine what we can or cannot say of God instead of his own self-presentation.

    3. I think it’s important to note that there are other expositors of “narrative” or “dramatic” approaches to the doctrine of God beyond Rahner and Jenson, who don’t pit narrative against what you’re identifying as exposition. Kevin Vanhoozer comes to mind. With respect to what narrative can and can’t do. It seems there’s a way of doing narrative-based theology that pushes beyond the narrative to exposition without resorting to the supplemental discipline of natural theology. I’m not totally against natural theology, mind you, but I don’t think I need it to establish key attributes of God’s nature. We can ask questions like, “What must the God who did X or said Y, *be* like in order to say and do those things?” What attributes must a God who speaks the universe into existence and raises the dead be like? Aseity, immortality, immutability, and even impassibility are possibly derived.

    Forgive me if I’ve misconstrued you and have been arguing about positions you haven’t put forward. I suppose what this boils down to is: there’s a different way of doing narrative that doesn’t fall as easily prey to the critique you’re leveling.

    Best,
    Derek

    • Derek, thanks for this comment.

      You’re right to notice that the distinction is a bit fuzzy. This occurs because although there are passages containing clear cut instances of one or the other, we often come across passages that seem to contain both elements at once. Think the Abraham-Isaac passage as a paradigmatic instance of narrative, and the Hebrews passage interpreting it as an instance of exposition. But then there are cases in which both features seem to be in play: take, for example, Jesus’ baptism. The event fits within a broader story, there are actions undertaken by a number of characters, there are elements that represent other things, etc. And yet we get divine exposition in the form of God’s thundering approval, delivered in speech form.

      There are a number of ways we might sharpen the distinction a bit. We could see one as being primarily interested in presentation whereas the other opts for interpretation. We could see drama as being the most effective means of communicating God’s love, with exposition doing “clean-up” work, i.e., serving to clear things up so that people best understand a dramatic account that spans so many years and so many characters. I also like your suggestion, seeing exposition in this case as being almost kind of like an exposition plus — the kind of exposition that involves the laying out of truths, in a coherent way, to construct a model or argument of something. Romans takes a lot from the Old Testament in order to build an argument about God’s posture toward Israel as well as God’s posture toward the rest of the world.

      You write:
      “Letting our exposition of the attributes of God be defined and normed by the dramatic shape of God’s actual revelation to us, is essential to understanding what God means when he reveals himself as omnipotent, a se, holy, etc.”

      This is very well put, and I wholeheartedly agree.

      God’s special revelation is epistemologically essential to us. At the same time, God hasn’t given us a precise specification of what omnipotence means, delivered in dictionary form. For that, we need to do the theological work of systematizing what Scripture *has* said, as well as the philosophical work of exploring the logical structure of such a concept, which again is based on God’s revelation. I think we learn something when we see, for example, that omnipotence doesn’t mean God can do literally anything but that he can do that which is logically possible. This tells us something about God’s nature that, while I won’t get into right now, I think is helpful for us know.

      But I think this is perfectly consistent with what you’ve written. You mention “the wrong sort of perfect being theology,” which implies there is a right sort. On this we couldn’t agree more; it’s a breath of fresh air to have an interlocutor who doesn’t simply dismiss entire approaches but understands nuance. I, too, think there is a right way to do perfect being theology and a wrong way. The wrong way is to give it preeminence. This the mistake, for example, of Richard Swinburne. But another mistake is to eschew it entirely. (See Sudduth’s “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology”.) I think the right way is to give it a place without giving it theological privilege, and to ensure that it is informed, first and foremost, by biblical revelation.

      As an evangelical, I of course love Vanhoozer. His position on this is basically right. Though in the past I’ve found some of his work to be a bit on the thin side philosophically (he used to engage with the vastly inferior continental side of philosophy far more than the superior analytic side), his theology of drama strikes me as superb. I chose the figures I did — Jenson and Rahner — because they have serious purchase within the broader Christian world, purchase that Vanhoozer (unfortunately) doesn’t have.

      Toward the end of your point three you suggest a non-natural-theological version of specifying God’s attributes. But the model you’ve provided is basically the same as the sort of natural theology I’m suggesting. I don’t see a difference. I think what you’re reacting against is a program of natural theology divorced from biblical revelation. But the picture you paint is actually the way in which biblically-sensitive theologians and philosophers of religion have been operating in recent years with respect to natural theology. Think Paul Helm on revelation. Think Oliver Crisp on Christology, Original Sin, and more. There are just two examples of many. All this to say: I agree with your suggestion.

      • Mr. Belvedere,

        These are helpful clarifications. I did chuckle a bit at the “vastly inferior continental” side comment. You clearly have your preferences in that debate. I think they both have their place, but someone who knows his mind on the subject is enjoyable to read nonetheless.

        Best,

        Derek

      • Ian

        Berny (can I call you Berny?),

        I’m a person who is extremely suspicious of the project of natural theology, so your comment above was helpful in demonstrating what it is you mean by that. It seems to me what you’re describing is closer to a theological appropriation of general revelation, which is what I would endorse, but there are some (Emil Brunner!) who would say that’s what they’re doing but it dissolves into philosophical a prioris dominating special revelation after all. That’s what we need to be on guard against at all times, and I see you agree with that. I only plead with you and everyone reading this to continually submit all premises to investigation by the canonical witness before we derive theological conclusions from those premises. Natural theology is subversive, man. I wholeheartedly believe all of the creation is charged with revelation, but that this revelation is wholly insufficient for formulating doctrine. Maybe it’s the Barth in me (nah, it’s Bavinck, too), but his “No!” and the Barmen Declaration together form a pretty damning indictment of the failure to consistently follow through on this principle. Barth called it “the first commandment as a theological axiom,” and I think he’s right. So formally, at least, we agree that any data furnished from nature or reason must be subordinated to special revelation. It’s just that I would further add that this must be done through interrogation by Scripture and diagnostic dismantling and reassembly along Scriptural contours to be legitimate theologizing.

        So no grievances registered for most of your essay. I totally agree that narrative alone isn’t going to cut it when it comes to knowing God or even myself. What I take issue with, however, is the charge that historically contingent events cannot function as designators. I suppose that may be so on Kripke’s account of referents across all possible worlds, but I see no reason for the simple reason that I reject employing other possible worlds for the theological task. Let’s side with Aquinas again- there are no counterfactuals, not really. We can devise thought experiments where the concept does work for us, but there’s no such thing. S. Th. I, Q. 14, Art. 13- God, in knowing Himself, sees all things in presentiality; thus, there are no alternative possibilities to what in fact obtains as the case. He “knows all contingent things not only as they are in their causes, but also as each one of them is actually in itself.” Historic contingent events, thus, designate truly. Daniel Day-Lewis is the guy in “Lincoln” and “There Will Be Blood”- no one else. This doesn’t transform them into necessary things so much as it is a confession that God underwrites all of reality and commits the being of the world as is to realization in His free decision to create.

        I concur with Jenson, therefore, that historically contingent events are more determinative of identity than your account permits. I refuse to go as far as Jenson and say that they constitute identity, but I find it impossible to swerve around subjects’ specific histories being anchor points that disclose identity. For instance, Paul is Romans 4 grounds God’s identity in certain actions in history: the one “who justifies the ungodly” (v. 5), he “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17), and he “who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord” (v. 24). It isn’t a far leap from this Scriptural account of God’s identity to Jenson’s famous hypothetical question to an ancient Israelite: “Who is your god?” “Whoever that is that got us out of Egypt.” I don’t at all think this exhausts the issue- I remain convinced further ontological probing is necessary to understand who this God is and what His creatures are. I almost typed, “necessary to flesh out who this God is”- but that’s the Incarnation, which we have the fullest depictions of in the gospels and the apostolic kerygma. I fear that allowing this premise in may be an example of that sneaky ol’ natural theology creeping in and asserting itself unchallenged, but I could, of course, be mistaken. I look forward to your thoughts on this!

        Grace and peace,
        Ian

  • Robert Patton

    What a load of BS. Have you people ever considered doing something or anything useful?