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Narrative Theology

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November 30, 2011 Tags: Biblical Interpretation

Today's video features Nancey Murphy. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

Today's video is courtesy of filmmaker Ryan Pettey, director/editor of Satellite Pictures.

When addressing the science and faith dialogue, one of the first things we must look at is how we interpret scripture. In today's video, Dr. Nancey Murphy, Professor of Christian Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary discusses the importance of stories as a tool for the ancient writers to teach theological truths, especially about the nature of creation (who created? what is the role of humanity in the creation?). It can sound frightening to some people to hear others speaking comfortably about the creation stories not being historical, but this is not the same as saying the stories are not true, only that they are not true on a certain level. They are theologically true, and if they are in the Bible, then they are inspired by God.

Murphy ends with an interesting challenge for those most fervently espousing the literalness of scripture. She indicates that, as important as the Old Testament is to Christian theology, Christian theologians start with the New Testament not the Old. Even though the Gospels are not the oldest books of the Bible, they are the ones that give us the most direct picture of who Jesus was, what he was teaching, and what he was doing. She suggests that Christians intent on protecting a literal interpretation of all scripture start with where Christian theology in general begins--the New Testament. They will quickly find themselves coming to the Sermon on the Mount. Start there, she says, then having worked toward a literal interpretation of that scripture, we'll be ready to move on to discuss how best to understand Genesis.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

Nancey Murphy joined the Fuller Theological Seminary faculty in 1989 and serves as professor of Christian philosophy. Murphy serves on the board of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, and is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion. Murphy’s first book, Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning, received the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence. Other recent books include Philosophical and Neurobiological Perspectives on Moral Responsibility and Free Will and Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?. Murphy serves as an editorial advisor for numerous publishers and journals. She is also a research professor at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, and is an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren.

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Chip - #66352

December 1st 2011

Even though the Gospels are not the oldest books of the Bible, they are the ones that give us the most direct picture of who Jesus was, what he was teaching, and what he was doing.  She suggests that Christians intent on protecting a literal interpretation of all scripture start with where Christian theology in general begins—the New Testament.

Well said; I agree completely. 

Here’s the thing though. One of the things Jesus did was consistently affirm the historicity of the Old Testament—an affirmation which included, just to name a few troublesome examples,  Jonah in Matt 12:38ff, Noah in Luke 17:26ff, and yes, even Adam and Eve in Matt 19:4ff. 

In each of these cases, the “theologically true yet not true on a certain level” distinction Murphy seeks to make is utterly absent from the text.  Namely, from the perspective of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, the “theological truth” in each of the passages cited—the hope of the resurrection, the unexpected return of the Son of Man, and the sanctity of marriage, respectively—derived from and was rooted in actual historical truth. 

Thus—ironically—the Gospel accounts she points us to provide no support whatsoever to her assertion of the OT as “not being historical.”   Rather, they consistently affirm its historicity.

HornSpiel - #66359

December 1st 2011

Chip you missed her point at the beginning about how we interpret Scripture.

When you say Jesus consistently affirmed the historicity of the Old Testament, you are interpreting what his use of Biblical stories means. Murphy is arguing precisely that using biblical stories to make theological points has nothing to do with whether or not they are historical. When Jesus says Jonah was three days in the belly of the fish, he is referring to what the story says, not history. It is not proper exegesis to argue that Jonah must have been literally three days in a fish  because Jesus used it as a metaphor for his three days in the tomb.

Why? Because what Jesus is doing is narrative theology.

Ashe - #66383

December 2nd 2011

I can see how one would interpret Matthew 19:4 that way,  but taken together with Matthew 19:8, seems enigmatic.

HornSpiel - #66389

December 2nd 2011

Hi Ashe,

I assume you are referring to the phrase “But it was not this way from the beginning.” I don’t find it puzzling. “The beginning” refers to Genesis (the Beginning in the biblical narrative), not to an historical timeline as we might conceive it today. What Jesus is saying is that divorce is not what God intended.

The reason that Genesis is so important, in part, is that it give us a picture of what God intends humanity to be. That is why it is so often referenced, and the way it is used in the NT. That is why I do not see any of the NT references as problematic—somehow requiring the historicity of Genesis.

Ashe - #66397

December 2nd 2011

Interesting that a major Bible translation supports your interpretation “Jesus replied, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended.” thanks for your response.

Chip - #66390

December 2nd 2011


Because what Jesus is doing is narrative theology

Jesus is?  (Here, I thought it was just Murphy).  But let’s assume for a moment that you’re right.  Do the rules of narrative theological interpretation apply across the gospels, or just to those passages that don’t fit with the defacto naturalism preferred by most biologos commentators? 

Consider, for example, Matt 12:1ff.  Based on your statement, shall we relegate David and the account of his eating of the consecrated bread to the status of mere metaphor as well, right along with Jonah and the rest?  If not, why?  What exactly is the principle of “proper exegesis,” that distinguishes true from “not true on a certain level” and how should it be consistently applied, especially in light of the fact that the speaker, audience and genre is the same in all cases cited?

HornSpiel - #66403

December 3rd 2011


I would say that Jesus almost always does narrative theology in his public ministry. Again it is moderns that are so concerned about confirming the historicity of biblical stories. For the story of  David eating of the consecrated bread, I am not aware of any controversy over either the historicity of David or this particular story. However, if there were, I am just saying that proper exegesis of Jesus’ point does not require that it be historic. It only requires that the story is in the sacred scriptures. I believe the story truly reflects the character of David, a man after Gods heart, even if some of the details may not be 100% historical. 

For example Davids’s conversation with  Ahimelek the priest is recorded in 1 Sam 21:1-6. Was there a scribe there recording every word? I doubt that. I believe it is an inspired retelling, based most likely on an oral tradition of an unknown duration (tens to hundreds of years). Obviously Samuel did not write all (or most) of the books of Samuel since he dies in 1 Samuel 25. 

When we take the position that any NT references to the OT are guaranties for their historical accuracy, the actual authorship and revision history of the biblical texts becomes a sacred cow. The evidence that they had a long and varied compostional history must be disregarded out of hand.  If however we take the position that through a human mediated authorship and revision process, God reveals himself through the sacred scriptures, then I think we rightly interpret Jesus’ use of them. In fact, his reference to the Prophets in Matt 12 does not even hinge on what he considered them to be, but that the Pharisees accepted them as sacred (and David’s actions recorded there to be righteous). Jesus was telling them to draw conclusions based on the story, rather than directly spelling out doctrine. 

That, of course, is why Jesus so often spoke in parables—taught using stories. In them, we discover God’s truth for ourselves, guided on a personal, experiential level by the Holy Spirit. This is ever more meaningful and transformational than being told what to believe.

Chip - #66408

December 5th 2011

Hello Hornspeil,

Jesus almost always does narrative theology…

No, you almost always interpret him through the lens of narrative theology—a very different thing.  But for the sake of argument, if he almost always does it, provide an example of where he doesn’t, along with an explanation of the principle:  how can any reader know when a citation to the old testament is actually—and not just “theologically”—true? 

Again it is moderns that are so concerned about confirming the historicity of biblical stories.

Perhaps.  But this is only because so many moderns have assumed  that an omnipotent God is incapable of performing the occasional act that falls outside the scope of that allowed by enlightenment naturalism. 

I am not aware of any controversy over either the historicity of David or this particular story. 

I’m not either, which is why I used it as an example.  What you seem to be saying is that the presence or absence of controversy determines one’s hermeneutic, which doesn’t square with any principle of exegesis I’m familiar with. 

In the end, any attempt to definitely separate “historical” from “legendary” is subjective at best, unless we start with an a-priori assumption that we bring to the text: ie, since miracles cannot happen, we “know” that Noah was legendary metaphor, but since eating consecrated bread fits within what my assumptions allow, I’ll accept that the David story—at least within its broad outlines—might have actually happened.

HornSpiel - #66415

December 6th 2011


To answer your first point please note that I said “in his public ministry.”  That is what the Bible says, look at Mark 4:10-12, or for example, Luke 7:36-50. Just read the gospels. If I look at the Bible through the lens of narrative theology, it is because I am trying to do theology biblically.  When Jesus is explaining the parable,he is not doing narrative theology, neither for for most of the sermon on the mount (though it ends with a story).

Basically when Jesus tells a story or when he refers to an old testament narrative passage, we can start with the assumption that he is doing narrative theology. In other words (again) the emphasis is on what the story tells the hearers about God and its impact on them rather than is historicity.

I certainly do not put it past God to do the occasional act outside of his normal way of working. The resurrection is of course the greatest example. It is the one miricle the Bible affirms as needing to be absolutely historical (1 Corinthians 15:14 ). However, I believe it is also healthy for Christians to be open evidence for the “humanity” of the scriptures. Just as Jesus, the Word, is fully human and divine, so are the Scriptures. This helps us to focus on the true meaning of the scriptures not on side issues.

For example, numerous miracles in the Bible are the result of prayer. Now I might suspect that some of those stories really didn’t happen exactly as  portrayed. As a modern, if someone proves to me that a certain miracle did not really happen, my faith can be shattered and I might stop praying in hopeless situations. But narrative theology tells us that God did respond in that situation, even if in the retelling the response took on a more supernatural character, and he will respond in yours.  Point of the story is to pray because God does respond to the prayers of his people.

In this regard it is important to take into account just how and why people tell stories. Generally we tell storied to make a point, to teach our children something, for example. In those cases, we might leave out certain details to make the point clearer. If our children repeat the story certain details may again be changed for various reasons, but we will not fault them if they clearly convey the main point.  It is unusual for people to  sit down to write or tell a story with the goal of saying exactly what happened. It does happen in special situations, such as a court of law or when someone writes history.

So how we interpret Scripture is influenced by what we believe about why the Biblical stories written down and what were their sources. I believe that many of the biblical stories went through periods of retelling before they were written down. Also that most of the OT also when through a process of editing in the postexilic period. Yet I also believe God superintended the process so that His true nature ultimately is portrayed though the writings, including His ability and willingness to intervene directly in our lives.

Chip - #66426

December 7th 2011

Interesting conversation. 

I think I understand at least part of what you’re saying now; you interpret all old testament references in the gospels as if they were parables.  But parables in the gospels are usually explicitly identified as such (see Mk 4:2, for example);  often flagged with rhetorical devices like “he who has ears to hear;” and are always common and generic:  A sower, a money lender, a woman who lost a coin… all were anonymous characters used to illustrate an object lesson.  I think we probably agree on that much. 

But the OT accounts we’ve talked about contain none of this:  The characters involved are depicted as having names, families, footprints in particular places, and access to other particular people and events.  In a nutshell, the gospels contain parables; not all references to people and events in the gospels are parables.   

While I agree that stories are told for various reasons, imagine that a father tells his child about an ancestor identified as a real person, who had a name, lived in a certain place, did certain things, and actually benefitted from his relationship with God in certain tangible ways.  Maybe he stood up to do something hard and was rescued because of his faithfulness, for example.  He concludes that based on this story, God should be followed. 

Now imagine that later the father admits he made up all the concrete details about the ancestor but still continues to insist that his broad subjective and unverifiable conclusions are valid.  Your view seems to be that the teller’s credibility is not harmed by such an admission; I couldn’t disagree more. 

Hebrews 1 insists that God spoke. He spoke not into the ether, but to actual people in particular places and times, through means as varied as burning bushes and talking asses (leaving a lot of hope for the likes of me… .  And then he continued to speak through his Son.  The thread connecting one to the next is unbroken, at least according to the author of Hebrews. 

Bottom line:  The OT simply cannot be relegated to the category of the Aneid or the Odyssey (an interesting and perhaps even inspiring story, but utterly divorced from any actual history)without seriously undermining the credibility—and the message—of the New.

HornSpiel - #66428

December 7th 2011


You have not understood what I said and I am  afraid you are perhaps reshaping what I said to conform to your own preconceived ideas. Although you are trying to faithfully restate the meaning of what I said, you have delivered an interpretation I do not recognize as my position at all.

If you read carefully what I wrote (ignoring certain grammatical and spelling mistakes that crept in ) I did not say or imply that the NT writers interpreted all OT references  as if they were parables. I in fact emphasized that many of the the stories are historically based, for example in our discussion of David.

Perhaps, however I need to clarify  that I do not believe that people in the retelling were deliberately trying to change the stories, much less mislead their hearers.

On the one hand, I am saying that it is human to a) not remember details, b) to misremember, or c) to mishear. If and when any of these  happens the story will change in the retelling. Also if certain details are not familiar to the speaker and do not make sense,
which is often the case in a different time or place, the speaker will substitute
details that do make sense to him but may not be completely accurate. I am not saying such changes are common in the OT stories, but it is possible that some of the more incongruous details may have arisen in this way.

On the other hand, there are factors that affect the retelling of stories, either oral or written, that are intended to enhance them  One happens when the author knows that a detail is obscure,  If the author or speaker is careful they will, in the retelling, add some explanation to that the audience can also understand the details. This, of course, is contingent on them having  the knowledge or the resources to understand the details. This happens not to corrupt the story but to remain faithful to the the intended meaning. I believe this certainly helped shape the Scriptures that we now have.

I am saying  all this to fill out my understanding of the human factor in the Scriptures. From the divine side, since I believe the evidence for their human qualities, I also believe God used the process to bring into existence the OT Scriptures as an adequate representation of His character and dealings with Israel. Adequate but not perfect, because anything mediated by people will not be perfect.

The mystery of faith is that God speaks to us through those Scriptures to bring us to perfection in his Son.

By the way this understanding is congruent with my understanding of how God used “natural processes” and “natural selection” to bring about life and humanity on earth. Adequate but not perfect.

Chip - #66429

December 7th 2011

look at Mark 4:10-12, or for example, Luke 7:36-50… When Jesus is explaining the parable... Basically when Jesus tells a story or when he refers to an old testament narrative passage, we can start with the assumption that he is doing narrative theology.

Language like this certainly seems like you’re treating parables and OT texts as roughly equivalent.  But in any event, I think we’ve hit this particular tennis ball about as much as is valuable.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #66447

December 8th 2011

It seems to me that parabolic thinking is thinking by analogy.  The Kingdom of God is ....  This kind of thinking is because it causes people to analyze, and compare.  It is nonlinear and opens minds.  Sometimes the analogy seems farfetched or unclear.  It is the opposite of scientific which tried to be factual and specific.  Paul also also uses anological thinking, so it seems to be common among the rabbis.

Another way of thinking is taking a principle and building of it.  This is what Jesus did when He made the basis of monogamy Genesis 2:24 which says that a man and women become one flesh through procreation.  This is the only place where the Bible teaches monogamy after the Patriarchs and Kings practiced polygamy. 

In both of these ways of thinking the power is in the thought and not in source of the thought.      


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