A Narrative Approach: Will it Preach?
Narrative preaching is one of the latest cool, avant-garde trends in preaching today. Narrative preaching is in and propositional preaching is out, they say. “Be a good story teller.”
So what do we make of narrative preaching?
I have a number of concerns with narrative preaching. First, it does not emanate from those churches, seminaries, and theologians that hold to the doctrine of inerrancy and have a high view of preaching and teaching. It tends to emanate from the more liberal and mainline churches with a low view of the Bible and of Jesus.
Second, the call for narrative preaching can indicate a move away from propositional truth in favor of relativism and perspectivism, as if transformation were possible without information.
The trend today is away from propositional truth: “We don’t need propositional truth. We need narrative truth and embodied truth.” Actually, if we’re going to be multi-perspectival, we need all of it.
Propositional truth tells me who God is, who I am, why I’m here, how I’ve fallen short, who Jesus is, and what he has done. I can’t have a good Christology with a finger painting. You need to tell me something. Someone might say, “I’ve read Wittgenstein, and he said that there are limits to language and words.” I understand that. But God has chosen to speak through his Word and the same Holy Spirit that inspired the words to be written illuminates the understanding of the children of God. We’re not stuck in the cul-de-sac of Wittgenstein. The Holy Spirit is the great variable that makes the Word of God known to the people of God. We believe in the miraculous. We’re not just a natural people relying on the three-pound, fallen brain to make revelation clear. We also have God who loves us. And like John Calvin said, God is willing to stoop down and speak baby-talk, so that we would understand who he is and what he’s trying to say.
That doesn’t mean that we are pure modernists who believe that everything is clear as a bell. Paul says that we see in part and we know in part. Deuteronomy says the secret things belong to the Lord. Isaiah says that God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. The difference is not that we don’t know, it’s that we don’t know apart from faith. That’s our epistemology. We’re not modern or postmodern, we’re Christian! We believe that God reveals, the Holy Spirit illumines, and by faith we believe. That’s a Christian epistemology.
Those who believe in a modern or postmodern epistemology do great damage to the Bible. The modernists are solely about propositional truth and not embodied or narrative truth. The postmodernists tend to be exclusively communal, participatory, narrative, and dialogical, but they miss the propositional nature of the truth. But if you want a multi-perspectival truth, we say you need it all. That means that your theology leads to your doxology, which results in your biography. What you believe (theology) enables you to worship (doxology), and through worshipping, you become like that which you worship (biography). It goes from proposition, to worship, to transformation. You get to know who God is. You worship him. Then you become like that which you love.
Third, one of the essences of postmodernism is that there is no overarching story that rules over all times, cultures, histories, and people. Everything is contingent on culture and perspective. So in narrative preaching the Bible can become just another series of stories. It’s somewhere in between Aesop’s fables and Joseph Campbell’s myths.
But Christians don’t believe that. We believe the Bible is the metanarrative. It is the overarching story under which all of history is to be understood and interpreted. We reject reducing the Bible to yet another good story. It’s the story of who God is, what God has done, what we have done, and what God has done to save us. The rejection of any authoritative narrative we reject.
Fourth, narrative preaching is reductionistic. It says everything in the Bible is a story and should be taught as a story. But there are books that are largely propositional. I defy anyone to preach Proverbs narratively. Good luck! There are narratives interspersed in Proverbs, but the book is not a narrative. Where’s the hero? Where’s the antagonist? Where’s the conflict and resolution. Books like Romans, too, are largely propositional. Those who say preaching should be narrative are essentially saying, “Impose on the Bible a form that the Bible itself does not possess.” I believe that when we come to the Bible we don’t come looking to proof-text truth-statements, but we must respect the genre of literature, whether it’s a prophetic book, epistle, or a narrative. Not only are the words and concepts inspired, but the literary form is inspired as well. The medium is sometimes the message, and if you ignore the medium, you will mangle the message. So Song of Solomon is a beautiful, poetic love story—it’s a great narrative. But Romans isn’t. And the way you teach these two books will be different.
Yet here are some things that I think are good to consider with narrative preaching. It can mean–in the best sense–that the Bible itself is a story, and that every sermon that you preach must connect to that big story. If that’s what we mean by narrative preaching, I’m all for it. We are in danger whenever we launch into a portion of the Bible and don’t connect it to the story of the whole Bible.
So the question becomes, “How does a sermon text fit into the story of creator, creation, sin, the curse, the longing for the Messiah in the covenant community of Israel, the coming of Jesus, and his death and resurrection?” That way, when we come to the epistles and Paul’s instructions on putting a church together in 1 Timothy, the church understands that what Paul is saying is part of a big story. God has been working for many years to get to the point where elders will shepherd the people who have been saved by the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.
Narrative preaching can also mean that the sermon is not so predictable. The hearer is not given the thesis up front followed by its defense. Rather the listener is taken on a journey through the story of the text through conflict, tension, and eventual resolution. This is often more gripping and memorable.
It its best sense, narrative preaching means that it’s following the tradition of good Reformed biblical theology. I know that biblical theology, like narrative preaching, comes out of more liberal quarters that I would not want to endorse in any way. But there is a stream of biblical theology that is high on inerrancy and is strongly Reformed. Good examples of this would include Geerhardus Vos, Graeme Goldsworthy, Edmund Clowney, and Bryan Chapell. A preacher wants to inform his people of how the Bible is put together and to do it in a way that is Christ-centered.
If we preach every sermon in a way that explains our text in terms of where it fits into the story of creation, curse, covenant, Christ, church, and consummation; if we preach the Bible as the metanarrative story that moves from creation to new creation, then who is the hero of that story? This is an obvious question, but let me submit that in preaching it is often missed. In preaching, Jesus must be the hero, not only of the whole story, but of every single chapter, verse, and word of all the other stories that are part of the big story. We must preach Jesus as the hero and Savior. I know this sounds simple, but so often preaching is reduced to moralism, and we’re told to toughen up and be like him. Jesus becomes nothing more than a good example that, by determination, will, and white-knuckling, we can be like. That is not gospel preaching.
Notice some of the things Jesus said to Bible teachers: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possesses eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39). Some of the Pharisees to whom he was speaking had probably memorized the Pentateuch. Yet he told these guys that they didn’t know their Bibles! You can memorize whole books of the Bible, but if you’re not about Jesus, you’re not biblical.
I teach this to my little kids. After Jesus rises from the dead in Luke’s gospel, there are two Bible studies in which he explained how everything in the Old Testament was about him.
- Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24:27).
- He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:44-45).
Let me submit this to you, preacher: your sermons are supposed to be about Jesus. When you preach about victory, do you preach about Jesus’ victory or the congregation’s? One of our Acts 29 church planters recently visited a very large church and sat through the sermon. He wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt. But in a 25-minute sermon, the preacher never once said the name of Jesus, and never once gave anything that was close to the gospel. And at the end, the preacher said, “If you would like to go to heaven and have a better life, come forward now.” He didn’t tell them about sin, Jesus, the cross, and the resurrection. He just asked them to come forward and then told them that they are all Christians. That is not biblical preaching.
Have you found a way to connect every sermon to Jesus? Are you presenting him as Savior? Biblical preaching is teaching people that Jesus is the hero, and that they don’t have to be.