Is Narrative Normative?

A recent forum discussion raised the question of what role the narrative portions of Scripture have for establishing Christian doctrine. The question had two parts: “What is sound doctrine concerning the doctrinal importance of narratives in Scripture? Who decides what is the correct view and what is not?”

I remember hearing a lot of bad preaching from narrative, growing up. I also heard a lot of good preaching from narrative. One lesson learned: If we don’t respect what narrative is, we can easily miss what God intended and even abuse the Scriptures.

As for “Who decides…”? I hope to show here that nobody special is required. We can all see that there are challenges involved in using narrative properly.

I’ll explore the topic briefly here in Q & A format.

1. Can biblical narrative establish doctrine?

It can! Consider the first few chapters of Genesis. Our doctrines of creation and the fall are clear (though not complete) from Genesis alone.

Both Jesus (Matt 19:4-6) and the apostles (1 Tim 2:13-14, 2 Cor 11:3, 1 John 3:12, 1 Pet 3:20) referenced portions of Genesis as support for doctrines they taught.

Still, narrative almost never stands alone as a basis for doctrine (more on why later).

2. Can biblical narrative show us how to behave?

The popular answer that “narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive” is an overgeneralization.

For one thing, anything God affirms as true is something we are prescribed to believe. In that sense, all narrative is “prescriptive.” Looking at Genesis again, we’re not called to believe the lies the Serpent told to Eve, but we’re called to believe that the Serpent told those lies.

When people say, “Narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive,” though, they’re usually referring to ethical prescription—our conduct. But even this overgeneralizes.

We are taught that we should follow Christ’s example and be like Him (1 Pet 2:21, 1 Cor 11:1)—and most of what we know to imitate is in the narratives of the four Gospels.

But “narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive” is correct in this sense:

A report that some individual or group did something is not, in itself, teaching that we should do likewise.

We know this is the case when the Bible reports that someone sinned: Cain killed Abel. Context tells us this was sin (Gen 4:10-11, 1 John 3:12).

But what about passages where the reported actions are not sin or not clearly sin?

  • Elijah took the last bit of food from a starving widow and child. 1 Kings 17:12
  • He also killed false prophets. 1 Kings 18:40
  • Ezra refused government aid. Ezra 8:21-23
  • Nehemiah accepted government aid. Nehemiah 2:7-9
  • Ezekiel preached lying down on his side for 390 days. Ezekiel 4:4-8
  • Isaiah preached in his underwear. Isaiah 20:2

Most of us have more sense than to read these passages and reason that hungry preachers should rob widows and children. We’re not going to say there’s a biblical principle that we should hack false prophets to pieces. We’re not going to start preaching lying down or wearing only our Fruit of the Looms.

To draw principles from these passages, we need (a) good sense and, (b) other Scriptures. (The second has priority in authority, but the first can save a lot of time!)

Even if the individual in question is clearly a godly person, there might be special circumstances that provide the context for their actions. The same could be said of an ungodly person.

As a child, I thought as a child—so the Bible had “good guys” and “bad guys.” When I became a man, I put away childish things. I now understand that sometimes the good guys do something wrong (e.g., 2 Sam 11:3ff), and sometimes the bad guys do something right (e.g., Exodus 10:16, Acts 5:34-35).

Identifying good and bad examples requires that we evaluate the immediate context, the larger context, and the context of Scripture as a whole. A bit of common sense helps, too.

3. Do biblical narratives provide metaphors for spiritual realities?

Let’s not be too hasty answering this. Consider: Nothing that happens is by chance. God works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11). And nothing recorded in Scripture is there by chance either. So, are the spiritual parallels we see in Bible stories “just a coincidence”?

Paul certainly seems to see layers of meaning in the account of Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac, for example (Gal 4:21-26).

On the other hand, we’re clearly wrong to make features of biblical narratives representative of deeper truths just because we think we see a resemblance of some sort (a.k.a. “spiritualizing”).

That path leads to making stories mean whatever we want. How could it do otherwise? (Sorry, Origen. There’s just no way it can work.)

Killing Goliath

As David approached Goliath, he took five stones from a brook (1 Sam 17:40). I recall one preacher who expounded on “five stones you need to have in your bag to be successful against temptation”—or something like that.

We know a stone can be a metaphor (2 Sam 22:3, 1 Cor 10:4). But are we supposed to see David’s five stones as representative of something more? Is there anything in the immediate context or the rest of Scripture to suggest that we should? And is David’s behavior in picking up stones supposed to teach us about overcoming temptation?

Suppose for a moment these “hidden meanings” are really there. Listeners who have learned any critical thinking skills at all are still going to be very skeptical. It’s always better to preach meaning that you can help hearers see is truly in the text.

Our “David’s five stones” preacher has an additional problem, though.

4. Does every detail in a biblical narrative convey a principle?

It’s inherent in the nature of stories—true ones included—that they contain details that have no other purpose than to draw us into the scene and make it more real and understandable.

So, with narrative, it’s easy to zoom in too far. This happens when we get focused on a small sequence of events—here, picking up stones. Then we miss the larger story—here, the story of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant, the story of Saul’s failure, the story of God’s decision to bless David for His own purposes. There is plenty of great preaching available in those storylines, and the Goliath incident is a great story about how God’s power doesn’t lie in what meets the eye (1 Sam 16:7; cf. 1 Sam 9:2) and about the joy of putting ourselves in a position to be powerfully used by taking God at His word (1 Sam 17:37).

When we zoom in too far, we can easily replace the treasure in the text with an imitation from our imagination. It’s godly imagination, let’s hope, but still no substitute for what God put there for us.

It’s also possible to zoom out too far and preach only the biggest story. This is less hazardous but tends to result in story after story having exactly the same point. If this was what God had in mind, the Old Testament would be a lot shorter!

Back to our five stones sermon: Why are we informed that David picked up five stones? A few reasons can be suggested and supported to varying degrees by details in the text and other passages (e.g., 2 Sam 21:22). But we don’t really know. The detail may only be there to help us feel the story.

We certainly can’t read a narrative like this one and draw principles like these:

  • Stones are the best weapons. (We should amend the U.S. Constitution to say we have a right to bear stones!)
  • Only stones from brooks are suitable for weapons. (River stones and dry ground stones are no good!)
  • Stone style is not neutral! Since smooth stones were used here for good, the stones used for evil in Acts 7 and 14 must have been bumpy—the evil stone style.

Hopefully it’s clear from these examples why narrative can’t usually stand alone as a basis for establishing doctrine. There’s just too much ambiguity in determining (1) what the story is intended to mean and (2) what story details are intended to “mean” anything at all.

That common sense thing comes into play again here, too. But we can guide our common sense by asking ourselves some questions when we’re working with narrative:

  1. How does this story relate to the larger story of (a) the section of Scripture and (b) the ultimate story of the whole Bible?
  2. Is there evidence in the context that this detail has purpose beyond making the story more engaging, vivid or clear?

Photo modified from an original by William Warby on Unsplash

Aaron Blumer Bio


Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.

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There are 18 Comments

Steve Newman's picture

Aaron, 

Do you believe that narrative from the life of Christ is more of an exception to handling narrative? I've been preaching a Life of Christ series based on a harmony of the Gospels by Doug Bookman. It seems to me that the intentionality for some of Jesus' miracles (the catch of fish in Luke 5 and the healing of Peter's mother in Mark 1, the healing of the leper in Mark 1, for example) are done with a purpose beyond just helping someone. Jesus seems to have in mind the discipleship and complete surrender to God's will for Peter, then the leper is told to go show himself to the priests "for a testimony unto them." 

Jesus Himself seems to have a larger purpose in mind with each of the events that are more specifically named in the accounts of His life. Perhaps this is where the emphasis on metaphors and principles takes shape. Could you speak to the narrative points in Jesus' life in particular?

JNoël's picture

Thank you, Aaron. Great read.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Ron Bean's picture

Excellent article! I want to follow this to see how teachable some of us are (not naming names).

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JSwaim's picture

I question the prioritization of didactic passages over narrative passages when it comes to constructing theology.  Someone said "All scripture is given by inspiration and is profitable for doctrine..."  I think this is simply the prioritization of western forms of thinking above forms of thinking that might be more prevalent in other cultures.  

I certainly agree that narratives are often preached poorly.  I have certainly done it poorly.  My seminary education pointed out to me the need for development in the interpretation of narrative passages and the need for development in preaching them.  I think my profs were quite aware that traditional means of interpretation--translation, grammatical analysis, block diagramming, etc while valid and essential for interpreting the didactic, were incapable of giving the maximum insight into narrative passages.  I think some of them were thinking through solutions but had not developed them fully. 

While an assistant pastor in Philly I used to go to the Lutheran seminary liibrary in Chestnut Hill where I discovered Walter Brueggeman's commentaries on I & II Samuel.  His interpretations of the text were often atrocious, but his insight into the text itself--it's structure and the literary devices employed were, to me, like an ephiphany.  The Grove City College library has a collection by Fokkelman that also is a literary interpretation of the text of I & II Samuel.  This too is quite insightful in understanding the author's strategy and how he is emphasizing certain things through literary means.  I think this field of study is the best way forward for fruitful preaching from narrative texts.  It gets to the author's true intent.  And BTW it is far superior to the "everywherer I look in narrative passages I see Jesus" approach.

Dan Miller's picture

1. Can biblical narrative establish doctrine?

It can! Consider the first few chapters of Genesis. Our doctrines of creation and the fall are clear (though not complete) from Genesis alone.

Both Jesus (Matt 19:4-6) and the apostles (1 Tim 2:13-14, 2 Cor 11:3, 1 John 3:12, 1 Pet 3:20) referenced portions of Genesis as support for doctrines they taught.

Still, narrative almost never stands alone as a basis for doctrine (more on why later).

Some doctrines are about what happened. Indicative. Narrative works great for this.

Other doctrines are about what we ought to do. Imperative. Narrative isn't so great for this.

The real question regarding narrative is, "Can narrative be used to understand imperatives, and if so, how and what are the limits?" 

Using the Genesis account is an example of narrative doing what it does best. 

Dan Miller's picture

2. Can biblical narrative show us how to behave?

The popular answer that “narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive” is an overgeneralization.

For one thing, anything God affirms as true is something we are prescribed to believe. In that sense, all narrative is “prescriptive.”

This would be using "prescriptive" in an unusual way. The normal definitions of descriptive and prescriptive, which are obviously what's intended in the quote you give, are:

- Descriptive: The telling of what happened without commands for the readers for the readers. 

- Prescriptive: The giving of commands the reader is expected to follow.

Example: D: "You have glaucoma." P: "Use these drops once per day."

(Your address all this in the coming paragraphs)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Steve Newman wrote:

Aaron, 

Do you believe that narrative from the life of Christ is more of an exception to handling narrative? I've been preaching a Life of Christ series based on a harmony of the Gospels by Doug Bookman. It seems to me that the intentionality for some of Jesus' miracles (the catch of fish in Luke 5 and the healing of Peter's mother in Mark 1, the healing of the leper in Mark 1, for example) are done with a purpose beyond just helping someone. Jesus seems to have in mind the discipleship and complete surrender to God's will for Peter, then the leper is told to go show himself to the priests "for a testimony unto them." 

Jesus Himself seems to have a larger purpose in mind with each of the events that are more specifically named in the accounts of His life. Perhaps this is where the emphasis on metaphors and principles takes shape. Could you speak to the narrative points in Jesus' life in particular?

Good question! Not exactly an "Exception," though certainly different.

The reported actions of a mere human are not in themselves an example one way or the other, for ethical principles. But are the reported actions of God or God incarnate as Jesus? Well, no we can't really say that either. God-as-God obviously has prerogatives you and I don't, since we didn't make everything and don't own everything. God can strike people dead and we know it was perfectly just. So "be imitators of God" has limitations. 

Likewise, looking at Jesus during His first advent, He comes with a unique mission and functions, among other things, as a prophet. So as a non-prophet, I don't get to claim "thus saith the Lord" for new truth that comes to my mind. Even if I had the power to call down fire on my enemies, I wouldn't be authorized to do that.

And Jesus has the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:10), and He can overturn tables in the temple because it is "my father's house" (I don't think He means there "Father in the sense God is father to us all... it's also possible there is something Davidic going on there, I think). So, though a man, He functioned beyond the role of mere prophet. There is only one prophet/priest/king Messiah. Then there's the formation of the apostles and the church and, of course, the unique mission of the cross.

All of these make "what would Jesus do?" a less useful question than it may seem.

So, in short even when narrative reports the actions of God the Father, Son, and Spirit, incarnate or otherwise, we can't assume we should behave likewise. Always, context is vital.

But is it different for Jesus than anyone else in narrative? Absolutely! Different because of things I already mentioned, but also different because He was "without sin" (Heb 4.15). So we don't ever have to ask "Did He do the right thing here?" (As with God the Father, God the Spirit). That's always a question in the interpretive process for everyone else in narrative.

More responses to other posts to follow...

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

This would be using "prescriptive" in an unusual way.

This is true. I think it should not be so unusual for Christians, though. For us, "obedience to command" should be seen as encompassing "believing what we're instructed to believe" and also, more difficultly (I think) "desiring what we're supposed to desire." So orthodoxy, orthopraxy, orthopathy are all prescribed.

And I think, even in the medical sense, the term "prescription" gets a lot more flexible if you include mental health therapy or relationship therapy etc. These folks "prescribe" behavior of the mind on a regular basis.

Some doctrines are about what happened. Indicative. Narrative works great for this.

Other doctrines are about what we ought to do. Imperative. Narrative isn't so great for this.

The real question regarding narrative is, "Can narrative be used to understand imperatives, and if so, how and what are the limits?" 

This is another way of saying what I'm saying. But imperatives include commands (direct or indirect) to believe. So... I don't really want to speak in terms that might create the impression that instructions to believe are not imperative.

But I get that you're using "imperatives" in reference to outward conduct only. The case can be made for that. I think it's better to use the term more broadly.

For example, the NT uses the expression "obey the gospel" a couple of times. The gospel itself is an imperative of belief and volition as well as a set of truths. "Repent and believe."

5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (ESV, 2 Th 1:5–8)

15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (Ro 10:15–16)

17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Pe 4:17)

So there can be direct imperatives of outward action: "do no murder" and implicit/indirect imperatives of outward action: as in "the works of the flesh are evident.." (below). But these can come from narrative sometimes, though rarely (if ever) without support from teaching passages.

There can also be direct imperatives of the heart and mind: "do not covet" (Exod 20:17) and many others. Paul mixes inward and outward frequently in his lists of things we shouldn't "do": 

8 But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. (Col 3:8)

22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, (Eph 4:22)

19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, (Ga 5:19–22)

In short, Scripture can have the force of command with or without being expressed in a direct imperative phrase, and these calls to obedience include invisible, internal conduct of the heart and mind as well as outward actions.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dan Miller's picture

I'm somewhat in agreement.

I see 3 categories:

1. Beliefs 

2. Actions of the mind

3. Outward actions

I would lump 2 and 3 together. Biblical imperatives tell us what to do with our minds and bodies.

Biblical narratives tell us what is true. Now, perhaps our point of disagreement is that [I think] you would lump 1 and 2 together. I would not agree that belief is an action of the mind. 

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

How do we believe something without deciding to believe it? Well, I can partly answer my own question. We do unconsciously/subconsciously form many beliefs--and only become aware of them when we examine them or some circumstance exposes them.

For example, I never "decided" to believe I can't fly. But when I'm in high places I feel a pretty strong respect for my inability to do that. It gets pretty tangible, depending on things like hand rails, structures being in motion, etc.

But I don't anything Scripture reveals is supposed to be in that category. We decided to believe it. Or, more accurately, we decided to believe the Bible, then we just automatically pass its claims after that.

Belief is mostly volitional. The beliefs that matter most are volitional.

Believing isn't a "work" in the Titus 3:15 sense, the Eph 2:8-9 sense, etc. Because it has another function. I was talking with a relative about this recently an landed here: reaching out with our hands to accept a gift doesn't "merit" the gift (especially since it's already being offered) but it is the process.

Anyway, I don't see any substantive difference between belief and the category of "inward obedience."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JNoël's picture

This might be a rabbit trail, but I think the answer may still help us understand (or confuse us!) how some can be absolutely convinced about what is acceptable to God even when it is completely contrary to that of which others are convinced.

In the Christian context, belief is very close to faith. Maybe it's worth considering this: is God-honoring faith a work of ourselves, or is it a work of God in us? Are the beliefs we have that please God works of him, or are they of ourselves?

Separately, how can we even be sure that what we believe / have faith in / are doing is actually pleasing to God?

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

A lot of topics there! 

On the last question: The older I get the more I see total 'certainty' as not worth pursuing--about most things. Looking at my average day and all the choices in it, I can rarely look at any of them and feel certain I did the wisest, best, or even the right thing.  Usually it's "this seems highly probable given what I know--or think I know--at the moment."

I'm pretty comfortable with that. But comfortable or not, there's no escaping it.

There are some really clear things in Scripture I hold to with certainty, and then, as the available information gets more complex, the certainty drops off.

On the "is it God or is it us" question, my own view is that it's both. Scripture is clear that we make choices. We act--inwardly and outwardly--and we're responsible for our actions. Scripture is also clear that it's God who is working in us to will and to work for His good pleasure. Phil 2:12-13

I don't personally think it's profitable to try to figure out exactly how that works. I don't believe we're meant to know. So there is a tension in the Christian life: sometimes we feel very much in control and responsible, other times very much like we're a leaf in the wind. Independence/responsibility and dependence/trust are in tension, sometimes in balance, often more alternating than balancing.

I don't see belief and faith as different things except in one really important particular: faith, in the Christian sense, is believing something God has revealed. It's always a response to God. Believing a meaning is hidden in in a biblical text without biblical reason to see it there--that's not faith, though it is belief.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

JNoël's picture

Thank you, Aaron.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
...

I don't personally think it's profitable to try to figure out exactly how that works. I don't believe we're meant to know. So there is a tension in the Christian life: sometimes we feel very much in control and responsible, other times very much like we're a leaf in the wind. Independence/responsibility and dependence/trust are in tension, sometimes in balance, often more alternating than balancing.

I don't see belief and faith as different things except in one really important particular: faith, in the Christian sense, is believing something God has revealed. It's always a response to God. ...

I (and James, I believe) offer this correction to the bolded part: It always brings and is completed by a response to God. The salvation prayer (calling on God for salvation) is something done out of (on the basis of) faith. "Believe and be baptized" is a call to believe and then to do something (be baptized) on the basis of that faith.

Aaron Blumer wrote:
... Believing a meaning is hidden in in a biblical text without biblical reason to see it there--that's not faith, though it is belief.

Well, again, given my offered correction above would say that if someone is "Believing a meaning is hidden in in a biblical text," then, yeah, they would respond to God by obeying what they believe they see there. (Actually pretty common, I think.)

Dan Miller's picture

3. Do biblical narratives provide metaphors for spiritual realities?

Let’s not be too hasty answering this. Consider: Nothing that happens is by chance. God works all things according to the counsel of His will (Eph 1:11). And nothing recorded in Scripture is there by chance either. So, are the spiritual parallels we see in Bible stories “just a coincidence”?

Paul certainly seems to see layers of meaning in the account of Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac, for example (Gal 4:21-26).

Here I think we could camp out. Why does (what in the OT text (Gen, Isaiah) allows) Paul to allegorically treat these people as teaching about two covenants?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I (and James, I believe) offer this correction to the bolded part: It always brings and is completed by a response to God.

I may have been misunderstood on this point. If it helps, what I mean by "faith is always a response to God," is that God makes a claim and we respond by believing. So belief (faith) is, itself, a response. Of course, it often isn't the only response. But sometimes it is.

For example, in Isaiah 44 and 45 God makes the claim (multiple times) that there is no one like Him, that He alone is God and there is no other. This claim calls for a response (faith), but doesn't by itself call for an outward response.

That faith is, itself, a response to revelation from God is evident in many passages, including these: Gal 3:5-6, Ro 10:17, John 8:30. Rom 1:5 is admittedly ambiguous because the "obedience of faith" there might mean "the obedience that is faith" or "the obedience that results from faith." 

In one passages Jesus calls faith "work," John 6:29--but context is important to avoid confusing that with "works" in the sense of, say, Eph 2:8-9. Faith is not that kind of work. But Jesus' statement makes no sense if faith is not at least an active response to truth revealed by God.

So, to summarize, Scripture is clear that all sorts of things are going on in our "hearts" and "minds" and "inner man," etc., and many of these are acts and behaviors--expressions of will--every bit as much as the things we do outwardly. We humans have a bias toward the outward and visible. But this is why, among other reasons, we're challenged to "walk by faith and not by sight." (2 Cor 5:7)

Here I think we could camp out. Why does (what in the OT text (Gen, Isaiah) allows) Paul to allegorically treat these people as teaching about two covenants?

This is a complex question. Whole books have been written on NT use of OT. But in this passage, we need to start by being aware of our assumptions. The fact that Paul refers to Hagar and Ishmael and Isaac the way he does in Gal 4 doesn't necessarily mean he's saying the record of Hagar at al teaches things. That is, it's possible he only means to use them as illustration. I'm reminded of Peter's "this is that" in Acts 2, where he quotes from portions of an OT prophecy. It's pretty clear that not everything in that prophecy happened in Acts 2. If memory serves, there are a few places in the Gospels also where fulfillment language is used in a way that doesn't quite fit our categories.

I can't exhaustively answer the question here. And I don't claim to even fully know the answer. One thing that helps, though, I think, is recognizing that there are really multiple questions. There's the question of "how did the inspired authors of Scripture use narrative?" and then there's the question of "how should we use narrative." These are not the same thing. If we take the view that the biblical authors did X with OT passages, therefore we should, we're--ironically--committing something pretty similar to the error of reading narrative and thinking "good guy X did this, so I should, too."

Knowing what someone did just isn't as easy as knowing it's an example to follow.

So, a reference/allusion to an OT event or person or prophecy can have a variety of functions.

I think it's clear that when interpreting narrative, there is no way to appropriately limit our imagination--and therefore the problem of eisegesis--if we handle the text as a well of hidden meanings. But, personally, I feel quite free to use OT/Gospels/Acts narratives as illustrations of principles clearly taught elsewhere. That's not the same thing as reading David and drawing a principle straight from the five stones--and it's leagues away from making each stone teach some specific truth.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Dan Miller's picture

Imagine that God chose to do things differently. Imagine that His revelation consisted only of facts about Him. And He told us that to have eternal life, all we needed to do was to believe those facts.

But He specifically said: "There are no commands. Do whatever you want. Just believe those things. Some of you will believe and others won't. Some of you will say you believe, even though you don't. And you will be shocked to learn that you didn't believe."

How, then, would I ever know that I believe?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

It's good that we're not in that situation.

But as far as "how do I know?" goes, the situation we really are in isn't all that different. It's an inductive thing. John says "here's how you know you have eternal life..." And provides a series of evidences. Similar 'criteria' passages can be found in Peter and probably Paul (though I'm drawing blank on that one at the moment).

I confess, I don't know why we're on this topic now, though.

The question of "apart from works, how do you know what you really believe?" is interesting, but to me there's a more interesting one: How can you not know if your beliefs are genuine?

It's really not that easy to achieve, I don't think. A couple of ways come to mind:

  • The belief is unexamined. Example: you walk an aisle as a teen with a bunch of other teens, feeling a lot of emotion and making some kind of commitment to some principle--maybe the gospel, maybe something else. Then you never think about it again, always just assuming it.
    • I'm thinking this is how some go all in on the deconstruction thing and become exvangelical. 
    • Such faith is like the seed by the wayside in Matt 13. It seems fine until tested, then personal suffering reveals it to have been a cheap substitute.
  • The belief is sincere but incorrect. So you know you really believe, but the belief is not "genuine" in sense of "really the truth" or "really word from God." In the end, the outcome is the same whether the belief has the right content but is only superficial or the belief is deeply held but has the wrong content.

But we know from abundant Scripture that there is an element of the will in belief. Especially in conversion, there is a decision to repent and believe and though the two are distinct, they are inseparable, like two sides of a coin.

And after conversion we discover all sorts of truths we are directed to believe, and we choose to believe or not. It's not always a conscious choice, but often is. The process isn't different when we're not paying attention.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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