‘Written for Our Learning’

This Hebrew Bible, on display in the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg, Germany, belonged to Johann Agricola. According to the placard, "Luther owns the same edition."

I wish I could say that I that I was one of those smart kids who always loved history. Yet, in one sense, I guess that I did—although perhaps without realizing it.

I was always enthralled with old black-and-white television shows that whisked me to an earlier time that seemed both simpler and, yet, exhilarating. I found many aspects of the past fascinating. I was particularly mesmerized by the Middle Ages—especially as they set the stage for the dawn of the Reformation.

Put a dry history book in front of me, though, and I would have been entirely unenthused—unless, perhaps, it was a volume about the history of sports.

I did love Bible history, though, as well. I remember that in my middle years in Lutheran grade school my teacher would begin the day by reading an extended passage of Scripture. When he got to the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, I recall listening as though I were following on a horse behind King David. I even scribbled the words “David stories” next to those books in the table of contents of an old Bible.

I had outstanding history teachers and classes in high school and Bible college, and that’s when a formal love of history really began to click for me.

But it was in seminary that I began to think purposely and deeply about the historical nature and background of the Bible. Unlike other religious books, the Scriptures are built upon history in such a way that if Biblical history were not true, then the Bible itself would be invalidated (see, for example, 1 Cor. 10:1-11).

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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.

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One narrative to rule them all?

"Long-running internecine media feuds, emblematic of the degradation of mass media as they are, are merely the smoke set off by the burning desire for one, all-consuming narrative....The only story we need to get straight is the story that really matters. Grounded in that story, the greatest ever told, we can deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world.

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