Some Thoughts on Reading Methods
Okay. So I’m taking this course at Nations University: The Church of the First Five Decades. Part of our coursework is to read the letters of the New Testament contextually — as closely as possible to when they were actually written during Luke’s narrative in Acts. Even though I’ve owned a Chronological Bible for several years, I have never actually done this. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about it, of course. I think every Christian has spent a bit of devotional time imagining Paul dictating his Prison Epistles. If you haven’t gone the next step and read the letters along with Acts, I highly recommend it — it is intriguing and illuminating on several levels.
The order of the epistles in our New Testaments is aggravatingly arbitrary on its own. I always imagined that there was some good spiritual reason why it goes Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, etc. When I learned that the basic idea was “look at Paul’s letters in Greek, and list them in descending order of length,” I was very disappointed. No wonder Romans has been so dominant in modern theology.
The major confrontation of ideas that I’ve encountered in this study series is trying to understand the relative values of documentary hermeneutics and narrative theology. Let me explain. No, wait… there is too much. Let me sum up. In Doc. Herm., you look for all the arbitrary statements on a topic and try to assemble them in a sensible fashion. Once assembled, you point to your creation and say, “Aha! The Biblical pattern for <insert topic here>!” In Narrative Theology, by way of contrast, you examine what actually happened in the early church. Theological and didactic statements do not stand alone; they clarify and expand on actual events.
I first encountered narrative theology in NT Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, where Wright struck me with the brilliant idea that the simplest way to understand Jesus in the Gospels is to treat his ACTIONS as primary, and his different teachings as explanation of those actions. I’d always thought of it the other way around: Jesus’ TEACHINGS were primary, and whatever he did, he did in order to gather an audience for his teaching or to justify himself as an authoritative teacher. This idea draws on all sorts of cool philosophical ideas — Speech-Act Theory, just to name one, but it has the attractive quality of taking all the Scriptural evidence into account.
In the context of women’s roles, one of my instructors says this:
“There’s a couple of different ways of viewing women’s roles. I think we need both of them, not just one. Typically we’ve only used one. We have used documentary hermeneutics; that is, we have a statement about women in a document. For example, Paul says, ‘…Women should keep silent in the church. If they have a question, let them ask their husbands’ (I think that is an important word) ‘when they get home.’ So we take all those statements about women from the Epistles and we draw up a theology about women.
“There is another way to do it: it’s called Narrative Theology, where instead of looking only at the statements that are made about women, we look at the stories that are told about women, and we look at what women actually DID. Not just theoretical statements about women, but what women were actually doing in the church with the approval of the Apostle Paul. Like Lydia — what does she do? She plants a church. So I assume that women — particularly in the context of their own households — can be church planters. As a biblicist, I don’t want to use <LESS THAN> half the texts available to us about women, statemens concerning them. I want to use stories that describe what they actually did. And for me, in some ways, that is actually more real, because it is LIVED THEOLOGY rather than hypothetical theology.
“The lived theology of Acts is that that you have a woman who established a church in her home. What about the lived theology of the early church? Do you realize that most martyrs of the early church were not pew-sitters? (anachronistic descriptor, I know, but understand what I mean) Most martyrs of the early church were LEADERS — those who had influence. ‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will scatter,’ said Jesus, a strategy the Roman Empire (and all governments before or since) well understood. If you slaughter all the members of a rebellious group, you’re going to kill a LOT of potential laborers and tax-payers who would probably acquiesce to your rule without leadership. If you can destroy the leaders, the followers will dissipate. Start looking at the narrative theology of the early church, the enacted and lived theology, and you will find a large percentage (not the majority, but a large percentage) of martyrs in the early church were women. These women made a significant impact on the community of believers so that those trying to destroy the church attacked female leaders.” – Mark Moore, lecturing on Acts 16
Documentary hermeneutics cannot explain this phenomenon. Narrative theology does a much better job of handling the Word of God rightly. Alicia asked me my thoughts on sola Scriptura recently, and while I’m not ready to expound too deeply on that just yet, I will say this much: Scripture must be read in its own context, as a gift from God and more, a sacramental tool crafted by Almighty God to facilitate his creative and redemptive purposes.
Ugh. Now my head hurts, and I’m not sure things are any clearer for me or for anyone else. How’s this? I’m trying to get my head and heart around a method of reading Scripture that honors the whole collection of books in front of me — that doesn’t disassemble it and reassemble it in my own image. May God bless my reading of His Word.
in HIS love,