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,

nick

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About Nick Gill

orphan-poet-adoptee-soldier-prodigal-servant-husband- counselor-desperate seeker after my Father's face "I feel my body weakened by the years as people turn to gods of cruel design. Is it that they fear the pain of death, or is it that they fear the joy of life?" - Toad the Wet Sprocket

Posted on 11 November, 2008, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I was discussing a similar topic with my students yesterday. I was trying to get them see that the “history” in the Bible isn’t there for history’s sake; it’s there with a teaching purpose. Whereas we want to know what Jesus did first, then next, then next, that’s not how the gospels are written. Order depends on what is being taught, not on chronology.

    I know that and teach it, but haven’t spent a lot of time applying it to my study.

  2. I hear ya. I was blessed by reading this post. I think it will add another dimension to my Bible study by thinking of what they did more prominently. I think that’s a legitimate thing to do. I also have been challenged in major ways by N. T. Wright, but I digress.

    On the other hand, shouldn’t studying what they did lead us to understand what they said (wrote). It just seemed to me that the quotes you gave present someone who uses what they did (and makes a debatable inference, at least about the martyrs) to avoid what is written altogether. Now, I know it’s just part of what was said, and that’s why I’m asking this. How does this teacher deal with 1 Cor 14 & 2 Tim 2. In his hermeneutic, what do the passages mean and how do we apply them?

    Thanks!
    —JLP

  3. Short answer: He is a complementarian. He believes the relevant result of the Fall (male headship over females) is reflected in the structure of church authority. Therefore, no female elders. However, I THINK (don’t quote me on it; I’ll provide two short resources written by Dr. Moore below) he also believes that under the authority of an eldership, women CAN perform any and all other functions. That does not mean that in every place, that is edifying for the body or the mission of God, but rather that their gender alone does not prohibit it. Also, in 1 Cor 14, he takes issue with the translation tradition that says (paraphrasing for time considerations), “WOMEN must not speak… they must ask their HUSBANDS at home.” If the translation is going to say HUSBAND, it should also say WIFE.

    I do see the double-edged sword. There needs to be a dynamic give-and-take relationship between narrative and didactic passages.

    Elevating the narrative passages to a dominant position allows an interpreter to make all commands culturally conditioned, while elevating the didactic passages (our typical practice in RM history, I think) forces the interpreter to twist the clear statement of the narrative in order to fit a preconception of universality of the commands.

    Here are the two quick things I could find on Dr. Moore’s website (http://markmoore.org):

    Should Women Be In The Ministry?
    http://markmoore.org/resources/qanda/women.shtml

    Hermeneutical Issues Regarding Women’s Roles
    http://markmoore.org/resources/essays/womensroles.shtml

  4. BTW, Dr. Moore is not affiliated with NationsU. He teaches at Ozark Christian College, a Christian Church college in Missouri.

  5. You make me want to read more…

    ; )

  6. I understand your point, but wonder if some who make it are implying that there is an inherent contradiction between the teachings of Jesus (such as that given through Paul) and his actions and those of godly first century Christians. For example, I wonder if Mark Moore is implying that there is an inconsistency between the actions of women in Acts and Paul’s inspired teaching on the issue. Of course, there is none. Two divine sources of revelation (godly examples and godly teaching) won’t contradict themselves. So, here again it’s not one (approved actions) or the other (teaching), but both. And if I don’t have both harmonize in my interpretation, I’ve gotten it wrong somewhere.

  7. Dear Gardner,

    Some who make such a point might have such an implication in mind, I don’t believe this is even the best way to go about making such an implication.

    See, we’re not talking about the teachings themselves — we’re talking about how we receive those teachings 2000 years later.

    I do not believe there is an iota of inconsistency between the didactic passages of Scripture and the narrative passages. From what I’ve read and listened to of Dr Moore’s work, I believe he would agree with that statement.

    It is our reception of those passages that has been woefully inconsistent, leading to many practices that bring shame to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some groups elevate the didactic passages in 1 Cor and 1 Tim to such prominence that the clearly approved actions of women in Acts must be explained away. Other groups interpret such poor treatment of Paul’s writing as evidence of Pauline misogyny and therefore treat those passages as if they were uninspired.

    Neither extreme is acceptable or appropriate, though both are understandable. It is to be expected in groups that cherish a constitutional view of Scripture, for example, that “command” texts might be elevated to statements of universal absolutes. And it is to be expected that people who hear such an extreme view might respond by swinging to the opposite extreme.

    Dr. Moore is mostly suggesting that there is a broad inconsistentcy between the actions of Godly women in Acts and the pattern of approved female participation in kingdom activity in RM churches.

  8. I was just wondering what books you might recommend for taking a narrative approach. it certainly seems to make more sense. I have a couple of books on the approach, but is always good to hear what others are reading.

  9. I’m no expert — I’ve only recently been swept up in the beauty and the harmony of the narrative approach. So you might want to post the same question over on Stoned-Campbell Disciple’s blog (see my blogroll) and see what Bobby says.

    But so far, the BEST book in the field that I’ve found is –

    The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative by Christopher JH Wright

    After that, in no particular order:

    Eat This Book – Eugene Peterson

    The Last Word – Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture by NT Wright (no relation) (for a “quick” prequel, check out http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_Bible_Authoritative.pdf)

    Paul’s Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph – Ben Witherington III

    The New Testament and the People of God – NT Wright
    Jesus and the Victory of God – NT Wright

    Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age – Middleton and Walsh (for a STELLAR essay from Middleton, go here: http://www.luthersem.edu/ctrf/JCTR/Vol11/Middleton_vol11.pdf )

    The rest of Eugene Peterson’s series of books on Spiritual Theology:
    Christ Plays in 10,000 Places
    The Jesus Way
    Tell It Slant

    From a Restoration perspective:
    God’s Holy Fire — Cukrowski, Hamilton, Thompson
    Seeking a Lasting City — Love, Foster, Harris
    (both from the Heart of the Restoration series)

    Kingdom Come — Hicks and Valentine
    A Gathered People — Hicks, Valentine, Melton

    Essays by JM Hicks – (see my blogroll — at JM’s blog, look under Serial Index)
    Philosophical/Theological Foundations–”Created for Hermeneutics”
    Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics
    Theological Hermeneutics
    Applied Theological Hermeneutics [“It Ain’t That Complicated”]
    Contemplative Bible Reading or Hermeneutics
    Reverse the Curse

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