God Is Not A Story

Narrative and story have been all the rage in theology for the last few decades. The attractions are obvious. Narrative theologians favor the active, unpredictable, vibrant God of Scripture to the impersonal first principle of philosophical theology. Narrative theologians reject the notion that theologians need to justify their work by reference to a pre-theological philosophical or scientific frameworks shared with unbelievers. Theologians have their own sources and standards of truth, and should be content to work within the circle of revelation. Narrative theologians claim to be providing a postliberal paradigm, a paradigm beyond the barricades between conservative and liberal.

Narrative theologians frequently point to the astonishing fact that Scripture identifies God by reference to historical events and human actors: Yahweh is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the Kinsman who brought Israel from Egypt; the Father who raised Jesus by the Spirit. These narrative descriptions of God cannot be mere external labels. If “God of the Exodus” doesn’t tell us about God Himself, then there has been no revelation: We don’t know God, but only how He appears. To say that we only know God as He appears and not God Himself is an ancient heresy, which in Trinitarian theology goes by the name “modalism.”

Inevitably, and healthily, there has been a reaction to narrative theology, and one of the more thorough and intriguing is God is Not a Story: Realism Revisited (Oxford, 2007), by Francesca Murphy, recently transplanted from Aberdeen to Notre Dame. Murphy divides the field into “Grammatical Thomists” (Nicholas Lash, David Burrell) and “Story Barthians” (George Lindbeck and Hans Frei), with the odd “Story Thomist” (Robert Jenson) thrown in for good measure. Her main charge is that narrative theology fails to deliver what it promises.

Though it celebrates particularism, narrative theology ends up abstracting the category of “story” and never gets down to actual existence. Though ostentatiously antifoundationalist, it remains foundationalist. It aims and claims to emphasize personalism and history, but ends up with an impersonal, ahistorical, abstract theology. Despite its frequent emphasis on the Godness of God, it edges too close to reducing the God of Scripture to one of the gods. It ends up collapsing into the very modalism it hopes to escape. Narrative theology neutralizes drama and relation, rather than establishing it. It cannot make sense of the problem of evil, but instead makes evil necessary. It cannot be truly tragic or comic. The narrative of the narrative theologians is melodrama, cinematic rather than theatrical.

That’s a weighty set of charges. How well does Murphy’s case hold up? Unevenly. The unevenness is partly due to the style of the book. Murphy writes with a dowdy charm (on page 210, for instance, she quotes a marginal note written in a library copy of a book, explaining that “this defacement of public property can be viewed in my own, smallish, archive of illegally photocopied library books”). But the argument tends to wander here and there, and it is not always clear how one thing follows another. Author of a previous book on comedy in Scripture, her literary and cinematic observations are often fascinating. It is never entirely clear how they serve her main argument.

She scores plenty of hits. For all its interest in biblical narrative, narrative theologians are as skeptical about the historicity of the events of Scripture as any old liberal. Frei comes off as the New Critic of theology, concerned with the internal coherence of the textual portrait rather than its reference to actual events. Similarly, Lindbeck’s Wittgenstenian “use” theory of doctrine ignores the fact that the church has always “used” doctrine to make assertions about what is actually the case. In short, narrative theologians “shored up their foundation in Scripture at the expense of relegating the truth of correspondence to realities outside the biblical system to a second place, basing faith solely in the intrasystematic coherence of their beliefs” (p. 51). She also rightly targets the “Grammatical Thomist” presumption that God is unknowable.

Narrative theology spurns theistic proofs, either reducing them to variations on the question of “why something rather than nothing” or treating them as arguments internal to biblical faith rather than arguments accessible to all rational beings. Murphy’s response shows a refreshing pastoral and evangelistic instinct. One purpose of theology, after all, is to persuade. Using Lewis and Chesterton as examples, she points out that antifoundationalists must still argue. Regarding the “Why?” question, she turns the tables and shows that the contingency of the world is only odd by contrast with the necessity of a Creator.

Originally, and powerfully, she argues that the theistic proofs are the necessary bulwark to address the problem of evil. Thomas makes the problem of evil the first objection to the existence of God. The answer to the question “Is there a God?” consists of the Five Ways, and this is the context for the answer to the problem of evil: “Once God is a given,” Murphy summarizes, “the empirical existence of evil still forces us to wrestle with God; but the givenness of a transcendent God ensures that God and evil can’t spill into one another” (p. 135).

Yet, Murphy fails to convince that narrative theology is as nefarious as she thinks. Despite her distinctions between varieties of narrative theology, she treats the movement too much as a single thing. Would anyone else she discusses have anything good to say about Jack Miles’s God: A Biography, which Murphy uses to introduce the notion that narrative theologians make God the melodramatic villain of Scripture? She accuses Jenson of arguing that “there is an everlasting disaster in God,” one that necessities all the horrors of history “from Melos to Darfur” (p. 160). This doesn’t obviously follow from the quotation Murphy provides, and, besides, how distant is Jenson’s position from Murphy’s own Balthasarian conclusion that “the ratio of human tragedy is the ‘risk’ which the Father takes in giving the whole of himself away in begetting the Son”? (p. 328).

In Jenson’s Trinitarian theology, she says, the Persons lose “their free, unpredictable and self-governed personhood,” an odd charge against a theologian who famously defines a person as a being with “the capacity to surprise.” Murphy carefully distinguishes Barth from the Barthians at various points, but it is prima facie and passing strange to accuse story Barthians (Jenson, sort of) of undermining the freedom of God: How could they have missed so central a theme in their master?

Murphy’s own muse is von Balthasar, who, she believes, captures all the good narrative theologians hope to achieve while avoiding the pitfalls. Though not all of her punches land, enough do to make Murphy’s theo-dramatic alternative worthy of serious study.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This essay was first published in Credenda/Agenda in September 2011.