Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

26 Feb 2013

What Is “The Narrative Approach to Paul”?

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Sometime earlier in the semester I happened across a piece by Bruce Longenecker titled “The Narrative Approach to Paul: An Early Retrospective.” Like many of you, I’d been seeing all sorts of books and articles with some combination of “Paul” and “narrative” in their titles (e.g., here and here) and I wanted to see what it was all about. The gist of the approach, acc. to Longenecker, is the conviction that a narrative or story-about-the world underlies Paul’s letters (see 89–94). You may not be able to read the story right off the top, but it’s there all the same, helping us understand and giving coherence to Paul’s disparate agendas in his occasional, pastoral correspondence. N. T. Wright, Longenecker notes, puts it this way:

Within all his letters, though particularly in Romans and Galatians, we discover a larger implicit narrative…. Paul presupposes this story even when he does not expound it directly, and it is arguable that we can only understand the more limited narrative worlds of the different letters if we locate them at their appropriate points within this overall story-world (93, from Wright 1992:405).

As I read Longenecker’s piece, all of this began to sound rather familiar to me. I’d heard this tune before. I suspect you have as well. After all, this is the approach most of us take when reading Paul, even if we don’t call what we’re doing a “narrative reading” or use Greimasian diagrams. What else is biblical theology founded on if not a conviction that a story provides coherence to Paul’s letters and, for that matter, to the entire Bible. The fact that I’d often thought of Wright’s (and, for that matter, Hays’s) work as biblical theology further confirmed my suspicions about the relationship between these two disciplines. In fact, Wright’s approach is used to illustrate one of the categories of biblical theology Klink and Lockett describe in their recent taxonomy. There are, of course, some differences between practitioners of both disciplines, but, as far as I can see at this point, not any necessary ones (contra, e.g., here; this is also why I’m not completely satisfied with K&L’s distinction between BT 2 and BT 3).

What all this suggests, then, is that the “narrative approach to Paul” may not be quite as new as Longenecker implies (esp. for most Christians) and, moreover, that it will probably provide resources for doing what we’re already doing even better. For a start, take a look at Hays’s criteria for identifying allusions.