How to Study Narrative Literature
Facts to Consider in Interpreting Narrative Literature in the Bible
I. There are five major types of literature in the Bible:
II. The major narrative sections of the Bible are as follows:
A. Old Testament History
III. The most frequent uses Bible students make of narrative are the following:
A. Storytelling without pointing out principles and contemporary application.
B. Allegorizing (spiritualizing, theologizing, and moralizing by importing meanings from other passages, human needs, human experiences, contemporary human thought, men’s favorite ideas, theological tradition, and culture.
C. Illustrations for sermons.
IV. Following are some proper uses of narratives:
A. It points out eternal truths and permanent principles.
B. Make appropriate application to contemporary problems and needs.
C. Illustrate points in sermons reflected in the narrative, as NT writers did.
D. Narrative serves as proof of claims made in more direct teachings in the Bible and in sermons.
E. Biblical writers used these stories, historical narratives, to prove their theological claims about God, Christ, etc.
V. The following are some appropriate ways to approach narratives:
A. Understand what narrative is.
1. Narrative tells us about things that happened when characters acted and reacted to given circumstances.
2. Biblical narrative is designed to show us God at work under given circumstances.
3. Biblical narrative glorifies God.
4. Biblical narratives tell of God’s nature.
5. Biblical narratives tell us about God’s providence and protection.
6. Biblical narratives tell God’s attitude toward sin and disobedience.
B. Analysis must consider the following when interpreting narrative:
1. The circumstances.
2. What is done?
3. What is said?
4. What is God’s response to what is done and said?
5. The theme of the writer and how the events support it.
6. The question or situation dealt with.
7. The main conflict and how it works out.
8. How the various kinds of characters support the main point of the text.
C. Study the Two Contexts
1. Context of the event
2. Content of the writer
D. Study by story and episodes.
1. When studying epistles, we study by paragraphs, sections, and document to see how a text fits into the logical flow of a document–establish logical (i.e., book) context.
2. We should study narrative literature by episodes, stories, and document to see how a text fits into the logical context or logical flow of the document.
3. This is very important when performing a structural analysis of narrative literature. In this case we treat the episode like we treat a paragraph in epistles, the story like a section, and the document as a document.ß
VI. Consider the following principles for interpreting narrative (Fee and Stuart 78).
A. Biblical narratives does not usually directly teach doctrine.
B. Biblical narratives usually illustrate doctrine taught elsewhere directly.
C. Biblical narratives record what happened, not always what should have happened or ought to happen every time.
D. Biblical narratives do not necessarily give a good example.
E. In biblical narratives, characters are usually far from perfect.
F. Biblical narratives do not always tell if what happened was bad or good, except by implication.
G. Biblical narratives are selective and incomplete–do not tell us every small event in any story or historical account.
H. Biblical narratives are not written to answer all of our theological questions.
I. Biblical narratives may teach explicitly or implicitly.
J. God is the hero of all biblical narrative.
K. The writers of biblical narrative are not writing as primarily historians, but are writing as theologians developing and supporting their theological claims with stories of God’s dealings with people–his actions and reactions in response to them; their actions and reactions in response to him, and their actions and reactions in response to each other.
VII. Principalization is a homiletic device to use in interpreting and teaching (preaching) narrative literature.
A. Principalization is a method of establishing and pointing out the abidingmeaning and continuing significance of narrative for all men of all times.
B. In principalization, the point of the message is derived directly from the text beingexamined.
C. It seeks to derive its message from the text through an understanding of it, rather than importing the meaning into the text from some other source: other scripture, contemporary thought, personal biases, human need, or known human experience.
D. Principalization discovers and sets forth the enduring doctrinal, spiritual, ethical, and moral truths or principles illustrated in narrative accounts or explicitly stated in didactic literature.
E. Principalization involves a system of homiletic analysis.
F. It is a syntactical–theological method of exegesis as well as the grammatico-historical method.
G. Principalizing ascertains propositions and supporting principles from Scripture.
H. The following general steps are involved in principalizing:
1. Ascertain the main truth-intent or main idea of the text.
2. Ascertain the main supporting principles that develop the main idea of the passage.
3. Ascertain the supporting materials that explain, prove, and illustrate the supporting principles.
4. Make application of the lessons to an appropriate situation (like the one in the biblical context)–contextualize it, (i.e., delineate the principles applied to the biblical culture and situation and apply them to your culture and like situation) and state it in contemporary (not historical) terms.
I. In principalizing, make special notes of the following: the main truth intent, the supporting principles, and incidental truths expressed or implied.
VIII. Remember that biblical narrative is not about only a historical God, but about a contemporary (i.e., present-day) God; God is not only a God of yesterday, but is also a God of today.
IX. New Testament narrative can establish authoritative, universal and permanent principles.
A. The Bible authorizes in three ways.
1. An expressed statement may establish a principle.
2. When an expressed statement necessarily implies something not expressed, the necessary implication may establish a principle of faith and practice. That is, a generalization implies specifics within the generalization, or a broad cagegory implies particulars within the category.
3. An approved account of action may establish a principle.
B. A narrative or account of action that doesn’t illustrate a requirement gives permission for an action but doesn’t require it, i.e., doesn’t establish a binding principle.
C. A narrative or account of action establishes a principle in the following cases:
1. When a narrative illustrates or expresses antecedent theology (or a background command), it establishes a principle.
(a) The principle may be theological and establish a belief.
(b) The principle may be a moral imperative and require a certain conduct.
2. When the narrative illustrates an antecedent theology (or a background command that is necessarily implied), it establishes a principle.
3. When a narrative account of action gives evidence that the action was required, it establishes a principle or imperative.
D. A principle may be local and temporary, or it may be universal and permanent.
1. When the narrative itself or a background teaching expressly limits the time and subjects of the principle, it is local and temporary.
2. When a narrative or its context implies that it was limited in scope, its authority is local and temporary.
3. Subsequent revelation might limit the time and scope of a principle.
4. Without these limitations, a principle is universal and permanent.
X. Old Testament narrative also establishes universal and permanent principles.
A. The Old Testament reveals many great truths:
1. The eternal nature of God
2. The eternal moral character of God
3. God’s loving care for man
4. God’s attitude toward sin
5. Regulation of man’s religious activity
6. Laws governing human relationships
7. Moral imperatives.
B. There are several present-day uses of the Old Testament.
1. It points us to Christ (John 5:39; John 12:41; Heb. 2:11-15; Acts 8:7-35; et. al.).
2. It is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:15-17).
3. It provides examples of true faith (Heb. 11 and 12).
4. It warns against disobedience (Heb. 2:1-4; I Cor. 10:1-11).
5. It reveals the nature of God.
C. Some Old Testament principles are universal and permanent.
1. Principles rooted in and reflecting the eternal nature of God and Christ are permanent theological principles, because God’s nature does not change.
2. Imperatives that are rooted in and reflect the moral character of God and Christ are permanent moral law.
3. Old Testament principles perpetuated by New Testament teaching are permanent.
4. Ceremonial regulations and requirements that are related to and rooted in temporary situations of individuals and groups are local and temporary.
5. Any requirements that are limited by subsequent teaching (e.g., later New Testament teachings) are consequently limited in scope and time.
D. Any Old Testament imperative that is rooted in and reflects the moral character of God is a universal and permanent principle: The ultimate standard of good is God, and God’s written moral code reflects His moral character. For example, God is love. He tells us to love him and our neighbor. Love does no harm to others (Rom. 13:9-10). The moral and ethical code of God reflects his nature, love. These rules show us how to love God and one another, how do good and no harm to one another.
1. When God revealed himself in the creation, before written law was given, this left the Gentiles without excuse for their moral decay or immoral conduct (Rom. 1:18-32).
2. When men come short of the glory of God (i.e., his moral character), they sin (Rom. 3:23).
3. Since man is made in the image of God and also can see God revealed in the creation (Gen. 1:26; Rom. 1:19-21), they, being without the law (in written form), can do by nature the things contained in the law (Rom. 2:14, 15).
4. Before men sinned by breaking explicit laws as Adam did, sin was in the world and death reigned. Since sin is not counted when there is no law, the law was present, implicit in the moral character of God, before it was written (Rom. 5:13, 14).
5. The message (i.e., Word) existed in the Divine Nature (Christ) before the world was created (John 1:1,2, 14).
6. To know the glory of God is to be exposed to the power that can change our lives and make us share in the glory of God (2 Cor. 3:18).
7. God is love, and the whole law of God is summed up in the command to love one another (I John 4:7, 8; Rom. 13:9, 10).
XI. We should consider the following when studying narrative literature:
A. Ask the following when studying Old Testament narratives:
1. What was the situation of the action or saying?
2. Was the action approved by God (by the inspired writer)?
3. Was what was said spoken by an inspired or uninspired person?
4. What does the incident tell us about God?
5. Is the principle involved approved but optional or is it required?
6. Is the principle established universal and permanent, or is it part of the situational and temporary part of the Old Testament?
B. Ask the following when studying the gospel accounts.
1. What was the situation that elicited what was said and done?
2. Was the action or saying approved or not approved?
3. What was the situation to which the gospel writer applied the saying or action?
4. What does the recorded actions of Christ tell us about God: his character, his power, his will for us, his concern for us, and his response to us?
5. What does the incident tell us about what God expects of us?
6. What does the incident tell us about God’s response to obedience and disobedience?
7. Does this establish a principle limited to the Old Testament period, the New Testament period, or extend to all men of all times?
8. Is this related to beliefs and actions that are approved but optional or is it a required belief and action?
C. Ask the following when studying Acts:
1. What was the situation which elicited the action or saying?
2. Is the action approved or not approved?
3. Is the statement made by an inspired or uninspired person?
4. What does the incident or account tell us about God?
5. Is the example binding or optional (i.e., backed by a background command or not)?
6. Is the principle local and temporary or universal and permanent?
Practical Considerations for Interpreting Narrative Literature in the Bible
I. If the author explicitly states the meaning or significance of a narrative, this interpretation must be accepted as the only intended meaning.
II. You need to consider the occasion of what you are reading. In narrative, there are two occasional contexts: the context of the event recorded and the context of the writer and first readers.
A. Probe the text and its context with the question “What was going on in this narrative?”
1. What question was being dealt with?
2. What problem was being dealt with?
a. The problem might be doctrinal.
b. The problem might be behavioral.
B. Also probe the text and its surrounding context to find out what was going on in the writer’s situation that caused him to write this narrative. Ask, “What was he trying to refute, prove, clarify, or make practical by telling this story?”
1. What question was being dealt with?
2. What problem was being dealt with?
a. The problem might be doctrinal.
b. The problem might be behavioral.
II. Consider what the characters indicate about the main issue or central idea of the narrative.
A. Some of what you can know about characters is revealed explicitly by what the author or other characters say about them and even by what they say about themselves.
B. Most of what you learn about characters will be implied by their actions.
C. Characters sometimes make explicit statements about the issue under consideration. Be sure that you don’t use advice from the wrong characters.
D. Usually, information about the idea supported by a narrative will be implied by the actions and attitudes of the characters and by which character is on what side of the issue.
E. Narrative usually has a protagonist and an antagonist. In biblical narrative, the protagonist is the “good guy” and the antagonist is the “bad guy.” In some modern literature, and even in the Bible, the protagonist and antagonist might both be good. When both are good, it is difficult to decide which one is right. In such cases the writer usually tells us what is right.
III. The plot will help in determining the concept the narrative is intended to convey. The plot consists of the actions and reactions of characters in their specific circumstances. In the plot, look for the following four elements.
A. Exposition–The exposition introduces a narrative. For example, in the story of the temptation of Jesus, the first two verses serve as the exposition (Matt. 4:1-2)
B. Conflict–Conflict consists of factors that complicate the plot. The conflicts cause tension that heightens interest and points toward or emphasizes the point or central idea of the narrative. The conflict usually clearly defines both sides of an issue or a problem. As Satan tempts Jesus, the conflicts complicate the plot and make the difference in the two characters very clear. These conflicts cause the first-time reader to wonder if and when Jesus will yield to the pressure (Matt. 4:3-10). In some narratives, the conflict is between a person and a situation or even between different ideas. In the story of Jesus turning water into wine, the antagonist is a situation, the wine running out (Jn. 2:1-11). A deeper conflict is between Jesus’ claim to being the Son of God and a lack of confidence on the part of the disciples. The interpretation of the narrative is made clear in this case (v. 11).
C. Climax–The climax is the turning point in the narrative when the complicating factors begin to be resolved. The climax usually makes the point the narrator is making clear. In the story of the temptations, the turning point (i.e., climax) comes when Jesus sends the devil away and angels attend Jesus (Matt. 4:10-11). In the story of Jesus turning water into wine, the climax makes the main idea clear by explicitly stating it (Jn. 2:11).
D. Denouement–After the climax (i.e., turning point) in the narrative, the denouement is the quick resolution or movement to the end of the story. The elements of the story of the temptation of Jesus lead to the conclusion that Jesus has greater moral power than Satan. This is significant as an assurance that, in a moral conflict with Satan, we can win a moral victory by the power of Jesus. The story of the first sign, i.e., the story of Jesus turning water into wine, supports the conclusion that Jesus is who He claims to be, the Son of God.
IV. Symbolism sheds light on the point of the narrative. The mustard seed symbolizes little things and represents the power of little, seemingly insignificant things and people when used by God. The tares (or weeds) symbolize that which is undesirable and unacceptable. Good soil symbolizes good hearts.
V. What is said about the way the conflict turns out explicitly states the point of the story. In the case of Jesus turning water into wine, the final comment makes the point of the story clear (Jn. 2:11).
Conclusion: Through principalization, a Bible student can see that the message of narrative is exciting, relevant, and powerful.
For more on the use of narrative literature, principalizing, and the uses of the Old Testament, see the following books:
Fee, Gordon and Douglas Stuart. How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981, 1993.
Ferguson, Everett. “Christian Use of the Old Testament.” The World and Literature of the Old Testament. ed. John T. Willis. The Living World Commentary, 12 Vol., Austin, Texas: Sweet Publishing Company, 1979.
Kaiser, Walter C., Jr. Toward An Exegetical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981.
Warren, Thomas B. When Is An Example Binding? Jonesboro, Arkansas: National Christian Press, 1975.
© Dr. William T. (Bill) Lambert, 05
Professor Emeritus, College of Bible and Religion
Searcy, AR 72149-0001