Interpreting Gospel Narratives: Scenes, People, and Theology
Dr. Bill Klein's review of "Interpreting Gospel Narratives" by Timothy Wiarda
Timothy Wiarda. Interpreting Gospel Narratives. Scenes, People, and Theology. Nashville: B & H Academic, 2010. viii + 245 pp. $24.99. ISBN 978-080544843-6.
The traditional methods of studying the biblical materials are rooted in historical criticism. In a sense the question is: what happened back then that resulted in this piece of writing?—often followed by further questions such as: What were the beliefs of the writers and readers? What difference does this text make? And what implications might this text have for modern readers, particularly those who share the same faith commitments? Of course, in recent decades biblical scholars have engaged in many other tactics to understand the message of the Bible, or particular parts thereof. One of those is “narrative criticism,” which brings its own set of questions and tactics to those parts of the Bible we consider stories (narratives). Stories involve such matters as plot, characters, setting, narrator and narratee, and readers or hearers, among other things.
Dr. Wiarda, professor of New Testament at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, brings his skills as a narrative critic to the study of the four gospels. His book does not attempt to be an exhaustive explanation of all the narrative critical methods nor is its goal to be an explanation of the discipline itself. Rather, in plain language he shows the reader what narrative criticism looks like when done by a studied and knowledgeable practitioner. But more than only take the reader’s hand while he engages is in his own exegesis, Wiarda explains what he is doing, why the methods are useful, and how others can fruitfully employ the methods in their own study of narratives. Importantly, Wiarda stresses that narrative criticism must supplement the standard historical methods, not replace them. Thus, even in analyzing how stories “work,” Wiarda is concerned with the place of these stories in their historical contexts, and what the gospel writers intended to convey to their readers within the story genre.
The book addresses four specific matters: (1) how the gospels portray individual characters within their stories; (2) how the specific details in the stories drive the plots and scenes; (3) the relationship between theology and story; and (4) how the individual narrative units function within a entire Gospel—that is, how the individual episodes within the Gospels serve the purposes of the whole story.
The great value of the book is that Wiarda actually engages these four matters in numerous examples with the four gospels. For example, as to characters, he considers how they can change within a gospel, shows us places in which they remain consistent, and cites examples of how the author portrays them within the story line. Significantly, he raises the theological questions within the stories, for exegetes always puzzle about how stories can convey theological truth. He observes, “How does the narrative achieve its impact? Both by drawing readers into an experience and by conveying a definable message. Where does it touch the reader? In the mind, in the feelings, in the whole person” (pp. 52-53). In analyzing one pericope he develops the following “formula”: Plot and Characterization + Emphasis + Ideological Point of View = Theology (p. 58). It’s very helpful to ponder how this might play out in various stories.
This review would be remiss if it did not underscore Wiarda’s over-arching concern—that narratives be preached and taught in life-changing ways. He asks, “How strong should our expectation be that exegesis will produce spiritual results?” (his emphasis; p. 202). In considering John 15:26-27 he concludes, “… the two-testimony pattern revealed here invites us to affirm both historical exegesis and life-generating appropriation of Scripture” (his emphasis; p. 209). He carefully and rightfully (in my view) locates his narrative criticism within the boundaries of traditional historical exegesis, not the more recent “reader-centered” theories of interpretation. It matters, he argues, what the authors intended to convey in their writings. Readers, even in their analyses of stories, are not free to determine the meaning of texts.
If I have any criticism of this well-conceived study, it is a minor one. It might have profited from a bit more editing. I felt that the book meandered in some sections and was difficult to follow. Though I quickly found my way again, it was a bit distracting. But this book was a pleasure to read. It puts into readers’ hands a very useful and practical tool for getting much more out of the Bible’s stories. That implies, among other things, appreciating how stories actually work (in contrast to the tendency of some simply to find “lessons” or use the stories as illustrations), as well as understanding how we can learn and grow by studying the biblical narratives in a more careful way.
William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament