Do Paul’s Letters Have a Narrative Substructure? A Review of “Narrative Dynamics in Paul”

narrative dynamics in paulIn 1980, J.C. Beker declared in Paul the Apostle that, “Paul is a man of the proposition, the argument and the dialogue, not a man of the parable or story” (p.352). At the time, he was far from the only one who took that as an assumed position. A few short years after those words were written, though, the winds of change began to blow.

Over the last few decades, significant parts of Pauline scholarship have drawn enthusiastically from the field of literary theory, resulting in an increased amount of attention being given to the evocative ways in which Paul’s language engages with and alludes to earlier biblical narratives, among other things. 

Narrative Elements in Paul

In the introduction of Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment, Bruce Longenecker (the volume’s editor) points to Richard B. Hays as the most important pioneer of the narrative approach (p.5). In his influential 1983 work, The Faith of Jesus Christ, Hays explored the “narrative substructure” of Galatians 3:1-4:11. According to Longenecker, Hays’ work, by centering on narrative elements and “the story of Jesus as a generating feature of Paul’s theology… put the issue of narrative contours explicitly on the agenda of Pauline study” (p.6). What does the term “narrative substructure” mean? Longenecker explains:

For Hays, a narrative substructure is not ‘behind’ the text, detachable from it, but ‘beneath’ the text, undergirding it, supporting it, animating it, and giving it coherence, while also constraining its discursive options. (p.6)

A couple of years after Hays’ book came out, N.T. Wright released The New Testament and the People of God, the first volume of his mammoth-sized series “Christian Origins and the Question of God.” In it, he similarly highlighted the importance of narrative elements in shaping how people think about God and the world. Commenting on this, Longenecker observes that, “For Wright, as for others, narrative contours in the Pauline cognitive landscape are not simply the product of deeper theological processes but are themselves generative of theological articulations” (p.9). So what is the main proposal of the narrative approach? Here is one summary:

The discourse of Paul’s letters, it is claimed, is best understood as the product of an underlying narrative bedrock… Paul’s epistolary discourse is like a membrane that is tightly stretched over a narrative framework, revealing many narrative contours from beneath. His [Paul’s] letters do not simply offer independent snippets of ‘truth’ or isolated gems of logic, but are discursive exercises that explicate a narrative about God’s saving involvement in the world. (pp.3-4)

One of the reasons that many interpreters find this approach appealing is that it offers the possibility of better understanding the inner coherence of Paul’s theological reasoning. At the same time, though, it also suffers from a perceived lack of methodological precision. It has become apparent that not everybody understands or uses the terms “narrative” and “story” in quite the same way. For instance, N.T. Wright “prefers to speak largely of a single story operative in Paul’s thinking: the ‘story of God, Israel and the world as now compressed into the story of Jesus’,” while James D.G. Dunn takes this single overarching story and breaks it down into a slightly different set of distinguishable stories: (1) God and creation, (2) Israel, (3) Jesus, (4) Paul, and (5) predecessors and inheritors (pp.12-13).

The essays in Narrative Dynamics in Paul strive to bring this movement some clarification and extended reflection. Near the end of the introductory chapter, Longenecker sets out one of the main questions being addressed, “Are such [narrative] proposals simply faddish, or might they represent a substantive contribution to the task of interpreting, understanding, and appreciating Paul?” (p.16).  After deciding to use Dunn’s five-fold model of Pauline narrative(s), the shape of the project was determined:

[A] lineup of twelve contributors was arranged. Of them, five were asked to write initial articles on one of the five main stories… These five contributions were then passed to five further contributors, each of whom was asked to critique one of the initial articles… These ten contributions were circulated to each participant a month prior to an overnight consultation involving all participants, joined by Tom Wright. (p.15)

Those who contributed essays to Narrative Dynamics in Paul weren’t selected because of their affection (or disdain) for narrative readings of the Apostle. In fact, “No attempt was made to ensure that a balanced consensus would emerge” (p11). Each writer was asked to assess the presence and significance of narrative elements in both Romans and Galatians. It would sadly take too much time to work through each of the papers in Narrative Dynamics in Paul, as worthwhile as that truly would be. Therefore, I will instead simply bring up a few of the most interesting questions and observations that I came across while reading the essays.

In Edward Adams’ section on the story of “God and creation” in Romans and Galatians, he makes use of structuralist theorist A.J. Griemas’ approach to narrative analysis (p.45). In his response essay, R. Barry Matlock notes that while it may have made good sense to use this narrative approach in the 1980s when structuralism was more prominent, it’s a less obvious choice now that serious critiques of structuralism have been made (p.48). Matlock’s comments demonstrate a good lesson: those researching the narrative ingredients of Pauline theology should resist hanging on too tightly to any specific school of narrative theory. He also brings up a good question for those who favor seeing narrative dynamics as being primarily “beneath” the text. He asks:

When is Paul’s silence silence, and when is it the calm water concealing a submerged narrative? You could say that in Galatians Paul simply chooses not to tell part of the story. But how different would Galatians look if Paul just didn’t have a Grand Story? (p.51)

I think that those, like myself, who favor the narrative approach to Paul can only strengthen their case by using questions like these to sharpen their arguments. In Morna D. Hooker’s thoughtful response to Bruce Longenecker’s piece on the stories of Israel in Galatians and Romans, she expresses some reluctance about how the substories of Paul are treated somewhat separately in the book’s essays:

The “grand Story” has thus been put under the microscope and pulled apart. I am puzzled by this, for in Paul’s theology the individual substories make sense only in relation to the others… It would seem, then, that there are dangers in concentrating on one episode in the “grand Story”, since that can easily distort our understanding of the whole. (pp.86-87)


Finally, I’d like to explore some of the points brought up by Dunn in his closing essay. He mentions that it’s worth considering the different locations at which the narrative dynamics of Paul can potentially function. It’s possible for them to be found within the text, “read off the page, perhaps with some slight assemblage here and there” (p.219). Alternatively, the narrative could be behind the text, similar to the “narrative substructure” idea advocated by Hays. Lastly, it could also be in front of the text, something more like a heuristic device that helps readers interpret Paul without necessarily claiming that the Apostle himself had such a dynamic in mind.

I tend see Paul’s narrative elements as occurring mostly behind/underneath the text, but I also think it’s important to remain open to the possibility that the narrative can function at multiple layers, sometimes maybe even at the same time (p.219). It’s also worth thinking about whether Paul had one “grand Story” in mind, or if it’s more fair to characterize them as multiple narratives. Given the recent work done by some on the work of oral tradition and storytelling, the degree to which the narratives of Paul were static and defined is also worth mulling over. All of these are were very stimulating questions for this reader. The ambitious and highly collaborative nature of this project was exciting. It seems like something happens when people get together in the same physical space and have to engage in face-to-face dialogue that can add an extra spark to this kind of endeavor.

So, is the narrative approach to Paul a speculative waste of time or does it make genuinely valuable contributions to the way we understand Pauline theology? I think the latter. The narrative approach obviously doesn’t solve all of the problems in Pauline studies, and it does have some weaknesses. Dunn correctly suggests that, “The concept of ‘story’, its relevance and value in relation to Paul’s theology, is most effective in reference to the background stories of creation, Israel and Jesus” (p.225). Even for those who remain skeptical of the narrative approach, though, Narrative Dynamics in Paul can help them better understand why they agree or disagree with it. It’s also good demonstration of how to argue well about theology. For me, those reasons made it a very useful read.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Westminster John Knox Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 


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