Kornelis Heiko Miskotte about Narrative Theology in his „When the Gods are Silent“: „In our conviction the Bible is essentially a narrative, a story, which we must pass on by retelling it. And in this way it can come about that the story may ‚happen’—so to speak, in an ‚unbloody repetition’— to those who listen to us. Look!—this is the way God dealt with men back there; but because it is he, will he not also deal with you in the same way?“

It was Kornelis Heiko Miskotte, who first introduced the relevance of a narrative theology in his book „When the Gods are Silent“:

The Narrative

By Kornelis Heiko Miskotte

Israel thought of the creation as being the first act of holy history.He who lives in it must tell about it. He must pass over from the naïveté of merely observing to the still deeper childlikeness of telling a story. For later generations than ours it will be almost incomprehensible that academic scholarship was capable of reducing the sacral narrative (not to speak of the preaching of the narrative and to say nothing of the Christian preaching of the narrative) to little stories which mean nothing whatsoever to us in our existence, which affect us less than the Greek or Teutonic myths and contain less wisdom than the Grimms‘ fairy tales. And even stranger will it be to those of a later generation (in so far as they again become conscious of their task as interpreters and witnesses) that the preachers allowed themselves to be cowed by this attitude. But already we are in the midst of a general awakening from this hypnosis and lethargy, which was a consequence of the habit of reducing the word-structure to its elements and tracing these back to their origin. We have now discovered that the narrative as such is teaching and that the teaching comes anothen (‚from above‘) from the order of divine truth. We are gradually being freed from the delusion, inherited from the nineteenth century, that (a) the narrative is ‚only [200] a story‘ and (b) that the teaching can be summed up in a few main ideas. It has dawned upon us that both orthodoxy and liberalism have strangulated the dimension of the Word in order to understand the words pseudohistorically, pseudologically, and pseudoethically. The ‚historical,‘ measured by the standard of the Word, does not get at the history (Geschichte); the ‚logical,‘ measured by the standard of the Word, does not extend to the truth; the ‚ethical,‘ measured by the standard of the Word, remains beneath the level of the Commandment; and the ‚religious‘ obscures the Word, as what has been said about ‚Being in act‘ has demonstrated to us. It is the acts of God that count. They need to be narrated.

This other dimension is indicated by the form of the narrative. We are thrown off the track when we interpret the narrative as a myth which has formed around a ‚historical‘ kernel, the livery of a universal truth, an illustration of an admonition. The event, the truth, the Commandment are not to be enucleated from the time process in such a way that we recover rational or superrational data while the narra­tives remain as empty shells. The time pattern of the narrative always asserts itself in the quality and direction of the divine action and Commandment. We all have in our blood the religious notion of an eternal content in an accidental form; and it also seems to relieve us of many intellectual difficulties and emotional impediments. Neverthe­less, such a reduction from the concrete to the abstract, from the accidental to the general, dare not be applied here. How are the Name and the acts of God related to each other (we have met this question before)? And how can the concrete be an enduring element of the true reality that surrounds us, that ‚happens‘ to us? And how can man preserve and interpret the encounter with these acts of God? Bergson’s well-known distinction between memoire and souvenir, between the image of past facts consciously and intentionally recalled to consciousness and the spontaneous encounter with the atmosphere, the purport, indeed, the ‚essence‘ of past events, which cannot be achieved by any exertion of effort, can probably be helpful to us here. Buber’s concept of a ‚poetizing memory‘ certainly contains an important indication. But in the last analysis there are no ‚analogies‘ which would be adequate [201] to make clear what happens when God’s action becomes manifest as ma‘aseh, as his acting in history, when in all history he distinguishes himself from history through what he does, when he is mighty in his ‚virtues,‘ in his love, when he moves the world and thereby and therein and beyond this is himself, when his Name rises high like the face of the sun—which shines for all men—and when he makes his dwelling place with the lowly.

When we preach from the Old Testament we must speak of the acts of the Lord. From the very beginning the world was really created as the realm of a real covenant. The quickening ruach descended upon the places which he had separated, upon the men whom he had chosen. Should we ever forget what lies in the phrase ‚acts of the Lord,‘ we shall completely forget how to ‚preach from the Old Testament‘; for there can be no preaching from the Old Testament if we abandon the sphere of the story of God. It is true, of course, that preaching cannot be reduced merely to the telling of how things were, but it is certainly a telling of how things were in such a way that the hearer can under­stand how things are, how things stand now between God and man in ‚ongoing history.‘ Hence, there is already something dubious about speaking of the righteousness, the mercifulness of God; for actually the ‚attributes‘ of God are really attributes of his action. He causes to be told to us from mouth to mouth and from generation to generation what he has done (to this extent it is ‚past‘) and what he has done (to this extent it is present). In both cases, however, the act-event is bound up with the narrative, because YHWH precedes us and is still ahead of us. This statement is inalienable; it rules out the kind of false subject­ivism which would interpose an anthropology before the acts (which is wrong even philosophically), as is done in the following: ‚The being of things depends upon our attitude toward them; things give themselves to us in the way in which we comport ourselves toward them. This also applies with respect to God. God gives himself to us according to our attitude toward him. The way in which we believe we know him is the way in which he is toward us, the way in which we too have him.‘[1] No! Fortunately, honestly, in conformity with the [202] narrative of his deeds, this is simply ruled out by the Word. And better things are provided for us. Never can our attitude be more than a response; anything that would be more would be less. Response is the only appropriate thing, for the narrative becomes an address which speaks to us here and now.

What we say about God, whatever of praise and prayer is laid upon our lips, is an answer to his glorious and fearful acts. Therefore the preacher is charged with the task of understanding and retelling the story. If there is any chance of getting away from the paltry talk, the dogmatic assertion, and the moral tyrannizing in preaching, it lies in the endeavour to discharge this task with a new reverence and joy. Even those on the fringes of the church will be served by this; and in a world of things, of overconscious reportage and talk, it will be felt as a blessing if the unconscious, the imagination is touched and awakened. This happens through the naming of real things (as opposed to empty­ing them of content)—the thing that happens, for example, in terse, lapidary, moving poetry. But along with the moving power of poetry there goes a kind of personal address, which modern man hardly knows except in the form of propaganda. This address speaks to him, appeals to his freedom, not to his needs and wants, and he begins to breathe again, for he is hearing that he is really a part of the story. But the narrator and witness is glad that he simply has the privilege of telling it without guile and without any other motive.

If we take up the task in this way, we shall discover that we must be clothed with a new childlikeness. With us Western intellectuals this cannot happen except by way of reflection. But, thank God, it is not true that it is impossible to become more childlike through reflection and thinking things through to the end; the child, the artist, the people live in a direct, plastic, imaginative comprehension of life as having promise, in an unsophisticated acceptance of the wonders in which existence moves. Just as Christ was not a ’smasher‘ of things (Kaputtmacher), as Blumhardt said, so theology dare not carry to extremes the Western tendency to murder the child in us.

Telling the Story

The storyteller—and the preacher is also a storyteller, one might even say, essentially a storyteller—is not concerned to say how things [203] ‚actually were,‘ but rather how they actually took place. For the philosopher this popular conception resolves itself into something else, but this ’something else‘ is in the last analysis his own existence, that is, his own spontaneously conceived attitude toward reality; indeed, one can say that this ’something else‘ is his own self-realization in the un-[204]moving timelessness of his mind. He is afraid of the verbum scriptum, the written Word, and the ecclesia visibilia, the visible church, because they are a threat to the ‚pure presence and immediacy of experience.‘ So here we stand in the pulpit, facing people who come from a life which is more and more determined by the concrete and material, and as likely as not our heads are full of terms and concepts which come from an intellectual life that is increasingly split by controversy. The people and the concepts do not meet. Only a few have the gift of giving blood and life to abstract ideas; but we shall not escape the danger by—even formally—striking the attitude that now one is going to talk about God with real power and liveliness, that is, present a really convincing argument.

In our conviction the Bible is essentially a narrative, a story, which we must pass on by retelling it. And in this way it can come about that the story may ‚happen’—so to speak, in an ‚unbloody repetition’— to those who listen to us. Look!—this is the way God dealt with men back there; but because it is he, will he not also deal with you in the same way ? Yes, as soon as you discover who this He is, your telling of the story will begin to run; if you are united with that other life outside and beyond your own, then your own drama of salvation will begin to unfold and show that it is already moving toward its solution—how, you yourself do not know.

To tell a story well means to tell it in such a way that the centre, the [205] beginning, and the end of all things becomes visible; every human life and human endeavour is related to Christ, to this particular Presence of God—and related to him, they are related to the beginning and the end. If among us men no story is worth the trouble of telling if it does not have love at its centre, from which we see at the beginning the mystery of birth and at the end the mystery of death, bleeding, shining, threatening on the horizon, then far less is the Bible story told bibli­cally if the Centre, the Beginning, the End do not clearly appear as parts of the one Presence. For the Presence is act, actus purus, which is directed to the future; and we go to church or the church school or to a religious drama to listen to the telling of it, and we keep on going until it speaks to our own life here and now, and again and again—as the story of how life itself, and therefore our life, is judged and saved. ‚God is present, and if he acts through messengers, they are not mere letter carriers who bring news of something that happened the day before yesterday and may perhaps already have been rendered obsolete by events; rather God is acting and speaking directly through them in this moment of their lives.‘[2]

Thereon depends the power of aletheia; for truth is not located any­where, truth happens, it comes to us, involves us in its process. Truth in its Old Testament meaning is neither a pure object of ‚knowledge‘ nor a pure encounter with ‚being‘; truth is the act of God through which unfathomable human existence is drawn into the history which is at once his history and ours. Our past is his, his future is ours. His hand was in our past, our future is participation in his ultimate and penultimate acts.

Thence comes the rich colour of Sunday, of the way to church, of the light that lightens our ‚going up,‘ and the eager expectation that says: This is the day of salvation, of understanding, of coming back to the truth. [206]

Warum ist Wahrheit fern und weit,
Birgt sich hinab in tiefste Grunde?
Niemand versteht zur rechten Zeit!
Wenn man zur rechten Zeit verstünde,
So wäre Wahrheit nah und breit
Und wäre lieblich und gelinde.

(Why is truth so far away,
hiding itself in the deepest depths?
Nobody understands at the right time!
If we understood at the right time,
then truth would be near
and kind and gentle).[3]

At the right time! Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. No religion can be transmitted by narration; but faith lives, today as always, by the telling of that which the Lord did then and in such and such a way on earth. And he himself, he who now speaks to me, is with us on earth. His Name is in the sanctuary, and it is glorious above the whole world.

The telling carries the truth on. Even the Law, even the revelation that came there and then, is a factor in the story of God which is now unfolding. ‚Narrative philosophy‘ therefore often bewilders the systematician; sometimes the storyteller seems to him to be an artist, an actor, a lively juggler, an enthusiast, sometimes a one-sided bigot, then again a refined bungler, often a muddlehead and alarmist. All this is inaccessible to dogmatics, unless it is itself transposed into a way of thinking which is open to the acts of God, to the open arena of his benefactions and judgments. It then becomes apparent that right here is where objectivity and order prevail, the objectivity and order which lie in the course of the divine narrative itself.

We may believe that narrative preaching remains the most appro­priate vehicle for the witnessing of the Name in our day. Much that generally annoys the systematician remains indispensable if one is to do even partial justice to the suprareligious character of preaching. So again and again it depends—humanly, instrumentally speaking—on the depth, the contours, the perspective, the transparency which are caught and evoked by the so much despised ‚artist.‘ [207]

I am thinking of the great example of the eminently graphic sermons of John Donne (preached between 1619 and 1629). In Holland, H. W. Creutzberg and H. J. de Groot in an earlier generation, and A. van Selms and M. A. Beek in more recent times have given us magnificent, refreshing examples of what ‚ordinary‘ storytelling can do—though I must admit that such storytelling if it is to remain pure, as it does in the case of the men mentioned above, (quite properly) presupposes some unspoken theological insights, which are often sadly lacking in popular tellers of the Bible story.

Moreover, doctrine is already inherent in the form of the Biblical narrative itself. This becomes evident in the point of the story, the key words, the trend of the events, the accents and idioms, and above all in a ‚dialogical element which stretches the narrative upon a frame­work of question and answer, dictum and counterdictum, statement and added statement.‘[4]

It requires no further demonstration that what has been said applies especially to the preaching of and instruction from the Old Testament. It would require too much space at this point to show that narration can in itself be pure exegesis in the full sense and thus can help us to perceive that we are being introduced into the uninterpreted world of living, ongoing time.

Source: Kornelis Heiko Miskotte, When the Gods are Silent, New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1967, pp. 199-207.


[1] Heinz Zahrnt, Es begann mit Jesus van Nazareth (1960), p. 160.
[2] Franz Rosenzweig, ‚Die Schrift und das Wort,‘ p. 136.
[3] Goethe, West-Östlicher Divan, Hikmet Nameh (Buch der Sprüche).
[4] Franz Rosenzweig, ‚Das Formgeheimnis der biblischen Erzählungen’, Kleinere Schriften (1937), p. 139.

Here the text as pdf.

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