Patrick Schreiner

Hans Frei and the Meaning of Biblical Narrative

In Theology on 10/23/2011 at 9:09 PM

Dr. Pennington handed out a great summary of Hans Frei’s influence and major contribution written by William Placher. I encourage you to read the entire article. Here is a highlight:

Hans Frei, who died last September at the age of 66 after a very brief illness, was never famous outside the guild of theologians. He was a perfectionist who wrote slowly and published reluctantly. In over 30 years of teaching at Yale he devoted himself unstintingly to his students, often at the expense of his own research. And what he wrote was never faddish and often technical. Yet future historians just may consider him the most important American theologian of his generation.

Frei certainly never thought of himself as a “great theologian, ” but he did have a central passion, a central idea. That idea emerged through long study, in the 1950s and ’60s, of l8th- and 19th-century ways of interpreting the Bible. He grew convinced that nearly the whole of modern Christian theology, from the radical to the fundamentalist, had taken a wrong turn.

For many centuries before the modern age, most Christian theologians had read the Bible primarily as a kind of realistic narrative. It told the overarching story of the world, from creation to last judgment. Moreover, the particular coherence of this story made “figural” interpretation possible: some events in the biblical stories, as well as some nonbiblical events, prefigured or reflected the central biblical events. Indeed, Christians made sense of their own lives by locating their stories within the context of that larger story.

But somewhere around the 18th century, people started reading the Bible differently. Their own daily experience seemed to define for them what was “real, ” and so they consciously tried to understand the meaning of the Bible by locating it in their world.

They did that in — to overgeneralize — two ways. They saw the meaning of the biblical narratives either in the eternal truths about God and human nature that the stories conveyed or in their reference to historical events. The Bible thus fit into the world of our experience either as a set of general lessons applicable to that world or as an extension of that world developed by means of critical history.

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  1. Interesting discussion and I like forward to reading the whole article by Placher. I offer a couple of points by quoting Vanhoozer and Carson on the work of Hans Frei. Perhaps this will spark further thought and reflection and especially in view of Frei’s proposal of ‘history-like narratives’.
    “Frei’s own view is that the Gospel narratives, when interpreted literally, identify Jesus in his relation to God, as the risen Christ. How does this literal identification relate to the historical Jesus (e.g., to the literal Jesus of biblical criticism)? Frei is hard pressed to answer, for the relation of Jesus to God is not part of the domain of ‘historical facts.’ Frei affirms the Gospels as ‘literally’ true of Jesus, but he is wary of explaining ‘literally true’ in terms of some extra-textual framework, such as critically reconstructed history. For Frei, the literal sense of the Bible, like its subject matter, is something sui generis. While insisting on a determinate literal sense of the Gospels, Frei is content to leave their reference somewhat indeterminate. The point is that there is no other way to describe the referent apart from the text. The Gospels are testimonies, not sources or resources for historical reconstruction. In terms I will explain more fully below, we may say that we have the reality of Jesus only under a narrative description.” (Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in this Text?, 308-309)
    “To some extent the later works of Childs depend on H. Frei (1974), who argues that the triumph of rationalism in the historical-critical method during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries abandoned reading the narratives of the Bible as narratives. These rationalists discounted the supernatural, tried incessantly to make the meaning of the text turn on what happened . . . which was then read back into the text in circular fashion and found there. Reacting against this, conservatives stressed the historicity of the biblical accounts, thus making meaning depend on the historicity while failing to return to a narrative conception of meaning.
    To some extent this analysis is astute. But what it fails to address directly is the relationship between ostensibly historical narrative and the historicity of the ostensible events. If while insisting on the primacy of a narrative conception of meaning one perpetually fails to address that question, one is inviting a faith based on a story line, regardless of the relationship (if any) between the story line and extratextual reality. Neither Judaism nor Christianity is Buddhism: we are not invited to an atemporal system of thought whose authority turns on the credibility and aesthetics of an abstract philosophical system. We are instead invited to the personal-transcendent Creator-God who deigns to address his rebellious imagebearers in the ‘scandal of [historical] particularity.’ ‘Were the biblical narratives written or read as fiction, then God would turn from the lord of history into a creature of the imagination with the most disastrous results. . . . Hence the Bible’s determination to sanctify and compel literal belief in the past’ (Sternberg, 32). One way of reading Childs is to see that the leap of faith that Frei seems to be advocating at the level of individual narratives, Childs seems ready to take at the level of the entire canon.” (DA Carson, “NT Theology,” in Dictionary of the Latter NT & Its Development, p. 807.)

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