Preaching NT Narrative (simple plot structure)

The idea of plot may bring back memories of slogging through literature assignments from school days gone by. However, understanding the plot can be the preacher’s best friend. Simply stated, plot is the arrangement of “events”[1] or “incidents.”[2] Additionally, Greidanus explains that “narrative consists of the arrangement and interrelationship of the narrated events” (emphasis mine).[3] Therefore, plot is different from the setting in that plot reveals the interconnectedness of the various scenes. Mastering the plot of a narrative will help to build anticipation, suspense, and an appreciation for the unified message of Scripture.

The goal of the plot is to move the story to a place of resolution. Plot accomplishes denouement by pulling together the various scenes into a unified message. A plot can be simple or complex depending on the amount of excursions the text takes before it reaches a conclusion. Understanding the plot structure does not have to be difficult, but it is important. Stories move forward; therefore, the preacher must be able to build anticipation for what happens next. E. M. Forster noted that a narrative “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.”[4]

The key to understanding plot is recognizing the various features that form the narrative. This is accomplished by locating the beginning, middle, and conclusion of the narrative. Simple plots are the most common in NT narrative.

Following Jeffrey Arthurs[5], we can illustrate simple plot structure in the narrative of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1–35.

  1. Background (15:1)
  2. Conflict (15:2–5)
  3. Rising Action (15:6–12)
  4. Climax (15:13–21)
  5. Resolution (15:22–35)

Probably the most important aspect of charting the plot of a narrative is showing unity. Some believe plot is intended to expose a unity of character or action,[6] but I prefer an emphasis on unity of meaning or message. Characters and actions can be uneven throughout a story, but the message is what remains constant. Plotting the structure of the narrative shows how the authorial intent of the message is developed and packaged through the story by the author. After marking off the scenes of a narrative, the preacher can begin to take note of how the plot structure brings together the “inner dynamics”[7] of the larger story. The plot reveals and moves the action to its intended conclusion. Understanding plot can also help build anticipation in preaching because it reveals the location of pivotal developments in the story. Practically, strengthening this area of our preaching will help familiar narratives come alive to our hearers. Davis is right:

Biblical narrative is laced with ‘shockers,’ whether major or minor. Sometimes we may be so familiar with the flow of a biblical story that we fail to be surprised when we should. We need to cultivate a ‘first-time-reader’ frame of mind. Usually biblical surprises prove instructive.[8]

[1] Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 62.

[2] Aristotle, Poetics, 6.8.

[3] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text: Interpreting and Preaching Biblical Literature (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 203.

[4] E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), 35 quoted in Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 63.

[5] Jeffrey D. Arthurs, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives,” in Preaching the Old Testament, ed. Scott M. Gibson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 76.

[6] Ryken, 67.

[7] Ibid., 65.

[8] Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 19.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Paul,

    You quoted Ryken’s book a bunch. Is it worth reading?

    • I quoted from him some in one particular chapter and then pretty much left him in the dust. He is very good at giving interpreters a lay of the land as far as genre goes. He’s not a preacher so there is almost nothing of what I would consider practical import but he is very good at exposing the literary dimensions of the English text. If one is wanting to study Hebrew poetry, for example, they will need specialized texts. Ryken and everyone else when they talk about narrative almost always stays completely away from NT narrative. This is why I pursued what I did. No one, and I mean no one is writing about preaching NT narrative. It’s a black hole of research.

      The best stuff on preaching narrative is all OT (Kaiser, Block, Pratt, and Davis).

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