Preaching NT Narrative (Narration)

The narrator is the voice of the writer. He informs the reader of specific motives, hidden thoughts, undisclosed actions, private conversations, and God’s perspective. The narrator reveals what we would otherwise never see or hear. Narration is like stitching on a quilt; it binds together the various scenes, plot structure, and characters. Noting the importance of the narrator’s role, Davis exhorts, “We want, when reading narrative, to get into the narrator’s own head, to know how he looks upon the matters he describes, or – what is the same for me, how God looks upon those matters.”[1]

The narrator is key because he assists the reader in rightly interpreting the meaning of the events in the story. In one sense, the narrator is omniscient because he knows what is happening behind the scenes.[2] Like the director of a movie scene, he is in charge of providing the right angle for the audience to understand the message. If we conclude something that was never intended by the author-narrator, we run the risk of missing the point of the passage. Block makes a similar yet applicable point in regards to OT narrative. He writes, “Biblical narrators were concerned not only to describe historical events, but also to interpret them. Indeed, it is in the author’s interpretation that we find the permanent message.”[3]

Recognizing various uses of narration in NT narrative can be a great help to the preacher. Although there may be a sense of reticence on the part of the narrator, it is still possible for the preacher to understand the narrator’s perspective.[4] There are four commonly recognized forms of narration within a story.[5] Noting the forms of narration will move the interpreter ever closer to the authorial intent of the story.

The first form of narration is reporting narration.[6] The narrator simply states or reports what happened either in the scene or in the events leading up to the scene. This form of narration is useful in understanding scene changes or bridging gaps in time. Reporting narration will typically be signified by words and phrases which indicate changes of time or place or introduce a didactic portion of Scripture. For example, Matthew uses narration to set the scene for the sermonic portions of his gospel account (Matt 5:1–2; 10:1–5; 13:1–3; 18:1–2; 24:1–3). The following are a few other examples of reporting narration:

Þ   “At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus” (Matt 14:1).

Þ   “When the messengers of John had left” (Luke 7:24)

Þ   “Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another” (Luke 8:1).

Þ   “After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth” (Acts 18:1).

A second form of narration is dramatic narration. Ryken notes that “writers dramatize a scene as though it were in a play, quoting the speeches or dialogue of characters and noting the surrounding context.”[7] Whereas reporting narration is observed in short phrases and words, dramatic narration is played out over a larger scene. One of the clearest examples of dramatic narration is the account of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1–35). In this example, Luke is the narrator-author. The episode is an amazing debate over a crucial theological issue that risked dividing the early church and confusing the gospel. Luke uses various speeches, a letter, and individual conversations to dramatically recount this important scene. This form of narration will typically be more oriented toward characters and their speeches rather than elements of time.

[NOTE: We’ll discuss two more forms of narration in the next post]

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 12.

[2] Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text, 206.

[3] Daniel I. Block, “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” 413.

[4] This “reticence” on the part of the narrator is not a misguided caginess but a literary technique used to highlight various characters or points in a story. “The practical aspect of all this to be kept in mind as one reads is that the reticence of the biblical narrator, his general refusal to comment on or explain what he reports, is purposefully selective,” [Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 184].

[5] See Leland Ryken, Words of Delight, 43-45; John Licht, Storytelling in the Bible (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1978), 24-50; Shimon Bar-Efrat, “Literary Modes and Methods in the Biblical Narrative in View of 2 Samuel 10-20 and 1 Kings 1-2,” Immanuel 8 (1978), 19-31; Shimon Bar-Efrat, “Some Observations on the Analysis of Structure in Biblical Narrative,” VT 30 (1980), 154-73. There are also more elaborate discussions of narration such as a listing of fourteen “varieties of the narrator’s own discourse” in Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1985), 120-21.

[6] “direct narrative” in Ryken, 43.

[7] Ibid.

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