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Hans Frei and the Meaning of Biblical Narrative

by William C. Placher

William C. Placher is professor of philosophy and religion at Wabash College. He spent 1994 at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


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.

Speaking of a prominent theological figure, Frei once remarked in conversation, "He has all the gifts that make a great theologian except for a central passion -- but of course that's the one thing that's indispensable." 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.

Those two ways of interpreting the Bible remain prominent. Those who set out the moral lessons of Jesus' teaching or focus on the insights provided by his parables believe that the real point of the Gospels lies in their general lessons for our lives. On the other hand, fueled by Wolfhart Pannenberg's early arguments for the historicity of Jesus' resurrection and continuing scholarly efforts to establish which of the Gospel sayings were really spoken by the historical Jesus, some Christians still tend to treat the Bible as a historical source whose value lies primarily in its historical accuracy.

Hans Frei argued that both these approaches fundamentally distort the meaning of the text. One of the Bible's most obvious characteristics is that so much of it tells stories. Now any literary critic -- or anyone with, common sense -- knows that the meaning of a realistically told story can never be reduced to a moral. The meaning of a Dickens novel is never simply the general lesson that the poor were ill-treated in 19th-century England. The particular characters and episodes of the novel are not dispensable illustrations. Similarly, to reduce to some general principle the Old Testament narratives of Israel's history or the Gospel stories of the life of Jesus misses at least part of their meaning.

On the other hand, if we try to treat these narratives primarily as the raw material for critical history, we again miss the point. To be sure, they sometimes provide that kind of historical information. But the stories themselves, in their indifference to chronology and their occasional inconsistencies, are only loosely related to questions of historical accuracy. Moreover, if we compare the fragments that a modern historian will glean as reliable against, for example, the narrative flow of the passion narratives in any of the Gospels, it is hard to deny that the historian has lost something. Aspects of character and plot development disappear in the face of the historian's questions.

The initial meaning of a realistically told story is that, within the framework of the story, certain characters did certain deeds and underwent certain experiences. When a text provides a realistic narrative, as much of the Bible does, any interpretation that bypasses this literal reading distorts the text.

Unfortunately, for the past 200 years nearly all Christian theology, Frei argued, has been engaged in such distortion. (Jewish scholars, he thought, have by and large remained more faithful to the narrative tradition.) Frei claimed not only to have identified the distortion but to have explained it: theologians have begun with contemporary human experience and tried to make connections with the biblical message. Paul Tillich defined this approach with particular clarity (and therefore in extreme form) in his "method of correlation": "systematic theology proceeds in the following way: it makes an analysis of the human situation out of which the existential questions arise, and it demonstrates that the symbols used in the Christian message are the answers to these questions. " Frei believed that those who develop theology that way, beginning with existential questions arising out of the human situation, will start reading the biblical stories as either historical raw material or timeless truths and moral lessons. Either approach loses sight of the way in which the stories function as realistic narratives.

A Christian theology that respects the meaning of the biblical narratives must begin simply by retelling those stories, without any systematic effort at apologetics, without any determined effort to begin with questions arising from our experience. The stories portray a person -- a God who acts in the history of Israel and engages in self-revelation in Jesus of Nazareth. They help us learn about that person in the way that a great novelist describes a character or that a telling anecdote captures someone's personality. They provide insights that we lose if we try to summarize the narrative in a nonnarrative form. No abstract account of God's faithfulness adequately summarizes Exodus. The Gospels surpass any abstract account of God's love.

Still, the Bible is not simply another realistic novel, and its interpreters need to attend to all its special characteristics. As Erich Auerbach, a literary critic Frei much admired, once wrote of the Bible: "Far from seeking . . . merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history. Christians who tell these stories, stories that are rich, enigmatic, sometimes puzzling and ambiguous, can find that their lives fit into the world they describe -- indeed, that our stories suddenly seem to make more sense when seen in that context.

Frei thought that Christian theology ought to be descriptive; it ought to lay out a Christian view of the world. That view will reflect the enigmas and ambiguities of the biblical texts, and it will be a view of the whole world. A Christian theologian, Frei explained, will therefore "do ethics to indicate that this narrated, narratable world is at the same time the ordinary world of our experience, and he will do ad hoc apologetics, in order to throw into relief particular features of this world by distancing them from or approximating them to other descriptions. . . . But none of these other descriptions or, for that matter, argument with them can serve as a 'predescription' for the world of Christian discourse." Letting any such "predescription" set the theological agenda leads to distorting the meaning of the biblical texts.

As I have indicated, Frei distrusted theologies that began with contemporary experience, and he was reticent in discussing his own religious life. He loved to talk, but he rarely talked about himself. When writing about him, one wants to respect that reticence. Still, a word about his life seems in order.

He was born in Germany in 1922, the son of a physician. His family was of Jewish background and had to flee after the Nazis came to power. He received part of his education in Britain before coming to this country and landing a scholarship to study textiles at North Carolina State University. A chance meeting with H. Richard Niebuhr led him to correspond with the theologian and then undertake seminary and graduate study at Yale. (It is fitting that his first major publication, the introductory chapters of the Niebuhr festschrift, Faith and Ethics, and his last completed lecture, read for him at Harvard during his final illness, both concerned the work of this teacher he so admired, even when he disagreed with him.)

After briefly serving a New Hampshire parish and then teaching at Wabash College in Indiana and the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, he returned to Yale in 1957 as a faculty member. Writing came slowly for him. He published the original version of The Identity of Jesus Christ: The Hermeneutical Bases of Dogmatic Theology in a Presbyterian adult education magazine called Crossroads in 1967, but it did not appear in book form until 1975 (Fortress), the year after he published The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth-and Nineteenth-Century Hermeneutics (Yale University Press, 1974). Eclipse traced his historical argument about the wrong turn in hermeneutics; Identity sketched what a Christology based on his principles might look like. Near the end of his life, he published a number of essays, most notably a chapter on D. F. Strauss in Nineteenth-Century Religious Thought in the West (Ninian Smart et al., Cambridge University Press, 1985) and an essay on the literal sense of Scripture in The Bible and the Narrative Tradition (edited by Frank McConnell, Oxford University Press, 1986). Plans are afoot to publish a number of lectures he was reworking at the time of his death.

For many of his students and friends, though, nothing on paper quite captures the Hans Frei we knew, and loved: the devoted teacher; the faithful friend; a man stubborn about his ideas but genuinely, sometimes unnervingly, modest about himself; prone nervously to stay up the night before a presentation to rewrite his lecture. He was the only person I have ever known who both loved gossip and totally lacked malice.

In the1950s and '60s, when Frei was developing his ideas, many of his concerns were thoroughly unfashionable. In a number of ways, his work remains out of fashion, but it is striking that at least four of his interests now seem much more in step with the times.

Half a generation or so ago, most New Testament scholars focused on the individual sayings and stories of the Gospels. Some sought the Christian kerygma, the call to faith, in individual passages. Others evaluated each brief unit as a historical document: When would this story have been told? What does it indicate about the circumstances of its telling? Does it provide evidence about the historical Jesus? Whatever questions they asked, however, not many scholars turned from particular passages to ask about the narrative sweep or pattern of a whole Gospel.

Today, however, biblical scholars increasingly analyze the plot of biblical narratives, the way the literary forms work, the patterns of climax and tension. They often find they have more to learn from, and discuss with, literary critics than with historians; indeed, the literary analysis of the Bible is becoming a minor industry.

Frei certainly did not by himself cause that shift. It has many sources, from redaction critics who started looking at each Gospel as a whole to literary scholars like Northrop Frye and Frank Kermode who have called renewed attention to the narrative shape of biblical texts. But Frei saw the point early on, and his work remains the deepest probing of the theological implications of such approaches.

In addition to anticipating new conversations between biblical scholars and literary critics, Frei's work also pointed to new conversation partners for theologians. His suspicion of systematic apologetics might at first glance make Frei seem a kind of theological isolationist, retreating from wider circles of intellectual discussion. To those who watched him at Yale with his finger in every intellectual and political pie, such a portrait is unrecognizable.

In addition to having an ongoing interest in literary criticism, he had learned from British philosophers like Gilbert Ryle ways of talking about how the narrative of actions and events defines a person's identity. His concern for the way a community sees and describes its world led to affinities with anthropologists like Clifford Geertz and sociologists like Peter Berger. Frei said on at least one occasion that among theologians he claimed to be a historian and among historians he claimed to be a theologian -- but he avoided a complete identity crisis by being consistently clear that he was not a philosopher! On an ad hoc basis, however, he was intrigued by the parallels between his own suspicion of systematic apologetics and the suspicions concerning systematic "foundations" of knowledge growing among deconstructionists and some analytic philosophers. Sometimes the most secular of scholars found that what Frei was doing, with his attention to narrative and his interest in the language that shapes a particular community, made more sense to them than the work of many theologians much more systematically concerned to address other academic disciplines. (Jeffrey Stout's recent Ethics After Babel nicely illustrates this.)

Frei's work seems timely in yet a third way. Much of the most interesting recent work in Christian ethics discusses the way narratives shape our understanding of Christian life. Ethicists as different as Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert Meilaender and James McClendon (as well as philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre) propose that ethics is not primarily a matter of making particular decisions in isolation–what Hauerwas calls "quandary ethics." Rather, we make decisions on the basis of beliefs about what sorts of virtues seem important, what sort of human life we believe to be good. To answer that kind of question, a principle or a rule is often less helpful than a story. I may get more help in deciding how to make ethical decisions as a Christian by reading Pilgrim's Progress or a biography of Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King, Jr.-- or by reading the Gospels -- than by reading an academic discussion of medical ethics. Here, too, Frei's interest in the narrative patterns that shape a Christian life now seems prophetic.

Fourth, there is Karl Barth. Frei was not simply a "Barthian" (neither was Barth!), but Barth certainly seemed to him the best exemplar of a "descriptive" theologian who eschewed systematic apologetics and simply tried to lay out a Christian view of the world with attention to its own internal logic. When Frei was writing on these matters in the 1960s, Barth seemed to many obsolete, like a man writing a great defense of Ptolemaic astronomy two generations after Copernicus. There was some interest in his Romans commentary, but the many massive volumes of his Church Dogmatics went largely unread.

Much remains unchanged. But at times, in contrast to theologians, who try systematically to draw out the "religious" implications supposedly underlying all human experience, Barth seems to be the theologian who has taken radical secularity most seriously. At least the situation has grown more ambiguous. It is possible that, in a crazy, postmodern, thoroughly secular time, Christian theologians might discover that the old man in Basel offered us more help than anyone in thinking about how to do theology. In any event, if we do make that discovery, we will find in this matter, as in many others, that Frei was there before us.

Frei was ironic by nature, and never more so than when thinking about his own "influence." He was sometimes credited with founding a "school" called "narrative theology," but he always doubted that there was such a thing -- and would be against it if there were.

He thought the narrative character of the biblical texts had some implications for how those texts ought to be interpreted. But to try to develop some general theory of the narrative shape of human experience as a foundation for Christian theology seemed to him "first to put the cart before the horse and then cut the lines and pretend the vehicle is self-propelled." In a variety of ways, those who offered to agree with him sometimes found that he wasn't sure he quite agreed with them.

Still, I do not want to overstate that ironic spirit. He had worked a long time without many people expressing much interest in his work. In the last ten years or so of his life, his work drew attention and bore fruit. Though he may have mistrusted the taste of some of that fruit, on the whole he was grateful and happy. He was excited by Alasdair MacIntyre's early and enthusiastic review of The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative and later proud and pleased about a new generation of his students beginning in the early 1970s, theologians like Charles Wood and Ronald Thiemann -- proud that they had learned from him, pleased that they were independent enough to disagree with him on occasion. He continued to value his relations with colleagues at Yale like George Lindbeck, David Kelsey, Wayne Meeks and Gene Outka, and he eagerly welcomed the 1984 publication of Lindbeck's Nature of Doctrine, with its model of a "postliberal theology, " for which Frei's work is the paradigm.

Yet no one was more conscious than Frei that he had left many questions unanswered. The Bible is not just one big story, but a complicated collection of narrative and nonnarrative material. Even with straightforward narratives, in the Bible or anywhere else, a variety of critics from feminists to deconstructionists have reminded us that the meaning of a text can lie as much in what it does not say as in what it says. Frei knew that and, with a modesty as frustrating as it was admirable, was likely to admit that he did not himself know how to solve the problems even as he remained convinced that he had glimpsed an insight that was somehow true.

Beyond even such questions, a more fundamental issue remains. Frei's theology is finally church theology: it first of all addresses the Christian community and invites that community to let the biblical narratives shape its vision of the world. To what extent parts of that community will respond to such invitations may be the most important unanswered question regarding Frei's work.

"The most fateful issue for Christian self-description," Frei wrote in the McConnell volume, "is that of regaining its autonomous vocation as a religion, after its defeat in its secondary vocation of providing ideological coherence, foundation, and stability to Western culture." We no longer live in what Kierkegaard called Christendom. But old habits die hard, and Christian theologians had fallen into the habit of trying to delineate the religious dimension of our general culture. Some seem not to notice that our culture, by and large, isn't much interested. Some grow angry at the lack of interest. Some try all the more desperately to make the appropriate connections.

In a post-Christian age, however, Christianity might instead try to regain "its autonomous vocation as a religion." We Christians still have stories to tell -- distinctive stories. Stories about how God worked in the life of Israel, and God's self-revelation in the life of Jesus Christ. Stories that define a community different from the world around us because of the way these stories shape our self-understanding, a community that may sometimes be wildly radical politically and on other issues seem conservative, but will not let anyone else's vision set its agenda. Hans Frei called us to be tellers of such tales.

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