Narrative Dynamics in Paul – A Critical Assessment [Review]

Siu Fung Wu

Narrative Dynamics in Paul – A Critical Assessment

(Bruce W. Longenecker, ed.) A Book Review


Siu Fung Wu B.Sc. (Hons) M.Sc. (Leeds) B.A. M.Phil. (Bristol)

Siu Fung Wu is director of JustCHARIS Ministries, a speaking, teaching and writing ministry. Siu Fung has over ten years of commercial working experience, and was Regional Pastor and founder of Intercultural Ministry at Richmond AOG, Victoria. Formerly a student of Harvest Bible College, Siu Fung has taught at both Harvest and Tabor College in Missions and New Testament Theology. Siu Fung studied under Rev Dr John Nolland and holds an M.Phil. in New Testament studies from University of Bristol, UK. Currently he is preparing for doctoral studies in biblical theology.


Perhaps one of the most fascinating developments in Pauline studies in the last two decades is the narrative analysis on the apostle’s theology. Since a significant part of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish literature consists of narratives, one wonders whether Paul’s writings are significantly influenced by – and consist of – ‘stories’.

However, despite several significant works (such as those of Richard Hays and N. T. Wright) there has been no consensus on the degree of importance or the role of narrative in Paul. In Narrative Dynamics in Paul a group of twelve first-rate British scholars attempt to move the debate forward in search for greater clarity on the matter.

Structure and scope

Five of the scholars discuss five different ‘stories’ in Paul, namely, the stories of God and creation, Israel, Jesus, Paul, and ‘predecessors and inheritors’ (that is, stories of those who believed before Paul and those who have come to faith since). Five other contributors respond to their findings respectively. Two remaining scholars conclude the book with their overall assessment of the project. In order to confine the discussion to manageable size, only Romans and Galatians are included in the discussion.

The five ‘stories’ examined and debated

Edward Adams aptly identifies in Paul a coherent story of God and creation that contains a series of events, with characters, a setting and trajectory (p.33). This story, Adams maintains, helps to guide Paul’s argument, and sheds significant light on the ‘righteousness of God’. R. Barry Matlock generally agrees with Adams, but raises several questions on the narrative approach in general, especially on the works of Richard Hays and N. T. Wright.

Bruce Longenecker’s essay is perhaps the most detailed and meticulous. He notes an ‘organic linearity’ in Romans, where Gentile Christians are included in the unfolding story of Israel. However, Paul seems to deliberately avoid any notion of ‘organic linearity’ in Galatians. Longenecker concludes that the unstable character of Paul’s use of the Israelite story demonstrates that such narrative scheme provides no major insight into Paul’s theologising. Morna Hooker, however, disagrees with Longenecker, and skilfully articulates a superb counter argument to show that a form of ‘organic linearity’ does exist in Galatians. Hooker rightly contends that the role of narrative should not be ignored in Paul.

Douglas Campbell identifies in Paul the story of Jesus in his death and resurrection, with the Father, the Son and the Spirit being the main actors. To Campbell, narrative analysis is essential for a good understanding of Pauline theology. Graham Stanton says that he has indeed learned from Campbell’s essay, but raises many issues which require further discussion in the future.

In his lucid article, John Barclay finds that Paul’s life story was reconstructed and propelled by God’s grace expressed in Christ. And the apostle’s life was a microcosm of the story of his churches. The significance of narrative in Paul is found in the fact that his story was profoundly shaped by the story of God’s grace. David Horrell finds Barclay underestimating the continuity of God’s salvation plan in history, but praises his convincing argument on how Paul’s sense of self was moulded by the story of Christ.

By examining the stories of "predecessors and inheritors", Andrew Lincoln concludes that Romans and Galatians "are not a form of narrative, although they refer to narrative worlds" (p. 203). While I. Howard Marshall disagrees with Lincoln on several points, he too hesitates to say that narrative plays a vital role in Paul’s theology.

In assessing the overall project James Dunn and Francis Watson critique the various papers with their well-informed and distinct scholarship. Dunn agrees that narrative analysis provides valuable insight but suggests that its usefulness is only as good as its limited competency. Watson concludes that Paul’s gospel is essentially non-narrative, but he draws his material from Scriptural narratives.

Values and limitations

With such fine scholars as contributors, not surprisingly almost every conceivable relevant issue has been covered and competently debated in the book. The following only outlines what the limited scope of the project might have, to some extent, restricted its success.

First, probably because of space restriction, some contributors have not defined clearly what ‘story’ is in Paul. For instance, Old Testament narratives often contain profound theological messages. Does it meant that by ‘story’ we really mean the ‘message’ behind the narrative? Second, as Dunn hinted, narrative analysis in Paul cannot be complete if only two epistles are examined. It would not be hard to find a ‘story’ in a ‘personal’ letter like 2 Corinthians. Third, perhaps more room should be given to examine how the five ‘stories’ interact within the Pauline corpus, which in turn should shed more light on Paul’s narrative thought world.

Despite its limitations, the book has certainly advanced the debate, with most contributors acknowledging the importance of recognising narrative dynamics in Paul. No doubt it is an invaluable resource for Pauline students.

Book information

Narrative Dynamics in Paul – A Critical Assessment is edited by Bruce Longenecker and published by Westminster John Knox Press (2002). It can be purchased at Koorong for AUD$35.95, or at www.amazon.com for US$17.47 (plus tax and shipping).