Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative Review

February 20, 2012 — 7 Comments

Hans Frei. The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974.  355 pp. $21.00.


When it comes to a book like Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative there have been so many reviews[1], that reviewers should despair of spending most of their time on summary, and focus more on interaction. In fact there have been so many summaries that my father told me, “I never bothered to read the book, because every other book I pick up has a summary of it.” So in light of the above, I intend to focus more on interaction.


Most simply, Frei argues that there has been an undue focus in eighteenth and nineteenth century hermeneutics on referential meaning, which also lead to ideal reference. Both of these concepts are initially somewhat abstract, however another way to say it is that scholars began to focus on what is “behind the text,” or to think that the Scriptures only communicate general truths about God and man.

Frei asserts that what scholars overlooked was the text itself. For most of Christian History, before the modern era, scholars and students of Scriptures saw the narrative as realistic, but in the 18th century this changed. Frei traces this change from Spinoza to Schleiermacher, and asserts that this turn in hermeneutics has misinterpreted the story, primarily because they have misconstrued its genre.

Frei’s proposal is to place the meaning in the story. “The meaning emerges from the story form, rather than being merely illustrated by it.”[2] Therefore the meaning is in the narrative itself, not behind it, not in the consciousness of Scripture, or in the author’s intention.


The essence of Frei’s argument hovers around the topic of “the true meaning” of Scripture. He demonstrated that both conservative and liberal theologians have separated the biblical words and narrative from the “real meaning” of Scripture. Liberal theologians took the “myth approach” and virtually dispensed of the narrative trying to get beneath it. But conservatives did a very similar thing, although they emerged with different conclusions. They transferred the “true meaning” to objective historical events, and the timeless truths which it taught.

To put it another way, Frei is arguing that conservatives accepted the “critical method” but simply came out with different results. Frei desires to flip the book upside down and give it a good shake; to start over, with a focus on the narrative itself.

The responses to Frei’s proposal have varied, but all have been affected by his proposal.  It birthed a whole movement called “post-liberal theology.” Post-liberal theology (or narrative theology) sought to go beyond liberal theology by rejecting the enlightenment emphasis on human reason. Instead, they sought to locate truth in the narrative of Scripture and the presence of Jesus Christ. As Carl Henry says:

Champions of narrative hermeneutics emphasize that the techniques of literary analysis are more appropriate than those of historical criticism for understanding the Bible. Questions of pre-canonical sources and of historical investigation and factuality do not illume textual meaning as significantly, they stress, as the shape and function of the biblical narrative.[4]

And not only those who identify themselves as post-liberals grew out of his work. Rather there has been a whole literary turn to studying the Gospels. Recent works on the Gospels tend to be more literary in nature than historical.

Evangelicals affirmed the return to Scripture, but were wary of post-liberals and their view of history. Henry thinks that a narrative approach “suspends the question of ontological truth and historical factuality.”[5]  But Frei responded to Henry by saying that evangelicals were not his audience, rather he wrote the book “with liberals in mind.”[6] Although this comment is revealing, and might put Frei’s book in some perspective, Henry is right to look at his methodology and see where it leads. Frei went on to say that he “of course believes in the ‘historical reality’ of Christ’s death and resurrection.”[7] However he also says,

There really is an analogy between the Bible and a novel writer who says something like this: I mean what I say whether or not anything took place. I mean what I say. It’s as simply as that: the text means what it says.[8]

Frei seems to think that the “truth” question is an unfortunate category misunderstanding.   In other words, stories are not meant to make assertions about the world.

But to me it is not as simple as that. It does matter if a story is true. It matters a great deal if I say “I jumped off the Sears tower and lived.” To separate words completely from reference seems to empty words of significance altogether. As J. Gresham Machen says:

The Bible contains a record of something that has happened, something that puts a new face upon life…The authority of the Bible should be tested here at the central point. Is the Bible right about Jesus?…If it is wrong here, then its authority is gone…if the Bible were false, your faith would go. You cannot, therefore, be indifferent to Bible criticism. Let us not deceive ourselves. The Bible is at the foundation of the Church. Undermine that foundation, and the Church will fall. It will fall, and great will be the fall of it.[9]

So where can we go from here?

Like Brevard Childs, I find a lot of good in narrative theology. I am thankful for the literary turn in scholarship. But it is also disconcerting. It is helpful because it stops the train from continuing down the track of historical referentiality, but disconcerting because of the lack of nuance in regards to historical reference.[10] If we take narrative theology at face value, the empty tomb is emptied of significance. But to ignore narrative theology, we again start to focus on what is “behind the text” and what “actually happened” without ever hearing the voice of Scripture.

It seems that Frei has identified a hole in modern hermeneutics, but I think he did not go so far as to close that hole. He pinpointed it, but his proposal was brief and lacking. To say that the meaning is the story form, seems as reductionist as saying meaning is only referential.

Moving Forward with Testimony

My proposal is not new, but I think it binds narrative, history and meaning together. It is the idea of testimony, which has been put forward by people like Richard Bauckham and Iain Provan.[11]

How does testimony bridge this gap between history, narrative, and meaning? In regards to history and meaning, the idea of testimony rejects that storytelling should be held to the same standards as scientific hypotheses. This was the modern turn. But post-moderns are convinced that scientific history is impossible, if only for the fact of our presuppositions, situadedness, and lack of God’s eye view. Therefore there should be an epistemological openness to what others are telling us. And this is how Scripture has always been interpreted until the critical age arose. The pre-criticals took the biblical narrative at face value.

This epistemological openness is really the way we live everyday in regards to knowledge. We take what people tell us, and generally believe it. As Iain Provan says, “we are in short, reliant upon what other tell us when it comes what we call knowledge.” This recovers an essential part of Christianity, tradition, but also neatly merges it with epistemological factors.

How does the idea of testimony contribute to the idea of narrative and meaning? Testimony respects the way in which something is told, and considers the narrative shape to contribute to or highlight the meaning. Testimony involves interpretation, presuppositions, and point of view. If I say, “I read Carl Henry’s article while eating lunch,” it is different from saying, “While eating white chili, I read Carl Henry’s analysis of Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, and was exposed to some glaring weaknesses of narrative theology.” Both of the previous statements speak about the same event. Both happened in “history,” but the narrative structure of one of them informs meaning. The text itself conveys meaning.

Testimony respects both the way it is told, but also concedes that the biblical narrative reflects historical occurrences. Testimony combines the importance of Luke reporting accurately what happened (Lk 1:1-4), yet also views the way he told it as conveying meaning. With testimony we have can a healthy dose of all these approaches and yet discard waste, and oversimplification.

Hans Frei did biblical scholarship a great favor by pointing out what was lacking in modern hermeneutics. He rightly wanted to get back to the text as it stands. But in so doing he may have overreacted, and meaning as reference was spurned. With the concept of testimony reemerging, we can have the best of both worlds. To sum up, as Tolkien says:

The Christian joy, the Gloria, is…pre-eminently…high and joyous. Because the story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified…Legend and History have met and fused.[12]

[1] David Pailin, “The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics Review,” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion 6, no. 3 (200 198): 1975.; J.K. Riches, “The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics Review,” Religious Studies 12, no. 1 (1976): 117-119.; Cornel West, “The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics Review,” Notre Dame English Journal 14, no. 2 (1982): 151-154.

[2] Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (Yale University Press, 1980), 280.

[4] Carl Henry, “Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal,” Trinity Journal 8 (1987): 3-19.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hans Frei, “Reponse to ‘Narrative Theology: An Evangelical Appraisal’,” Trinity Journal 8 (1987): 21-24.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] J. Gresham Machen, “History and Faith,” The Princeton Theological Review 13 (1915): 337-351.

[10] Vanhoozer makes the same point saying, “Though me makes a gallant effort to preserve the literal sense of the Gospels, Frei’s stratagem of dissociating the literal sense from the historical referent threatens to eclipse not the biblical narrative, but the biblical claims to truth,” in Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Narrative in the Philosophy of Paul Ricouer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 175.

[11] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).; Iain Provan, “Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past,” in Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpreation, vol. 4, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 229-266.

[12] J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams (Oxford University Press, 1947), 84.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

7 responses to Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative Review

  1. I really enjoyed the review. I have read only a portion of Frei’s book, although I have read a lot of Childs and Seitz.

    I have a question regarding one of your critiques. You said, “If we take narrative theology at face value, the empty tomb is emptied of significance.”

    Why do you believe narrative theology would force the facticity out of the story of the empty tomb? As you acknowledge in the review, Frei certainly believed in the facticity of the narratives, as well as Childs.

  2. Joshua

    That is a great question. I actually presented this to a class and the same question came up. Here is how I would answer that. The methodology, if taken strictly does tend that way. Although Frei himself believed it happened if you do follow his methodology without further clarifications I am afraid you go down that path.

    • I bet that is a fun class. I love the subject of hermeneutics.

      So, in light of Frei holding to facticity, do you see him being inconsistent in his methodology or is holding to facticity compatible with his approach?

  3. You made some really good
    points there. I looked on
    the net for more info about the
    issue and found most people will go along

    with your views on this web site.

  4. I am working on a dissertation that focus on Frei’s implication from an OT perspective. I appreciate the references above with Henry and I would love to know if you have any other foundation works that propose an evangelical narrative theology?

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