The Retrieval of Narratives in Apologetics

Since the eighteenth century, the standard approach to Christian apologetics has been heavily influenced by models of science−that is, they seek to provide hard quantitative elements and schemes that can substantiate the truth of the argumentative claims. Alister McGrath–himself both an apologist and an accomplished biophysicist–calls these approaches “evidential apologetics,” describing them as enterprising defenses that seek to use historical evidence or rational argument to display the truth of Christianity.[1] While this style of defense is good and helpful, there is an account to be made of its inadequacy, and for a retrieval of a different approach: narrative apologetics.

First, we should note that to advocate for greater prominence of narrative in our apologetics is not to suggest innovation but rather retrieval. For instance, in The Meaning of Revelation, Richard Niebuhr reflects on the historical role of narrative in presenting the Christian faith by describing the sermons of Stephen and Peter in Acts.[2] In both records, a recitation is made concerning the great occurrences in Israel’s history, intertwining them with the lives of the audience. Following the Apostolic era, the universal confessions of faith held by trinitarian Christians in the patristic era–the Apostles’, and the Nicene Creeds–are mainly composed of narrative statements regarding events in the life of Christ. The purpose of these descriptions, some later incorporated into official liturgies, was to draw importance to the intention, setting, and teleological function of the church from its inherited reputation and story.[3]

Further forward in history, various traditions emphasize the role of personal narratives in encouraging the church. For example, John Rogers (ca. 1570-1636), a Puritan minister from Dedham, MA required each new member of his congregation to give oral testimonies of “Evidence(s) of the work of grace upon his soul.”[4] The audible confession makes known the individual’s transformation from a life of sin into the community of Christ, a sharing of revelations modeled on practices of the early church. Regarding such practices, Niebuhr states that, “when we speak of revelations in the Christian church, we refer to our history, to the history of selves or the history as it is lived and apprehended from within.”[5]

So why was there ever a deviation from this narrative-centric view of the church and its members? In Hans Frei’s work The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative, he elaborates on the precedence of rationalist and empiricist thinking in hermeneutical interpretations. He begins the introduction by saying that, long before modern schools of thought, many pastors and Christian theologians envisioned the world they lived in as being a latter sequence described in the biblical story–the next part of an ongoing narrative.[6] Frei continues by claiming that while this view has never been wholly lost in western Christendom, it has been significantly impacted by the Reformation era, the experience of revivalism, and the heightened view of rationalism and capacities of scientific evidence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

While the nuances of Frei’s text far surpass the limitations of this piece, he establishes a particular onus on the influences of two seventeenth century Dutchmen, theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) and philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), forerunners to the hermeneutics of biblical-historical criticism who brought Enlightenment ideals and frameworks to the practice of biblical interpretation. Cocceius championed developments in biblical theology by pointing to the progressive revelation that can be found in following the canonical arrangement of the books in the Bible versus the overarching narrative. Spinoza meanwhile embraced contemporary heterodoxical philosophies–from the likes of Hobbes and Descartes–in reevaluating the historical narratives of the Bible under new accomplishments in science and evidentialism. Frei explains that “a gradual change to the sense of another temporal reality” began to take shape apart from the biblical; “the true narrative by which its reality [was] rendered [was] no longer identical with the Bible’s overarching story.”[7] A separation was occurring between the historically precedent literal interpretation of Scripture backed by the unitary exegetical nature of the text, with one that incorporated metrics and explanatory variables outside Scripture. This is not to lay specific blame at the feet of Cocceius and Spinoza, but their work is at the very least indicative of a significant shift.

In the wake of such changes, McGrath states that evidential veracity, a thing that is generally good, became the chief concern of the apologist in the eighteenth century, but he qualifies the statement with the phrase that “truth is no guarantor of relevance.”[8] Just because a fact can be substantiated with empirical or rational evidence, does not entail that it appeals to us rhetorically. While care needs to be taken in Christian uses of rhetoric, if one is to equip themselves with the full gambit of argumentation, ethos and pathos must also be accounted for somewhere.

C.S. Lewis–a chief influence on McGrath–speaks of the reliance on the exclusive logos argument–that is, an argument solely appealing to reason–as a “glib and shallow ‘rationalism.’”[9] Scientific (empirical) explanation may aid one in understanding aspects of Christianity, but it neglects the full picture. Marilynne Robinson, the contemporary Christian novelist, similarly says, “The exalted mind of early science has given way to a flattening of experience that, on no actual grounds, is called modern and also scientific” in talking about the modern conceptions of the divine.[10] Like Lewis, Robinson articulates a deficit in relying on empiricism to capture the complexity and the beauty of God.

McGrath elaborates on this shift with reference to Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1876-1965).[11] Buber argues that it is rather melancholy that scientific studies have reduced everything that used to be a ‘you’ to an ‘it’. In other words, individuals are no longer understood by an identity or relationships–which is to say, within a narrative–but by genetics and physiology. And transliteration of substance, from the narrative to the empirical, is that it cannot be done without diminishment. “The original narrative captures reality in such a way that an attempt to convert this to the abstract ideas favored by rationalism leads to a dilution of its power;” says McGrath–therefore, some element is lost. [12] In the same sense that a description of a painting is never as adequate as the image of said painting, rational argumentation is never as adequate as a narrative.

McGrath explains that the difference between the two frameworks of apologetic interpretation existed even in the patristic era. The point is elaborated by the differences in the two equally important notions of apologetics: logos spermatikos–first used in the patristic era–and mythos spermatikos–a term coined by McGrath. Discussed in the The Second Apology of Justin Martyr, logos spermatikos is described as “a seed-bearing reason,” interpreted as God implanting, through the act of creation, rational tendencies, and intuitions.[13] Augustine also brings out this concept of seminal reasons (rationes seminales) found in the formation of man in his theology of creation.[14] Similarly, McGrath claims that mythos spermatikos–a phrase he develops with reference to the fictional work of Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkienis another means of intuiting the divine, but in terms of creating and telling stories, not through arguments or rational conceptions alone.[15] While there are differences when talking about narrative apologetics in the temporal philosophical form of histories and the imaginative fictional form of stories as apologetics, the coupling of the two orientations of narratives is appropriate for comprehending the Gospel. The idea is that empiricism and rationalism–and, science in general–limit the faculties of story-telling and rupture its meaning.

One can equate the “hard” evidence required of the Gospel for it to be deemed true in the framework of evidential apologetics, with any other man-made structure that gives some proof and verifiable reasonableness to faith. A strategy that does not incorporate the emotions of a faithful people but the intellect of the enlightened. With this dilemma in mind, C.S. Lewis is apt in commenting on fictional stories with apologetic intent by saying:

“I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralyzed much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze feelings. And reverence itself did harm. The whole subject was associated with lowered voices; almost as if it were something medical. But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday School associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.”[16]

The winged serpent of scientism attempts to obligate Scripture to an infantile structure that results in an inadequate assessment of the Gospel at best. If one wishes to steal past this dragon, they might seek to do so in the fashion of St. George, by charging forward with a lance of narrative truths, backed by scripture, into the faulty scales of evidential reasoning. As life continues into an age of dominating subjective truths and warring self-interestedness, the relevancy of narratives becomes more poignant in combating the ills of society in defense of Christianity.

Dylan Mayne is a high school government teacher in Ocean Springs, MS and holds a B.A. Summa Cum Laude in Political Science and Spanish Literature from Mississippi State University. He is an alumni of the John Jay Institute’s Fellows Program (2021) and the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy’s Shaftesbury Fellowship (2023).

  1. Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 16.

  2. Richard H. Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation. (New York: MacMillan, 1941), Publishing Co. 33.

  3. Niebuhr, Meaning of Revelation, 34.

  4. Donatella Pallotti, “‘Out of Their Owne Mouths’? Conversion Narratives and English Radical Religious Practices in the Seventeenth Century,.” Journal of Early Modern Studies, no. 1, 2012, 73-95.

  5. Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation. 44.

  6. Hans W. Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. (Chelsea: Yale University Press, 1974),. 1.

  7. Frei, Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, 50.

  8. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics. 16.

  9. C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy. (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 197.

  10. Marylinne Robinson, 2019. What Are We Doing Here? Essays. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019). 259

  11. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics, 126.

  12. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics, 36.

  13. Translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.

  14. Gavin Ortlund, Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy, (IVP Academic, 2020)

  15. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics, 47.

  16. C.S. Lewis, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s To Be Said,” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017), 58


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