Frei and Auerbach on the Meaning of the Gospel Narratives -- By: Adonis Vidu

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 26:2 (Fall 2005)
Article: Frei and Auerbach on the Meaning of the Gospel Narratives
Author: Adonis Vidu

Frei and Auerbach on the Meaning of the Gospel Narratives

Adonis Vidu

Adonis Vidu is Assistant Professor of Theology at Emmanuel University in Oradea, Romania.

This article is also appearing in the author’s book, Postliberal Theological Method: A Critical Study (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2005), in a slightly revised form.

Hans Frei’s early conception of the hermeneutical task was shaped under the influence of New Criticism. As his writing career progressed, however, his initial formalism gave way to a socially pragmatic attitude to the construction of meaning and the norm of interpretation. This paper critically discusses Frei’s early description of the character of the gospel narratives and what this entails for interpretation. Since Erich Auerbach has been a major source for Frei’s insistence on the “realistic-narrative” character of the gospels, due attention will be given to his work. It will be shown that the respective hermeneutical projects of Auerbach and Frei have a distinctly ethical bearing. The attempt to keep meaning internal to the text reflects, for Auerbach, on the project of discussing European intellectual identity, while for Frei it preserves the particular identity of Jesus Christ, as rendered by the gospel stories. I shall argue, however, that the particular way in which Frei does this, namely by his appeal to the literary category of “realistic narrative,” is hermeneutically unsatisfactory. Because Frei resorts exclusively to structural textual elements, to the exclusion of extratextual ones, in arriving at the category of “realistic narrative,” the result will be too vague and thus inadequate for actual interpretation.

I. Realistic narratives: Frei’s early hermeneutics

A. Story and the Regress of Realism

It is a known fact that a large part of the biblical material which the church takes as foundational is in story form. Although by no means the first theologian with a sense of the primacy of narrative in the Bible, Hans Frei has certainly been one of those responsible for a renaissance of interest in this category. This is how Gerard Loughlin introduces Frei’s work in his discussion of narrative theology:

Long before it was fashionable to be non-foundational, Hans Frei (1922–1988) has learnt from Karl Barth (1886–1968) that Christian faith rests not upon universal reason or human self-consciousness, but is sustained through and as commitment to a story. The story is not supported by anything else, by another story, theory or argument. The story is simply told, and faith is a certain way of telling it, a way of living and embodying it; a habit of the heart. But it is not the way of ...

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