Frei investigates the breakdown between story and reality, realistic and figural interpretation. His Yale post-liberal presuppositions aid his analysing German liberalism. They do not help him construct a coherent alternative.
A realistic interpretation is a strict correspondence between word and reality. There can only be one meaning: that of the author. This is problematic when one approaches biblical prophecy: were the prophets’ intended meanings the same as that of the New Testament readers? At this point the realistic paradigm breaks down.
A figural reading is close to Reformed typology: the narrated sequence contains its own meaning (Frei 28). While Frei doesn’t draw the explicit conclusion, if typology is true, then one must have a narratival epistemology. One will note this is standard Protestant–especially Reformed covenantal–hermeneutics. So what happened in history, especially in Germany? The blossoming liberal schools quite correctly saw that if typology is true, then the bible has a coherent unity. If the bible has a coherent unity, then it forces a narratival epistemology. If that is true, then dualisms of a Platonic or Kantian sort are ruled out.
“What if Plato were a German Liberal?”
The development of hermeneutics didn’t take place in a vacuum. Scholars were interacting with contemporary philosophical shfits. The liberal schools would not accept a realistic hermeneutics because it was obvious (for them) that miracles and resurrection were not part of “reality.” They could not accept a typological reading because typology is at war with internalized, spiritual pious gush.
Schleiermacher’s comments are appropriate at this point. His denial of the Resurrection and the miraculous is well-known, but perhaps not his reasons why. They are several: if the truth of the story is in the event, then it stands or falls apart from my internalized spiritualization of the text. Further, if the goal of Jesus (on the liberal gloss) is his coming-to-realization of God-conciousness, then the Resurrection makes such reading pointless. Indeed, the cross is an anti-climax.
Lessons to be learned: A Conclusion of sorts
It’s not clear if Frei himself avoids all of the criticisms of liberal theology. His distinction between factuality and factuality-like probably won’t hold up under scrutiny (which is why few liberals adopted it). His understanding of narrative theology is brilliant, but narrative theology only works if the narrative is…well..real. Did it actually happen?
If we do not have eschatology as the corresponding pole to history, as none of the liberals did, then it is hard to avoid Strauss’s criticisms. If the goal of hermeneutics is eternal, timeless truths (ironically shared by both modern Evangelicals and Schleiermacher), then Lessing’s ditch is insurmountable. If truth is Platonic and necessary and eternal, necessary because it is eternal, then why bother with historical contingencies like narratives? If this is the case, Lessing is absolutely correct.