The Overarching Story of the Bible

Stories stick. We easily forget facts and propositions, but stories stick with us because our own experiences and relationships (our personal stories) find greater meaning by attaching to broader patterns greater than ourselves. Shared stories also build community as individual stories find their place in an overarching narrative.

The Christian community’s foundational stories are contained in the Bible. Unfortunately, the Bible is often assumed to be a collection of rules and propositions with random stories sprinkled about for flavoring. We remember some of the stories and a few of the rules (do not murder, do not judge), but we fail to see, and therefore attach ourselves to, the overarching story of the Bible. This failure to see the overarching story of the Bible not only makes the Bible seem less relevant, it causes us to relate to the stories of the Bible in a piecemeal way that fails to take us up into the bigger patterns and perspectives that the Bible itself commends. We can’t remember the Apostle Paul’s theological arguments against Gentile circumcision in Galatians, but we do remember the story of David defeating Goliath. The story is more memorable, but without an idea of how it relates to the overarching story of scripture, we read it as an isolated story with only limited points of attachment. Those points are usually of the “be like  (or don’t be like) the protagonist” variety. The result is that we may relate David’s battle with Goliath to a challenging situation that we are facing, but we fail to see how that story is only one episode in a larger story that points to God more than it points to David (or points to us for that matter). The stories of the Bible, as well as the propositions and commands, are part of an overarching story of God’s relationship to His creation. When we see the big story, we are able to fit our personal stories into that greater narrative, which gives us a larger perspective and a meaning that transcends ourselves. Even the lists of places, tribes, and commands seem more relevant because they are a part of a larger story.

Theologians of the past few centuries have debated if one can assume any unity to the Bible. After all, the Christian Bible consists of 66 books written by various authors over many centuries. However, the various biblical authors themselves assume a connection between their message and previous prophets. First Peter 1:10-12 reflects this assumed connectedness: Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.” The author of First Peter assumes the unity of God’s revelation and work, which connects his generation and the stories of previous and future generations. The unifying element to all these stories is that the main character is also the author of the story. God Himself is writing and starring in this grand story of redemption. He tells the story to and through His people. The diverse human authors of the Bible bring different perspectives and contexts, while the Holy Spirit’s inspiration brings an overall unity as God progressively reveals himself and works in the course of human history. A deep understanding of the Bible requires an appreciation of both the diversity and the unity of the Christian scriptures.

For this reason, church leaders should consider teaching the overarching storyline of the Bible. We fit into God’s story, plan, and purpose for the world. True fulfillment and meaning are found when we fit our stories into God’s story. Moreover, getting a view of the sweeping landscape of this grand story creates awe. Too often we “can’t see the forest for the trees” because we focus on proof texts and select passages of scripture while losing sight of the beautiful landscape of the overarching story. Of course, the awe-inspiring story also gives us insight into the awesome nature of the Author (and main character) of that story.

How do we teach the overarching story of the Bible in a way that is faithful to the Bible’s own presentation? How do we teach such a long and connected story in units that people can actually follow? These questions will be addressed in the next blog post. I will explain that this story is structured by God’s covenants and then give an example teaching/preaching series (and other resources) on the overarching story of the Bible.

What is Biblical Theology?

What is Biblical Theology? This question seems simple enough, but over the past couple centuries differing answers have been offered. One could try to build a definition from raw materials; i.e. if “theology” is the study of God and his relations to the world, then Biblical Theology (BT) studies what the Bible teaches about God and his relations to the world. However, it’s not as if we can build such a definition upon an untouched building lot! The history, practice, and methodology of BT have left many tools and materials strewn about the construction site of any definition.

     The development of BT as a discipline. Although the early church arguably engaged in BT as they sought to interpret the Bible, BT became a modern discipline after the Protestant Reformation. Following countless battles over dogma (Catholic vs. Protestant, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, etc.) and the proliferation of proof texting and eisegesis, eventually people came back to the basic question: “What does the Bible say for itself?” That same question would be asked afresh in the following centuries as biblical criticism increasingly adopted modernist skepticism towards the church and the biblical text. For many biblical scholars the Bible was no longer the authority for Christian faith and practice. It was one source of guidance among many human philosophies and cultural preferences. These developments challenged the very legitimacy of BT, but Christians with a high view of scripture continued returning to the basic question of how the Bible presents itself. Through these many dangers, toils, and snares, contemporary BT has experienced a revival and settled on some standard elements. These common elements are: The biblical texts contain both unified themes across the canonical text as well as diversity in and between texts. Revelation is progressive in nature. The Bible makes internal claims to truth and divine inspiration, which should affect our reading of the text and church practice.

In the broader scholarly community, literary approaches have encouraged reading the Bible on its own terms first (often called a “close reading” of the text) as one does with any work of literature. This development has advanced BT as many different disciplines now contribute to our understanding of the biblical literature and its authors. While much more could be said about the various theologians and challenges that have affected BT over the years, the good news is that one does not need to know the history of BT to practice BT in the church. So let us return to our original question. What is Biblical Theology? I offer this survey of recent definitions (with some including explanations) as a preliminary answer and as a prelude to practice.

Recent Definitions of BT.

Andreas Köstenberger offers a basic definition: “Biblical Theology is the theology of the Bible. In other words, Biblical Theology is not our own theology, or that of our church or denomination, it is the theology of the biblical writers themselves.” (MJT, 2018 Sizemore lectures)

From New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: “Biblical Theology may be defined as theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus.” (pg. 10)

Graeme Goldsworthy in “Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture”: Biblical Theology is “theology understood from the perspective of the biblical writers within their own historical context. . . . biblical theology is concerned with how the revelation of God was understood in its time, and what the total picture is that was built up over the whole historical process.” (pg. 26)

James Hamilton: “Thus, the purpose of biblical theology is inductively to understand the canonical form of the Bible’s theology as it is progressively revealed in its own literary forms and salvation historical development . . .”  (pg. 46 in God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment.)

Scott Hafemann in “Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect,”: “(B)iblical theology attempts to ascertain the inner points of coherence and development within the biblical narrative and exposition. It does its work inductively from within the Bible in an attempt to bring out the Bible’s own message.”  (pg. 16)

From Michael Lawrence’s “Biblical Theology: “Biblical theology is about reading the Bible, not as if it’s sixty-six separate books, but a single book with a single plot—God’s glory displayed through Jesus Christ. BT is therefore about discovering the unity of the Bible in the midst of diversity. It’s about understanding what we might call the Bible’s metanarrative.”      Lawrence’s simpler definition: “Biblical Theology is the attempt to tell the whole story of the whole Bible as Christian Scripture.” (pg.15).

Each of these definitions contains presuppositions and each could be challenged on several fronts. Together, however, they provide a current snapshot of the construction site that is evangelical BT. Practicing Biblical Theology requires more than knowing some definitions, but defining terms is a good first step.

 

Bibliography

*Alexander, T. D. et. al., editors.  New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. IVP Academic, 2003.

*Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Eerdmans, 2000.

*Hafemann, Scott. Editor. Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect. InterVarsity, 2002.

*Hamilton, James. God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. Crossway, 2010.

*Köstenberger, Andreas. “The Promise of Biblical Theology: What Biblical Theology Is and What It Isn’t.” & “The Practice of Biblical Theology.”  Sizemore Lectures in Midwestern Journal of Theology 17 (2018): 1-27.

*__________. “The Present and Future of Biblical Theology.” Themelios 37 (2012): 445-464.

*Lawrence, Michael.  Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church. Crossway, 2010.

Sermon Series through 1 Peter

I recently finished a sermon series through 1 Peter entitled A Living Hope in Times of Turmoil. While there are many ways to divide 1 Peter into preachable, cohesive units that respect the main points the author seems to make, I settled on the outline below.  Scott McKnight’s 1 Peter in the NIV Application Commentary series helped me greatly in my preparation. In my opinion, the NIV Application Commentary series is one of the best series for sermon preparation. Certainly there are more in-depth scholarly commentaries for research purposes, but the NAC arranges it’s material in a way that facilitates text to sermon (one could say the NAC has a knack  for helping in sermon prep). The other commentary I heavily consulted was Paul Achtemeier’s Commentary on 1 Peter in the Hermeneia series.

In the table below, I include the passage and the Title/Application of that passage (which contains a link to the sermon audio at Second Baptist Church, where I gave the sermons,). I hope you find this info helpful in your own study of 1 Peter.

First Peter Sermon series: A Living Hope in Times of Turmoil.

1 Peter 1:1-12 Praise God for a Living Hope and Salvation.”
1 Peter 1:13-2:3 Growing in hope and salvation.”
1 Peter 2:4-10 You are Living Stones built together for God.
1 Peter 2:11-3:7  “Living a counter-cultural respect.
1 Peter 3:8-22 ” Follow Christ through the offences.”
1 Peter 4:1-11 Time’s up-Living for God and loving people with our time on this earth.
1 Peter 4:12-19  “Suffering is not strange-but it will be.”  (Suffering as a Christian is normal; Christ suffered – but suffering also calls us to God’s judgment upon (ending of) suffering and sin.)
1 Peter 5:1-5  “Shepherd and serve willingly and humbly
1 Peter 5:6-14 Let God lift you up and complete you.”

Why does God seem so “brutal” in the Old Testament?

In my pastoral role, I am often asked why the God of the Old Testament seems to condone or command some very brutal acts. This question can come from a sincere desire to understand or may come from interaction with the writings of “new atheists,” who highlight this question. As I addressed this question for the hundredth time recently, I was reminded of an article written by Paul Copan titled “Is Yahweh a Moral Monster? The New Atheists and Old Testament Ethics” and the review I wrote several years ago concerning this article. For those interested in this discussion, I highly recommend reading Copan’s article (the link is embedded in the above title). I also include my review below, but if you are pressed for time, read the article over my review!

Continue reading

THE HOLY SPIRIT AS INSPIRER OF SCRIPTURE

THE HOLY SPIRIT AS INSPIRER OF SCRIPTURE

 When the New Testament (NT) writers cited the Old Testament (OT), they drew from a core assumption that the Spirit of God inspired the OT scriptures. In this way the NT writers shared the assumptions of the broader world of second temple Judaism. This pneumatological assumption, however, was not merely “past.”  Instead, the NT writers also assumed the “present” working of the Spirit in the preaching of Christ’s gospel and the apostolic teaching. These points will be demonstrated in order.

The Spirit of God inspired the OT scriptures

Throughout the NT canon, the Holy Spirit is consistently associated with the inspiration of OT scripture.  Such inspiration fits within the broader concept of the Spirit moving within the ancient prophets as they spoke on God’s behalf. Second Peter reflects this work of the Spirit in 1:20-21, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”[1]  In this passage the author credits the Holy Spirit with moving the prophets (specifically the writing prophets) to speak/write the words of God. Other NT writers also assume this pneumatological tenet as they cite OT scripture. Continue reading

Maundy Thursday and Jesus Washing the Disciples’ feet

Maundy Thursday is observed the Thursday before Easter Sunday and commemorates Jesus washing the Apostles’ feet and establishing the Lord’s Supper. footwashingJohn’s Gospel is the only Gospel that recounts the footwashing. In this post, I make a couple observations on John 13:1-30.

John 13:1-30 introduces a larger unit often called the “Farewell Discourse,” which covers John 13:31-17:26. As Jesus bids “farewell” to his disciples, he cleanses them through the act of footwashing. The Farewell Discourse concludes with Jesus praying for his followers to continue his mission. The discourse itself features Jesus preparing his followers for his departure by teaching them about their relationship to the Father, to Jesus, to the Spirit, to one another, and to the world.

The description of the footwashing is intertwined with Jesus’ predictions about his betrayal, something that the other Gospels recount with the institution of the “Lord’s Supper.” John’s Gospel places the footwashing at a meal, but does not include the explicit establishment of the Lord’s Supper. However, the act of footwashing symbolizes Jesus’ humble self-sacrificial service through his death on the cross – something also symbolized by the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper.  In his commentary on John, Craig Keener (2003, 902-914) observes that the interspersing of the footwashing and its significance (13:3-10) with the betrayal (13:2, 10-11) point to Jesus’ impending death. The betrayal of a friend or close associate was a terrible act in all first-century cultures and the act was especially heinous because it took place during a meal. Eating together was a symbol of trust and unity. And yet, Jesus did not make a mistake in choosing Judas (6:70) since he was chosen to fulfill the prophesied role of betrayer, as the quotation of Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 points out.

Jesus tells his disciples beforehand about this betrayal so that they would not doubt Jesus because of this betrayal. Instead, Jesus’ foretelling would cause them to believe “I am he” (13:19). At the most basic level Jesus was showing that he was a legitimate prophet of God despite Judas’ betrayal; Jesus was still aware and in control of the situation. Telling of the events before hand was one way prophets were shown to be from God (Deut 18:22).

Keener (2003, 914) also states this language of Jesus “choosing” the disciples echoes the language of God choosing Israel as he was creating a covenant community. The choosing of Judas and the crucifixion – they were all a part of God’s plan to draw together a new community/family of God. By introducing the idea of voluntary humble service through footwashing, John emphasizes that the betrayal and death were consciously taken up by Jesus in love and service to God’s people. The humiliation of the cross and its cleansing of sinners were foreshadowed in the act of footwashing.

Jesus’ footwashing also serves as an object lesson in humility. Footwashing was the task usually done by the lowest servant. It was certainly not to be done by a renowned teacher or leader. Jesus says in John 13:14-15  If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Jesus clearly states that one purpose for washing their feet is to give them an example they should follow. Only through humble, Christ-like service could the disciples truly continue Jesus’ ministry and mission.

Ending on a note of application, we church leaders must receive Jesus’ cleansing like anyone else. It is through Christ’s sacrificial death (the Lamb of God) that we are cleansed and adopted as children of God (John 1:12; 29). Christian leaders must be converted and cleansed by Christ. Too many have seized the mantle of leadership without having received Christ’s cleansing. We must also pay close attention to Jesus’ example. Jesus calls us to servant-leadership that is ready to humble oneself in service to the other. This includes doing the tasks no one else wants – the task of the lowest servant like washing the feet. Too many have seized the mantle of Christian leadership without taking up the mantle of service like Christ. Christ-like leadership is servant leadership.

Jesus as the Heavenly Temple in the Fourth Gospel.

The most recent edition of Bulletin of Biblical Research (28.3; 2018: pages 425-446) BBRcontains probably my last article that incorporates a large amount of material from my dissertation. Through many revisions, I was able to sharpen one of the main arguments in my thesis into an article length presentation. Below is the abstract/summary of the article. The full article can be read on JSTOR or by those who have a subscription to the Bulletin of Biblical Research. For those who have access to neither, but want the full pdf., leave a comment below and I can email you a copy.

ABSTRACT: The majority of Johannine scholars agree that the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as fulfilling the temple. This article argues that the Fourth Gospel advances this fulfilment by closely associating Jesus with the heavenly temple more than the earthly. The thesis coheres with many previous studies but furthers the discussion by focusing on how the heavenly temple emphasis interacts with the temple-fulfillment theme. The Johannine Jesus embodied the more transcendent reality of the heavenly temple, and his return to heaven began the eschatological expansion of God’s temple presence through the Spirit. This argument is supported by (1) pointing to the pervasive importance placed on the heavenly temple in the first century, (2) examining specific temple-fulfillment texts and consistent motifs/terminology in the Fourth Gospel, and (3) showing how the correlation of Jesus with the heavenly temple better accounts for the post-resurrection fulfillment assumed in the temple-related texts.

Did God dwell in the second temple?

My latest article, “Did God dwell in the second temple? Clarifying the relationship between theophany and temple dwelling,” appears in this month’s Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. JETS_Logo

Here is the article’s abstract:

Unlike the tabernacle or Solomon’s temple, the Bible does not describe the glory cloud of the Lord filling the second temple. This difference has caused many commentators to ask whether God’s presence “dwelled” in the second temple. An accurate answer requires a clarification of what temple dwelling means during the Second Temple period. A broad analysis of temple theology within the biblical and Second Temple literature reveals that the glory cloud relates to theophany, which is only one part of broader “presence” and “dwelling” concepts. The interplay between these concepts and developments in temple theology shifted the meaning of “dwelling.” This shift provided the avenue by which first century Jews could believe that the glory cloud was never manifested and that God still “dwelled” in the second temple. Understanding these beliefs should give interpreters pause when assigning significance to the lack of a cloud theophany in the second temple. In practice, placing more significance on the glory cloud than historically warranted raises other interpretive issues—especially for evangelical interpreters.

The full issue of JETS can be found at: https://www.etsjets.org/JETS_current_non.

Here is a pdf of the full article: JETS_61.4_767-784_Greene

Book Review of “Christianity at the Crossroads.”

In today’s post, I draw your attention to a new book that examines second century Christianity: Michael Kruger’s Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2018.Kruger book cover

While Christianity was born in the first century, the second century was a crucial time of transition and development. Unfortunately most Christians are unaware of the second century’s huge influence on the past and present of their faith. Michael Kruger’s latest work, Christianity at the Crossroads, helps rectify the situation by providing an easy-to-read introduction to this time period.

In Christianity at the Crossroads Kruger purposes to “provide an overall introduction to this critical period . . . a general overview of what Christianity was like and what it faced during this century” (vii). Kruger pursues this purpose from a conservative viewpoint while ably referencing primary sources and engaging with broader scholarship. Those looking for such an introduction (college/seminary students, church leaders, and pastors) will enjoy this volume. Those looking for a more exhaustive study may find some guidance in the footnotes and primary source references, but will not find much in-depth or ground breaking material herein. Continue reading