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.