Sometimes it’s helpful to state the obvious—to step back and remind ourselves of the forest so that we don’t get lost in all the trees. Within academia, hyper-specialization and the tyranny of the pedantic often obscure the obvious; within our everyday life, routine and the tyranny of the mundane often veil the obvious. So we need continual reminders of the obvious—not only in our relationships and everyday life, and also in our theology and spiritual life.
Here I list 6 evangelical theses about the Bible in the spirit of “naming the obvious,” with an implication for each one for how we read and/or preach the Bible. My hope is these might be helpful for those of us choosing and starting in on some kind of Bible reading plan for 2015. What kind of a thing are we planning to read? What is the forest we are about to enter?
1) The Bible is shaped as a story
I say “shaped as” because obviously not everything in the Bible is a story; rather, as a whole, story or narrative is what shapes the Bible’s form. It starts with narrative; it ends with narrative; the middle bulk of it is mostly narrative (roughly 75%); and even the prominent non-narrative genres arise only in tight relation to this narrative backbone. The exodus and the exile, for instance, are the two poles of the Old Testament narrative of Israel, and so the law and prophetic oracle tend to cluster around these historical events.
Even the wisdom literature of the Bible is unintelligible apart from the surrounding historical narrative because so much of it assumes a corporate context, and corporate context means Israel, and Israel means the story of Abraham starting in Genesis 12 as God’s answer to the wreckage of human sin in Genesis 1-11. You cannot understand, say, Psalm 68 unless you have read about God saying to Israel, “you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).
In short, narrative is the skeleton of the Bible; things like epistle or psalm are the organ and tissue.
Implication: read the particular parts of the Bible in relation to the unified whole
If the Bible is a narrative, it should be read more like a novel than like the newspaper or a fortune cookie or a collection of Aesop’s fables. The whole thing hangs together, and the concrete parts are most meaningful when viewed in relation to the whole. When you start to see each tree as a part of the forest, a whole world opens up in Bible reading. You start noticing larger patterns and rhythms—thematic lines starting in Genesis and ending in Revelation that guide you through each individual book. All the odd little corners of the Bible—say, the book of Ruth, or the sacrificial system, or that strange bit at the end of Ezekiel about a new temple—suddenly take on a much larger significance and meaning.
I would say this art of reading thematically across the Bible (sometimes called pan-biblical theology; or just biblical theology) is maybe the single greatest neglected tool among both preachers and lay Christians reading the Bible. Without it, so much of the Bible is just weird. With it, so much starts to make sense. I would be far less eager to preach from the Old Testament without biblical theology, for instance—it is my constant recourse for finding Christ there in a non-forced way. For a great starting point in learning about biblical theology, check out Greg Beale’s writings (like maybe this book or this one). He is the most helpful writer in this area I have read.