In our journey through the Christian story and Christian storytelling, we have to take a look at the Bible. Since we’re all big fans of Sally Lloyd-Jones here, I don’t think I’ll have to do much convincing when it comes to talking about the Bible as a story. But whenever the subject of interpreting Scripture comes up, lots of very strongly-held opinions clash. I want to say that at the outset, because I think we can have a very gracious and charitable discussion about how to approach the Bible.
What we think of the Scriptures will dictate how we interpret them. I want to propose some ideas (mostly not my own) about how to approach the Bible as a story, but first, I’ll start with two often-held views of the Scriptures and their interpretation.
1. The Bible is God’s personal letter (or “love letter”) to each of us. The method of interpretation that usually follows this point of view goes something like this: A small group Bible study sits around with Bibles open and reads a verse or a passage. Then the small group leader says, “Let’s go around the circle and share what this verse means to you.” Then each member says a few things about how that verse touches his or her life, and the whole group sits around in amazement that the Scriptures can mean so many different things to so many different people. Now, I don’t want to disparage this outright, because undoubtedly, the work of the Spirit can and does apply the Scriptures to our hearts, even in a given moment in a small Bible study.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t be honest about the potential problems, or the incomplete nature of this method. The Bible is neither addressed directly nor written directly to you or me. Genesis 1 doesn’t start, “Dear Travis.” It is not a letter, but a collection of a wide variety of literary genres, all of which communicate truth in a different manner and require a different set of rules for understanding. You would totally misunderstand Dickens, Shakespeare, or any other writer if you took their book as a personal letter to you; the same is true of the Scriptures. This method can really mess up our theology and Christian practice. So let’s conclude this: The Bible is definitely to us and for us, but it is also a collection of writings in a wide variety of contexts and needs careful consideration for understanding. Taking the Bible as “God’s love letter” lends us to the idea that “It’s just me, my Bible, and the Holy Spirit, and that’s all I need.” In fact, we need the whole community of believers and those who have gone before us.
2. The Bible is a sort of “Guidebook” for our lives here on earth. It is God’s instruction to humanity. While many would not word their view this way, many folks who reject view #1 hold some form of this view. We’ve all heard that the B.I.B.L.E. is our “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” The Scriptures are all too frequently employed as a rulebook or a topical guidebook to get through life here on earth. Have a problem with patience? Look up every verse that mentions patience. You’re aware of this method. It’s the medicine cabinet method, or the magic book or grocery list method.
The method of interpretation that follows is usually centered in some way around the grammatical-historical principle. We understand, contra view #1, that the Bible was written at a certain time and in certain genres. So we apply a two-fold method of interpretation: (A) “What did this passage mean when it was written?” and (B) “What does it mean to us today?” If we follow step A, we will arrive at “biblical principles.” Once we have extracted the biblical principles out of the biblical narrative, step B will apply the principle to our lives today.
The problem with this is that it misses key elements of the purpose and nature of the Scriptures. The Bible is not a book of life principles or “keys for living.” It is not a self-help book or a systematic theology book. It is, by and large, a narrative about Christ told in various forms and genres. This undoubtedly makes interpretation and application more difficult (more about that in Part IV). Now, on to an alternative approach to Scripture and its application.
3. The Bible is an unfinished drama. This is the view of the Bible I plan to expound upon in a coming post. N.T. Wright has offered, I think, a much more helpful view of the Scriptures than either of the two views above. Here is how he summarizes this approach to the Bible:
Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play whose fifth act had been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves.
While there are obviously potential weaknesses with this approach, I think there is much to commend it as well. I will explore its strengths and weaknesses in Part IV. In any case, we must keep one thing primary, and this is really the whole point of this post: The Scriptures are about Christ and his story. And it’s about our invitation to participate in that story, which is why this third view is attractive.
The Scriptures are meant to show us Jesus and lead us to Jesus. Any approach to the Scriptures that is not centered around seeking Him “that we may have life” will result in the error of the Pharisees. We can extract principles and apply the Bible personally all day long, but if we haven’t started with the understanding that the Bible is the story of Jesus, and that “every story” in the Bible “whispers His name,” we’ll miss the real magic of the Scriptures.