What if we read Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet, the way Western Christians tend to read the Bible?
Instead of going through the paragraphs and chapters in the order designed by Shakespeare, we cut his book up, rearrange it, and put it back together.
Then read it.
Instead of seeing it as a unified story, we see it as a collection of essentially unrelated sentences, ready to be shuffled at will to prove our points.
Instead of reading it like it was designed, we go through it looking for themes we’re curious about, or answers to questions we’re pondering.
Maybe we’re trying to find out more about emotions, or how to be successful at work. Then, in classic Evangelical fashion, we look for keywords, like “anger”, “sadness”, “jobs”, “money”, and the like.
Every time we come across a keyword we cut it out of the book and put it in a pile. After we go through the whole book, we organize our pile of cut-out sentences and arrange them according to topics, and tape it back together.
From then on, every time we read Romeo and Juliet, we read it like this.
You see the point.
How likely would we be to:
Understand the author’s message
Experience what the author intended
See the book’s themes unfold
See the connections between themes
Some might scoff at this as an absurdity, but this is too often what takes place when the Bible is read, or quoted, or preached from, or taught in seminaries.
It might sound over the top, but it’s not that far off from the truth, as we’ll see.
And this goes beyond proof-texting, which is only a symptom of a much more serious underlying diagnosis.
The problem is how we see the Bible, including our assumptions about interpreting its message.
How do you see the Bible? What are your assumptions?
If you’re honest enough to answer these questions, maybe you’re ready for the hardest one: Where did we get these perspectives of the Bible?
What’s most disturbing about this diseased way of reading the Bible is that those who are infected by it are not usually aware of it. I wasn't.
God’s grace prevails because there is a cure, but first here’s the issue.
Where do our views of the Bible come from?
It would be great if the answer to this question was simple and self-flattering.
It would be nice and convenient if the answer was, “We get 100% of our assumptions about reading the Bible from the Bible.”
But this isn’t the case.
It’s complicated and messy. It’s not very flattering. And it assumes a lot.
Here are some of these assumptions.
First, the typical approach basically says, “No, thanks” to the Bible’s questions and answers, and themes and agendas, because “we’ve got our own.”
What’s the problem?
It can be summarized as missing the different contexts.
“Oh, that issue. We already know all about context. Thanks though.”
This is what I would have thought if I read this a decade ago—back when I was sure I read the Bible in context—only to eventually discover that I was missing the main point just about every time I read and taught the Bible.
I may have said good and true things, but they did not naturally flow from the Bible; rather, I insisted on stealing the words of the Bible out of their authorial-designed environment, then cramming them into my categories to answer my questions.
But I wasn’t alone in this approach. Just about everyone around me and above me used the Bible this way to various degrees, from those who teach the Bible to those who teach others how to teach the Bible.
We’re all too sure we’re reading the Bible correctly.
Here are some of the most missed contextual aspects:
The context of history and culture is often overlooked on Sunday mornings.
The context of genre, which is likewise huge.
The literary context of each individual book and author: the most available one to us.
To get the literary context of a book, at least its content, we must consider the entire book that we’re taking a passage out of—not just the surrounding passages, not even twenty verses before and after (the so-called “20x20 vision”), and certainly not just the verses that have our keywords.
But the entire book.
Instead, we tend to use the Bible mainly for proof-texting theologies we already believe in while ignoring the rest as oddities to sort through later.
This is why so many people:
Don’t read the Old Testament
Don’t enjoy books like Leviticus
Don’t understand books like Zachariah
And gruesomely mutilate books like Revelation
For example, when I was a new Christian I highlighted 1) verses that personally encouraged me, 2) verses that “proved” some theology I already believed, or 3) a theology I was still unsure about, like God’s sovereignty (a popular one).
Not that this approach is all bad, but it typically ignores:
The broader flow of the text
The main themes presented by the author
The main message of the book
And how the passage under examination fits into this broader context.
This approach misses the forest for the trees by focusing so much on individual sentences, but it’s so ingrained in how we read the Bible that it usually goes unnoticed.
And it often kills the Biblical story.
What is this approach?
It fits snugly in the definition of systematic theology.
The Disease and its Origins
This way of reading the Bible forgets that the Bible is a story, which is ironic since this anti-story method is the result of Christianity’s own story and all its influences—and their assumptions—swaying the direction of interpretation, bending the way theology is done.
This history is discussed more elsewhere, but basically, the fourth-century theologian, Augustine, shaped almost all future ways of reading the Bible—with all his philosophical assumptions.
Augustine’s influence was revived in the three main leaders of the Protestant Reformation, who are, of course, the bedrock of all traditional Christianity in the West—with all their assumptions.
The Puritans then carried these traditions of assumptions to the 17th century.
At this point, many of the intellectual leaders of American Christianity, such as Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and the other “Princeton Fathers”, sharpened some of these assumptions.
As one Church historian put it, they taught Western Christians to “treat Scripture as a reservoir of facts”, or “as a not-yet-systematized systematic theology”. (see Roger E. Olson's book, The Journey of Modern Theology, pg. 238).
That’s the problem right there, and it’s summarized as systematic theology, which is naturally antithetical to reading the Bible as a narrative.
In other words, they saw the Bible not as a story, but like a scrambled code that needed to be decoded according to their questions and categories—like in the analogy of Romeo and Juliet.
This is because systematic theologians admittedly focus more on answering popular questions—and proving the popular answers—than they are on giving attention to the story of the Bible.
They see the Bible so much as a unit that they pay little attention to the unique styles, preferences, word usage, and perspective of each book and author.
They also give little or no attention to the historical development that took place behind each theology in the Bible.
They basically flatten the Biblical story until it's small enough to fit into their questions.
Almost anyone who goes to Bible school or seminary will read Systematic Theology, by the famous systematic theologian, Wayne Grudem.
Grudem, whom I have learned much from myself, himself defines systematic theology as follows: “Systematic theology is any study that answers the question, ‘What does the Bible teach us today?’ about any given topic.” (pg. 21).
He goes on to say that “systematic theology involves collecting and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics and then summarizing their teachings”.
Does that sound right? It shouldn’t.
This is practically just proof-texting: intentionally taking texts out of their contexts to answer questions the Bible may have never asked.
Though there can be some value to this approach, it typically results in missing the context: the literary context, but also the historical, cultural, political, geographical, and intertextual context.
It's basically cutting the Bible up and rearranging it according to our answers, and the disaster comes not by having this technique, but by always assuming this is how the Bible should best be read.
Does this approach necessarily miss the context? Certainly not.
Systematic theologians can be brilliant and contribute an incredible amount, such as D.A. Carson, who is part of the Gospel Coalition, along with Piper, Keller, and others who have taught me and others so much.
Nevertheless, Grudem and his peers do precisely what the Princeton fathers before them did.
Even as the Puritans did before them, who followed the Reformers before them.
Who copied the systematic theology of Augustine way before them.
And still today, these assumptions are being poured into the hungry minds of thousands of Bible students and future pastors to continue the tradition of reading the Biblical story—not as a story, but as a 21st-century answer book.
And the point will continue to allude.
If systemic theology answers questions, then what questions is it answering?
It shouldn’t be a secret what Protestant questions and themes are: mainly, salvation (as narrowly defined by Augustine).
The Reformation Solas are a popular (20th century) summary of Reformation theology.
These answer the question, “How are people saved?”, to which the Solas answer:
By Scripture alone
By faith alone
By grace alone
By Christ alone
For the glory of God alone
It's not that these are necessarily false, but too many read the Bible through this narrow lens of systematic theology, assuming that the Bible is primarily a collection of statements proving these points.
John Piper himself even once said, "The center of the Bible is justification by faith".
We need to grow beyond this.
Yes, the Reformers did some good things, but they’re not our standard because they’re not perfect. We need to keep studying, searching, asking, and knocking for understanding.
We need to keep reforming, as some Biblical scholars often say.
One of the tools that many theologians are growing fond of is Biblical theology.
“Biblical theology” can sound sort of snooty and superior, but it’s just a technical name for a way of reading the Bible.
Unlike systematic theology, Biblical theology focuses more on:
The unique features of each book
The unique qualities of each genre
The historical development of Biblical concepts
The ancient context and culture of each author
The overall theme of the Bible
In other words, Biblical theology first aims at acquiring the ancient perspective of the original audience in their context to find out what questions they were asking.
And then to find out what those answers are in a manner that is incredibly sensitive to the content of the Biblical books and the context of the authors.
The main assumption this approach focuses on for our purposes is this: the Bible is one, interconnected, ever-progressing story. Think of the Bible Project, which does an incredible job at illustrating this method.
More, it’s a historical account of how God has interacted with humans since the beginning.
More, it's a story that invites everyone who encounters it to join this story and live it out.
Whereas systematic theology prefers to see the Bible first as a series of propositions, or truth statements, Biblical theology prefers to see the Bible as a narrative that contains propositions.
This view is true, since the Bible isn’t a reservoir of random facts ready to be fished out to answer our questions; it's an ancient, Jewish anthology that tells the story of the Creator and his people.
How can we know this?
Look at all the genres of the Bible. Genre matters and the Bible has many genres:
Discourse (such as the epistles)
Which one is foundational?
According to systematic theology, one would imagine the Bible is primarily a discourse, but this isn’t the case.
“The dominant one is narrative”, as one Biblical scholar said, “which is the overarching framework of the Bible as a whole” (from Foundations for Biblical Interpretations, pg. 61).
The majority of the Bible is narrative.
The Bible isn't a random collection of books and paragraphs that don’t relate that much in any linear fashion, except by word searches and systematic themes.
Here’s the second clue: even those books that aren’t stories are entirely based on stories, including Romans (which some erroneously see as a systematic theology).
For example, have you ever tried reading Leviticus?
It’s a tough book for most of us because it’s mainly instructions and laws. But these instructions are based on the story of Israel going into the promised land to dwell with God and live out their covenant partnership with him, which itself is couched in the broader story of God’s plan for creation.
Leviticus exists in that context; in that story—not thin air!
And in this context, the laws of Leviticus are seriously entertaining and edifying (as the series on temple theology will eventually demonstrate).
Likewise, the prophets, Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes, are based on the story of God and his people, which are told in the historical books:
Similarly, all the New Testament epistles (Romans through Revelation) are based on the Gospel accounts and Acts.
From the creation of Adam to the crucifixion of Jesus, the Bible is chiefly a story.
So if we don’t read this special story as a story—one long and convoluted story at that—we’ll miss out on so much of what God has to say.
Including, how we join the story and live it out.
To read the Bible as a story means to understand:
The context of this story
The themes of this story
The flow of the story
The goal and obstacles of the story
The key symbols and expressions of this story
And how they all fit together.
Consider a sample of this method. To keep it simple and concise, let's look at one slice and trace it through to the end of the Biblical narrative.
God created Adam in his image and said, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:26-28).
The purpose of humans is to rule the world, or "have dominion" over everything "on the earth" (Gen. 1:26). If they're to do this, they'll have to multiply enough to fill the earth.
They were to rule the world on God's behalf as his images (Gen. 1:26), or representatives, of his character.
Adam failed because he didn’t trust and obey, so God exiled him from the garden.
This is the beginning of a pattern:
God appoints an agent to rule
This vocation is to be done as God’s image
The agents are blessed then told to multiply
The agents fail to trust and obey God
They are exiled from God's presence and his blessings
This thematic nugget is then repeated over and over as the story unravels.
After Adam's sin and exile we're told about Cain (Gen. 4), not because Cain was the very next child, or because this was the very next thing to happen, but to carry the story forward: to develop the theme of human rebellion that always spoils God's good plans.
Only this time it really gets out of hand because an innocent man is bludgeoned to death.
Then as people like Cain multiply, murders like his multiply, culminating in the earth being filled—not with the image of God’s kindness and wisdom, but with the image of Cain’s violence (Gen. 6:5-7).
God has no other choice but to hit the reset button and, in a sense, exile all wicked humans from his creation, with the exception of Noah's family.
Then God makes Noah the new Adam, repeating the same set of instructions: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:7).
He gives one caveat: to protect image-bearers from murder, “because God made humans in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). These instructions are given because Noah is now responsible for leading humanity into their calling of ruling the world on God's behalf.
He wants the original plan to go forward: to fill the world with his images to rule the world as his vice-regents.
Noah’s progeny also fails because they won’t follow God’s instructions; instead, they focus on building the tower of Babel (Gen. 11), which was all about building a temple to house a neighbor deity to gain blessings and wealth.
Because they didn’t trust God they rebelled against him, so God had to “scatter” them abroad—a term used of Israel’s later exile (Deut. 28:64)!
Human unfaithfulness to fill the earth as God instructed again results in exile.
Pushing the creation plan forward, God raised up Abram and repeated the same Adamic theme: “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Gen. 16:10), which is in fact to have a measure of dominion.
This time it's fulfilled as Abraham’s family “multiplied and grew” into the nation of Israel (Ex. 1:7).
After God rescued Israel from Egyptian slavery, he instructed them to reflect his image by following the instructions he gave them, which would allow them to be like him: “Be holy because I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).
Israel was to copy God as the image of God to fulfill the task of having dominion on God's behalf.
Yes, one role of Israel was to be the leading nation chosen by God to be an example to all the other nations, for when they followed God's instructions.
God said, "the LORD your God will bless you, as he promised you, and you shall lend to many nations, but you will not borrow, and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you." (Deut. 15:6, emphasis added).
In the broader context, Israel was chosen as God's son (Ex. 4:23), to replace Adam as God's son (implied in Genesis 5:3), to fill the world with God's blessings as Adam should have done.
Israel was called to be a blessing to the nations as the leading nation (Gen. 12:1).
Of course, they failed miserably, and repeatedly, "so Israel was exiled from their own paradise-like land to Assyria (2 Kings 17:23).
David is among the more righteous in the long history of Israel's evil kings.
He's even called a man after God's own heart, which is another way of saying he lived out the image of God to a greater degree, so God promised to raise up one of his descendants:
To be his chosen son
To rule his kingdom
To lead the world into righteousness (2 Sam. 7:12-16)
Israel was to fulfill the human vocation, but they failed, just like Adam, Noah, and their descendants, not to mention all the other nations.
Then Jesus Arrives
Jesus breaks the curse but follows the same pattern.
He is the perfect "son of God" who rules the world on God's behalf (best described in Psalm 2; see also Heb. 1:1-3).
As God's son, he was born as the perfect image of God (Col. 1:15), flawlessly reflecting the glory of God (John. 1:14-18), to rule the nations on God's behalf, even as God himself!
And, unlike Adam, Jesus trusted and obeyed God without compromise, well-illustrated by the account of Jesus being tested in the wilderness for forty days, replicating Israel’s period of testing in the wilderness for forty years (Deut. 8:2).
Where they failed, he was victorious.
Where Israel failed, he was victorious (that's why he's so often pictured as the new Israel in the Gospels: see Matthew 2:15).
The pattern of failure stops with Jesus.
Then Jesus carries on the original mandate as “the last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:43) to fill the earth with the image of God, which he does through his disciples:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you (Mat. 18:18-19).
The whole earth is to be filled with Jesus-following humans, reflecting the image of God everywhere, which is finally fulfilled in Revelation (7:9, 21:24).
Do you see the pattern?
It’s hard to miss now!
Hebrews 1:1-3 summarizes it nicely: "in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power."
Jesus fulfills every aspect of the human calling initiated in Genesis:
He's appointed to rule the world
He's the perfect God’s image
He is blessed with eternal life
He then multiplies through nationwide disciples
Instead of being exiled, his people "will inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5)
If we cut this story up to answer our questions we'll miss out on God's wisdom for the sake of man's traditions.
And we'll miss out on so much.
God's plan with God's purpose by God's means is revealed when the Bible is read like a story.
Read like an ever-progressing story, we see brave new themes.
Dead verses come alive.
Difficult books become engaging.
Read like a story, we see the purpose of humanity in every color God invented.
Read like a story, we see that God's original plan is victorious.
Read like God's story, we see that Jesus redeems us from more than our sin. He redeems every niche of our humanity designed in Genesis 1-2.