Understanding the big picture of the Bible: a guide to reading the Bible well

Ask yourself: What interest does your pastor have in the New Testament texts? What does he or she want to do with them? What does he or she need to do with them? Or if you yourself are a pastor or minister or vicar, what interest do you have professionally in the New Testament? Whom do you need to impress or persuade or instruct or keep quiet? And then ask yourself: Is it likely that your or your pastor’s interest in the New Testament matches the interest that the authors of the New Testament had in the story that they were telling? Is it likely that we have the same perspectives or presuppositions or preoccupations or pressures? No, of course not. We use the Bible in our churches and in our personal devotional life today in a manner and to an end for which as a historical text it was not designed.

Many will argue—or at least assume—that this doesn’t matter. The Bible is above everything else the Word of God, and if God speaks to us through his Word, why should we trouble ourselves with the constraints and complications of historical perspective? Of the numerous objections one could raise against this argument I will mention two here. First, it is never just the Word of God. It is always someone’s version of the Word of God, no matter how “orthodox” that version may be. Secondly, I think we should be troubled when the Bible says one thing and the “Word of God” says something else. If you use something in a way for which it was not designed, you risk voiding the warranty.

So what is the solution? The solution, I suggest, is that we learn to read the Bible differently—not as a source of beliefs but as the narrative account of our historical origins. How do we do that? Well, here are some guidelines.

1. Suspension of beliefs

A narrative-historical approach…. Ah, I should point out to newcomers that it is not enough to counter systematic theology with a mere narrative theology. The story has to be grounded historically, or people will do whatever they like with it. A narrative-historical approach trusts the Bible to tell its own story, in its own words, at its own pace, from its own point of view, for its own purposes. So we should begin by assuming that we do not know what we are about to read. We should forget, if only temporarily, everything that we have been taught, everything that we have absorbed from the Christian culture in which we are likely to have grown up and been converted. Above all we should suspend that tidy package of beliefs that we have been taught to prioritize over scripture.

2. It is not humanity’s story, it is not my story, it is Israel’s story

The Bible tells the story of the people of the God YHWH, beginning with the calling of Abraham and ending, at least as I see it, with the victory of that people and that God over pagan imperialism. It’s likely that not everything happened quite as it’s narrated, but we can be certain that a historical community told this developing but more or less coherent story about itself over a period of a thousand years or more. The theological content of the Bible, therefore—the stuff that gets re-engineered into systematic theologies and statements of faith—belongs to that community’s self-understanding. It is the product of i) the community’s reflection on ii) its relationship with its God as iii) part of a historical narrative.

This is quite different to a theology that is directed either towards humanity in general or towards the individual. To give an example, according to the leading storyline of the New Testament Jesus died because of the sins of Israel and for the sake of the salvation of Israel. The soteriology operates primarily on a corporate level, and individuals find their own condemnation and salvation in relation to that narrative. It is only through the story of the people that salvation gains a universal dimension and then only in limited ways.

3. Taking it apart is easy, putting it back together is more of a challenge

Theology as we know it has a strong tendency to break scripture down into its constituent parts. I am currently helping to prepare a series of studies with Community Church Harlesden looking at encounters with Jesus—six or seven vignettes from Luke’s Gospel. It’s a classic approach and it suffers from a classic shortcoming. It encourages us to explore what is internal to the passage but not the relation of the passage to the various containing narratives: the story of Jesus, the story of the renewal of the people of God, the story of Israel and the nations. We end up not being able to see the wood for the trees.

A narrative theology, therefore, has to work hard at reconstructing the expansive stories that account for who we are as the people of God. The biggest intellectual failure of the church today is that we do not know and love and retell the whole biblical story. We know and love only incoherent, mismanaged bits of it.

A parable…

Modern theology is like a man who was given a bicycle. He rode around on it for a while, loving the freedom it gave and the rush of the wind through his hair. But then he began to wonder how his bicycle worked. So he dismounted, found some tools, and set about dismantling it, carefully cataloguing the various parts: tubes, bolts, nuts, cables, ball bearings, and so on. Some time later it struck him that, for all his diligence in sorting and labelling the many components, he had no idea how to put the bicycle back together again. In fact, he had only a hazy notion of how it used to look. When he died, his children inherited his boxes of bits but had no idea of what it felt like to ride a bicycle.

4. Let the Old Testament flood in

Systematic theologians—the men (I don’t know of any women) responsible for cooking the beliefs that are served up to us by pastors and teachers—generally extract their content from the Jewish context of scripture. They uproot the ingredients from the ground that nurtured them, they pluck them from the bushes and trees, they fish them from the rivers, they hunt them from the forests, then they chop them up and toss them into their doctrinal stew. 

A narrative theology needs to develop strategies of replacement—of putting it all back where it came from. One such strategy is to bring into view the larger narratives from which the countless Old Testament quotations and allusions that we find in the New Testament are taken. Each quotation is a sluice gate: open it, and the field of the text will be flooded with narrative meaning. It will become apparent that the writers of the New Testament make reference to the Jewish scriptures not simply to prove that Jesus is the messiah but to tell the story about Israel that accounted for the death and resurrection of Jesus—a story that goes forwards as well as backwards.

5. Stories go forwards as well as backwards

The handsome prince cuts through the dense forest surrounding the enchanted castle, makes his way to the gloomy chamber where the princess sleeps, and awakens her with a kiss; they get married and live happily ever after. Traditionally, no one’s interested in what happens next, in the happily-ever-after. It is a very modern custom to break the back of a good story with the burden of ponderous sequels.

We are beginning to grasp the fact that the death and resurrection of Jesus do not constitute an isolated saving event dropped randomly from heaven into the middle of history. They are the culmination of the story about Israel that is told in scripture. But it’s not a fairy story with a happy-ever-after ending that no one cares very much about. The biblical story runs back from Jesus through the history of Israel all the way to Abraham. But it also runs forwards. Jesus has much more to say about Israel’s future than he does about Israel’s past. Paul has much more to say about the historical future of the people of God than he does about the past event of the crucifixion—Jesus’ death and resurrection are important precisely because they guarantee certain climactic future outcomes.

A narrative-historical theology is bound to ask what comes next—both within the horizons of the New Testament and beyond those horizons. This is the only way to get our eschatology right. And while we are on the subject of horizons….

6. History happens at ground level

Evangelical theology has no need for historical horizons. Evangelical truth is universal; it transcends the limitations of history. Let me give an example of evangelicalism’s high-handed disregard for the narrative shape of scripture. In a new book edited by Grudem, Collins and Schreiner called [amazon:978-1433531620:inline] Vernan Poythress argues that Moses could stand in the presence of a holy God only because Jesus would eventually come and make atonement for Moses’ sin:

The benefits of Christ’s work were reckoned beforehand for Moses’ benefit. And so it must have been for all the Old Testament saints. How could they have been saved otherwise? (16)

Nowhere is this stated in scripture. It is an inference from the defining premise of modern evangelicalism, that it’s all about personal salvation. How could Moses have been saved otherwise? It only makes sense in the virtual reality of modern evangelical theology.

Poythress is right to insist that “there is only one way of salvation, throughout the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament”, but it is not that God saves individuals through Christ. It is that God saves his people, more often than not from the historical consequences of their sinfulness. The salvation of individuals from catastrophe or death is important but it is incidental.

Poythress simply misses the point of Acts 4:12. When Peter tells the rulers and elders of Jerusalem that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”, he means that only by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus will Israel be saved from the coming disaster of divine judgment—war against Rome and the destruction of the city. So the theology of Poythress, Grudem, and frankly most of us, says one thing; the Bible says something else.

Allow me to append a 7.

Leaving aside, at least for the moment, the misleading category titles of “Old Testament” and “New Testament,” let us just call the categories “Parts One and Two.”

The documents in Part One seem to be written for subsequent generations of the people of God while the documents in Part Two seem to be written with only that contemporaneous generation in mind — at least comparatively speaking.  Correspondingly, Part One is full of promises that Part Two claims are in the process of being fulfilled.  It’s also important to say that Part Two documents show little awareness that they are to become a Part Two — instead, they keep pointing to Part One as the governing set of documents.  Thus Part One promises a great climax which expectation Part Two intensifies, makes more explicit, and declares to be on the verge of occurring — before the passing of that generation, to be precise.  

That the achievement of this climax is never declared — and is widely assumed, almost 20 centuries later, to have yet to occur — is the most important mystery for a Bible reader to resolve.  For if the climax didn’t occur as promised, it calls into question the veracity of the claim to prophetic efficacy attested to constantly throughout both parts.

AP,….the climax and declaration were quite specific and announced in Jesus statement to his disciples, ” and some of you standing here will not taste death till you see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.”  Hoping to see your alignment with the immanence and confirmation of his kingdom in your subsequent tweets.  Please don’t make this harder then it needs to be….the saints have been misled too long already.  J

Doug in CO | Fri, 09/07/2012 - 00:41 | Permalink

The Bible tells the story of the people of the God YHWH, beginning with the calling of Abraham and ending, at least as I see it, with the victory of that people and that God over pagan imperialism.

This is where your paradigm starts to fall apart.  If Abraham were in the storyline at Genesis 1:1, then you might have a point.  But, there is a critical set up to the introduction of Abraham that concerns mankind in general, and makes the story of Israel important only in as much as God uses them as tool to engage the rest of humanity.  Because you skip the beginning of the story you are not seeing that the New Testament transition is about moving from step one (the parable of Israel) to step two (actual salvation of all people).  Likewise, the group that is being overcome in the New Testament are those who have forgotten that their history is typology with programmed obsolescence.  The Old Testament prophets are full of talk of moving on to a New Covenant, not like the old one, and the disasterous destruction of those who mistakenly expect to be justified by the Old Covenant instead of belief in God.  This transition is the primary story of eschatology.

I don’t have too much of a problem with your way of putting it. I thought it was too obvious to make the point that the calling of Abraham is in some way God’s response to the failure of creation. My argument is not that only Israel’s story is important but that it is Israel’s story that dominates scripture.

I doubt that either Jesus or Paul would have assented to the view that Israel was mere typology for what was to come.

I would also take issue with the phrase “actual salvation of all people”. All people are never actually saved. Some Gentiles are included in the people of God on the understanding that they will share in the painful experience of eschatological transition.

The Old Testament prophets speak of a new covenant for Israel. They never speak of something to come for which Israel was only a typology.

The Gentiles to whom you refer in your penultimate paragraph did indeed endure with the Israel of the old creation the sufferings of Messiah.  However, we who live today in the new creation are all of Israel since all is now in Christ.  That is, there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile.  The kingdom of God has come and Christ is its King.  Thus the Israel of the old creation was indeed a type.  Israel today is all humanity.

I’ll try to illustrate my point with a parable.

A thousand people were on a cruise liner in the ocean having a good time dining with the Captain.  That boat hit an iceberg.  The Captain of the boat sounded the alarm and tried to get them into lifeboats.  However, the passengers were ignoring him, not realizing that they were in any trouble or how to escape their doom.  So, he chose 20 of the passengers to participate in a play that he put on.  In that play he magnified the drama of the circumstances in order to get everyone’s attention.  At the conclusion of the main narrative of the play he demonstrated how to get onto the lifeboats and then ordered the 20 to get in.  Per the narrative of the play some of them refused, though some followed the direction.  Severe doom was declared for those who refused.  At the end of the play, the captain then turned to the audience and explained that he wanted everyone on board to do what the obedient actors had done so that as many of the thousand as possible would be saved.  His dramatic dooming of the disobedient actors was a sign to the rest of the passengers designed to demonstrate the real doom to everyone on the ship.  The Captain chose this method of using a subset of the passengers to demonstrate the predicament of all of the passengers with the hope that the bulk of the passengers would join the obedient actors who could be seen as the leaders of those who’d escape doom.

I realize that this quick parable can’t describe all of the circumstances of the Biblical narrative (just as all parables have holes in them), but I think it successfully demonstrates the two layers of storyline going on throughout the Bible.  It doesn’t make sense to make the story of the sinking ship about the actors, with everyone else just watching the show slackjawed.  But, the passengers who become obedient and escape are missing the point if they think that they got on without being shown how.  

Doug -

If Abraham were in the storyline at Genesis 1:1, then you might have a point.  But, there is a critical set up to the introduction of Abraham that concerns mankind in general, and makes the story of Israel important only in as much as God uses them as tool to engage the rest of humanity.

One interesting thing that must be brought to the table is OT scholarship that recognises that the early chapters of Genesis are not merely an accounting of the whole of humanity. There is a sense of it being a counter account to other existing ancient near eastern accounts/traditions of humanity’s origins, all to set forth the account of the Israelite God, Yahweh, for the Israelites. But, and looking at a lot of development around the OT writings (as we know them) in the exilic time in Babylon, we also see the Adam account as almost metaphorically speaking into the situation of Israel — land given, commands given to walk in, disobedience, expulsion from the land. It was probably shaped to speak very directly into the Babylonian exilic situation.

My point is to say that Gen 1:1 is possibly not simpy a story of the beginning of all humanity, but an account prophetically and metaphorically speaking about the beginning of the Israelite people.

Daniel Pritchard | Fri, 09/07/2012 - 09:55 | Permalink

Hi Andrew, a great piece…

I can relate to your frustration regarding the ‘teaching series’ — I am looking with others at a ‘character study’ which is in real danger of becoming quaint life lessons draen form ‘moments in the life of’, with no obvious connection to the historical realities of the life being examined!  I want to encourage people (potential speakers) to dig that bit deeper, to see the ‘moment’ in the context of the bigger story.  

How are you approaching that?  I don’t mean ‘how will you choose subject titles’ or anything like that, but how do you help others get past that typical approach, to aim at something better?  It may be that we should entirely avoid the ‘moment’ approach and look more broadly at the character concerned, but not many seem equipped to do that!

The Bible tells the story of the people of the God YHWH, beginning with the calling of Abraham…

Well, this stopped me in my tracks.  I see that it stopped Doug as well.  However, as I read his post, I disagreed with his reasons completely.

While he is correct in that the story does not start with Abraham, I don’t think your paradigm starts to fall apart (completely) there.  You are correct in that this is Israel’s story; in fact, it’s more of their story than you even perceive.  Many — if not all- including Doug (see his comments above), make the presumption that Genesis 1 is the start of humanity (and the physical universe as well).  This is not so.  Adam was not the first human being to exist, not is Genesis 1 about the physical creation of the universe.  Adam was the first covenant man — Israel’s beginning.  God chose Adam out from among mankind, created covenant with him and thus started His work which finally ended in Christ, Israel’s second Adam.  You merely need to move the beginning of your paradigm back to Adam instead of Abraham.

Yes, His aim was all of humanity — creating the one new man out of the two (see Eph. 2).  Who are the two men Christ came to bring into the one new man?  Answer is the corporate body of Adam (Israel — the “dead”) and the other is the Gentile man.
This is shown by Paul in many places throughout the NT.  Even Paul’s presentation of sin being present in the world before Adam sinned makes this points to this truth.


One (you) just have to be willing to actually put your words into action.  May I suggest you start with listening to a simple audio presentation from an acquaintance of mine — Jerel Kratt – who presented some interesting thoughts at the 2010 Covenant Creation Conference entitled “Adam: The First Covenant Man”.


I need to clarify my statement regarding Doug’s words.  I shouldn’t have stated I disagree with his reasons completely.  That is not entirely correct.  What I disagree with is his presumption that Genesis 1 is about all of humanity.  God doesn’t start with all humanity, and then move to Israel.  He starts with Israel (Adam) at the get-go.  That is the story.  I do agree with the role of Israel that Doug pointed out, and the transition of the two covenants (the Old covenant actually stated with Adam, not Moses — something else Christendom has completely wrong)- which was for the benefit of all humanity.  It’s just that God starts this with Adam, not Abraham.

Richard Worde… | Fri, 09/07/2012 - 17:13 | Permalink

Hi Andrew,

There is a lot I appreciate in your approach, interpretation, and meta-narratizing of the story of God and his creation as reflected in the Christian scriptures. Narrative approaches that exclude the possibility of texts containing “beliefs” however, seem to me to do a disservice to the discipline. You say:

“The solution, I suggest, is that we learn to read the Bible differently—not as a source of beliefs but as the narrative account of our historical origins.”

Hope I’m not just being fussy here, but excluding “beliefs” as illigitemate seems to me to preclude even reading the texts as “story.”  Beyond that, however, suppose some of us conclude from our reading of the begining of the story that the narrators believed (oops, is it OK to use that word?) that YHWH was to be known as one of many gods, the god of Israel. Isn’t is reasonable to suppose that this particular belief might shape all subsequent readings of the texts?

On the other hand, of course, our reading ought to be shaped by the rest of the story, and eventually our story becomes a part of the re-reading of the scriptural story so we can reshape our understanding of the story as we evolve in our understanding. Now Jesus is one god among many and though the best story about god we’ve got, the other stories about other gods are pretty good too. I know, I’ve hopped over a couple of intellectual hurdles here, but I imagine you’ve got my point.

Really, it is more about the fact that the scriptural stories tell us about people who believe: Abram believed YHWH and he counted it to him as righteousness; Jesus calls people to repent and believe the good news and he calls his disciples to believe in him.

Beliefs matter, and you can and should get them through reading the scriptures.

Have I misunderstood you, or did you overstate the case?

There is no ultimate dichotomy between “story” and “belief.”

AndrewRichard Worde… | Wed, 09/12/2012 - 17:29 | Permalink

In reply to by Richard Worde…

Richard, I agree with you. Beliefs arise in the course of the narrative. Some of them are ad hoc, transitory, occasional: Abraham believed in a particular promise. Others are persistent or even universal: Abraham believed that the God who called him could be trusted to keep his promise. What I want to stress is that these are narratively shaped believes. Too much of popular theology operates with belief shaped narratives.

HI Andrew,

Good post some very interesting points about Power, authority and hermenutics. 

I agree that we all need to examine our own presuppositions and their relation to power structures in supporting a worldview.  I love the fact that your approach de-familliarises the text and attempts to get closer to the thoughts of the participants of the text so that we can attempt to see through a veil less darkly and my faith has gained much from your posts.

My question to you is whether this equally applies to your own historical position?  The way we study history and ‘historical texts’ equally carries certain presuppositions and power relations to a worldview.  Can we ever truly claim to have obtained the mind of Paul?  Much less the mind of Christ?

I guess my point is that yes the texts are historical but we also can’t ignore the historical fact of cannonisation as more than just historical text.

Hope that makes some sort of sense, I’m still learning a lot and have a lot more to learn.


Nice comment, Neil. I agree that historiography is always approximate and subject to personal, cultural and technical bias.

My general argument, though, in many ways is more a literary one than a historical one. I think it is important that we respect the relationship between the texts and the historical communities that authored and read the texts. That is a sort of proto-canonical question. But then what I want to bring into focus is simply the type of narrative that is being told. In that respect, it doesn’t matter whether the events recorded in the Gospels actually happened or not. What matters is that early Christian communities, or early traditions, considered it necessary to tell this particular type of Jewish story about themselves, for themselves, rather than, say, compile collections of revealed dogmata. If we are going to believe the Gospels, I think we should believe them for what they actually are.

My concern is to disengage the powerful modern evangelical filters and then see what sort of literary artefacts emerge. That can only be done relatively, imperfectly, but I think we are under some intellectual and theological obligation to do so.

“In that respect, it doesn’t matter whether the events recorded in the Gospels actually happened or not.”

Andrew, I presume you make an exception for the resurrection (per 1 Cor 15:12-19).  Any other exceptions you’d make? 

That wasn’t quite my point. I was just trying to separate out the two questions, the literary one and the historical one. Personally, I believe that most of it happened pretty much as described, making whatever allowances are required by genre, etc. But we could approach the historical question by asking what the original communities believed and why they articulated their belief in this particular way. The question of what we now believe about the whole thing, either as people of faith or as historians, remains an important question, but my interest as an interpreter of the New Testament is much more in what the authors of the New Testament were trying to say about their situation. 

You have picked a good place to start (and certainly a better place to start than the creeds and theologies we have inherited from post-apostolic generations), but it is not a good place to end.  We must ultimately get to truth.  What some first-century Jews believed is an inconsequential place to build either faith or historical understanding if the critical events being described did not occur — most notably the resurrection from the dead of Israel’s Messiah.

Fortunately, I am persuaded that those Jews did not lie to us.  They were men and women of whom the worthy was not worthy — and we can trust what they said.

Thanks for the reply Andrew,

I think Mike was a little hard on you but I do tend to agree with what he is saying that eventually we do have to get to ‘truth’.

On the other hand I realize that your intention is not to be a pastor in these blogs but to try to shore up the intellectual foundations of your position so that you/others can find the ‘truth’ from as sure a footing as possible.

Thank you both for the replies