Reading Scripture Afresh: Story and the Christian Faith

 

The Bible within Christianity

Within Christianity, the Bible is afforded a central place in the life of the Church. In fact since the Reformation, a large part of the greater believing community has privileged it the central place within the life of the believer. We are people of the book, no matter what one understands this to mean.[1] Yet this is an important question to ask, and is what I intend to explore in this paper. One of the central Protestant principles has been sola scriptura, that is, “scripture only”. Scripture alone is our source of revelation, not Church tradition, not anything else. Yet the Christian cannot live by scripture alone. One cannot go very long as a Christian before facing questions that require the engagement of one’s intellect in reflection on matters of theology and praxis. There is a need to go beyond the Bible.[2]

We have theological questions that are not addressed in the scriptures. What is the fate of the un-evangelized? Is infant baptism legitimate? Similarly, we face ethical issues that are not addressed. Is abortion ok, or is it wrong? With rapid advances in technology, new ethical dilemmas are arising. Where should a Christian stand on issues such as stem cell research and cloning, are these morally reprehensible to God? Can a Christian be involved in such research? It is clear that certain aspects of scriptural teaching are closely tied to their original cultural context. Do we leave such aspects behind or do we attempt to find contemporary equivalents?[3]

In all these ways we need to go beyond what scripture explicitly teaches, and in doing so we inevitably bring more than scripture to bear on the problems.[4] What this points to is the need for a hermeneutical strategy[5] from which to approach the task of reading and applying the Bible. This goes without saying, all those who read the Bible with the hope of applying it today tackle these problems at one level or another, and do so through some means felt to be legitimate. The very notion that we shouldapply” the Bible witnesses to a hermeneutical judgment regarding the function the Bible should play in our lives. All Christians have a certain understanding of the Bible’s nature and it is this understanding that guides the way we approach it, determining what we should use it for, and how we should do so. In other words, what it means to be the people of the book. 

Apart from the above activities, there is a separate problem that plagues contemporary Christian use of the Bible. Most Christians do not feel obliged to follow the majority of the Old Testament laws, yet the Decalogue (the ten commandments, Exodus 20.1-17) is held high as a moral must. Is one to follow the Old Testament Laws? If so, how do we decide which ones? Are we to search for principles that underlie them and that can be salvaged? Further, what do we do when teaching in one part of scripture contradicts teaching in another? A clear example of this is the rite of circumcision where Old and New Testaments divide.[6]

This further highlights the need for a hermeneutical strategy and, I will argue, the difficulties inherent in the prevailing hermeneutic, which has made these issues particularly problematic.[7] These issues are very real for all Christians and it is vital that the Church gains some clarity on them. [8] In this paper I hope to move some way in this direction.

In order to do so I will first examine the widespread notion of ‘biblical authority’ and show that as a hermeneutic framework it is inadequate and unsuitable. We need to ask afresh “what should we use the Bible for and how should we do so?” In order to answer this we will first have to ask as to the nature of the Bible and the faith it represents. At the heart of this faith is a coherent story that the scriptures tell. This story is both grand in scope—stretching from the creation of all things to their renewal—and particular in focus—recording the history of God and his people as he outworks his purposes through them. This over-arching story is the frame within which all biblical documents are contextualized, giving the Bible a ‘narrative shape’. Having established this I will move on to suggest what role the Bible should play in the life of the believer. We are to make the Bible’s over-arching story the ‘controlling story’ within our worldview. This in turn shapes how we read the scriptures. Understanding the world in terms of this story, we are to seek to be obedient to God’s purposes for us in our place within the story. We are to look to the appropriate stage within the story, and creatively appropriate the examples and instructions for our time.

I thus offer an explorative suggestion as to the function the Bible should serve within the Christian life, and how it should do so. I can only here offer a preliminary outline of what such a hermeneutic framework may look like, and note what some objections may be and where possible problems and shortcomings may lie. Nonetheless, it will I hope, serve to stimulate thought on this most important topic.

Authority and Hermeneutics

Authority as assumption

The claim that the Bible is authoritative is one of the central affirmations of contemporary Evangelical Christianity.[9] Thus Carson can state, “It should go without saying that the authority of the Bible must be recognized by Christians. The church cannot exist and flourish without unreservedly embracing the Bible.”[10] This assumption impacts on all levels of engagement with the Bible. In a recently published book on ethics, an Evangelical author dismisses the important work of another scholar due to their conclusion that presupposing the authority of the Old Testament clouds the interpretive process, and does not do justice to the distance between our world and theirs.[11] According to many, the authority of the Bible is a necessary presupposition for the proper study of the Bible.

That the Bible is ‘authoritative’ then is a controlling assumption among many Evangelical scholars. It is certainly the prevailing assumption among the Evangelical laity. It is this authority, it is said, that gives it the unquestionable role of shaping our lives, intellectually, spiritually, and practically. But what exactly does it mean to ascribe authority to the Bible, to say that it is authoritative?

The concept is often linked to ‘truth’ and ‘inspiration’. The Bible as ‘inspired’ by God, is a revelation of truth.[12] Its authority then, may be compared to that of a professional who is said to be ‘the authority’ in his field because of his or her recognized experience, talent, work produced, etc., or a book that is said to be the authority on a topic because it is accepted that it has grasped the truth of the matter. Further, ‘truth’ has a claim upon my life, I am obliged to believe it and act accordingly. The Bible as revealed truth is the final rule against which all other claims must be tested.[13] At its simplest level, then, it is the affirmation that the Bible is true and from God and should therefore be given the role of shaping our lives.

At this level there are few problems. For most Evangelical Christians, the Bible must certainly possess this central role in their lives, without it we would be lost to the postmodern morass, we would loose all grounding, and the Church would fragment and slowly evaporate. But the concept of ‘authority’ goes beyond this basic affirmation. Tied to it are certain implications for what we should use the Bible to do and at the same time how we should do so. It is thus also a hermeneutical strategy, but in discussions of biblical authority this is habitually missed. Indeed if the strategy is challenged, it is often seen to be an assault upon the Bible itself and one is accused of rejecting the central place the Bible should have in our lives. A lot of the time this accusation is not far off the mark, there are interpretive communities that wish to revise the Bible’s function in this way. However, legitimate critique can be made of ‘biblical authority’ when the focus of this is the hermeneutical strategy and not the basic affirmation of the Bible’s general role. This critique, I believe, is well over due. But first it must be demonstrated that the notion of biblical authority is indeed a hermeneutical strategy.

Authority as a Hermeneutical strategy

Authority as a concept, is not descriptive of a quality, but refers to a status or a role that something or someone has. The president of the United States of America is in a position of authority over the citizens of those states. This implies that he is in the position to make decisions and set in motion actions that others are not. Authority then, implies status and role. It concerns the giving of commands, the ordering of states of affairs. It thus most naturally concerns orders or instructions.

Accordingly, when applied to the Bible, it is most naturally at home among instructive material. Biblical laws and commands must be obeyed because of the authority behind them. Some other material can also come under this umbrella. Doctrinal statements must be affirmed, historical testimony must be accepted. Viewing the Bible as ‘authoritative’ draws attention to the instructive material within it, and signals that we should comply. It thus constitutes a hermeneutical strategy as it tells us what the Bible should be used for and how we should do so (i.e. the following of its instructions). This is however where problems lie with the concept.

Problems with Authority as a Hermeneutical Strategy

Because the emphasis is on obedience to instruction, those parts of scripture that do not take the form of instruction are often neglected. Where this does not occur, they are often made to yield some sort of instruction. A prime example is where commentators seek to find moral principles or lessons from isolated episodes within biblical narratives. Given that this task may be legitimate on some level,[14] it does however lead to the neglect of the big picture, the greater significance these narratives possess as part of the one story that stretches from creation to the re-creation. The great majority of biblical material does not consist in laws or commands, but in narratives. Consequently, when ‘authority’ is emphasized prescriptively as the Bible’s function, large portions of the Bible are neglected and others distorted to fit the hermeneutical strategy.

But further than this, problems arise when the strategy is applied to the instructional material in the Bible. As God’s authoritative word, we are to agree with what the text tells us to believe, and obey what it commands us to do. It is held that all biblical material is authoritative; it is all equally truthful and applicable for us today. One of the supposed results of modern “critical” scholarship has been to demonstrate the presence of many contradictions and competing forms of belief and action within the scriptures. Although the methods employed to establish much of this have now come under serious question,[15] the movement has successfully highlighted the great diversity within biblical literature across matters of ethics, theology, and praxis. Although the number of contradictions between the various biblical writings (and even within them) has been exaggerated, real contradictions are present, especially between the Old and New Testaments.[16]

A clear example of this is circumcision, where a command given in one part of the Bible is annulled in another. In Genesis 17.9-14 the ritual of circumcision is instituted as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendents. It was thus to be an important aspect of the life of God’s people.[17] However, in Galatians it is stated that if anyone receives circumcision they will be “severed from Christ” and would have “fallen from grace” (Gal 5.2-4 nrsv). In both passages what is said is of vital importance for what it means to be faithful to God, but they flatly contradict each other. Although Christians have not found it hard choosing between the two, the fact they have to do so demonstrates that the notion of ‘authority’ as flatly applied to all biblical material cannot be sustained. Selection must take place on some grounds, whether it is internal to the Bible or drawn from outside of it,[18] and this effectively negates the original principle.[19]

Further, there are many commands that Christians feel under no obligation to obey, such as the prohibition against eating pork (Lev 11.7-8), the stoning of sexual offenders (Deut 22.13-24), or the requirement that women wear veils when they pray (1 Cor 11.5, 13). As Grenz notes, this “bear[s] silent witness to the apparent inadequacy of a simple rule-book ethic. This phenomenon suggests that some deeper principle must be at work providing the criterion by means of which to differentiate between the universally applicable and the situationally conditioned laws of Scripture.”[20]

Asking the Question Afresh

We may ask as to why we should assume biblical instructions to be authoritative at all?[21] Nothing in scripture is directed to us, but to others (whether Christian or not) in a context that is not ours. Some teaching must be normative for Christians however; those wishing to follow Jesus by definition are not doing so unless they are in some way doing what he said. Following his resurrection, he declared that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to him and therefore told the eleven to go out into the world and make disciples of all people by baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that he had commanded (Matt 28.18-21). Thus, as Christians, our relationship to Jesus is as a servant to a king. Yet concerning the Bible as a whole, our relationship must be different.

Given the problems with the notion of biblical authority and its various formulations, it seems helpful to abandon it as a conceptual framework from within which to work.[22] What is needed is a reappraisal of the Bible itself. Before asking how we should use it, we need to ask ‘what should we be using it for?’ And before this, ‘what is it?’

Biblical Faith and the ‘Narrative Shape’ of the Bible

Finding Direction

It goes without saying that the Bible is not your average book. For millennia, it has been treated as a revelation from God, a book of divine origin. But what sort of book is it? A quick skim through its pages reveals that it is not like most. It is neither a continuous narrative comparable in form to a novel, nor is it like a textbook or manual, with an ordered system of laws or instructions. Within the Bible we have a diverse range of genres including narratives, prayers, proverbs, songs, prophetic oracles and vision reports, and letters.[23] It is most comparable in form to an anthology, a collection of writings connected by some central feature, whether it be a single author, or a topic of discussion.

Setting aside the notion of divine origin, we can see clearly that the writings do not come from a single author. It is more appropriate to speak of the origins (plural) of the Bible because this better reflects the creation of the Bible as it manifested itself in history.[24] Yet, we can still speak of a common authorship if we envisage this in communal terms.  All of the biblical writings have their origin in a single religious tradition, and as canonical, represent the ideal of that tradition.[25]

This brings into focus a further aspect that needs to be considered when formulating an answer to what we should use the Bible for and how. It is certain that we do not wish to be arbitrary in answering this question, but where then do we look for ground on which to base our answer? If there is any “objectivity” to be found in this process, I suggest that it will only lie in allowing the Bible to be itself in fulfilling its role within its religious tradition. The nature of Biblical faith must be the primary directive in determining what we use the Bible for and how, because as a product of that faith, it reflects it and is designed to sustain it.[26] It can be expected then, that the literary ‘shape’ of the Bible reflects the nature of the faith, and provides the key to unlocking the Bible.

The Narrative Shape of the Bible

If we ask as to the ‘general shape’ of the Bible, we may point out that the majority of the material is in the form of narrative, and that these narratives are concerned with history.[27] It is here that I suggest both the unity of the Bible, and the nature of Biblical faith lies.[28] At the centre of the Bible is a set of narratives that together tell a single coherent story.[29] This story is both grand in its scope, looking back to the creation of things and forward to their renewal, and particular in its focus, recounting the history of God and his people as he outworked his purposes through them. Further, this particular history is of universal significance as it concerns the outworking of God’s saving purposes for his dislocated world. What The Old and New Testaments together narrate “stretches from the creation of humanity and its turning away from God, through God’s implementation of a purpose to restore the lost blessing of creation in and by means of the Israelite people, to a climax in the Christ event, with a coda… in the story of the early church awaiting the final revealing of Christ and the new creation.” [30]

Given the presence of this ‘narrative core’, can we now speak of the Bible as having a ‘narrative shape’? Or would this be to repeat one of the shortcomings of ‘authority’, imposing a one-sided characterization once more? This need not be the case, as Trevor Hart comments: “this does not mean forcing a wide variety of different literary genres onto an interpretative bed of which Procustes would have been proud. Not all texts are “narrative” in the technical sense. But treated as “a whole,” scripture, in all its diversity of types, offers a narrative world the reader is invited to indwell, and from within which she is now expected to view things.”[31]

This “narrative world” consists first and foremost of the over-arching story, which becomes the defining characteristic of the Bible, and all non-narrative material within take their place in relation to this story.  Hence, Richard Bauckham has sought to locate all of Scripture within this framework:

“The category of story includes not only biblical narratives… but also prophecy and apostolic teaching insofar as these illuminate the meaning of the story and point its direction towards its still future completion. This total biblical story is also the context within which other biblical genres – law, wisdom, psalms, ethical instruction, parables, and so on – are canonically placed. Story is the overarching category in which others are contextualized.” [32]

Not only do the prophets (witnessed to in the prophetic books) illuminate the story and point to its completion, but as characters within Israel’s history speaking into it at particular points become part of the story itself. Similarly, the New Testament letters not only contain apostolic teaching, but also belong to the history of the early Church and are thus part of the over-arching story themselves.[33] Other non-narrative materials are more clearly imbedded in the story, such as the Laws in Deuteronomy and the parables in the Gospels.

Every scriptural document, then, finds its place in relation to the over-arching story the Bible tells, as well as every piece of material including ethical instruction that is given in and directed to particular contexts.[34] The over-arching story is the frame within which all biblical material is contextualized, thus giving the Bible a ‘narrative shape’ and pointing towards its function.

Worldview, Story, and the Nature of Biblical Faith

In light of the narrative shape of the Bible we can see that biblical faith revolves around a story. As Goldingay notes, “This narrative form reflects the fundamental nature of Christian faith as a piece of news about what God has said and done in Israel and in Jesus.”[35] Due to the scope of this story and the universal significance it possess it amounts to it a comprehensive vision of reality, or a worldview.[36]

The essential concept is quite simple; a ‘worldview’ is a person’s interpretation of reality, their basic view of life.[37] They thus include ones basic assumptions about the world. They provide an interpretation of those parts of reality deemed to be the most fundamental, and hence provide the starting point for all other acts of interpretation. They form an interpretive grid or framework that we place upon reality in order to make sense of all aspects of our experience. They provide the criteria by which interpretations are weighed, and so what we accept as true,[38] and as basic assumptions, they are rarely brought into question or raised in discussion unless this is where disagreement lies. But what then do these basic assumptions specifically concern?

In their book, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview, Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton propose four fundamental questions that are at the heart of every worldview:

“(1) Who am I? Or, what is the nature of, task and purpose of human beings? (2) Where am I? Or, what is the nature of the world and universe I live in? (3) What is wrong? Or, what is the basic problem or obstacle that keeps me from attaining fulfillment? In other words, how do I understand evil? And (4) What is the remedy? Or, how is it possible to overcome this hindrance to my fulfillment? In other words, how do I find salvation?” [39]

All worldviews provide answers to these basic questions, and these answers then function as basic assumptions. But we must look closer at how these questions are answered, and must look further into the nature of human understanding to discover this.

The quest for understanding is the search for ‘order’. We assume that there is an inherent order in the world, that causal relationships exist and that human (and divine) actions embody intentions. We assume that the world is not constituted of utter randomness and chaos, and we seek to discover the order or ‘meaning’ inherent in states of affairs. The way we do this is by telling stories. Human experience has an irreducible “narrative quality”. That is, in making sense of experience we give it a narrative framework that involves “the organization of otherwise isolated ‘facts’ into a meaningful whole.”[40] This organization is what constitutes our understanding of the world and the events within it.

For this reason, stories, far from being mere child’s play, are “located, on the map of human knowing, at a more fundamental level than explicitly formulated beliefs, including theological beliefs.”[41] ‘Controlling stories’ are those most fundamental to worldviews and provide answers to the fundamental questions that worldviews ask. When answers to these questions are brought into question, it is by way of competing stories that vie to take the drivers seat. They possess “a kind of finality as the ultimate interpretation of all reality in all its multifaceted aspects.”[42] These stories are often considered ‘sacred’, and unite those who share them in a common way of life.

Stories then, are “a basic constituent of human life”,[43] and it is by ones controlling stories that the fundamental worldview questions are answered. Worldviews of course are not simply intellectual edifices, but direct ones life, and the common life of the society that holds them. The answers to the fundamental questions give way to praxis, “a way-of-being-in-the-world”[44] which is felt to be the appropriate response to reality.[45] By way of metaphor, if the world is a text, worldviews provide the grand hermeneutical strategy for all of life, the ‘what is’, the ‘what for’, and to a certain extent, the ‘how’.

We can now see that the ‘narrative shape’ of the Bible points to the nature of the faith as including a vision of reality (worldview) that is grounded in the over-arching story the Bible tells. But by nature worldviews are general in character, and we must therefore make a distinction between the biblical story and the Bible’s grand-narrative that is imbedded within it. The biblical story on the one hand is the over-arching narrative that runs throughout the Bible, the story of God and his people in all its details. The grand-narrative on the other is concerned with the big picture, the basic plotline that underlies this story.[46]

In terms of the biblical story, the crucial events within the story are those that set the scene, create the central problem, and bring this problem to a final resolution.[47] This three-fold structure constitutes the ‘plot’. Within the Biblical story, the plot runs from creation to re-creation and revolves around the outworking of God’s saving purposes for the world in solution to the central problem. The setting of the scene is God’s creation of the world and his privileging humankind to be its stewards. Human rebellion establishes the problem to which God’s choosing of Israel and the sending of Jesus are the solutions. Human disobedience to God’s rule resulted in an increasing relational separation between God and humankind, within humankind, and between humankind and the rest of the created world. God moved to solve this problem by defeating the Evil that then took grip of the world through Jesus death and resurrection, and the Sin that holds humankind from God by his outpouring of his Spirit. He then sent his people out into the world in order to spread this good news until the final resolution of the problem when Evil and Sin will finally be stamped out in a final act of salvation and judgment, and all creation will be brought to its original intended goal.[48]

As the ‘controlling story’, this grand-narrative provides answers to the four basic questions and gives way to a general praxis. This praxis is to respond to God’s call to participate in the outworking of his purposes for the world. But the biblical story provides more specifics than the grand-narrative encompasses. The particular history of God’s relations with his people not only records what he has done but what he has asked of his people along the way as the story has progressed. The historical movement inherent in the Biblical story has lead N. T. Wright to add a fifth question to Walsh and Middleton’s list, ‘what time is it?’[49] This highlights the important fact that at different stages in the outworking of his plan, God desired different things of his people. It further brings in the aspect of future hope that within the biblical worldview has encroached upon the present, but yet awaits fulfillment.

Biblical faith, then, is lived within a story. It is to see oneself as a character in a drama that has yet to end, and to act appropriately within the present. We now move to the prescriptive half of the paper where I take up these insights and outline the implications they have for reading the Bible.

Story, Worldview, and Christian Faith

The claim that the Bible tells a coherent story would not be controversial or even revolutionary for most Christians. Even so, this aspect of the Bible is often not given its due importance. This can be observed in the various pictures popularly applied to the Bible. The ideas of it being a ‘personal love letter’, or a ‘manual for life’ completely ignore the narrative shape of Scripture. If we were to ask most Christians what the Bible is, we would receive answers along similar lines as these. Yet these inadequate views of the Bible inevitably lead to inadequate views of what it is to be a Christian, and subsequently misguided lives.

As Christians we wish to give the Bible the central place in our lives, but if this does not mean adopting its vision and purpose, then it means nothing at all. Yet, the Bible has failed to truly take this central place for many Christians due to both a failure to grasp its vision, and reading habits that ignore its general purpose.[50] Within the Church today we tend to break the Bible up into bits (devotional, theological, moral, etc.). Although this may be convenient, the net effect of this activity is that Christianity is ‘domesticated’ and change rarely occurs for the believer on a fundamental level. It can thus only be partial and is often temporary.

Given our discussion of ‘worldview’, we can see that this is so because of the nature of human understanding. When we break the Bible up into bits, it does not come to us as a foundational story and therefore cannot challenge our prior ‘controlling stories’ that are in need of subversion. It allows the various bits to be easily assimilated into our prior way of viewing the world, and because this prior worldview functions as our interpretive framework, the bits get reinterpreted through it, often distorting them.[51]

Devotional readings are not destructive in themselves, but must be done within the context of an interpretive framework that can properly appropriate them. The bits must be read in light of and in the context of the biblical story. I speak of the ‘domestication’ of Christianity because in separating aspects of biblical faith such as the theological and the moral, we have prevented it from providing an integrated view of reality (worldview) that challenges all others, and sets the agenda for life itself.

If the Bible is going to take the central place in our lives, then it must transform us at the level of worldview. It must provide the interpretive framework through which we view the world and the blueprint for how we should live in it. To do so it must retain its narrative unity and its story must become our ‘controlling story’, subverting the stories that our society has lived and breathed and which we have had our life. As Bartholomew and Goheen have commented, “either the biblical story is our foundation, or the Bible itself becomes subsumed within the modern story of the secular Western world.”[52]

Reading the Bible as Story: A Fresh Hermeneutical Strategy

It is now time to propose a fresh hermeneutical strategy that provides both a ‘what for’ and a ‘how to’. It is my suggestion that the primary purpose of the Bible is the telling of its story in order to shape the life and being of the faith community. This of course should not be thought of as just a story, as it witnesses to real world happenings and is concerned with the actual flow of history within God’s purposes. To be shaped by this story is to indwell it, to live within the world as part of this story as it continues to be written. It is to see oneself as a character in a drama that has yet to end, and to act appropriately within the present.

Thus, I propose that we need to make three important moves: (1) we need to read the Bible as story, acknowledging in practice its narrative shape, (2) we need to inhabit the story by reading the Bible from our place within the story, and (3) we need to creatively appropriate the scriptures in light of the first two moves.

(1) Reading the Bible as Story

Reading the bible as story, firstly means that we recognize the centrality the narratives possess within the Bible. It means to read these narratives as together narrating a single coherent story which is both rooted in the particulars of history, and which gives history in its entirety meaning. It is to realize that at the centre of biblical faith is a story, and that this story provides the foundation for this faith.

Secondly, it means that we recognize the historical movement that takes place as the story progresses. Together the narratives span a vast time frame within which many developments take place. The world changes, politically, culturally, and socially, and the situations faced change as a result. But God does not work aloof of history but within it. He does new things and asks new things of his people, sometimes due to these changes in the world, other times due to the furthering of his plan. He speaks to his people at specific points in history with specific messages, which again, change in different situations. The prophets (witnessed to in the prophetic books) spoke into that history at various points to give clarity and God’s word to his people. Likewise, the letters in the New Testament were directed to specific people at specific points with instruction and encouragement. God’s word was always ‘a word on target’, and thus specificity is an inherent quality of all Biblical material.

Thirdly, it means that this story is the frame within which all biblical material must be placed. As Bauckham has suggested, “Story is the overarching category in which others are contextualized.”[53] All biblical material, whether it be prayer, prophecy, law, command, or individual narratives, must be read within its context in the biblical story in terms of the historical movement. To read the Bible as a Story is to be first and foremost concerned with the over-arching story that it tells, and to read every other scriptural document both in relation to it., and as part of it. 

(2) Inhabiting the Biblical Story

As we have seen, this story is not something belonging wholly to the past. It is a story in search of an ending, and as this ending has yet to arrive, we stand within this story. Consciously placing ourselves within the biblical story not only provides the grand-narrative (=controlling story) by which we are to shape our fundamental assumptions, but it tells us where the story has got to so far and what God requires of us in the present. This basic realization means that we do not read the Bible as a book of commands directed towards us and immediately applicable. Rather we read it as testimony to the history of God and his people as he has outworked his purposes through them. Our lives then become a continuation of this history, as we seek to be faithful to God in the present.

Tom Wright’s analogy of an incomplete Shakespearean play is particularly helpful in this respect. [54] We are asked to imagine that there exists a Shakespearean play in which most of act five is lost, but is nevertheless deemed sufficiently worthy of staging. It is decided that it would be inappropriate to actually write a fifth act and hence freeze the play into one form, possibly committing the responsibility for it to Shakespeare. Instead the key parts are given to ‘highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearean actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts’[55] and then work out a fifth act for themselves. “It would require the actors a free and responsible entering in to the story as it stood, in order first to understand how the threads could appropriately be drawn together and then put that understanding into effect by speaking and acting with both innovation and consistency.”[56] The first four acts would thus be the ‘authority’ for the task at hand and used to discern whether the subsequent improvisation remained faithful to the characters, themes, and plots already developed in the story. “Anyone could properly object to the new improvisation on the grounds that some character was now behaving inconsistently, or that some sub-plot or theme, adumbrated earlier, had not reached its proper resolution.” [57]

He suggests that we see the biblical story in terms of a five-act play: 10-Creation; 2-Fall; 3-Israel; 4-Jesus; the writing of the New Testament forms the beginning of the fifth scene of which we are a part, and points towards how the play is supposed to end. As ‘actors’ within this story, we are to ‘enter into the story’ in order to understand it, and then to improvise our act of the play with the appropriate elements of continuity and discontinuity. We need to ask ourselves ‘what time is it?’. As Jesus said, “you know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” (Luke 12.56). The Bible is too often read without first discerning the ‘time’. We need to discern how the story has progressed and were it is heading in order to be faithful characters in this divine drama in able to serve God faithfully in the present.

(3) Creatively Appropriating the Scriptures

In the first, then, we are to make shape our worldview according the Bibles grand-narrative. We are also to inhabit the larger biblical story, seeing it as an unfinished drama that we are characters within.  But how do we go about this process of improvisation? By what principles do we work to establish appropriate improvisation? When reading the Bible with an eye to praxis must attend to four contexts: (1) the historical context of the passage at question (e.g. social, cultural, political, etc.); (2) its place within the biblical story; (3) the contemporary readers historical context; and (4) their place within the biblical story.

The contextuallity of the praxis outlined in the scriptures exists in both their place within the plot line of the biblical story and their place within history more specifically. Thus, we firstly affirm their faithfulness as an outworking of their place within the story, and then as such within their place in history. They are both faithful to the story at its then current juncture, and appropriate to their then current historical circumstance in its all particularity.[58] There are thus four contexts that we must take into consideration, two of which the reader stands in and two of which the scriptures do. Being faithful to God’s vision will thus require as much self-awareness as it will exegetical awareness as we seek to be faithful in a very different context to the ones the scriptures spoke into. “Present day believers cannot merely copy the original solutions. In order to be both free and faithful, they reason by analogy from the earlier interaction which is witnessed in the biblical text to a similar response to the challenge of their own time.”[59]

In the last (after careful exegetical/historical work is done), we read the scriptures not as they were originally read. Indeed we cannot, not from a hermeneutical perspective. We do not read them as speaking directly to us as we cannot align ourselves with the original audience so that they can have their intended rhetorical effect upon us, nor should we wish to do so. Rather we look back at them as the responses and calls of God in history, and imaginatively seek to place ourselves within their stream of faithfulness. They cannot be instructions for us, but they should certainly be instructive for us, as we strive to live out God’s purposes and respond to his call in the present.[60]

Summary

Reading the Bible as story will mean reading each scriptural document contextually, that is, by placing each within their respective place within the over-arching story. Placing ourselves within the story at the appropriate point will mean reading the various documents from this point, recognizing the development that has taken place and the applicability or non-applicability of biblical material respectively.[61] The final move of ‘creative appropriation’ will mean looking both to the relevant biblical material within their specific contexts as examples of faithfulness, and to our specific contexts, and attempt a ‘translation’ whereby an equivalent and contextually appropriate form of faithfulness is assumed for our situation.

Reading Scripture Afresh: Story and the Christian Faith

I began this paper with the affirmation that we are people of the book. As Christians, we wish to give the Bible the central place within our lives. But I also noted the fact that we cannot live by the Bible alone, there is a need to go beyond the Bible. This clearly points to the need for a hermeneutical strategy which both tells us what giving the Bible the central place in our lives entails, and how we are to go about using it, that is, going beyond it. We have examined the prevailing notion of ‘authority’ and revealed its inadequacy as a hermeneutical strategy. What is needed is both a fresh approach to reading the Bible and a fresh apprehension of the nature of our Christian faith. I have argued that these two aspects are inter-connected. It is the nature of biblical faith that has shaped the Bible, and the shape of the Bible must now form how we read it. The concept of ‘story’ and the hermeneutical implications that go with it, then, are of a much better match not only for the literary shape of the Bible, but also for the nature of the faith that it reflects.

Our fresh hermeneutical strategy thus involves both a reading of the Bible as ‘story’ and an accepting of this story as not only ours (becoming characters within it), but as the story of the world that gives it meaning and purpose.[62] We are to make the Bible’s grand narrative the controlling story in our worldview, subverting all other stories and truly shaping ourselves at a fundamental level. Christianity cannot be reduced to a relationship, to intellectual assent to a creed, nor a way of life characterized by certain moral principles or obedience to a set of rules. What the narrative shape of the Bible demonstrates is that to be a Christian is to participate in the divine drama as it plays out in world history, and more particularly, in one’s own community and life.We are also to inhabit this story as characters within it, recognizing where God is taking history[63] and seeking to discern how we are to be faithful to his purposes both where we stand in the story, and in the historical context we find ourselves.


[1] Grenz notes, “This description is appropriate in that we acknowledge the Bible as embodying divine revelation and for this reason continually look to Scripture for instruction as to what we should believe and what we should do. We desire to be informed by the Bible so that we may live faithfully before God as followers of Jesus Christ.” (The Moral Quest, 241)

[2] The phrase is taken from the title of I. Howard Marshall’s engaging book, Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology.

[3] For a recent exploration of this issue, see William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis.

[4] “At stake is much more than the question of whether we can understand an ancient text – that is, the question whether by imagination, sympathy and an intellectual grasp of our own context and the biblical one a ‘meeting of minds’ can take place. It is the question of whether, when we have understood, we can discern the ways in which that understanding could and should make a difference to the way we view the world and conduct ourselves within it today.” (Wright, S., ‘Inhabiting the Story’, 294)

[5] I. Howard Marshall notes three levels in contemporary discussion of interpretation: (1) general hermeneutics, which is concerned with the nature of authors, texts, and readers, and the relationship between them with particular regard to ‘meaning’, (2) exegesis, which is concerned with the methods used in establishing the ‘original’ meaning of texts, and (3) exposition or application, which is concerned with moving from what a text said to its original readers to what it says to contemporary readers (Beyond the Bible, 14-15, 22-30). My use of ‘hermeneutics’ correlates to the third level. A hermeneutical strategy, then, sets down the principles that govern the process of “re-using” a text in a context other than its original. Included within this strategy are particular goals, which govern the establishment of the principles. The principles are thus the means to which particular goals are the end. Marshall’s primary goal is revealed by his terminology (“application”). My terminology deliberately leaves open the question of goals, because it is this aspect of Christian hermeneutics that I argue needs reconsideration. Hermeneutics, then, in my usage, concerns what one does with a text once it has been understood exegetically.

[6] In Genesis 17.9-14 the ritual of circumcision is instituted as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendents. It was thus to be an important aspect of the life of God’s people. However, in Galatians it is stated that if anyone receives circumcision they will be “severed from Christ” and would have “fallen from grace” (Gal 5.2-4 nrsv). In both passages what is said is of vital importance for what it means to be faithful to God, but they flatly contradict each other.

[7] It is necessary that we possess an overarching hermeneutical strategy, one that acts as the foundation for the methods applied and as a measure for all proposed methods. Without this, it is far too easy to adopt differing methods for different texts, falling to the temptation to justify or attain the desired results. Even if it is found that a single method can not deal with all the problems encountered, there nevertheless must be a foundational hermeneutic upon which all subsequent moves must be established or be compatible with. The foundational hermeneutic I propose is grounded in the Bible itself, and therefore is safe from the claim that it is adopted in order to sidestep a challenge or to dismiss parts of the scriptures.

[8] If Robert Carroll is correct when he states that “what is contained in a canonical list is less important than the hermeneutic framework used to control interpretation” (Wolf in the Sheepfold, 18), then the hermeneutical strategy which a community applies to the Bible is more decisive for how and in what ways the texts shape us, and what shape they give us, than the individual texts themselves. Because of this, the task of subjecting our various hermeneutic frameworks to criticism is of vital importance.

[9] Even those wings of the Church that would not make this affirmation (e.g. extreme liberal, feminist) participate in the same activity of asking and answering the question of what to use the Bible for and how to do so. They also, therefore, would benefit from attending to the argument presented below.

[10] The Gagging of God, 151

[11] Lalleman, Celebrating the Law? 54-55. Concerning Cyril S. Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land. His comments on 325, 27.

[12] So Grudem, ‘Scriptures Self-Attestation and the Problem of Formulating a Doctrine of Scripture’

[13] These two explanations represent two different notions of authority. The first sees authority as something external, it is a status and role given to someone or something by a person or community. The second sees authority as internal, it is a quality inherent in something or someone. In the final analysis however, authority is always external. In both notions it must be recognized and accepted because the use of force equals power and not authority. See Rodd, Glimpses of A Strange Land, 325, and Bauckham, ‘Scripture and Authority’

[14] For a methodologically grounded proposal for discerning moral judgments within Old Testament narratives, see Gordon J. Wenham, Story as Torah: Reading the Old Testament Ethically (Edinburgh: T&T, 2001). For cautions concerning this approach in general, see Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, 56-70

[15] See for example, Carson, ‘Unity and Diversity in the New Testament’

[16] John Goldingay discusses the degrees of diversity and forms of contradiction within the Old Testament, and establishes four categories: (1) formal contradictions, (2) contextual contradictions, (3) substantial contradictions, and (4) fundamental contradictions. (Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, 15-25)

[17] Gen 17.14 “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (nrsv)

[18] Internal principles are those where the decision and argument is made within a biblical document. An external principle is one which is based upon larger theological systems or other considerations such as tradition, goal, etc. In this example both are present. The text of Galatians makes the argument, but the choice of Galatians over Genesis witnesses to a consideration of the historical movement within the Bible. Galatians belongs to a point in history further along the line than Genesis where certain developments have taken place, most notably the Christ event. The Christian, for whom Christ is at the center, thus privileges the writings of the New Testament over the Old. This, of course, may be grounded within biblical teaching as well.

[19] A slight alteration is to affirm that the entire Bible is authoritative, but that no one part has this quality on its own. Authority is the collective value of the canon of scriptures. The Bible is authoritative, but not all the biblical material is. This too requires selection. Certain scriptures or theological teachings/commands take the authoritative function and others do not. The grounds for which should take this place is not immediately clear, and so external considerations inevitably play a role in making the decision.

[20] Grenz, The Moral Quest, 244. Concerning people’s ‘selective weighing’ of Scripture in terms of importance and obedience to different instructions, William Loader rightly remarks, “This is not arbitrary or disrespectful, but is seen to be consistent with the approaches within scripture, itself.” (‘Approaches to Scripture’)

[21] There are no doubt other reasons for obeying biblical commands that do not rest upon the assumption of biblical authority as a hermeneutical strategy. If we understand there to be a connection between the Ten Commandments and the created order for instance, this will give us impetus to obey them.

[22] Unfortunately ‘authority’ appears to have become the “indispensable theological category” within which to understand the Bible and its function (Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 8). The recent reawakening to the diversity of literary forms in the Bible is welcomed, and has led to the aspiration to define their function accordingly. But the desire to retain the concept of authority and to build a system of functions within this framework can only distorts things. In doing so we find ourselves effectively working backwards, no longer moving from text to description and function, but from presumed function to text. In this process we end up treating the text as something it is not, distorting its actual purpose and loosing some of the Bibles richness.

[23] For a good introduction to the basic genres within the Bible, see Marshall D. Johnson, Making Sense of the Bible: Literary Type as an Approach to Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002)

[24] Rather than beginning with abstract concepts such as ‘revelation’, ‘inspiration’, or ‘Word of God’, we need to begin with the literary character of the Bible and the nature of the faith its presents. Because of the general nature of these abstract concepts, they are often treated as empty vessels and filled with what we think they must mean. If we are to make use of them, we need to let the character of the Bible shape what they mean, and this may be drastically different than usually envisaged.

[25] Goldingay terms this the ‘formal’ unity of the Old Testament: “Formally, all these writings belong to one history; they are the deposit of the historical experience of Israel in its pre-Christian period. Together they are thus also the deposit of one unified religious tradition, whose development is one aspect of that history. Further, and more specifically again, they all belong to the form of that tradition which came to have the status of a canon of normative writings in Judaism.” (The Theological Diversity of the Old Testament, 30) This notion could be extended to include the New Testament as carrying on that history and development.

[26] “There is no doubt that text and community are dialectically related, that is, that community forms text and text evokes community.” (Brueggemann, The Book that Breathes New Life, 10-11)

[27] On the difference between biblical narratives and modern history, see the many articles in Bartholomew (ed.), ‘Behind’ the Text. On the nature of Old Testament narratives, see Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narratives.

[28] Although often asserted, the unity and coherence of the Bible is rarely explained. But the claim must be given content if it is to have any real meaning. Some have claimed that the scriptures present a coherent theology, but it has been shown that this is not the case (see Goldingay, Theological Diversity and the Authority of the Old Testament, 1-28). Others have tried to locate its coherence and unity in a single topos such as “love”, but this inevitably results in the neglect or rejection of all else that either appears to contradict it or that is not particularly related to it. Further, because this approach does not provide any real framework for reading the Bible theologically, there is also the problem of where in Scripture to draw a definition of love from (On the inadequacy of ‘love’, see Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 200-204).

[29] “Theologically speaking these longer and shorter narrative works are implicitly part of a more extensive overarching story.” (Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 23). In this paper I will not tackle the problems related to claiming that the many individual narratives within scripture form one extended narrative, as the great majority of Evangelical readers, unlike most critical scholars, have little problem with this. Bauckham argues convincingly that “the biblical texts themselves recognize and assert, in a necessarily cumulative manner, the unity of the story they tell.” see, ‘Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story’, quote from 40

[30] Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 23

[31] Hart, ‘Tradition, Authority, and a Christian Approach to the Bible as Scripture’, 197

[32] Bauckham, ‘Scripture and Authority’, 7

[33] The psalms and the wisdom literature all belong to places within the history of God’s people, even if at times they are hard to place.

[34] This frame of reference is necessary for understanding most of the biblical documents. “At the center of Scripture is a set of narratives and these narratives are the frame around which the whole of Scripture is constructed. Apart from these narratives the Prophets would not be intelligible and without the frame of the Gospel narratives it would be difficult to understand the full meaning of the parables, epistles, creeds, and hymns of the New Testament .” (Stroup, The Promise of Narrative Theology, 145)

[35] Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 108

[36] It has become popular as of late both among Evangelical academics and lay people to brandish the term ‘worldview’. I suspect however that because of its excess usage and the lack of clear definition that this has betrayed, the term has become somewhat unhelpful in popular discussion. Furthermore, I fear it has sometimes been used as a means of manipulation, of forcing Christians ‘into line’ by making issues that are not central to the faith (and which are often highly and justifiably debatable) appear to be so. However, if clearly defined the concept can be of great assistance. For a history of the concept and its usage, see Naugle Worldview: The History of a Concept.

[37] The metaphor of “lenses” has popularly been employed to illustrate how worldviews work. We always view the world through a set of lenses, the color of which affects how we perceive things. Thus, when wearing blue-tint lenses, what we look at takes on different shades of blue. If read lenses, then shades of red, and so on. Different colored lenses denote different worldviews. But one need not be aware of the effect that ones worldview has on how one perceives things. As with lenses, we do not usually consider them, nor do we even have to be aware that we are wearing any, we simply stare as if they don’t exist. Further, one who wears blue lenses does not doubt that the world is colored in shades of blue, as the lenses are believed to provide the most accurate, if not true perception. It is believed that without these particular lenses things would not be seen clearly, and with others things would be distorted.

It is both appropriate to speak of ‘perceiving’ and inappropriate to speak of simply ‘seeing’ because at a more fundamental level, worldviews are constitutive of the human person and hence human cognition. To extend the metaphor, we cannot use our eyes at all if we are not wearing lenses. Indeed, the lenses are our eyes. We might wish to speak of prescription lenses without which all is a blur, but when worn, things come into focus, and what was but a chaotic blur without them receives clarity and order.

[38] More strongly, they determine what we can accept as true when wishing to remain rational and logical.

[39] Walsh and Middleton, Transforming Vision, 35. N. T. Wright offers a useful corrective to the individualism within this scheme by replacing the ‘am I’ with ‘are we’ (Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 123, n.6). This takes into account the recent emphasis on community in hermeneutics and the social sciences.

[40] Wright, T. R., Theology and Literature, 84

[41] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 38. They are infact logically prior to them, and for a belief to be challenged the story that under girds it must first be subverted and replaced with another. A belief may be may of course be challenged as not logically following from a story.

[42] Naugle, Worldview, 303

[43] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 40

[44] ibid.

[45] Summarizing Alistair MacIntyre’s perspective, Naugle writes, “Human life is dominated by story. Narrative identity determines how one lives and conducts oneself in the world. One is oriented to life in the world by the power of stories to shape consciousness and direct behavior. The roles which people play, how they understand themselves and others, how the world itself is structured and operates are entirely a function of the narrative plots that reign in human lives and communities.” (‘Narrative and Life’, 6)

[46] It is not concerned with what might be termed the ‘sub-plots’ that arise and which find resolution within the story (e.g. exile).

[47] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 69-77

[48] This is only a very broad outline, and details from the narratives will need to be added (e.g. the goodness of creation). Bartholomew and Goheen outline the Biblical story in terms of the theme of ‘kingdom’. In creation God establishes his kingdom, there is then rebellion in the kingdom, the king then initiates redemption by choosing Israel and redemption is accomplished through the coming of the kingdom through Jesus, the Church then spreads the news of the kingdom, and finally redemption is completed with the return of the king (see The Drama of Scripture). This seems helpful, and may suggest that we broaden the scope of our grand-narrative to include all these elements. ‘Worldview’ is a descriptive concept after all, and if it is found that all these elements can form a controlling story, then it would be fallacious to rule them out. This is something that needs further exploration.

[49] Jesus and the Victory of God, 443

[50] The tragedy is the circularity of this. The reading habits themselves steer us away from seeing the Bibles vision.

[51] “We have fragmented the Bible into bits—moral bits, systematic-theological bits, devotional bits, historical-critical bits, narrative bits, and homiletical bits. When the Bible is broken up in this way there is no comprehensive grand narrative to withstand the power of the comprehensive humanist narrative that shapes our culture. The Bible bits are accommodated to the more comprehensive cultural story, and it becomes that story—i.e. the cultural story—that shapes our lives.” (Goheen, ‘Reading the Bible as One Story’, 5)

[52] Bartholomew and Goheen, The Drama of Scripture, 197. “The biblical story exists independently of our stories, pulls us away from our subjectivity, and makes a claim of its own on our present existence. It has authority. We do not read our stories into scripture, but make the scriptural story our story and tell our stories in the light of scripture. We do not translate scripture into our categories but redescribe our experience in its categories.” (Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 109)

[53] Bauckham, ‘Scripture and Authority’, 7

[54] Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 140-41

[55] ibid. 140

[56] ibid.

[57] ibid.

[58] “For the Christian theologian, the Bible is not a convenient divinely dictated handbook in which to look up the answers, but it is the record of persons and events that have been particularly open to the presence of divine reality and through which the divine nature may most transparently be discerned.” (Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World, 53)

[59] Spohn, What Are They Saying About Scripture and Ethics, 7

[60] Bauckham, The Bible in Politics, 6. There are however, numerous problems with this approach. For one thing, it may once again be found to be indebted to the notion of ‘authority’, striving to make every part of scripture come to bear upon us in some way. But further than this, problems exist with the various ways scholars have gone about finding the ‘instructive’ element in material that can no longer be ‘instruction’. By what criteria do we determine what ‘principal’ lies behind a given command? On the difficulties with this approach, see Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land, 310-14, who offers a critique of Bauckham’s application of this approach to the Old Testament.

[61] I must make it clear that it is not the advancement of time alone that relativises instruction, so that thousands of years removed from formative Israel we are no longer bound by the divine prescriptions contained within the Pentateuch. It is advancements within the stories plot, where God does something new and asks something new of his people. Thus, everything must be placed within its context in the story. Where the passing of time does have an impact, is where instructions are sufficiently specific as to not be applicable today. As the biblical story progresses the world changes (, politically, culturally, socially, etc.,) and the situations God’s people faced changed as a result. For a recent exploration and a proposal of how the cultural embeddedness of the scriptures can be recognized and taken into account when ‘applying’ them, see Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.

[62] “It is ironic that many people in the modern world have regarded Christianity as a private worldview, a set of private stories …But in principle the whole point of Christianity is that it offers a story which is the story of the whole world.”( Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, 39)

[63] “History is affirmed by the biblical writers as the locus of God’s action… and the terrain upon which his purpose is worked out… It is the action of God, therefore, that is understood to give history its purpose and that directs it towards its goal. Only thus is the succession of events conceivable as ‘history’.” (Rae, ‘Creation and Promise’, 288)

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