Study No. 4: An Overview of the Bible

Holy Bible It is important, in any subject, to gain a clear perspective from which to view the subject in more detail, and we need to be sure that our perspective is the most helpful one.

I have always been interested in maps, and particularly those that show national boundaries and main cities and towns.  It was a revelation to me however when I first realised that this kind of map is not as fundamental to the geography of an area as one that highlights instead the physical features, the hills and dales, the rivers and other physical features.  Why is this more fundamental?  Because it is virtually unchanging.  The study of historical geography shows us how often national boundaries have changed over the years, but the mountains and rivers have been unchanging.  These have in fact had more influence on the shaping of national boundaries than is often realised.

It is possible to read the Bible and to do so even fairly extensively without really gaining a perspective from which to view it as a whole, but it is important to gain such a perspective.  This is because the Bible, although consisting of sixty-six books, is in fact a whole, it is one  Book.

There are two main ways in which we may gain such a perspective. We will look at them in turn.

1. The story-line of the Bible

a. The Big Story

In the Bible there is an all-embracing metanarrative, a Big Story, that provides a context for everything.  A metanarrative is an all-encompassing narrative that embraces many smaller stories, or a kind of general view of things that tries to take everything into account.

There are two kinds of metanarratives.  There is the literary metanarrative.  This occurs when a large volume (such as Tolstoy`s War and Peace) or a series of volumes about the same people (like the Harry Potter books) or about an extended family (like the Forsyte Saga ) has an overarching theme.  When we read one of the later books we recognise a theme that has been important in earlier volumes.

The other kind is the philosophical or theological metanarrative. This often has a literary expression but it is not purely literary. It is an overview of the whole of reality, of everything that exists, from a particular theological or philosophical angle, a kind of grand theory which is intended to embrace everything and everybody.

There have been some very influential ones in recent centuries.  In the nineteenth century, both Georg Hegel and Herbert Spencer promoted philosophical metanarratives, but the most influential “Big Story” from that period was that of Karl Marx.  He thought of human history as the story of social conflict, the clash of social classes, and he believed in the inevitable movement of history towards the goal of the universal communist society.

Many of these metanarratives have virtually died out, often “dying the death of a thousand qualifications”.  Those who held them tried to make some adjustments in detail in order to retain the metanarrative in general but eventually they had to concede defeat.  Perhaps the most famous historical example of this is the way that the old Ptolemaic cosmology, in which the earth was the centre of the universe, had to give way to that associated with the work of men like Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, in which the earth was replaced by the sun as the centre of what we now call the solar system.

In some cases, the discrediting of a metanarrative has had a devastating affect on those who had held on to it for many years.  A number of dedicated Marxists in eastern Europe committed suicide with the demise of communism there, realising that virtually their whole adult lives had been built on sand.

It is often said that since the advent of postmodernism the day of the metanarrative is over, and that people in this postmodern age have rejected the very idea.  I realise that some people using this course may not be clear as to what postmodernism is, so a little digression may be in place.

Postmodernism is an outlook which has been gaining ground since about the middle of the twentieth century.

Modernism is characterised by the scientific outlook and confidence in reason which has been dominant since the seventeenth century.  It is keen on definiteness and classification, not only in the sciences but in every realm of human interest.  In fact at times there has been a tendency to try to treat some subjects as sciences for which that term is of doubtful appropriateness – history, for example.

Postmodernism, on the other hand, is suspicious of such confidence and thinks that it is too often motivated by self-interest.  It emphasises diversity and rejects attempts to press everything and everybody into the same mould, and, at the commercial level, shows itself in “pick and mix” consumerism.  The basic ideas characterising postmodernism have been around for a very long time, but it has become more and more influential in recent times.

Not surprisingly, postmoderns tend to reject metanarratives, because they think they are attempts to give a general explanation to everything, and because they are convinced that such metanarratives can be used to exert pressure on people to conform to a certain pattern of thought and of life.  There is truth in this, of course, but this does not mean that there cannot be a valid metanarrative, particularly one that is persuasive rather than coercive, as is the gospel when properly conceived.

For many people, in fact, a metanarrative meets a psychological need, because a big story that embraces my little story can give me a sense of security.  Not only so, but it gives my life some meaning.  There is something bigger than I out there and this whole order of things is going somewhere.  I am not after all adrift on an ocean of meaningless with neither paddles nor a rudder;  my life has meaning and significance.  Christians have so often found that conversion to Christ and recognition that he, and now I in him, are at the heart of God’s Big Story, is not stultifying or confining but profoundly liberating. [1]

What then is God’s Big Story?  The Bible is full of stories, true stories of actual historical characters, and all these stories find their place within a big story, which encompasses all the literature.  How can we characterise this Big Story?

The first thing to realise is that it is God’s Story.  We know, of course, that Jesus is the chief character of the New Testament, but who is the major one in the Old? It is not easy to say.  Perhaps it is Abraham; after all he was the father of the whole Hebrew race.  But then again, Moses has a big claim, and it  may be that in the period of the life of Jesus, a majority of the Jews would have named him as the most important.  Then there is David, the “man after God’s own heart”,  the king from whom all the authentic monarchs of Judah came.  (There was one usurper; see if you can find out in Second Kings who that was.)

All these answers are wrong, for the chief character of the Old Testament is undoubtedly God.  It is his activity at every point of the story that binds it all together.   Of course if we believe, with the New Testament writers, that Jesus is God Incarnate, then God is the chief character of all Scripture.

Let us now trace the Bible’s own metanarrative.

The Bible starts with the creation of the universe, outlined in Genesis 1, one of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible.  The human beings who are the climax  and centre of God’s creative work (the emphasis respectively of Genesis 1 and 2), are tempted by Satan, they rebel against God and are banished (Genesis 3) and thereafter, not surprisingly, things keep on going wrong as the human race is in spiritual and moral decline.  Nevertheless in his grace God promises the advent of a suffering and yet conquering Redeemer (Genesis 3:16).

The next important point comes with the covenant of God with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), which established a special relationship with his descendants, not just for their blessing but for that of the whole human race.  Eventually his descendants are captives in Egypt, and God in his grace delivers them through Moses, meets them at Mount Sinai and gives them his law (Exodus to Deuteronomy). Joshua is appointed to lead them into the land of Canaan (the Book of Joshua), where they settle.

Their story is one of constant rebellion against God, but also of God’s grace to them when they repented through the ministries of the prophets (the historical books from Judges to Esther and the books of the prophets).  After the unsatisfactory reign of Saul, they were given a king in David and then in his successors, but eventually, because of their constant rebellion, the kingdom was divided into two and first many people of the northern kingdom and then of the southern were taken into captivity in Mesopotamia.  God did not abandon them or forget them, however, but brought a remnant of them back to the land.

Throughout this whole history, God made promises to them about the future often centring in a great Figure, who was variously portrayed as a king, a prophet, a priest and in other ways too.  It was not evident within the Old Testament that all these figures were one, but in the fulness of time he sent Jesus as the fulfilment of all these promises. Through the work of Jesus the Christian church was established and was endowed with the Holy Spirit, and we await the story’s consummation at his promised Second Advent.

It is clear from the New Testament emphasis on prophecy and its fulfilment, that everything in Scripture moves towards the story of Christ.

There are passages where particular features of this story are highlighted because of their special importance.  A clear example of this is to be found in Paul’s epistle to the Romans.  Here, in chapter 5, he highlights the importance of Adam and Moses and Christ.  Also in a number of passages we see the special significance of Abraham and of David (e.g. in Matthew 1:1). So then, we might select Adam, Abraham, Moses, David and Christ, as the most significant figures in the Big Story.  Others, like Jacob, Joshua, Peter and Paul might also be regarded as candidates, but we need to stop somewhere.

As everything in the Bible occurs in the context of this big, true story, we should remember this wide context, this historical perspective, when studying any passage of the Bible.  Eugene Peterson goes so far as to say, “It takes the whole Bible to read any part of the Bible,” but he also quotes Northrop Frye as saying, “Ideally, every sentence is the key to the whole Bible.”[2] Paradoxically, both statements are true.

I hope that last paragraph will be an incentive to keep going with this course!

b. The Central Story

In looking at the metanarrative, we moved swiftly over its most important part, the story of Jesus.  We will look now at this, still in outline but with emphasis on particularly important events.

Is “central” the best word, however, or should that be “ultimate”?  This question really turns on what we mean by fulfilment in Christ, for we see that this occurs in two stages, in his first and second advents.  The historical distinction and yet theological union of his advents (which we will look at more fully in a later study) means that we can argue either for “central” or “ultimate” as the right word.  Whatever our decision, there can be no doubt as to the special importance of his first advent, for, as we shall see in a later study, the second advent takes much of its significance from its relationship to his first.

The story of Jesus is told in the four Gospels, each of them viewing it from a somewhat different perspective, and to have them all, with their differing features, is immensely enriching.  Nevertheless there are particular aspects of his story that are not only mentioned but emphasised by each of the four writers.

Two of them (Matthew and Luke) include his birth, but all four concentrate on the ministry of his adult years and highlight the baptism with which it commenced.  It is clear that he came as the fulfilment of prophecy.  In each Gospel, the story of his ministry shows not only his true humanity but also his uniqueness, as Lord, as the Son of God and the Son of Man.  There is plenty of action and plenty of teaching, but the focus of each Gospel is on the last week of his life, on his passion and death followed by his resurrection from the dead.  Throughout his ministry he often spoke of his second advent which will, of course, bring the whole metanarrative to its denouement

Paul is so helpful in making clear to us what the heart of this central story and in fact of the whole metanarrative is when he says, “I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).  Whatever we do not emphasise,. we must stress these great facts, the very heart of the story and of our faith.

About a hundred years ago, G. Campbell Morgan wrote a book entitled, The Crises of the Christ[3], in which there are chapters on each of the items I have mentioned here, but also several others, like the temptations of Jesus and his transfiguration.  Although an old book, and also a volume in which the author indulges in a certain amount of theological speculation, it is still worth reading for its emphasis on the events of special importance in the life of Jesus.

Of course, there is a very real sense in which the whole Bible, not just the Gospels nor even the whole New Testament, is about Jesus.  How can this be when we have already said that it is God who is the Bible’s chief character?  Because, of course, although he is also truly human, Jesus is himself God.

c. Your Story and my Story

Did you realise that if you are a Christian you are in the Bible, that it is in a very real sense a book about you?  As Christians, our small stories find their place both in the central story and in the metanarrative.

This is true in the sense that we belong to the story of the church, the early stages of which are recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, and which will come to its climax at the Second Advent.  It is however true at a deeper, a profoundly theological level, as I hope we will now see.

Paul`s teaching helps us very much here.  He frequently refers to the fact that we are “in Christ”, which means of course that the story of the Bible involves us in quite a deep sense, for we are “in” the one whose story it really is.  It is not irrelevant to us, but our own lives are deeply involved in it and it gives those lives great significance.

Although Paul majors in this doctrine, it is not peculiar to him, for Jesus not only used the illustration of the vine and the branches in John 15, but also the profound illustration of the mutual indwelling of his Father and himself in John 17:11 and 20 to 23.  So then in this as in so much else Paul’s teaching followed his Master’s.

What then does this kind of language imply?  We can perhaps begin to understand a little of it when we see that Paul also writes of all human beings as being “in Adam” (Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22).  This is because Adam and Christ are the two great representative figures in the history of the human race.  This means that what Adam did, in his transgression of God’s commandment, has significance also for us, as we were in him.  Now theologians have wrestled with this biblical idea and their approaches to it have varied a little.  But common to all evangelical interpretations is the fact that Adam’s act of sin has involved us all in sin and guilt.  Now when Christians are said to be in Christ, this means that, by the grace of God, his righteous act of dying for our sins involves us all. We are sinners through Adam’s disobedience, but now we are righteous through Christ’s obedience to death.  This is what Paul expounds for his readers in Romans 5:12-21.

What then does this amazing union with Christ mean for Christians?  Paul shows us when he tells us that we died and were buried and were raised with Christ, especially in Romans 6, where this is the major theme of the chapter.  Because we are joined to him by grace through faith, all that happened to him in those great events which climaxed his life and ministry is true for us too.  In Ephesians Paul goes even further, relating our union with Christ to the whole series of events which came to its climax when Jesus was taken up to heaven, for there we were exalted with him (Ephesians 2:1-10).

So then the whole story of Jesus has meaning for us as Christians.  It was his story but by the grace of God it is our story too.  What lies behind it is the fact that he is both our Substitute and our Representative, taking our place but also acting for us, and both of these by God’s appointment.  As our Substitute, he went through crucifixion, which involved for him the awfulness of abandonment by his Father (Matthew 27:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21), so that we need not go through it.  As our Representative, he experienced resurrection and exaltation so that by God’s grace we can experience them. The negative experiences are his as our Substitute, the positive ones as our Representative.  His story becomes ours too.

Now substitution and representation are deep and very blessed truths, and the previous paragraph has somewhat over-simplified them (especially as Christ’s work on the cross also has representative significance) but to elaborate on them further now would divert us from the main point at issue here.  Some of the studies I will be encouraging you to do later may help us to understand them more fully.

To say that we are in Christ does not mean of course that we become divine beings.  The distinction between Creator and creatures remains.  This is not however to rob this language of its deep significance

2. The great Themes of the Bible

As we have just seen, the metanarrative of Scripture has great theological importance.  This is because in Scripture there is an intimate link between theology and history.  To say that Jesus died is an historical statement, while to go further and say that he died for our sins is a theological statement.  Over the past two centuries or so, some writers have tried to detach the theology from the history, either treating the history as the more important and setting aside the theology, or vice versa.  The former was more characteristic of some nineteenth century writers, while the latter came into vogue among some writers in the twentieth century.  Both these approaches are alien to the Bible itself, for the two are so intertwined as to be inseparable.

Theologians with a special interest in the Old Testament have tried to identify the main theme of the Old Testament books, and they have often gone on to make a link with the same theme in the New Testament.  There have been various suggestions as to this main theme, most of them interesting and helpful, but there has not been general agreement.  It is probably best then to regard each suggestion as identifying a significant theme, without necessarily underlining any one of them as the most important of all.

In your studies of the Old Testament, you should therefore become aware of the importance of words and ideas such as election, covenant, promise, fulfilment, redemption, inheritance and proclamation.  These are some of the themes particular scholars have suggested in their attempts to identify the leading theme of the Old Testament.  Notice that it is not just these important words that are significant but the ideas they represent and that are associated with them, and which may not always use these actual words.

You will find a number of these words and ideas in the important early chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy (chapters 1 to 11), which is a key book for the theological teaching of the Old Testament, and it would be good for you to read this section of the book to note them.  It will also become obvious to you as you study the New Testament that each of these words and ideas has a place of importance there as well.  Each of them sums up a mode in which God relates to his people, for the Bible is not simply about God but about how God engages with his people, and he does so in a number of related ways.

You could start making notes of these widely used words and ideas when they occur in your Bible reading, and any others that strike you as particularly important.  In this way you will build up your theological grasp of the Bible, and will begin to see how inter-related all these great truths are.  Note also that there is a strong emphasis on history in these chapters of Deuteronomy.  It was in the context of the acts of God that these great truths became clear to his people.

Your study of the New Testament will reveal to you that just as the biblical history reaches its climax in Christ, so all these themes also meet in the New Testament in him, as he is the supreme Theme of Scripture.

3. All Biblical roads lead to Christ

Once again, as at the end of Study 2, we find ourselves confronted by the Bible’s testimony to Christ.

Crossword puzzles, since they were first introduced, have never lost their appeal, and there are probably few people who have never attempted one.  They are based, of course, on the fact that the clues across and the clues down integrate at certain points, so that the completed puzzle forms an interlocking pattern.  It is rather like that with study of the Word of God.  The Bible may be studied historically or it may be studied theologically and these two types of study interlock.  We may liken the metanarrative of the Bible to the clues across, and the great themes of the Bible to the clues down.

Take, for instance, the place of Abraham in the metanarrative.  This is an important place, for he is the father of the Jewish race, and so much of the Bible is about that people.  The developing story that runs on through Jacob, through Moses, through David, finds it point of climax in Christ.  If you examine the story of Abraham you will find many of the great themes there.  There is election, for he was chosen by God; there is covenant, for God established a covenant with him; there is proclamation, for later books of the Old Testament proclaim the story of God’s dealings with him for the edification and encouragement of readers (Joshua 24:3;  Isaiah 51:2; cf. Acts 7:2).

We will take a second example from David.  He too was chosen by God, when Samuel visited the house of Jesse, David’s father; God made a covenant with him which involved the important promise of a lasting dynasty, and this is proclaimed in some of the psalms and in the books of the prophets.  The theme of fulfilment is here too, for earlier passages of the Old Testament had promised that kingship would be a feature of the tribe of Judah, David’s tribe.

You may do the same at any major point of the metanarrative.  In this way, you will build up an increasingly strong historical/theological grasp of the Bible.  This is far better than taking only an historical or only a theological approach.

The very first verse of the New Testament (Matthew 1:1) recognises the important historical/ theological relationship between the Old Testament and the New when Matthew begins his Gospel by giving his readers “a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

When you apply this dual approach, you will find that not only the history but also the theology will lead you to a deeper understanding of Christ.  We have already seen that the metanarrative climaxes in his person and work, but this is also true of the themes.  All these originate in the Old Testament and find their great fulfilment in him, and because if we are Christians we are in him, they are significant for us too.  We are chosen in Him (Ephesians 1:4) , experience the New Covenant in him (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:25), and so on.

In all your study of the Bible, ask God through his Spirit to show you Jesus, that you may the better worship and serve him, so that the Spirit integrates not only your understanding of the Bible but every aspect of your life around him.

We will study the Bible’s testimony to Christ much more fully later, and will seek to see, not only how rich that testimony is, but also the importance of applying the Christological principle of interpretation aright.

For further reading: Vaughan Roberts, God`s Big Picture: Tracing the Story-line of the Bible, Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2003; articles on particular biblical themes in T. D. Alexander and B. S. Rosner, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 2000.


[1] This treatment of postmodernism is necessarily very brief. but if you would like to know more about it and the implications of it for preaching the gospel and for world mission, see R.Tiplady,  World Mission by a Postmodern Generation,  2002 (ADD)

[2] E. H.Peterson, Eat this Book: a conversation in the art of spiritual reading, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006, pp. 48-49.

[3] G Campbell Morgan, The Crises of the Christ, Wipf and Stock, 2005

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