The Grand Story

Have we yet explored the hermeneutical potential of permitting the Bible to speak to us with its own narrative power?

Jan Barna, PhD, is lecturer in systematic and biblical theology at Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, England.

Reading and preaching the Bible as an overarching story with its own plot, predicament, develop­ment, and resolution remains a powerful method to bring people to Christianity. Yet the Christian church, including Protestant traditions, has read the Bible in a fragmented and dogmatic way. Early apostolic creeds, scholastic speculations, and Protestant orthodoxy have all docu­mented this practice. The idea of the Bible as a grand story has been so lost that many are surprised to hear that the Bible presents a coherent and powerful narrative.

Adventism, standing in the tra­dition of radical reformation, has attempted to break away from the traditional dogmatic and creedal formulations. But, in pursuing this impressive and challenging task, have we allowed the Bible to be what it fundamentally is—a grand narrative? Have we yet explored the hermeneutical potential of permitting the Bible to speak to us with its own narrative power?

Narrative power

In the past few decades, biblical scholars have recognized that doc­trinal and fragmented Bible reading and preaching do not do justice to Scripture’s overall narrative form.1 Even though the canon of Scripture consists of many genres and top­ics, the Bible is, as N. T. Wright observes, “[N]ot only . . . irreducibly narrative in form, but also displays an extraordinary . . . overall storyline of astonishing power and consistency. . . . [W]hat we have, from Genesis to Revelation, is a massive narrative structure.”2

The task of allowing the Bible to speak with its own narrative power should, therefore, start with the recognition that the diverse biblical writings are much like pieces of a puzzle that, together, make up one grand picture. One of the Adventist pioneers, Ellen G. White, wrote that reading the Bible requires more than just “searching out the various parts” but also “studying their relationship.” Furthermore, she implied that readers need to make “the effort” to view individual parts “in their relation to the grand central thought” of the Bible. Indeed, the study of the great whole of Scripture “is the highest study in which it is possible for man to engage. As no other study can, it will quicken the mind and uplift the soul.”3

The author’s suggestion seems to point beyond the mere compare­text-with-text methodology; rather, Ellen G. White makes the radical suggestion that readers will get the best value out of their study when reading the Bible as a coherent great whole with a “grand central thought.” Such an approach, she implies, will shape the minds of readers as nothing else can.

If we, therefore, tried to follow what she and others say, what kind of grand picture could we piece together? What could reading and preaching the Bible as a grand story look like? Here is one proposal that we have been developing in several European countries.

First principles

First, the “piecing together” begins with formulating the first principles of the grand story. These are given at the beginning of the biblical canon, the first two chapters of Genesis. They proclaim that, in the universe, there are only God and the creation, and that the creation, by the way of being brought into existence, is dependent on God (Gen. 1:1; 2:7). These first principles (God-creation­dependence) provide readers with the universal theistic worldview ori­entation, which in a particular way shapes the developments, stories, and statements at every stage in the Bible’s big narrative. These first principles inform us that humans are on a life-support system and that God is the existential necessity who keeps the whole creation, including life on earth, running.4

The theme of evil

Before we can discuss the indi­vidual stages, we need also to mention the theme of human evil, which runs through the biblical story like a central thread and unites the individual stages. This central theme, that of human evil, does not stand alone, however; rather it is intertwined with the two-way response of God’s blessing and curse. The interaction between the central theme and the two motifs conse­quently creates the grand narrative’s plotline, and it advances this plotline through individual stages, to which we can now turn.

Seven stages

The narrative-stages principle arises from the nature of the biblical material itself; it can be divided into seven major stages. The stages themselves are discernible by major transitional events that advance the narrative. These are (1) Creation, (2) the Fall, (3) the Promise and the People, (4) the Fulfillment in Jesus, (5) the Fulfillment and the People, (6) the Day of the Lord, and (7) the New Creation. Seeing these stages as they proceed and gradually build up a much larger story enables readers to hear the powerful symphony of Scripture.

The first stage, Creation (Gen. 1; 2), constitutes a “preamble” to the grand story. It tells about the good creation God had made, one with no hint of evil or deficiency (Gen. 1:31). All was harmonious; the Sabbath rest of God and His creation is the expression of this harmony.

Then the narrative enters into a new stage, when the serpent deceived humanity by lying to them about God and their dependency upon Him (Gen. 3). Something went horribly wrong. As a result of the Fall (the second stage), humanity is exiled, excluded from participating in the Creator’s immortality (vv. 22–24).

But then in the middle of the Fall story, a promise (the third stage) is given to Adam and Eve (v. 15) to undo the serpent’s lies and all he brought to the human experience. This promise will be fulfilled through one of their seed—or descendants. The genealogies in Genesis 5, 10, and 11 parade descendants who are seen as part of the same family. With the appearance of Abraham (the first substage), the story for the first time “slows” and narrows down. Readers can now see how God advances the promise specifically through the family of Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17).

When the nation of Israel enters onto the scene in the book of Exodus, it is the collective seed of Abraham. Faithful to the covenant promise, God hears their cries and redeems them from slavery and all oppression (Exod. 3:20). The story advances through the nation of Israel, even though often it is not a straightforward journey.

With the appearance of David and his kingdom, the narrative narrows down once more. David receives an extraordinary promise, which sits firmly on all the previous promises, but also sets out a new agenda for the kingdom theme (2 Sam. 7; cf. Gen. 17:6, 16). From now on, the idea of the kingdom and David as the king will become dominant in the story. The story of the kingdom will also take various turns, but the poetic literature and the preexilic and postexilic prophets will look back with great anticipation to the promise given to David about his seed and the kingdom. And all Israel will be expect­ing the fulfillment of this kingdom.

Then the grand narrative enters into its central stage (the fourth) in the New Testament Gospels. Jesus is immediately presented as the prom­ised Descendant of Abraham and David (Matt. 1:1). His life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension are all part of the “great exodus” from the continuing exile in which human­ity has been ever since the Fall (Luke 9:31; John 8:33–36). He deals with more than one nation’s problems; He addresses the problems of all human­ity. While we have not been part of the first four stages of this great nar­rative, we nevertheless live with their preconditions and the consequences of what happened at these stages. In Jesus, all of the previous promises, mentioned at previous stages, come to fulfillment and the readers can see a decisive turn in the story.

However, the narrative does not end with Jesus’ death, resurrection, or even ascension. Immediately after His ascension, a new stage opens. In this new phase, the people of God (the fifth stage) are once again reestablished and Israel—now with a new disposition of hearts towards God—is relaunched as a new com­munity (Acts 2–4, 10; Rom. 3:28, 29; 9–11). People become part of the new Israel, not through national or blood connections with the seed of Abraham anymore, but through the faith connection with the Seed. In this stage, the newly constituted community of believers now tells the story of the Creator God, humanity, and the Fall. But now they add the story of Jesus, and, by so doing, they announce that Jesus is now the promised Davidic King and in charge of humanity (Rev. 5). But before He will reign as the King in His escha­tological kingdom, He must serve as the Priest in the heavenly sanctuary (Ps. 110; Heb. 8; 9) to mediate to humanity the benefits of His past work so that as many as possible may be part of His future work.

According to the narrative, the Day of the Lord and the New Creation phases are both in the future from our perspective. The Day of the Lord stage (sixth) is a separating stage that effectuates the final great exodus of all humanity. The big questions are answered here. The Day of the Lord is not only about the second coming of Jesus; it includes pre-Advent, Advent, and post-Advent judicial aspects too (Dan. 7–9, Rev. 20). Questions regarding God’s character and His dealing with evil are of interest to the whole universe and must be dealt with and answered on the basis of the evidence. Just as stage two mys­teriously introduced a certain serpent who attacked the character of God and brought all of the evil to the world of God’s creation, so stage six directly corresponds with the second stage: it addresses the evil by unmasking the lies of the serpent, his character, and consequently justifies God’s reign and His people (Rev. 12–20).

Only after this, the narrative finally arrives at the last (seventh) stage, the New Creation phase (Rev. 21; 22). This is where the curse ends, where sin, death, and all evil are no more. Everything is created anew. With the curse of the Fall reversed, humanity continues its eternal journey with God. Then even Jesus will hand over the kingdom to God (1 Cor. 15:24–28).

But the earlier stages are not for­gotten either; they are immortalized through the names of the 12 tribes of Israel and 12 apostles written on the foundations of the New Jerusalem as an everlasting reminder of God’s infinite faithfulness to His creation.

The potential of Scripture

Reading the Scriptures through these seven stages—within the framework of its first principles and the curse-of-the-Fall theme with God’s double response of curse and blessinghas a great worldview formation promise because a world-view is best captured in a narrative. Adventism and Protestantism con­fess that the Bible is God’s central means on how to inform, reform, and transform the minds and hearts of people. Allowing the Bible to be read and preached consciously and methodically as a grand story could, in a fresh and powerful way, shape our minds and lives.

References

1 For example, among the most prominent authors who published widely on the metanarrative potential of the Bible are Walter Kaiser Jr. (The Promise-Plan of God; Recovering the Unity of the Bible: One Continuous Story, Plan, and Purpose), T. Desmond Alexander (From Eden to the New Jerusalem: An Introduction to Biblical Theology), Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen (The Drama of Scripture), Christopher J. H. Wright (The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative), Graeme Goldsworthy (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture), Tom Holland (Contours of Pauline Theology), and N. T. Wright (Scripture and the Authority of God).

2 N. T. Wright, “Reading Paul, Thinking Scripture,” in Scriptures’ Doctrine and Theology’s Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics, eds. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 60, 61. Tom Wright, being one of the leading and most influential New Testament (NT) scholars in this generation, has been greatly shaped by narrative framework of Scripture. The “new perspective” in NT studies and Paul, of which Wright is one of the main proponents, fosters a distinctively narrative reading of the NT (and the Old Testament as well). See, for example, N. T. Wright, Paul: In Fresh Perspectives (London: SPCK, 2005), especially 7–13; The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), especially chapters 3 and 5; and Scripture and the Authority of God (London: SPCK, 2005), especially 89–95. (This book was published in the United States as The Last Word: Scripture and the Authority of God [New York: HarperCollins, 2006].)

3 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 124–126.

4 Exod. 20:11; Job 38:2–10; Pss. 8:3–9; 24:1–6; 90:1, 2; Isa. 42:5; John 1:1–5; Acts 17:24–29; Col. 1:15–18; Heb. 1:2, 3; Rev. 14:7


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Jan Barna, PhD, is lecturer in systematic and biblical theology at Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, England.

March 2012

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