A Bridge to Understanding the Plotline of Scripture
A Bridge to Understanding the Plotline of Scripture
Ken Jones is pastor at Glendale Baptist Church Miami, Florida. Ken previously served as a co-host of White Horse Inn. Ken has written articles for Gospel Coalition, Modern Reformation, Ligonier, and various of publications.
A number of years ago I was asked to write an on-line article about the challenges of preaching and teaching the Bible in a contemporary context. The specifics of what I was asked to address was along the lines of how to maintain relevance in our preaching without losing the plotline of scripture. The part of the proposition that stood out to me was “without losing the plotline of scripture.” My initial thought was, one of my biggest concerns about much of contemporary preaching and Bible teaching is what seems to be an increasing disconnection from the plotline of scripture. In fact I would argue that the effort to be relevant and or “practical” has become so dominant that the idea of a plotline or storyline that undergirds all of scripture is at best assumed but not emphasized by some, and at worst, it is a foreign concept altogether. The bottom line is that far too often in contemporary preaching and Bible teaching the actual plotline of scripture is lost.
In his book “With Jesus: Finding Your Place In The Story of Christ”, Brian G. Hedges in assessing the tendency of reading the gospel through the wrong lens identifies three common mistakes people make in reading the gospels
1. Some read the gospels through the lens of inspiring stories
2. Others read the gospels through the lens of imitation. This lens views Jesus as a positive moral role model
3. Still others read the gospels through the lens of information. In this case the goal is to glean interesting historical details or to discover doctrinal nuggets from the text.
What Hedges calls “wrong lens” through which the gospels are read can be applied to the way the Bible is approached in general. Two observations can be made here. In the first place none of the above mentioned lens is altogether illegitimate in and of themselves. There are indeed many inspiring stories and things worthy of imitation, not to mention a plethora of interesting information to be gleaned from reading the Bible. That’s part of the beauty of God’s word. I would observe secondly that searching for inspiration, or something to initiate or interesting information as the primary purpose for which we approach scriptures is the very way in which we lose the plotline and become waylaid in the wilderness of the relevant. What I call the relevant some would call simply a matter of showing that the Bible is practical for all of life. So, I would like to stress once again the desire to show or see the Bible as relevant for practical use is not wrong; in fact it can be very healthy. However, it should not be at the expense of the plotline.
To take it a step further, I think you could say that it is unhealthy to assume that the plotline of scripture is not relevant. Since it is my contention that the plotline seems to be largely lost among contemporary evangelicals, I would like to lay out a pathway to its recovery and explain why it is important. It is my humble opinion that the path back to the plotline of scripture is a rediscovery or a re-prioritizing of biblical theology. While systematic theology seeks to lay out the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith in a rational and orderly way, biblical theology focuses on the progressive unfolding of God’s revelation in the Bible. Graeme Goldsworthy explains the relationship between biblical and systematic theology as follows: “Biblical Theology as defined here is dynamic not static. That is, it follows the movement and process of God’s revelation in the Bible. It is closely related to Systematic Theology (the two are dependent upon one another), but there is a difference in emphasis. Biblical Theology is not concerned to state the final doctrines which go to make up the content of Christian belief, but rather to describe the process by which revelation unfolds and moves toward the goal which is God’s final revelation of His purposes in Jesus Christ. Biblical Theology seeks to understand the relationships between the various eras in God’s revealing activity recorded in the Bible. The systematic theologian is mainly interested in the finished article –the statement of Christian doctrine. The biblical theologian on the other hand is concerned rather with the progressive unfolding of the truth …”
I think it would be safe to say that biblical theology rests on the assumption that the Bible which is God’s word to fallen man has one overarching purpose and message, which is to reveal His saving purpose and power in and through the Person and work of Jesus Christ. What the Apostle John says about the reason for Him writing what he does in his gospel can be said of the whole Bible. “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in His name”. So, if that is the overarching purpose and message of the Bible, then biblical theology seeks to show how that purpose and message progressively unfolds in human history, finding its end in the Person and work of Christ. In his “Biblical Theology” Geerhardus Vos says “the method of biblical theology is in the main determined by the principle of historic progression. Hence the division of the course of revelation into certain periods . . . the Bible is, as it were conscious of its own organism; it feels, what we cannot say of ourselves, its own anatomy . . . now by making ourselves in the study of biblical theology thoroughly conversant with the biblical consciousness of its own revelation structure . . . being conversant with the Bible’s consciousness of its own anatomy or revelation structure is another way of saying that one has discovered the plotline or storyline of scripture. Once that is discovered, the progressive unfolding in different epochs and through different narratives and even different literary genres are but parts, plots and subplots of that one overarching storyline. None of these parts stand alone, rather they are connected to the one story which is the story of God’s saving mercy and grace in the Person and work of His Son.
Here’s another quote from Graeme Goldsworthy “in doing biblical theology as Christians we do not start at Genesis 1 and work our way forward until we discover where it is all leading. Rather we first come to Christ and he directs us to the study of the Old Testament in the light of the gospel. The gospel will interpret the Old Testament by showing us its goal and meaning. The Old Testament will increase our understanding of the gospel by showing us what Christ fulfills”. In His rather massive work “A New Testament Biblical Theology, the Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New”, G. K. Beale writes, “The main facets of the Old Testament narrative story are then traced into and throughout the New Testament. The main elements of the Old Testament plotline become the basis for the formulation of the New Testament storyline”. So, if contemporary Christians have lost the plotline of scripture, biblical theology will put us back on course. Here’s another summary of biblical theology from Goldsworthy, “It examines the several stages of biblical history and their relationship to one another. It thus provides the basis for understanding how texts in one part of the Bible relate to all other texts. A sound interpretation of the Bible is based upon the findings of biblical theology”. So why does all of this matter? Let me offer a few reasons:
1. Understanding the plotline of scripture is a good way to avoid the dangers Paul sets forth in I Timothy 1:4 . . . “Myths and endless genealogies which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith”. This includes end time issues as well as cultural issues. Understanding scriptures plotline contextualizes biblical prophecy in that even that is anchored in the Person and work of Christ.
2. Understanding the plotline allows for the continuity of both the Old and New Testaments as being about Christ. I have been somewhat surprised by the number of preachers that I have encountered who do not see the need to preach Christ from the Old Testament unless he is overtly present such as prophecies that specifically reference Him. Time and space will not allow me to interact with this tendency in any detail. However, I think that a better grasp of the plotline as established in biblical theology will help preachers to see what Jesus says in John 5:37 “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, and it is they that bear witness about me”.
3. Understanding the plotline of scripture through biblical theology will help us to see the gravity of our fallen condition and the consequences thereof. In which case we will see not only how depraved we are (even our righteousness is as filthy rags), but how utterly helpless we are in trying to fix our situation. Death, decay and destruction all around us are reminders of a divine curse that we cannot reverse. The plotline of scriptures sets forth the gospel of God’s grace in Christ as our only hope. What could be more practical or relevant than for a condemned sinner to know that there is pardon made available by God’s grace in Christ?
4. Rediscovering the plotline of scripture will deliver us from moralizing the scriptures, so that Israel’s victory at Jericho is not an example of what we can accomplish when we obey and trust. The out pouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost is not what we can also experience if we get on one accord. I could list other examples but the point is simple, the plotline enables us to see these scriptures in the light of divine promises fulfilled in Christ rather than divine rewards for human merits.
5. Fifth and finally, the plotline helps us to exalt Christ for who He is and what He has accomplished for us and in our place. We will discover that the Bible is indeed his story and by faith we are brought into “His story”. If our greatest problem as humans is that we are guilty before God and therefore under condemnation then the best news we can hear is that Christ came in the flesh to accomplish what God has required of us. He has paid the penalty for our failure. He has conquered death and the grave and has ascended to the Father to secure our reward. This is the plotline of scripture set forth in types and shadows and biblical theology unpacks this wonderful story in all its parts so that the people of God would be able in all of Scripture to “look unto Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith”. So that we would know that “you are complete in Him who is the Head of all principalities”. Amen.
To learn more about pastor Ken Jones visit http://www.glendalembchurch.org/