Three ways to understand the Bible
My wife, Karen, heard a message by a young woman with no theological training on Jer 29:11, “I know the plans I have for you….” The young woman spoke of the verse as if it was addressed to us today and talked about the plans God has for us. Although God has revealed his will for us as human beings in his word, this was a misapplication of the verse because God was not speaking to us in this verse, he was speaking to another people in a different historical time and place; we are not part of those particular plans.
A better, and common, approach is to recognize that while the verse is a promise to people of another age, we can still ask, “What lesson can we learn from this that is applicable to us?” That is, even though the words are not written to us, the message is still, in some less direct sense, for us.
A third approach which is my primary concern in reading the Bible cross-culturally is to examine this interaction of God with his people in order to discover his character and his heart. This perspective recognizes that the passage provides a revelation of the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ and asks, “What can I learn from this to know him better? How can I shape my thoughts, speech and action to fit with the image that emerges from God’s revelation of himself?”
there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself
The Bible as revelation of the nature of God
The latter approach is based on the conviction that there is something grander in the Bible than chapter and verse application to the way we live: it is the vision, the revelation of God himself. The primary purpose of the written word is not to give us instructions on how to live, but to be a witness to the Living Word who in turn reveals to us the nature and heart of God. It is within that broader perspective of discovering God that we become shaped into the image of Christ and respond in worship.
The Old Testament does not reveal the nature of God in propositional intrinsic qualities (omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.) but through extrinsic characteristics in terms of his relationship and actions towards his people and the universe (1). There is therefore not a particular chapter and verse we can point to and say, “that defines God,” or “that is a comprehensive summary of the heart of God.” Propositional descriptions of God are like photos. Just as one snapshot of Karen is a true image of my wife, at the same time it is not her because she cannot be truly known through one photo. Rather it is by living with her that I know her in a deep way and can “read” her; that is, I know her heart. It is with this attitude I approach Scripture: each and every verse is a revelation of the character of God, not in terms of propositional descriptions as if God can be known through a dictionary definition, but as an expression of the relationship he desires to establish with those created in his image.
This is the primary role of the Bible: we read in order to interact with God
Philip said to Jesus, “Show us the Father.” Jesus did not start quoting chapter and verse, nor did he give a propositional discourse on the nature of God. Rather he said, “If you have seen me you have seen the Father.” God was revealed through their interaction with Jesus. This is the primary role of the Bible: we read in order to interact with God. We look in the pages to discover the nature and character of God, and it is around this emerging image that we are called to shape our lives.
Our Story intersects with God’s Story
The majority of the Bible is narrative, Jesus spoke in parables and the book of John weaves the claims of Christ together with his actions to reveal his nature so that we can believe and live (John 20:31). There is a place for propositional truth, but not when dealing with the deepest issues of life and relationships. A proposition plays a secondary role by providing a concise description of a reality. It can be a sign pointing to the reality, but it is not the reality itself. By using narrative, the Bible helps us explore the intersection between our personal reality and the broader “story we find ourselves in,” which is God’s story.
There is a saying I have on my computer: “The universe is made up of stories, not atoms.” Atoms are important. I am very happy that scientists study atoms so that we can gain from the benefits of their efforts. But that is not what life is about. Life consists of stories. When Jesus was questioned about what it means to love our neighbor, he gave a story about relationships, self-sacrifice and mercy.
Crossing cultures with God’s word
Stories cross cultures much better than propositions. Propositions are shaped for greatest impact according the assumptions of one context. Stories, on the other hand, provide a more holistic and detailed picture of reality and they are heard with a variety of nuance and emphasis depending on the hearer. Stories communicate and resonate in ways that propositional statements do not because the hearer is able to place the message within a context that is relevant to the world they live in. When propositions are derived from the stories – a common process prompted by our human desire to summarize and categorize – they reflect the concerns of the hearer’s context.
God’s story in the Bible needs to be seen as a communication of the character and nature of God in ways that relate directly to the hearer (as opposed to the more secondary, abstract channel of propositions). When the Bible is read as the revelation of the nature of God, then it speaks to people across cultures about a Father who loves and cares. It also provides the framework within which they are able to work out the expressions of life that conform to his image, some of which will be summarized in propositional form.
This, I believe, is the theology of the Bible that drives the use of “Bible Storying” in many missions efforts around the world. Bible stories are chosen and shaped with sensitivity to the values and concerns of the audience and as a result the hearers are introduced to the Father of Jesus Christ in a way that relates to their lives.
The Essence of God’s word
There is benefit when we look at the details of the Bible and ask, “what is the application for us?” This approach is good and can provide guidance in the way of Christ. But I do not believe that it is the essence of God’s word. Ultimately, the Bible is a revelation of the nature and character of God, a window opening up onto the wonder of his love and mercy and grace. It shows me his heart and my goal is to respond to that revelation and reflect his character in my life.
- (1) Martin Parsons, Unveiling God: Contextualizing Christology for Islamic culture (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 2005), 48.