Biblical Theology, Practical Application, And Pendulum Swings

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I found the following excerpt from Michael Lawrence’s new Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church (browse; buy) really helpful. I’ve been excited about the storyline view of Scripture, and I still believe it is primary. It is essential to know that the Bible is about what God is doing to redeem His fallen creation. But the existence of a primary purpose implies a secondary (and a tertiary?). Perhaps it’s analogous to words and discourses. You can’t have one without the other. I shy away from saying that they have “equal ultimacy” because many individual words could be dropped out without losing the discourse. For that reason I see the storyline of Scripture as primary.

What is the Bible? My own church’s statement of faith provides one possible answer, one that I think many of us tend to use. In our very first article of faith, we affirm that the Bible is “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction,” that “it reveals principles by which God will judge us,” and therefore is “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.” I think every single one of those statements is true, but notice their emphasis. The Bible is a collection of instructions, principles, and standards. To put it in more colloquial terms, the Bible is an “answer book” for life’s problems or a compendium of principles by which to live and die. But is this definition adequate for ministry?

Let’s take that definition of the Bible and apply it to a question the elders of my church recently faced. A family was considering making a large capital purchase. Yet to provide the required down payment, they would have had to alter their tithe to the church for a short period. They hoped to make it up to the church later, but there was no guarantee they could. They came to us for advice.

If the Bible is fundamentally an answer book, then we’ll expect to find a verse or passage that gives this family the counsel they need. But which passage do we turn to? Malachi 3:10—“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse”—seems to provide an answer, but then what do we do with 2 Corinthians 9:7? “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Consider also the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Does the story mean we should have warned this family, or is it just a story about what happened to two people in Jerusalem in a unique time of the church’s life with no normative implications for our lives? As you can see, the “answer book” approach to the Bible raises a host of questions before we even get to the answer we’re looking for.

Another possible answer to the question, “What is the Bible?” is that it’s a story, a narrative of God’s interaction with the world he made. Though there are lots of people in this story, it’s fundamentally about what God has done and will do to bring this world to judgment and his people to salvation. According to this working definition, the Bible reveals the plan of salvation and how God has accomplished that plan, first through Israel and finally through Jesus Christ. Is this definition more useful for ministry than the previous one?

Let’s apply it to the question we just considered. If the Bible is merely, or mostly, the story of God’s saving actions in history, then beyond trusting in Christ for their salvation, rather than in worldly riches, it doesn’t have much to say to their question. We might refer them to Luke 16 and the story of Lazarus and the rich man, or to Hebrews 11 and the character of faith which looks forward to “a better country—a heavenly one.” But at the end of the day, unless we revert to the answer book approach or to pragmatic wisdom, this definition of the Bible leaves us with very little to say to the family which wants to know if they can delay their tithe in order to purchase property. As you can see, the story of salvation approach to the Bible may be faithful to the main point, but it also seems to contradict 2 Peter 1:3, where we are promised that we have been given “everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.”

A Better Definition

So what should we do? What we need is a better understanding of what the Bible is, one that doesn’t reduce it to life’s little answer book, but keeps the focus on God, where it belongs. But we also need an understanding that doesn’t reduce it to the story of how we get saved and go to heaven, leaving the rest of life up for grabs. We need a working definition of the Bible that allows for systematic answers to almost any question that comes up, but that also provides those answers in the context of the biblical storyline itself. We don’t want to rip verses out of their context, and so misapply them, but neither do we want a story that never touches down into the nitty-gritty of our lives.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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