“How does that fit within the larger story the Bible is telling?”
That is often the question I ask myself (and others) when I am contemplating theological conclusions, or various ideas about what a particular text seems to be saying. Why is this? Read on…
Like many Christians I know, I initially learned to study the Bible using a Strong’s exhaustive concordance, various bible dictionaries and encyclopedias (take your pick), a treasury of scripture knowledge, various bible commentaries, the systematic theology books by my favorite authors (in my case usually Berkhof, Miley, and Horton), and the topically-arranged “Cycolpedic Index” in my NASB Open Bible. Oh! I can’t forget that if I still needed more information about a text or a topic, I would also consult the sermon tapes of my favorite radio preachers. With these tools in hand, I was ready for action!
It was always invigorating to take the sixty-six books of the Bible apart, wrench verses out of their original contexts, re-assemble them into neater, more logical categories arranged by topics, and cute alliterated outlines within each topic making them all hang together as I supposed they were meant to. The Bible, I imagined, contained all of the hidden truth I needed. If I could just brush all the narrative fluff aside, and get to the doctrinal nuggets, I’d be ready to talk about what the Bible really teaches from Abba to Zion. This, of course, describes my rather crude attempt to (mis)use the Bible as an alphabetically or topically-arranged theology book (a systematic theology book, to be precise) rather than reading and seeing the Bible for what it actually is: A Grand Story!
Don’t get me wrong. I realize that everyone systematizes their theological conclusions to one degree or another. It’s inevitable. The mistake, I think, is to go to the Bible to dig out the theology in this book and that, and then put my theological conclusions (with verse references next to them) onto another piece of paper, point at the paper, and exclaim… “There! THAT is what the Bible teaches about this subject,” supposing that I have just studied the Bible as it was meant to be studied.
Of course, in Bible college I learned about inductive bible study, and developed a strong value for teaching the Bible verse-by-verse (and studying it that way too), but I admit that I often wondered how all those books and verses and chapters actually fit together, and what the big message was all about. It was actually my seminary that helped me put things together in ways that I never had before. My seminary, in particular, did not emphasize systematic theology. They talked about “Biblical Theology” as an alternative or collaborative partner to systematic theology that emphasized the meta-narrative of the Bible rather than a system of theology based on a tradition or desired theological outcome.
Speaking of desired theological outcomes, I have been convinced over the past few years that without Biblical theology to keep it in check, systematic theology is responsible for birthing ideas like the health-and-wealth gospel, various soteriological systems (which you must believe lest you be found to be a heretic or at least an ignorant fool), certain emphases on end-time prophecy that would make first-century Christians laugh their heads off for their bizarre conclusions, and a host of other ideas that are really not congruent with the larger story that the Bible is trying to tell. I have given up on many of these ideas for one basic reason. My Biblical theology made me do it.
If you want to begin your own journey into the incredible story of scripture, or develop a greater appreciation for Biblical theology in contrast to systematic theology (which I do not eschew – though I also don’t start with it), I suggest starting with Craig Bartholomew and Matthew Goheen’s great book, “The Drama of Scripture: Finding our place in the biblical story.” As a teaser, check out Mike Goheen’s excellent 2006 paper on the urgency of reading the bible as one story here. You’ll love it (or else!!!).
For a bit more help, and a longer discussion of Biblical Theology (as contrasted with systematic theology), and a survey of both the Old and New Testaments through the discipline of Biblical Theology, read two other posts here and here.