The Bible Is First a Story, Not Propositions or Commands — An Excerpt from "How to Read the Bible Book by Book"
For most of my life the idea the Bible is a grand narrative was foreign. Mostly, I viewed it like I viewed my car manual—it was the place I went to figure out how to keep my life running smoothly, while avoiding check engine light experiences.
It wasn’t until I was 25 and in ministry that I was first introduced to the Bible as a four-act play: the opener being Creation; conflict arising at the Fall; the climax cresting with Christ’s Redemption; and our awaited ending arriving when Christ returns at the Consummation.
Yet in their book How to Read the Bible Book by Book, this storyline is how Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart say we should primarily understand the Bible, rather than merely as a book of propositions and commands.
Read the excerpt we’ve provided below to better understand the grand, sweeping epic we call the Holy Bible.
-Jeremy Bouma, Th.M. (@bouma)
When the authors were boys growing up in Christian homes, one of the ways we—and our friends—were exposed to the Bible was through the daily reading of a biblical text from the Promise Box, which dutifully found its way onto our kitchen tables. Furthermore, most believers of our generation — and of several preceding ones — had learned a kind of devotional reading of the Bible that emphasized reading it only in parts and pieces, looking for a “word for the day.”
While the thought behind these approaches to Scripture was salutary enough (constant exposure to the sure promises of God’s Word), they also had their downside, teaching people to read texts in a way that disconnected them from the grand story of the Bible.
The concern of this book is to help you read the Bible as a whole, and even when the “whole” is narrowed to “whole books,” it is important for you always to be aware of how each book fits into the larger story (on this matter, see How to 1, pp. 91– 92). But in order to do this, you need first to have a sense of what the grand story is all about. That is what this introduction proposes to do.
First, let’s be clear: The Bible is not merely some divine guidebook, nor is it a mine of propositions to be believed or a long list of commands to be obeyed…
It is no accident that the Bible comes to us primarily by way of narrative—but not just any narrative. Here we have the grandest narrative of all — God’s own story. That is, it does not purport to be just one more story of humankind’s search for God. No, this is God’s story, the account of his search for us, a story essentially told in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Consummation. In this story, God is the divine protagonist, Satan the antagonist, God’s people the agonists (although too often also the antagonists), with redemption and reconciliation as the plot resolution.
Since this is God’s story, it does not begin, as do all other such stories, with a hidden God, whom people are seeking and to whom Jesus ultimately leads them. On the contrary, the biblical narrative begins with God as Creator of all that is. It tells us that “in the beginning God ...”: that God is before all things, that he is the cause of all things, that he is therefore above all things, and that he is the goal of all things. He stands at the origin of all things as the sole cause of the whole universe, in all of its vastness and intricacies…
We are further told that humanity is the crowning glory of the Creator’s work — beings made in God’s own likeness, with whom he could commune, and in whom he could delight; beings who would know the sheer pleasure of his presence, love, and favor. Created in God’s image, humankind thus uniquely enjoyed the vision of God and lived in fellowship with God…
The second chapter in the biblical story is a long and tragic one. It begins in Genesis 3, and the dark thread runs through the whole story almost to the very end (Rev 22:11, 15). This “chapter” tells us that man and woman coveted more godlikeness and that in one awful moment in the history of our planet they chose godlikeness over against mere creatureliness, with its dependent status. They chose independence from the Creator. But we were not intended to live so, and the result was a fall — a colossal and tragic fall. (To be sure, this is not a popular part of the story today, but its rejection is part of the Fall itself and the beginning of all false theologies.)
Made to enjoy God and to be dependent on him, and to find our meaning ultimately in our very creatureliness, we now came under God’s wrath and thus came to experience the terrible consequences of our rebellion. The calamity of our fallenness is threefold:
First, we lost our vision of God with regard to his nature and character. Guilty and hostile ourselves, we projected that guilt and hostility onto God…
In exchanging the truth about God for a lie, we saw God as full of caprice, contradictions, hostility, lust, and retribution (all projections of our fallen selves). But God is not like our grotesque idolatries. Indeed, if he is hidden, Paul says, it is because we had become slaves to the god of this world, who has blinded our minds, so that we are ever seeking but never able to find him (see 2 Cor 4:4).
Second, the Fall also caused us to distort—and blur—the divine image in ourselves, rolling it in the dust, as it were. Instead of being loving, generous, self-giving, thoughtful, merciful—as God is—we became miserly, selfish, unloving, unforgiving, spiteful. Created to image, and thus represent, God in all that we are and do, we learned rather to bear the image of the Evil One, God’s implacable enemy.
The third consequence of the Fall was our loss of the divine presence and with that our relationship—fellowship—with God. In place of communion with the Creator, having purpose in his creation, we became rebels, lost and cast adrift, creatures who broke God’s laws, abused his creation, and suffered the awful consequences of fallenness in our brokenness, alienation, loneliness, and pain…
The Bible also tells us that the holy and just God, whose moral perfections burn against sin and creaturely rebellion, is in fact also a God full of mercy and love — and faithfulness. The reality is that God pitied — and loved—these creatures of his, whose rebellion and rejection of their dependent status had caused them to fall so low and thus to experience the pain, guilt, and alienation of their sinfulness.
But how to get through to us, to rescue us from ourselves with all of our wrong views about God and the despair of our tragic fallen- ness; how to get us to see that God is for us, not against us (see Rom 8:31); how to get the rebel not just to run up a white flag of surrender but willingly to change sides and thereby once again to discover joy and meaningfulness — that’s what chapter 3 of the story is all about.
And it’s the longest chapter, a chapter that tells how God set about redeeming and restoring these fallen creatures of his so that he might restore to us the lost vision of God, renew in us the divine image, and reestablish our relationship with him. But also woven throughout this chapter is that other thread — the one of our continuing resistance…
The genius of the biblical story is what it tells us about God himself: a God who sacrifices himself in death out of love for his enemies; a God who would rather experience the death we deserved than to be apart from the people he created for his pleasure; a God who himself bore our likeness, experienced our creatureliness, and carried our sins so that he might provide pardon and reconciliation; a God who would not let us go, but who would pursue us — all of us, even the worst of us — so that he might restore us into joyful fellowship with himself; a God who in Christ Jesus has so forever identified with his beloved creatures that he came to be known and praised as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:3).
This is God’s story, the story of his unfathomable love and grace, mercy and forgiveness — and that is how it also becomes our story…
Because the story has not yet ended, the final chapter is still being written—even though we know from what has been written how the final chapter turns out. What God has already set in motion, we are told, through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit is finally going to be fully realized…
Jesus himself became the final verification of those words by his own resurrection from the dead. The wicked and the religious killed him. They could not tolerate his presence among them, because he stood in utter contradiction to all their petty forms of religion and authority, based on their own fallenness — and he then had the gall to tell them that he was the only way to the Father (see John 14:6). So they killed him. But since he himself was Life — and the author of life for all others — the grave couldn’t hold him. And his resurrection not only validated his own claims and vindicated his own life on our planet, it also spelled the beginning of the end for death itself and became the guarantee of those who are his — both now and forever.
This is what the final episode (the Revelation) is all about — God’s final wrap-up of the story, when his justice brings an end to the great Antagonist and all who continue to bear his image (see Rev 20) and when God in love restores the creation (Eden) as a new heaven and a new earth (see Rev 21 – 22).
This, then, is the metanarrative, the grand story, of which the various books of the Bible are a part. While we have regularly tried to point out how each book fits in, as you read the various books, you will want to think for yourself how they fit into the larger story. We hope you will also ask yourself how you fit into it as well.
How to Read the Bible Book by Book
By Gordon D. Fee & Douglas Stuart
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