I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Understanding God's Big Story

The Bible’s Big Story

Without a firm grasp on the Bible’s Big Story, its grand meta-narrative, our understanding of the smaller stories and even the Gospel is hindered. Moreover, given how fast our culture is moving from the Christian heritage to crass secularization, those with whom we would share the Gospel haven’t the necessary historical context to make the Gospel meaningful. What follows is just one suggestion to help improve these conditions.

Systematic-Theologically Stated

In essence, the Bible’s Big Story can be summed up in God creating and redeeming a humanity to dwell among, so that throughout the Story we hear the promising refrain that is finally and fully realized in Rev 21:3, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”

Systematically stated, this Big Story or meta-narrative is an organic unity that unfolds through four major divisions: (1) Creation, (2) rebellion, (3) redemption, and (4) consummation or new creation. Thus, (1) God creates the universe and man. Originally, the creation and humanity were “very good” in God’s evaluation, by virtue of the entire created order, especially man, who, as prophet, priest, and king over creation, is in a proper relationship with the Creator God, evil being the contrary of this “very good” relationship.

Soon, though, (2) this sweet, loving, sustaining relationship was ruined by man’s rebellion against God. Because God is infinitely just and cannot lie, he was true to his word and decree, and thus brought man and his world under the judgment and curse promised upon man’s disobedience. Thankfully, (3) God is also infinitely merciful, and with the punishment came the Promise—the first promise of redemption, the Gospel (Gen 3:15). The promised “Seed of the woman,” the Coming One, “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), Jesus Christ, stepped into history and accomplished that redemption through his incarnation, life, sacrificial-substitutionary death, resurrection from the dead, his exaltation to the right hand of the Father, and the sending of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (henceforth, these historical-redemptive events of Jesus’ sojourn on earth during his first coming will be called the Christ Event for convenience). We now live in the daily expectation of Christ’s return, when he will bring his redemptive work to a completion with his second coming, bring about a general resurrection of believers and unbelievers alike, and executing the final judgment, once for all to destroy all his enemies, Death and Hades, and the Adversary himself, that old serpent, Satan in the lake of fire. Only then, after the curse, evil, and death that was ushered in by man’s fall is finally destroyed, having been “put under Christ’s feet,” will (4) the new creation—the new heaven and new earth—be realized.

In the present, therefore, the whole creation in general (Rom 8:18f) and humanity in particular is living in the tension between Christ accomplishing redemption (his first coming) and his breaking into history to wrap up all things and bring that redemption to its completion in judgment on the wicked and salvation on the elect (his second coming). So “according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). This hope is our salvation.

Lest it seem that we have gotten ahead of ourselves in neatly systematizing all the complex data from Scripture in the four-fold framework above (i.e., creation, rebellion, redemption, consummation or new creation; henceforth, CRRC), we should observe that within the Bible itself there is a similar structuring of the Plan of God, which also bears witness to the beautiful coherence of the Big Story.

Biblical-Theologically Stated

A quick caveat is in order at this point. We need to make clear what we mean when we distinguish between systematic and biblical theology. First, it is not as though systematic theology is unbiblical over against the other, the biblical theology. Rather the two could be fairly understood better as: systematic theology is deductive in drawing its conclusions, whereas the other, biblical theology, is an inductive process. Both, however, are biblical in the sense that each methodology, if done with integrity and fidelity to Christ, will reach ‘biblical’ conclusions.

Therefore, when coming to the biblical data, that is, what Scripture diachronically and organically reveals concerning the major turning points in the Big Story, we find the same categories, only framed a little differently.

There is a literary device known as an inclusio. An inclusio acts as bookends for the content of a given literary passage or even the entire work. That is to say, an author will include his central theme or thrust of a block of material at the beginning and a corresponding piece of the same at the end, thus emphasizing that he intends the reader to bear this central point in the fore of their thoughts while journeying from one bookend to another. One explicit example of the use of an inclusio would be John’s prologue to his gospel (1:1—18).

John’s prologue begins thus, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). This last phrase univocally states the deity of the Word, Jesus. Likewise, the prologue ends by restating the same point(s), “No one has ever seen God; the only God [“the Word was God,” 1:1c], who is at the Father’s side [“with God,” 1:1b, 2], he has made him known” (ESV 1:18). John therefore wants the reader to understand clearly from the start that the One who the entire rest of this gospel is about is none other than God himself. By means of the inclusio, then, John emphasizes the deity of Jesus, and his exclusive ability to reveal the Father (1:18c), which is exactly what the rest of John’s gospel is about.

Similarly, and closer to the context now under consideration, we also find an inclusio being used in Genesis 1:1 and 2:4. Genesis 1:1 reads, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Similarly, Genesis 2:4 says, “These are the generations of the heavens and earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens.” These bookends are intended to stress that God, as Creator and Controller, is the absolute sovereign over everything that exists—everything. Such a concept would have stood in sharp contrast to every other prevailing pagan origins stories—whether they be in Moses’ day or our own! In addition, since Genesis 2:4 also serves as the introduction to the following section (2:4—24), they thus direct the reader toward harmonizing the two accounts. (It’s worth mentioning that these two examples are linked intentionally by John with the opening words: “In the beginning...” in a creational context [John 1:1—3]. To then discover that both introductions have a similar pattern with the rear bookend of the inclusio also preparing the reader for what follows is a literary jewel that shouldn’t be overlooked!)

Another strong feature in the Bible is known as chiasm. A chiasm begins and ends with the inclusio but also has more or less members between the bookends, which correspond respectively. For instance, it would follow a pattern similar to this: A-B-C-D-C’-B’-A’. Sometimes these members are comprised of single terms; sometimes they are constructed of larger concepts or thoughts.

With these illustrations of the inclusio and chiasm under our belt, we’re ready to move on and examine their function in the Big Story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.

Granting, then, it’s overall unity, it should not surprise us that the Bible as a whole has this same features. The first three chapters (Gen 1 – 3) and the final three chapters (Rev 20 – 21) of the Bible have incredible correspondence to one another; so much so that there is sufficient reason to conclude that this pair of triplets form the inclusio that provides the bookends or framework for all the content between them; and the central thrust of the Big Story or meta-narrative, in terms of which all the little stories or micro-narratives make sense, not least the subject, object, and climax of the Big Story—the Christ Event. The Christ Event is the center or chi of the chiasm, making Jesus both the subject and object of all of history. As such, grasping the import of the centrality of the meanings of these member is essential for formulating a biblically robust doctrine of eschatology. This framework could be expressed as follows.

(A) Genesis 1:1—2:24 The Original “Very Good” Creation; God Dwelling with His People.

(A. 1) Gen 1:1—2:3 A general description of creation; God making all things from nothing

(A. 2. i) Gen 2:4—24 A particular description of creation; the dwelling place of God is with man contingently

(A. 2. ii) Gen 2:15—17 Life with God in the garden and access to the tree of life contingent upon trusting and obeying God, and thus keeping his Word.

(B) Genesis 3 The Fatal Fall of Man; God Judges Rebels; Death Enters

(B to X) Gen 3:15—Malachi The War Between the Two Seeds Begins (archetypically seen in Cain vs. Able in Gen 4)

(X) Matthew thru Acts 2; The Christ Event, Redemption Accomplished; the Inauguration of the Age to Come; the War Between the Seeds Settled in Principle; the Holy Spirit descends on the Church, God in flesh (Jn 1:14) and Spirit (Acts) dwelling with His People

(X to B′) Acts 2 – Rev 19 [actually to present] – The War Between the Two Seeds Continues (antitypically seen between those who are “born of God/or the Seed of the woman and those that are “of the evil one like Cain.” See esp. 1 John 3 and Revelation)

(B′) Revelation 20:7—15 The Final Fall of Man; General Resurrection; God Passes Final Judgment on Rebels; Death is Destroy

(A′) Revelation 21—22:5 The New Creation; God Eternally Dwelling with His People

(A′. 1) Rev 21:1—8 A general description of the new creation; Christ recreating all things anew

(A′. 2. i) Rev 21:9—22:5 A particular description of the new creation; God’s dwelling is with men eternally

(A′. 2. ii) Rev 22:6—21 Life with God and the Lamb in the garden and access to the tree of life are contingent upon trusting and obeying God and the Lamb, and thus keeping their Word.

This is only one of many ways that the Big Story can be framed. However this is done, though, it must capture the four elements of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, keeping them properly related to each other, in order to make sense of the Bible’s Big Story. And once this Big Story is clear in your mind, it will amaze you how much more some of the smaller stories make sense to you.

There’s an old axiom: “Nothing is meaningful without context.” Rapidly, our culture and even the Church is loosing the vision of the Big Story. And without the Big Story concretely in place, the climax of the Story, the Gospel of Jesus scarcely makes sense. As Paul said, to the Greeks, those without the Big Story, the “word of the cross is foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Therefore, for both our own understanding and our ability to make much of Jesus through sharing his Gospel with others, we need a thorough grasp of the Big Story of the Bible.



No comments:

Post a Comment