One of the main things that reading a lot of Lesslie Newbigin, N.T. Wright, and Stanley Hauerwas has done for me is remind me of the vast importance of narrative, not only in scripture and theology, but also in everyday Christian life. Fundamental to a biblical worldview is the idea of a 'controlling narrative,' an overarching story of the creator God and his creation, one that accounts - historically, factually - for the state of the world as it is today and for the direction in which this world is headed. Additionally, the more I've thought about this controlling narrative, the more I've become convinced that most of us Christians simply aren't living in it consciously. We tend to imbibe the lessons of our culture, which has a very strong, very distinct narrative of its own (though its manifestations may differ in certain situations). It is a narrative of progress (social, technological, moral), of capitalistic enterprise (the accumulation of material wealth amounting to the happy and fulfilling life), of postmodern pluralism (the easing of distinctives and softening of moral absolutes leading to a moral landscape devoid of anything imposing or infringing on individual preferences), and so forth. A cultural narrative like this actually has its place within the grand narrative of scripture - it is a feature of the "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4), a mirage cast up by the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). It is a deluded misdirection of true human purpose, one that can only terminate in death.
As I've thought about this competition of narratives, it seems to me that part of our problem is that we are reading scripture without the necessary paradigm shift involved in absorbing its distinctive narrative and situating all others within it. We need aids, helps of some kind, that can give us a compass to help orient us as we read scripture and try to see the world in its light. Toward that end, I've been working on a (very rough) systematic outline of the biblical meta-narrative, which I now present to you in the hope that it may 'polish the lenses' a bit in your reading of scripture. It is both systematic and narratival in form, so that the whole of Christian theology may be fitted somewhere into its structure. What is more, the outline is such that one ought to be able to read any part of the bible and attach it to one of the headings. Even in the past couple of weeks, I have found that having something like this in my mind as I read the bible gives me a sense not only of where I am in salvation history, but where it's all going and why it matters. So, here is the outline - afterward, I'll include some further notes on it:
Chapter 1: Adam
- God creates & commissions humanity (Adam) to be a blessing to the world and wisely rule over it as his image-bearers.
- Adam (& all humanity) fails in that commission, choosing unfaithfulness instead by distrusting God and seeking to take wisdom, knowledge, and immortality for themselves apart from him; this brings upon humanity (in Adam) the curse of exile from Eden, and leaves them bound by the forces of sin, death, and the Devil.
- God promises that through humanity he would eventually defeat and destroy sin, death, and the devil, and in effect that humanity’s long exile from paradise would end; this is fulfilled through the second Adam, Jesus of Nazareth.
Chapter 2: Abraham
- God sets apart Abraham and his offspring (Israel) to be a special, chosen people through whom this promise to Adam for the whole world would be carried out - a new humanity in which God's original intention for the creation would be fulfilled; he promises them blessing, growth, and a land of their own (Palestine).
- Israel enters into slavery in Egypt, and for centuries expectantly awaits the fulfillment of God’s promises.
- God redeems his people from slavery in Egypt, and leads them through the Red Sea and wilderness into the Promised Land.
Chapter 3: Israel
- God gives Israel a law (Torah) that is to regulate all their social, personal, and religious affairs, and to serve as the blueprint for their life as a holy people bringing Abraham’s blessing to the whole earth.
- Israel fails in that commission, choosing unfaithfulness instead by worshiping other gods; they fail to obey the Torah and establish the holy society that God commanded, bringing upon themselves the curse of exile (which recapitulates the curse and exile of Adam).
- God promises an end to their exile, not only in geographic terms but also in spiritual terms (i.e., to end the spiritual reality of Adam’s sin in which Israel is also enslaved). This promise is to come through a Messiah, who will bring God's kingdom and draw all the nations of the earth to himself.
Chapter 4: Jesus
- God sets apart Jesus and his followers (Jew & Gentile alike) to be the renewed Israel - a special, chosen people through whom his promises will be carried out, a new humanity in which his original intention for the creation would be fulfilled; among them and in Jesus God brings the long-awaited the fulfillment of his promises: the end of exile (for Adam and Israel alike), the coming of the kingdom of God, a new heart/nature through the Spirit, resurrection from the dead, the life of the coming age, the defeat of sin, death, and the Devil.
- Jesus is obedient to the will of God where both Adam and Israel failed, and in perfect faithfulness lives the true human life to which both had been called, defeats the forces of Satan, overcomes temptation, and offers himself freely upon the cross for the sins of his people.
- God vindicates Jesus by raising him from the dead, and in Jesus redeems for himself a new humanity whose Adamic nature has been crucified with the Messiah, who possess a new heart/nature through the Holy Spirit, whose exile is ended (citizenship in God’s kingdom), and who in the coming age (resurrection) fulfill God’s original intention for the whole creation.
I tried to structure this very consistently, and you'll notice the clear pattern in each 'chapter.'
1. God acts/commissions
2. Humanity fails (until Jesus)
3. God makes a promise and redeems
Also notice the fundamental sweep of scripture in terms of the story of the human race. It is like this:
Adam --> Israel --> Jesus
Scripture is, at its heart, a narrative about God's redemptive purposes with the human race, not a lapidary history of tenuously-connected events. (Perhaps some of the ways of reading scripture that have been influential since the medieval period have gotten us off track here, particularly in how we read the Old Testament.) Adam was given a commission as God's image-bearer, and the fulfillment of it is what all of human history has headed towards: the enthronement of Christ, the true image of God (Col. 1:10) over all things (Eph. 1:10), with redeemed humanity in him serving as rulers over the new creation. When Adam failed, God elected Israel to be the people through whom this purpose would be carried forward; their observance of Torah was not for the purpose of arbitrarily fulfilling God's standards of uprightness, but in order to be the holy people of a holy God, a light to all the nations and the source of YHWH's blessing to all the earth (as he promised Abraham, Gen. 12:3). But like Adam, Israel failed and needed to be rescued as well, since they shared in the same fundamental problem as Adam - the curse of sin and death, and exile from perfect fellowship with God. (This was recapitulated in the Babylonian exile - just as Adam was "east of Eden," so Israel was "east of Jerusalem.") Jesus is the direct answer to this problem: as Messiah he actually embodies Israel (see how this plays out in the servant songs of Isaiah 42-55), and by his life, death, resurrection and enthronement as the vindicated Son of Man (Dan. 7:13&14) he atones for the sins of his people and rises to rule all the nations (Rom. 15:12, quoting Isa. 11:10).
Paul sums it up quite well with these verses:
- With regard to Adam. "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:20-21).
- With regard to Israel. "For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcision to show God's truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy" (Rom. 15:8&9).
Friends, maybe this all seems rather dense, and maybe I seem like more of a history nerd than anything else, but when I think of God's purposes for this world and how perfectly they are testified in scripture as part of one flawless uninterrupted plan for the ages, I simply find myself at a loss for words. God's purposes are glorious, are they not? Does it move your hearts at all to see it laid out, and to see how perfectly these disparate books written by dozens of people over more than a thousand years of human history so perfectly, so naturally fit together into one seamless tapestry of God's marvelous promises and mighty acts? Let's be praying that in the coming generations of the church, every follower of Jesus can be captivated by the big picture of God and his purposes for the world, purposes extending far beyond the individualistic concerns we always tend towards, even in our Christian faith. Let's learn to see beyond ourselves - or rather, to see ourselves within this great story, and glorify God for his unfathomable wisdom.
Oh! The depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments; how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given him a gift, that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things; to him be glory forever. Amen!