This is the fifth portion of our conversation with Kathleen Nielson about her newest book Bible Study: Following the Ways of the Word (P&R Publishing).
In chapter seven Nielson talks about the Bible being one story that advances one overarching narrative. We asked her to explain what that means, and to discuss the implications for studying the individual stories within the meta-narrative—stories like the Fall, the Exodus, and Jonah.
First, what do we mean when we say the Bible is one whole story from beginning to end? In my book I recommend several other books that do a thorough and wonderful job of explaining this. I have benefited from such books, and from teaching that emphasized the unity of the Scriptures from beginning to end—centered in the story of God’s redeeming a people for Himself, through His Son. Teaching the books of the Bible in a children’s Sunday school class years ago, we teachers would begin by calling out, “What does the Old Testament teach?” And the children would shout, “Jesus is coming!” We’d call out, “What does the New Testament teach?” And the children would shout, “Jesus has come!” Well, I’d probably add one more, about Jesus coming again—but the point is that Jesus is at the center of the story from beginning to end. Just as each biblical book was carefully shaped by human authors, so the whole Scriptures were shaped by one divine Author into one unified story of redemption through Christ.
By “story” we of course don’t mean fiction. In fact, we are referring to the one true story of the universe which all other stories echo at some level. The whole biblical revelation lets us understand a movement through human history with four main parts: a beginning (in Genesis); a conflict that develops (the Fall); a resolution (which climaxes in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ); and a conclusion (encompassing the last days leading up to the last day when Jesus will come again and consummate the story). These four elements constitute the basic components of a narrative plot.
To say that Scripture as a whole tells one large story of redemption with Jesus as the main character is not to say that the Bible itself is one continuous narrative. Indeed, Scripture contains multiple genres, narrative being just one of them, and all of which together communicate God’s revelation of himself to us. But all of them together reveal this movement through human history that has this overall narrative shape to which we often refer as “creation-fall-redemption-consummation.” As that narrative shape unfolds through the Bible, there are many points at which the characters stop to sing and pray … or ponder … or preach. The Psalms, for example, are songs and prayers along the way, for God’s worshiping people. But all the parts of the story push the story toward Jesus who was there in the beginning—who finally came in the flesh—and who will finally come again.
What are the implications for Bible study? To see each part of Scripture in light of the whole does not imply a quick leap from each part to the larger meta-narrative. On the contrary, the best way to make that connection is to delve into each book and each text, not out from it. If the connections are real, then they will emerge from the words and need not be imposed on the words. The connections will happen sometimes directly, sometimes more indirectly, but always through the meaning of the individual text. Psalm 22, for example, takes us into the depths of suffering and out the other side, into victory—pointing us through its very shape and words directly to the death and resurrection of Christ himself. The poetry of Psalm 77 pulls us into the process of finding God in the midst of despair, through focusing on his redemptive work remembered specifically in the Exodus (but of course accomplished ultimately at the cross).
Each individual narrative as well connects to the meta-narrative. We’re given a huge clue as to how, in the fact that Old Testament narrative offers hardly any detailed glimpses of or into its characters. A modern writer might present the story of David and Goliath through a detailed description of the setting, the characters, and their feelings—especially David’s feelings as he approached that giant. What was going on inside him? How did Joseph feel when he was thrown into that pit—or thrown into that Egyptian prison? The biblical text rarely lets us go there. Instead, when we study a narrative, we see that the story comes to us from a third-person narrator who works mainly through dialogue and plot (exposition, conflict, resolution, and conclusion). We are given the characters’ words and actions, scene by scene, as a story unfolds. From the narrative method we learn that the story is not asking us to focus primarily on David as a shining example of moral courage. He can offer such an example, but the thrust of the text is not inside David but rather on his actions and his words and on the ongoing plot, in which God’s people, who cannot save themselves from their enemy, are delivered through an unlikely deliverer, who then receives their praise and adoration.
Our tendency as modern interpreters is to connect personally with the characters—making Esther, for another example, a model of faith and courage in the face of overwhelming power and persecution. The narrative of Esther, however, takes us not inside Esther but into the intricate weavings and crossings of a plot which by its very shape shows God’s people raised up from depths and God’s enemies lowered from heights. The complex narrative plot of Esther shows the contours of salvation, with its risings and fallings that happen ultimately through the greatest falling and the greatest rising of the Son of God. The fact that God is not named, in Esther, seems appropriate in that God in the Old Testament is the ultimate example of a character whom we know not by seeing him directly, but rather by watching the salvation plot unfold, in light of His words and promises given, all of which lead us ultimately and only to the Lord Jesus Christ.
For further discussion of narrative and Esther, follow this link to a workshop given by Nielson at the Gospel Coalition 2011 conference.
In the next and final portion of our interview, we talk with Kathleen Nielson about the direct benefits of Bible study, and why, exactly, it’s worth so much time and effort.
To learn more about Bible Study, please visit here.
To read the earlier portions of our interview with Kathleen Nielson, please see:
- Getting Serious About Bible Study
- The Power of the Gospel
- The Clarity of God’s Word
- The Bible as a Literary Work