DOES THE BIBLE HAVE A PLOT? A Second Take on a Theme

A bit of clarification is in order. In my previous series, “The Quest for “A Foundation-Laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality,” I took aim at a number of assumptions and methods that underlie the approach taken to questions of human sexuality by a synodical study committee in their looooong (175 pages) and controversial report, now slated to be discussed at the 2022 synod of the Christian Reformed Church. The report can be accessed on the denominational website: http://www.crcna.org. In my critique of the report, I did not for the most part directly address the conclusions of the committee but how they reached those conclusions.

The study committee was charged (by Synod 2016) to produce “a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality.” For that project and the resulting report, I had and have two sets of questions. The first have to do with how well the committee handled the texts they discuss in the report. Not well, I judge. For these text-specific questions, see in the earlier series “How the Study Committee on Human Sexuality Handled the Texts” and “The Biblical Texts on Homosexuality.” The second set of questions have to do with assumptions about the Bible and about how the Bible should be read that underlie the committee’s conclusions. Among these assumptions is the idea that the Bible has a basic plot and that proper interpretation follows this plot. For this line of analysis, see in the earlier series “Does the Bible Have a Plot?”, “What Kind of Book Is the Bible?”, and “The Priesthood of Bible Scholars.”

In these posts, I introduced two related ideas about the Bible. One is that the Bible cannot be plotted in the way that many people in Reformed and in Evangelical churches take for granted, the notion that scripture follows in broad outline a basic narrative arc stretching from creation (Genesis 1-2) through the fall (Genesis) through redemption (almost everything else in two periods: Israel and Jesus and the church) to consummation (Revelation). The other idea is that the Bible is more like a conversation—a conversation over many centuries—than like a modern book. In this conversation one voice may affirm another or present a different point of view, even if that point of view seems to contradict what is said by the earlier voice. The Bible cannot be, indeed, should not be, harmonized into a theological consistency. By doing so, we lose much of the Bible’s richness.

I’ll return in future posts to the idea of the Bible as a conversation. There is much more to be said. In this post, my concern is with the first idea, whether the Bible has a plot. It’s what I said in response to that question in an earlier post that concerned a recent correspondent. He said:

Among the people with whom I have lived and worked for most of my life, the answer to the question is clearly yes. The Bible has a plot: creation, fall, redemption, consummation. Isn’t that obvious? For the writers of the report on human sexuality, the idea that scripture has an underlying plot is key to everything. They begin the section in the report that promises “A Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality,” by saying, “Reformed theology reminds us that a good biblical theology follows the outline of the great moments of redemptive history: creation, fall, redemption, consummation.” In what follows in their report, they walk through three of these plot points—creation, fall, and redemption—interestingly, omitting the last, consummation.

It’s convenient to think in these terms. The Bible is a big, sprawling book. Or, a collection of books. People despair of getting their heads around it. The idea that the Bible has a simple plot makes it more accessible. But does it? Does the Bible have a plot?

In answering that question, I considered two approaches, wonky and not so wonky. Wonky is a temptation. There is much to be said here. Without really doing any kind of search, I pulled a half dozen books off my shelves that reflect on questions like this. It’s a temptation to dive into those books and others and engage the broader scholarly debate over the theology of the Bible. But I’ll not, except to mention one article by the always insightful British biblical scholar, Richard Bauckham. Bauckham has a small essay directly on point, “Reading Scripture as a Coherent Story.” The essay can be found both in The Art of Reading Scripture, edited by Ellen F. Davis and Richard B. Hays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003) and Bauckham’s own collection of essays, The Bible in the Contemporary World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

In his essay, Bauckham introduces a distinction between story and narrative, borrowed from Gerárd Genette. For Genette and Bauckham, “narrative” is what underlies “story.” In that sense, narrative is what happened. A story is a telling of the narrative, but a story may tell only part of it. Or tell it slant. Or have several accounts that differ from each other. In the end, the storyteller may never tell the whole narrative for several reasons: because no one has an entire grasp of the whole narrative or because the whole narrative cannot be reduced to a single telling or because the narrative is still playing out, among other reasons.

The Bible is like this. Let’s suppose that the Bible tells us about the four things that Reformed theologians love to consider as elements of a basic biblical plot: creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (this list should not be regarded as comprehensive or definitive). The underlying narrative is in some sense about those four things (and some others). How does the Bible tell the story?

Take the first, creation. I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are two creation accounts at the beginning of the Bible and that they are quite different, serving different purposes. The Bible puts on notice at the very beginning that you should not settle in to a single telling of the story, just as the New Testament does by featuring not one gospel but four. You can’t really put the two creation accounts together without ignoring parts of the one or of the other. There are differences, for example, in the sequence of things. In Genesis 1, animals are first, then humans; in Genesis 2, the human (‘ādām in Hebrew means “human,” “humanity”) is first, then the animals. There are differences in whether creation is finished or not. They are, these two accounts, quite different ways of telling the story. I would not be without either of them. Acknowledging the differences helps me, us, to see these two accounts as in conversation with each other, each telling the story is different terms, each thereby reflecting different aspects of what we mean when we say that God created the heavens and the earth.

But they are by no means the only ways to tell the story. Scattered throughout the Old Testament there are references to another story of creation. In this story, God wrestles order out of chaos by defeating a mythological chaos monster sometimes known as Leviathan (check out Job 9:13 and 26:7-14, Psalms 74:13-17 and 89:9-13, Isaiah 27:1 and 51:9, and, from the New Testament, Revelation 12). What’s important is that not only does this story portray creation differently, it gives us a different and quite helpful picture of evil as chaos, disorder. Job 3:8 speaks to this: “May those who curse the sea, curse that day [the day of Job’s birth]; those ready to rouse Leviathan.” Evil results from the power of human beings to set chaos in motion, as indeed we have been discovering in our time. It helps me to think of what is going in our world in terms of “rousing Leviathan.”

And these three ways of telling the story of creation and, by implication, the fall do not exhaust the scriptures. In Proverbs 8, for example, we have creation as the play of wisdom. John 1 takes off from Proverbs 8. The point is that the portrayal of God as creator in each of these stories leads to a different telling of the story as a whole—what evil is and what redemption looks like— and in those differences the rich and varied way the Bible reflects on our humanness and on created reality as a whole begins to emerge. A single, theologically reduced, way of telling the story does justice to neither the Bible nor to life. We, too, have be continually working to tell the story better, more comprehensively. Bauckham says that, given the diversity of the biblical text, “readers of Scripture have their work to do discerning the unity of the story.”

In fact, I think that this is our primary theological work: discerning how it all hangs together in a way that does not level the diversity of the Bible. Or the diversity of the thought of the church over the ages. The classic example of what I have in mind is Christology and especially the theology of the cross. Lately, there have been those who have decided there is only one way to tell the story, the way of penal substitutionary atonement. Never mind that the church fathers did not tell the story of our salvation in this way, those who are adamant on this point insist that this way of telling the story and no other is biblical. A quick glance at the Bible will show this not to be the case. The Bible uses a variety of metaphors for the work of Christ, each of these requiring a somewhat different telling of the story. Over the centuries of church history, theologians desiring to be faithful to Christ and faithful to the Bible have wrestled with how it all hangs together. And we wrestle with them. Or, at least, we should wrestle with them, knowing that there is not a single final telling of the story until, perhaps, we hear it from the Lord himself.

So does the Bible have a plot? I could answer that question by saying: yes, lots of them. There are many tellings of the story, many ways to say what it means that God created the heavens and the earth, many ways to describe what has gone wrong in the world, many ways to say how in Christ God redeems us, many ways to think about how it will all end. These ways are not arbitrary. They are tied to who God is and who Christ is and, yes, to the words of the Bible. My objection to the idea that the Bible can be reduced to a single plot is that in this way of thinking the Bible becomes redundant. You don’t need the Bible anymore because now you have a better way to the tell the story. But you don’t. What you have is your way of telling it, and your way, like mine, is thinner and less compelling than the Bible itself.

I recently read a book of Christology by the eminent theologian Rowan Williams (Christ, the Heart of Creation (London: Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018). In the book, Williams tracks the development of Christology—the study of Christ and the work of Christ—through the history of the church. It’s a long, complicated, often contentious history. The question is how do we tell the story of who Christ is without violating either the divinity of Christ or his humanity? How can Jesus be both the fullness of divinity, to use the language of the New Testament, and the fullness of humanity? Williams makes the point that this long conversation came about because the church refused to surrender either of those, divinity or humanity, with regard to Christ, but especially the latter. What kept the theologians working was trying to do justice to the humanity, the suffering of the Christ. If Jesus is not fully human, finite, subject to death, he is not the Jesus of the Scriptures. His humanity is, as it were, the fact on the ground. And although there were easier ways to think of Jesus and to tell the story—the Gnostic way, for example—the church kept trying—keeps on trying—to tell the story in a way that does justice to the whole biblical witness, not just to a part of it. And to do justice to it, we need to tell the story not in one way but in several.

That’s my plea. If you start out your study of the Bible, whether to study Christology or to study human sexuality, with a Bible simplified by a plotline that does not do it justice, what you find in the Bible is not the Bible but yourself—your own thoughts, your own theology. This is too often what the church does. It is, I believe, on the cusp of doing it again if adopts the recommendations of the study committee on human sexuality I referenced at the beginning of this essay.

With that, I will press on in the next few posts to look at the way the Bible can and should be interpreted conversationally. And will look at what in the light of that we can say about human sexuality. But before I get there, I have a little parable to tell. I call it, “The Cathedral.” I’ll post it soon.

Clay Libolt

Published by Clay Libolt

On me, see the front page of the website.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: