The Bible in the BIG PICTURE
Contributed by Megan Defranza
Natalie and I met in seminary where we would hash over the complexities of biblical interpretation and the question of women’s ministry, and when we needed a break from all that, we would put the books down and sing. Natalie would take the lead, and I would find some harmony to support her floating soprano whether we were on our own in the missions prayer closet or leading the community in chapel. Seminary is not only good for one’s education; the friendships it offers are life-long.
I am honored to be asked to share with you one of the most helpful things I learned during our years at Gordon-Conwell. Not everyone has the time or inclination to go to seminary. Thankfully, teachers like Dr. Eastman are bringing seminary-level education to a wider audience.
For me, encountering the works of N. T. Wright was transformative for my understanding of the Bible. I first read The New Testament and the People of God in a class affectionately and fearfully dubbed “seminary boot camp”—NT502: Interpreting the New Testament. It was the first 150 pages (a small slice of that large book) that struck me most: the big picture of how we interpret the Bible and how the Bible functions as the authoritative Word of God.
(I have since learned that most of what I appreciated about those 150 pages can be found in a short essay Wright wrote years before and available on-line: “How Can The Bible Be Authoritative?” When I teach, this is the version I ask my students to read. But Wright has built upon these ideas in many places, most recently in his more accessible book Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today.)
Wright asks how the Bible—a complex book containing commands, history, parables, and theology written in letters and apocalyptic imagery—functions authoritatively, especially when all these diverse parts are put together into one whole, one grand story of redemption.
To help us appreciate the complexity, he compares the Bible to a Shakespearian play in 5 acts:
Act I: Creation – The Good Creation of the world and humans
Act II: Fall – Sin enters the scene, all is not as it should be
Act III: Israel – God’s agents of revelation and redemption… but they fail
Act IV: Jesus – the true Israel, the last Adam, the perfect Revelation and Redeemer
Act V: Church – filled with the Spirit, the church is tasked with living out this redemption as a witness to the world
But Wright insists that the play is not yet finished. We know that the story ends when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead and to make all things new. But this hasn’t yet happened.
Act 5 is incomplete. We have the first few years of the church, the first few pages. But we do not have a complete script that takes us from the first century to the consummation of the ages.
Wright asks: what would we do if we found an unfinished script by the great playwright of old? We would, of course, want to stage it. But how could we?
He suggests the wise course of hiring trained Shakespearian actors who would immerse themselves in the story—the first 4 Acts of the script and the first few pages of Act 5. They would look for hints as to how the story will end, but they would also know that to move the story to that ending it would not do to simply repeat act 2 or 3 or 4. No, these acts would serve as the authority for keeping the characters consistent, for moving the plot forward faithfully. But the details would not be provided. For this, the actors would need to cultivate what Wright calls “faithful improvisation” – the ability to look at the whole; understand the trajectory, the characters, and the themes; and improvise.
Certainly, we would expect debate over how best to keep in line with the story. And this is exactly what we find as Christians, through the years, have debated how best to remain faithful to the revelation of God in the Bible while recognizing that we no longer live in the Ancient Near East or in the first century of the Roman Empire.
Creation Fall Israel Jesus Church ……………… Church History ……………………… Final Consummation
Biblical Revelation Where we live and wrestle and practice faithful improvisation.
This idea that the Bible is not a flat text but offers us a moving storyline—a trajectory—helps us make sense of those themes, which may look redemptive if one lives in the first century but from the 21st century seem to still fall short of the True, the Good, the Beautiful—or what William Webb calls an “ultimate ethic.” Webb is another New Testament scholar whom I discovered in seminary, who illustrates it like this in his book, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals, pg. 32:
Our job, of course, requires that we work to understand biblical passages in their historical context as well as in the context of their place in the overall story of redemption. To which Act do these verses belong? Are these ideas universal—consistent throughout each act—or do we see diversity in the ways biblical authors approach the issue? Differences of attitude from biblical authors or themes that pull in tension with one another require that we pause to consider whether we are looking at a universal matter, an ultimate ethic, or something that reflects accommodation to the culture who received the initial message.
Webb reminds us that God is like a good parent who knows the next baby step to teach to his children. God is like a seasoned teacher patiently teaching one concept before the next, laying a good foundation so that her students can master more complex calculus in the years ahead.
Of course, when you are raised like I was to read every Bible verse as equally authoritative, the shift to this way of reading the Bible can be scary. It can feel like the Bible you thought you knew has been taken away and placed up on a higher shelf. Gone are the days of easy answers. That feels like a loss and can breed resistance.
I understand. Most seminarians do. This is the complex Bible we encounter in grad school. For some, schooled in simplistic approaches to the Bible, it can provoke a crisis of faith—seminary becomes the cemetery for faith.
But learning to read the Bible as the complicated, beautiful book that it truly is can also be life-giving. We no longer have to pretend that this is an easy book—or that we agree with everything we read, be it slavery or patriarchy, polygamy or head coverings. We can enter into a dialogue with the God who speaks in these pages—listening to the Spirit who has promised not only to remind us of all Jesus said but to lead us through the uncharted territory ahead (John 14:26).
I used to think that God could have given us a better book, an easier-to-understand-guide for this journey. But I have learned to trust that God knows best and that this complicated, ancient text is still just what we need.
Megan K. DeFranza (Ph.D. Religious Studies from Marquette University; MA Theology and MA Biblical Languages from Gordon-Conwell Seminary) is a theologian, educator, author, speaker, wife, mother, and Visiting Researcher at the Boston University School of Theology. She also serves as a Research Associate with the Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion, Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her new book Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God is changing the way conservative Christians talk about sex difference and what it means for theology, ministry, marriage, and our understanding of ourselves. She blogs at www.megandefranza.com and lives with her beloved husband and daughters in Beverly, MA.