The Bible: Story or Systematic Theology?

Are we to read the Bible as a story or as a systematic theology? It depends on whom you ask. The “emergent” types will emphasize the narrative character of God’s Word and some will eschew any approach to the Bible that systematizes its teaching into categories or creeds. On the other side of the table the “traditionalists” will fend for the faith by emphasizing doctrinal purity and a passion for propositional truth while sometimes missing the dramatic forest for the didactic trees.

I often find myself defending one view or the other. When talking with those who over-emphasize doctrine, I remember how I lost the big picture of God’s story while immersed in doctrine during my seminary days. When talking with those who bad-mouth theology and down-play doctrine, I am reminded that the New Testament is loaded with the stuff (see Romans) and that the early Christians were devoted to it (Acts 2:42).

Lately, I’ve found two sources that have helped me understand that God’s revelation is a theological story…both/and, not either/or:

First, in a talk available at, Tim Keller uses an illustration that has helped resolve this tension for me. He refers to J. R. R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example of a story that has such rich depth that it is enhanced (not inhibited) by encyclopedic tools. For example, on my bookshelf at home I have the three volume paperback version of the LOTR triology. Sitting next to those volumes is a one volume paperback edition of The Complete Guide to Middle Earth. A quick search on reveals a myriad of resources that systematize information gleaned from the LOTR story as well as Tolkein’s other tales from Middle Earth. These guides help me engage and enjoy the story more than I would if I only read the story. But at the same time, these encyclopedias, dictionaries and atlases would have little impact if I neglected the bigger picture of the whole story.

In his lecture (which is well worth listening to), Keller describes two ways of reading the Bible. When we read the Bible diachronically, we read the text “along the chronos…along the timeline of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, in which case the Gospel (read diachronically) is: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.” We might also read the Bible synchroncially that is “across the grain…you can look at it topically: what does the Bible say about God?…about sin?”…etc. If you read the Bible in this way, says Keller, “the Gospel is: God, Sin, Christ, Faith, not works.” Keller argues that “you’ve got to read the Bible both ways.”

I recently found a second confirmation of this “both/and” view in Paul David Tripp’s new book A Quest for More: Living for something bigger than you:

The Bible is essentially a narrative, a story. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the Bible is a theologically annotated story. It is a story with notes for the reader’s understanding…

The way the Bible is organized is that the main body of the content is the unfolding drama of the story of redemption. But as I said before, it is a story with notes. On one side of the narrative are propositions. In the propositions, the great themes of the story are distilled down into universal truth statements. The purpose of these statements is to help you understand the plot of the story.

On the other side of the narrative are principles. The principles apply the story to the situations and relationships of everyday life. The purpose of the principles is to help you know what it looks like to live within the plot of God’s story.

We need to read and preach and teach the Bible as a narrative-with-notes that helps us to more deeply love and live in “the old, old Story of Jesus and His love.”

UPDATE: Another helpful thought along these lines can be found here.

5 thoughts on “The Bible: Story or Systematic Theology?

  1. I guess I’ve always been puzzled by folks who are extreme either way.

    A story with notes is a good reminder that it’s rarely “either or”, but “both and” in these type discussions. Thanks man.

  2. Pingback: More on The Bible As a "Narrative with Notes" « The Cruciform Life Blog

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