In my experience, most people read the Bible in one of three ways: as a theology book, a story book, or a guide book. As a theology book, the Bible answers questions about God, people, and the world. These answers can then be arranged by categories into tomes of systematic theology or detailed catechisms. As a story book, the Bible is mainly the historical narrative of God’s relationship with His creation, particularly people. It’s a collection of stories that taken together convey the bigger Story that God is telling the world. As a guide book, the Scriptures tell us what to do. Its pages overflow with rules for right living, commands to be carried out, and principles for practicing godliness. Which kind of book is the Bible?
Thad loves learning theology. He has a good grasp of doctrinal categories such as bibliology, Christology, soteriology, harmartiology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Thad can explain what the Bible says about sin, salvation, and sanctification. He has a keen mind for discerning doctrinal deficiencies and defending orthodoxy. Verses about renewing one’s mind and thinking on things that are lovely, pure, and right are taped to his bathroom mirror. He’s a regular commenter on the popular theology blogs and forums and has even begun to develop his own think tank website. Thad loves the Lord with his mind more than most, but is sometimes accused of living his Christianity from head-knowledge more than heart-experience. When he’s honest with himself, he senses it, too.
Stacy can’t help but get caught up in the Bible’s story. Narrative is her niche. When she reads the Bible, she sees the big picture, the overarching drama of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. When Stacy studies God’s Word she’s quickly whisked away into the tragedy of the forbidden tree, the redemptive romance of Ruth, the emotional pleas of Ezekiel and the prophets, and the joy of Jesus. She feels the passion and pain of every story that God has woven together into His Story. Stacy sees the themes of God’s Story in her favorite novels and movies and shares her insights with her coffee talk club each Tuesday night. She has a tender heart for the narratives of Scripture, but sometimes her small group thinks she downplays doctrine. There are times, though, when she wishes she understood the meaning of the stories more than she does.
Gary is a practical guy and the Bible is his guide to life. Gary’s delight is in the Law of the Lord and he meditates on it day and night. He could have written Psalm 119. No matter what he does as a husband, father, employee, or friend, Gary longs to do it God’s way. Gary gets frustrated with Bible studies that get stuck on theological issues or touchy-feely sentiments. He’s the one who always asks the “so what?” questions in his Sunday morning adult Bible class. Gary thinks Bible study methods like observation and interpretation are fine, but some folks think he tends to rush too quickly to the bottom line of application. And Gary would admit that on occasion he finds himself wandering in “grey areas” where God’s Word doesn’t seem to offer specific steps or point by point principles to follow. Sometimes he wonders why the lamp for his feet lights his path so dimly.
All of the names in the preceding scenarios have been changed to protect . . . me. Sometimes I am Thad, because I love to think deeply and devour the doctrine of Scripture. But then I can get too bogged down in the details, so like Stacy, I simply run free in the wonder-full drama of the Bible’s grand narrative, amazed by every thread that runs from Genesis to Revelation. But I also regularly find it difficult to connect my little story with God’s Larger Story, so like Gary I search for something in God’s Word that will give me some directions for how to put together a life lived on earth as it is in heaven.
So which is it? Is the Bible a book of doctrine, drama, or directions? Here’s how I believe all three of these approaches to the Bible work together:
The Bible is a story book in which God describes the drama that helps us love the Story of Jesus. The Bible is a theology book in which God inscribes doctrine that helps us learn the Story of Jesus. The Bible is a guide book in which God prescribes directions that help us live in the Story of Jesus.