Realizing the power of the narrative marked a monumental turning point in my thinking. Understanding the biblical narrative has since been fundamental to my own theology. It is something I repeatedly mention or allude to it in this blog. At various times and in different ways, I have given quick summaries of the biblical narrative. What I have not really done in this blog is to look at the narrative itself and the shape it takes. I am like the guy who loves a movie and is constantly quoting or referencing it, yet he hasn’t paused long enough to let anyone know the basic plot. So why did I not say it in the first place?
First of all recognizing there was a story was only the first step. We are taught in basic school every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. This heuristic is very useful in identifying stories and the Bible is no different. There was a general narrative it followed yet it is a complex compilation of different kinds of ancient literature spanning hundreds of years. What unifies the scriptural record is therefore actually a metanarrative, the story of a story.
Figuring out a narrative can be quite challenging. Figuring out the story of a story is even more difficult. I knew there was a narrative but I did not initially know what type it was and how it worked. As I learnt about it more and more, I did not stop mentioning it my writing. If not for anything, I wanted to remind the reader of what the Bible was and encourage them to read and discover it for themselves. There are few things in this world more powerful than encountering the staggering story of scripture for yourself. (The gig is up. You now know why I sometimes stall before writing about something I had promised to address. I don’t have anything useful to say!)
The second reason why I took so long was the very nature of the task. Reading other people’s work I saw varied approaches. Due to the complexity of the biblical text one could not produce a definitive format. Instead, the best a person can do is to sketch a rough outline that serves as guide for understanding the text. No one size fits all but there are important markers you should not miss.
As usual the work of N.T. Wright was indispensable. I adopted his hermeneutic model of the biblical drama which he likened to a five-act play. I do not really know much about theatre but I do think he spots the major milestones in the journey through scripture. The five acts are 1. Creation; 2. Fall; 3. Israel; 4. Jesus; 5. Church. This gives you the overarching sequence of events in the Bible. Tom Wright would be the first to tell you, as he does in The New Testament and the People of God, that it is only a model and can be changed and modified accordingly.
A more traditional model would (ignore Israel and) end with consummation. The analogy Wright employs is the acts in a play. The consummation is the conclusion of the plot and not an act in itself. So in this model the consummation is the end of the fifth act, the Church. Now the Bible hints and points at the end so we know there is one. What form it will take exactly we do not know. We do know that it will be to the glory of God. The way the Book of Acts ends, along with the rest of the New Testament, tells us the Bible is an unfinished story and we all have a part to play in it.
Every story has characters. We find ourselves to be actors in this living story. The principal character in the biblical drama is God himself. As a metanarrative the scriptures are not just about a certain group of people but the very story of the cosmos. As the old cliché goes, history is his story. He is the focus and hero of the biblical drama. He is the ever present, active agent within his own creation to fulfil his special agenda. This perspective is absolutely crucial in how you read and understand the text. There are many lives and histories it chronicles but the story is ultimately told from his perspective.
God initiates and guides the five act sequence of events from the beginning, through the middle, towards a definitive end. Between the middle and the end of the story is the climax. The pivotal sequence of events that drives the narrative towards its conclusion. It is the turning point of the story where conflicts and problems are resolved. The climax is so important that it can be considered as an act on its own. In The Incarnation: A Long View I present Jesus as the climax of the divine story. YHWH, the every present hero of the story, participates in his own creation in the most unique and unprecedented manner by becoming a man, to fulfil his plan for the world. On account of the unique climax of the Christ event we live in a very interesting time. We are in a transition period between the end of the middle and the beginning of the end. In biblical language the end time has begun but things have not yet come to an end. It is now but not yet.
There are many more things that need to be discussed but this is a brief outline of the dramatic structure of the Bible. Anytime we read the Bible we need to constantly be aware of the structure so that it guides our understanding of events. Apart from reading the text it is a guide to reading the world. To live biblically means to participate in the grand narrative. This requires us to first believe and understand the general plot. For example in acting knowing your lines is very important. Without it you have nothing to act out. However, it is not enough. Like any actor we need to read the script and correctly interpret it, before we can commit to bringing the characters to life. It is not enough for us to be aware of what the scriptures talk about. We need to understand how it all works together so we can live it out to the glory of God.