A Grand Unified Theory of Scripture

Ever since I was a child I have had a passion for science, for physics in particular. Even though now I am not a trained physicists I still maintain a layman’s interest in the field. One of the great endeavours of modern physics is a grand unified theory. Something that simultaneously explains the very big like gravity and the very small like things at the sub-atomic level. At the beginning of the 20th century when quantum mechanics was just being discovered, physicists soon discovered the way the world worked at the macro level was not the same at the quantum level. Ever since the days of Einstein they have been trying to reconcile the two worlds.

During my fairly recent personal renaissance in Christian faith, I also wanted to reconcile a lot of seemingly disparate things I knew and practised about the faith. I specifically wanted a grand unified theory of the Bible, a comprehensive understanding of scripture that covered everything from individual verses to the entire canon. The Bible had to be at the centre if I was going to reclaim my faith. I know this is quite ambitious but why not strive for something as important as scripture?

Late last year I discovered biblical theology and a metanarrative approach to scripture. For a while I thought this was what a biblical grand unified theory might look like. A few weeks ago, as I was reading and listening to some stuff from Bible scholars and other people on scripture, as well as reading through the some books of the Bible I realised I had almost missed something crucial. More accurately I had temporarily ignored it. If you read most of my posts I tend to deal with vast swathes of scripture. I don’t usually pause to give a detailed explanation of passages. Part of the problem is I have too much to say for myself. The other problem is my approach to the Bible has largely for the last couple of months been at the macro level. There was a lot going in various scriptures I simply had not really grappled with in my newfound approach.

I have been interested in how the canon, or portions of it, work together for a while now. One of my favourite people to reference is Tom Wright who is a big picture guy so you can see the sort of influences on me. As I said at the beginning of this paragraph, I was already interested in the big picture long before I encountered the teaching of Tom Wright so it is no surprise I gravitated towards him and others who held similar positions. Even he is capable of and does do detailed exegesis of passages frequently in his published works. I realised that I needed to double down on my efforts at the micro level of the cannon, the various verses and passages that make up scripture. If in trying to establish the big picture you miss stuff like the specific things the author said, you end up undermining the macro view by ignoring the microstructure that gives the big stuff its substance. There must be precision at both levels.

I do think it is was immensely helpful in beginning my new personal quest with the big picture because it gave me the right frames of reference to look at the details. Mind you, I did not start my new quest ignorant of the Bible. I think I knew it fairly well considering I could quote and reference it way better than almost everyone I knew. By the way of an important sidebar, how much I know scripture is a problem when compared with other believers. People have often been in awe of my capacity to quote, which ironically I do not do much of in this blog. I for one have not seen anything special about it. I have met people who do it equally well and a few much better. It shows that Christians actually do not accurately know what is in the Bible beyond a somewhat vague knowledge of Sunday school stories. I think the proficient recall of scripture is basic but it has been largely ignored. If we are not familiar with the text, how can we even begin to study it at a more nuanced level?

The serious student of scripture must do a balancing act. They must hold in tension biblical theology and exegesis, canon and verses. You cannot have one without the other. I think this true of any substantial literary work, you need to pay attention to both the macrostructure and the microstructure. You have to mind the individual things that are being said as well as what is going on in the story overall. At the micro level we have the usual exegetical concerns like context and audience, which you can find out more about here. At the macro level we have genre, how the story is structured and arranged, themes, plot, characterization, allusions and references etc. One of the things that have helped me to see the big stuff going on in a book of the Bible is first and foremost reading everything and doing it again and again. The more we familiarise ourselves with a text the better we are at noticing things going on it, especially patterns, repetition and emphases. They are important indicators pointing to the macrostructure.

All of this is not really hard to do at all. It requires patience and not taking things for granted in the text. These are two often overlooked virtues that the dedicated student of scripture must have. In the charismatic world, which I am most familiar in, I find people rush in their explanation of scripture without doing their due diligence. People are too quick to bring out the ‘revelation.’ We assume a verse means this without first asking ourselves, how do we know that is actually the case? I used to be quite quick and presumptive about Bible study but certainly not at the level I commonly see. Nowadays I am slower and more methodical. One of my hidden fears about being this meticulous with scripture was that it would take me a long time to learn anything useful and so I would not enjoy its study like before. I have found the opposite to be true. Even though the path is longer and more challenging, the rewards are far greater. Besides, with this way of going about it, I get to spend more quality time with something I dearly love. That is never a minus in my book. I have also found the more you do it, over time the better you are at it and it becomes more and more intuitive. You kind of develop a Bible sense like the way you become familiar with a city or a neighbourhood the longer you stay in it. What more can I say than we all need to get to business with the word of God.

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