The Great Story and the Single Verse
In my neck of the Christian woods, words like narrative, meta-narrative, story, storyline, biblical theology, and big picture abound. I would like to sound a note that may encourage some who, like me, may wonder how this language works to build faith in the human heart.
First, I affirm the common-sense hermeneutical principle that in any message, or essay or poem or novel or scene from a movie or conversation or psalm or gospel or epistle or chapter or verse, it is the parts that give existence to the whole, and the whole that gives meaning to the parts.
The word “boy,” does not have much meaning. “The boy in the corner,” has more meaning. “Feed the boy in the corner,” has even more. “Feed the boy in the corner with the word of God,” makes the meaning clearer. Without this “whole” (sentence) the meaning of the “part” (feed) would not be clear. And yet it is parts that create the whole. Both parts and whole are crucial for meaning to be transferred from one mind to another.
So I rejoice at every effort to see the big picture of the Bible. The whole story. The narrative from creation to consummation. The clearer the whole, the clearer the parts. And the more clearly we see the parts, the more accurately we will construe the whole.
The Story Reveals the Specifics
But here’s the note I want to sound. Not only should the particulars of the Bible be seen in relation to the larger storyline of the Bible, but we should also realize that the story exists to reveal the particulars of God and his ways. And those particular glories of God are seen and enjoyed not mainly by gazing over the whole dazzling landscape of redemptive history, but by focusing on some particular thing God did or said inside the story.
For example, Isaiah 41:10 is a particular promise that has sustained me hundreds of times. (“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”) I would argue that the whole of Isaiah exists so that I might have that kind of faith-sustaining personal encounter with its particular parts.
Yes, Isaiah is a magnificent whole, and, yes, it fits magnificently into redemptive history for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. But if its particulars do not stun us and gladden us and strengthen our faith and increase our hope and intensify our worship, the big picture will have been in vain. I think, in God’s design, the prophecy of Isaiah exists as a whole, and in its relation to the history of redemption so that its particular promises might be known and loved and trusted by me a Gentile, because of the mystery of Christ.
Holding the Whole
In profound ways, the whole Bible — the whole of redemptive history — exists to create a place and time and meaning where particular, individual, finite humans can encounter its stunning parts. The parts make up the whole, and so serve the whole. They would have no meaning and no beauty without the whole. But it is just as important to say that the whole exists to give place and time and meaning to the parts so that the parts can be known and experienced and enjoyed.
Most of us simply cannot hold the “whole” — the whole Bible, the whole book, or even the whole chapter — in our minds fully enough or steadily enough to feel our joy rising from its fullness. We read it. We gaze on the grand landscape. But it is this particular promise, this particular act of God, this particular warning, this particular turn of providence, that penetrates most deeply and awakens faith and joy and hope.
A beatitude, a line from Romans 12, a promise in Psalm 23, a warning in Hebrews 3, a miracle in Mark 1 — these are the places where our hearts are broken with contrition or leap with joy.
Jesus in the Details
I recognize that people differ in which aspects of God’s glory move them. Some can hold in their minds a large, sweeping terrain of wonder. I don’t have that gift. Jesus manifests himself to me in the particulars. Granted, these particulars would have no wonder or glory if they were not part of something vastly greater. But it is this particular promise at this particular point in history, this particular time in this particular place that does its Christ-exalting work.
One implication of this for pastors would be that we love both. The big picture and the small brushstrokes. And as we open the whole counsel of God, and the whole story of redemption, let us glory in the brightness of the whole, and make the parts glow like a white-hot filament in a light bulb.
Recent posts from John Piper: