Thursday, 10 January 2013

How do we know if someone understands The Bible?


I recently had another enjoyable meeting with locally-dwelling Christian blogger Alastair Roberts

during which he made what seems to me a very important point:


If The Bible is to be understood properly, we need to see it as a story consisting of stories: a narrative of God's dealings with his People.

It is not, therefore, primarily an abstract philosophical discourse, nor a set of principles or instructions: it is a collection of stories which tells a big story.

Or, a big story within-which that same big story is retold many times, at many scales, with many variations.


So, how should we proceed if we want to understand the Bible as the narrative that it primarily is - when the answer to questions is not to be an abstraction?

What is the meaning of the first chapters of Genesis, of a story like Jonah or Job, of a parable by Jesus' or an event from His life?

The answer must be 'another story', or stories - further narratives which elucidate the particular narrative under investigation.


But we can be somewhat more specific than this.

Understanding comes from expounding and condensing.

Expounding a story means looking at parts of a specific story as microcosms of the whole specific story - so that individual parts of a story are seen as recurrent themes in which the whole specific story is being alluded to. So that the parts of  a Book in the Bible, or the life of Christ, or a parable can be seen as miniature examples of the whole parable.


(The correspondence is, as Alastair said, more akin to a musical theme than an abstract symbol; music in fact consists of thematic elements - a phrase or melody contains in miniature aspects of itself, and also a larger piece of music revisits themes which are recognizable even as repeated with variations and transformations.)


Condensing a story involves the ability to make a shortened (summary) version of the story, so that it can be told as part of a longer story.

So that a Book of the Bible can be seen as summarizing the whole of the Bible, and the same can be said of the Life of Christ, an event in the life of Christ, and a parable of Christ.


In sum, to understand a story - to explain a narrative by narrative - is to bring out that a real specific story is on the one hand a microcosm of the whole story; and on the other hand contains microcosms of itself.


So, a person who understand the Bible is - by this account - a person who can tell the story under consideration, and tell the smaller recurrent versions of itself within the story; and can tell bigger stories which include a condensed version of the the story under consideration.

Stories clarifying stories - and not abstractions extracted from stories: story is the proper primary model of Christian discourse.



Wm Jas said...

Some specific examples would be very helpful.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - that isn't really what this blog is about. If I went into specific detail, people would not read the whole post.

But the specific examples would be simply examples of great preaching (and therefore beyond my own abilities): the best sermons of Martyn Lloyd Jones, for instance.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I have thought of an example (and realize that MLJ, being a Calvinist, does tend towards abstraction rather than narrative in his expositions).

The parable of the Prodigal Son.

As a story, going upwards, or taking a larger scale view - it is embedded in the larger story of the Gospel of Luke - which is itself embedded in the New Testament, and the Bible as a whole.

So, the parable as a whole is a microcosm of the Bible/ Testament/ Gospel as a whole (and is, in fact, intended to be taken as such). (Of course, each microcosm is not identical, nor intended to be idential - rather, variations on a theme.)

Going downwards (or moving into close-up) the Parable is encapsulated in several places, for example the final two verses:

Luke 15: 31: And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32: It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.

And these could be reduced to the aphorism: "This thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found."

...which, in a sense, encapsulates the whole Bible.

The aphorism is the minimum unit of narrative.

Steve said...

I love the analogy of music and larger and smaller elements incorporated into the themes of salvation history and of God and humans, His putative sons.

St. Augustine (and many of the Church doctors) was a master at showing Christ in nearly any passage of the OT.

Bruce B. said...

I hope I don’t say something stupid or heretical but here goes:
I think the way to understand the Bible is to relate everything to the core Christian truth, that is, the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. So every story can be seen as pointing to this. This is particularly true when trying to understand the Old Testament: “The Old is the New concealed, the New is the Old revealed” as someone told me.
I like the way that David Bentley Hart explains it here:
He says (The Old Testament) “serves as a spiritual text to the degree that the mind of Christians read it and allegorize it in relation to the truth that is revealed in Christ.”
Which, of course, isn’t the same as saying the each story IS an allegory.
I don’t see why New Testament stories (parables in particular) can’t be understood in the same way so this principle seems to apply to the whole Bible. He seems to claim that this is how the ancient Church did it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I think this is right - but what I'm saying here is that it is primarily a matter of the *story* being concealed/ revealed, rather than the abstract truths or lessons.