Thursday 1 April 2010

Word for the Week: Whole Life, Whole Bible – Some Initial Reflections

Just over a year ago, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity started a programmed scheme of fifty 400-word reflections on passages of Scripture sent out weekly via email to nearly 10,000 subscribers.

A year later, the final one has been written, and all fifty reflections are available in the ‘Word for the Week 2009’ archive.

The principal idea was to work through the biblical story from beginning to end, highlighting key turns in the plot, major characters, important motifs, and the like – but to do so in a way which tried to show how the biblical story helps form a distinctive way of looking at the world and living in the world.

It was, in other words, trying to combine elements of biblical theology and worldview thinking with reflections on discipleship. All this lies behind the title for the series – ‘Whole Life, Whole Bible’.

The key driver was to begin to lay down some biblical basis for our emphasis as an Institute on the significance of whole-life discipleship, and to do so not simply by selecting ad hoc Bible passages here and there, but by showing that a ‘whole-life’ emphasis is part of the very warp and woof of the biblical narrative, from start to finish.

Thus, the contributors to the series – myself, Margaret Killingray, Helen Parry and (for one email) Mark Coffey – had to write each piece with one eye to the significance of a particular biblical passage in the larger flow of salvation history and one eye to the significance of that passage for worldview formation and/or its contribution to our understanding that Christianity is for the whole of life not just what we do on Sunday morning or a Wednesday evening in church-related activities. That was always going to be a tall order, and some messages are inevitably more successful than others.

Each email also contained between two and four questions or suggestions ‘for further reflection and action’. Although these were not absolutely integral to the message itself, they did allow us a way of linking the passage under scrutiny to larger patterns of biblical thought, raise issues of interpretation, as well as provoke thought for possible application here and there. Again, no doubt, some manage to do this more successfully than others.

After two introductory messages, the series followed this broad schema…

• God and Creation
• Humanity and Sin
• Israel
• Jesus
• The Coming of the Spirit
• The Vocation of the Church
• The End of the Age

… with each section containing several emails as follows:

1. The Lordship of Christ – Colossians 1:15-20
2. I’ll Tell You a Story – Psalm 78:1-4

God and Creation
3. And God… – Genesis 1:1 and 2:4
4. It Was Good – Genesis 1:31
5. The First Great Commission – Genesis 1:26-28

Humanity and Sin
6. How Could They? – Genesis 3:6
7. The Fruit of Fruit-Eating – Genesis 3:8
8. The Way We Are – Genesis 4:19-24

9. The Promise to Abraham: Restoration, Restoration, Restoration – Genesis 12:1-3
10. The Redemption through Moses: Let My People Go – Exodus 3:7-8
11. The Covenant at Sinai: Covenant Commitment – Exodus 19:3-6
12. The Law of Holiness: Holy, Holy, Holy – Leviticus 18:1-5 and 19:1-2
13. The Entry into the Land: On the Brink – Joshua 1:6-7
14. The Rise of the Monarchy: King for a Day? – 2 Samuel 7:11b-16
15. The Building of the Temple: The Glory of the Lord Filled the Temple – 1 Kings 7:51-8:6
16. The Hymnbook of Israel: Songs for All Seasons – Psalm 103:1-5
17. The Way of Wisdom: Words for the Wise – Proverbs 31:10-31
18. The Division of the Kingdom: For the Sake of David – 1 Kings 12:16
19. The Ministry of the Prophets: Standing Up and Speaking Out – Jeremiah 1:4-5, 9-10
20. The Judgment of the Exile: Loss and Opportunity – Jeremiah 25:1, 8-9, 11-12
21. The Loss that Comes with Exile: Exiled and Forsaken? – Lamentations 1:7, 12
22. The Nature of Life in Exile: Peril and Providence – Esther 4:16 and Daniel 3:17-18
23. The Restoration that Follows Exile: All Change – Ezekiel 36:24-28
24. The Reality of Life After Exile – Psalm 126:1-3
25. The Hope that Lies Beyond Exile: A Partial Restoration – Malachi 2:17-3:2 and 4:1-2

26. His Fulfilment of the Old Testament: The Key to Scripture – Luke 24:25-27, 30-33
27. His Unique Birth: The Word Became Flesh – Luke 2:1-7
28. His Proclamation of the Kingdom of God: The Lord Reigns – Mark 1:14-15
29. His Calling of Disciples: Apostles and Apprentices – Matthew 4:18-20
30. His Ministry of Healing and Exorcism: In Word and Deed – Matthew 4:23-25
31. His Prophetic Call to Israel: He Came to His Own… – Luke 4:14-17
32. His Radical Demands: Love – Matthew 5:17 and 7:12 and 22:35-40
33. His Teaching in Parables: Listen! Whoever Has Ears… – Matthew 13:10-11, 16
34. His Dramatic Actions: Dangerous Revolutionary or Maverick Showman? – Matthew 17:24-27
35. His Saving Victory on the Cross: Finished! – John 19:28-30 and Colossians 1:19-20
36. His Powerful Resurrection: Alleluia! He is Risen! – John 20:1, 19
37. His Commission to Disciple All Nations: The Great Project – Matthew 28:18-20
38. His Ascension to Heaven: Out of This World? – Luke 24:50-53

The Coming of the Spirit
39. The Day of Pentecost: A New World Order? – Acts 2:1-11
40. The Life of the Church: No Spirit, No Church – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
41. The Walk of the Believer: The Freedom of the Spirit – Galatians 5:1, 16, 22-23, 25

The Vocation of the Church
42. The Church Continues God’s Mission to the World: Acts of God – Acts 11:19-21, 26
43. The Church Tackles Problems from Within and Without: How RU CU L8R Love Paul – Philippians 3:1
44. The Church is Identified as the New Israel: The People of God – 1 Peter 1:1, 2:9-10 and Exodus 19:3-6
45. The Church Lives in the Overlap of the Two Ages: Living Between the Times – Romans 8:18, 21-24

The End of the Age
46. The Return of Jesus: A Forward-Looking Faith – 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 16-18
47. The Resurrection of the Dead: Soul or Body? – 1 Corinthians 15:42-44
48. The Reunification of All Things: United We Stand, United We End – Ephesians 1:8-10, 2:15-16, 4:3, 13
49. The Remaking of Creation: A World Remade – Revelation 21:1-3 and Isaiah 65:17-18

50. To the Glory of God – Philippians 2:5-11

Some other thoughts, in no particular order…

1. It was a challenging but exhilarating experience doing this – even the initial decision about which 50 passages to go for. It’s a worthwhile exercise to set oneself, I think, or to do with some others: what 50, or 30, or 10 passages of Scripture would you select which would tell the story the Bible essentially tells? What absolutely must be there in order for it still to be the story of the Bible, and why? And what could we be relatively comfortable with leaving out, and why?

Much of the scheme happened as planned. We made initial decisions about what to leave out (e.g., nothing on the wilderness wanderings, nothing on the period of the judges) and we stuck to them. And we were painfully aware of other passages that could have been included. We were already a fair way through before we realised we didn’t have anything planned on the ‘servant of the Lord’ passages in Isaiah, which we felt was fairly crucial from a biblical-theological perspective; so we tried to weave in elements of that in other places along the way, particularly in ones on Jesus (e.g., #35). And some things did get changed along the way. For a while we had two separate emails planned on ‘the promise of the Spirit’ (John 14-16) and ‘the giving of the Spirit’ (Acts 2), but we realised we didn’t have anything on the work of the Spirit in the life of individual believers (which was felt to be a fairly crucial element in thinking about the role of the Spirit!), so we combined elements of the promise of the Spirit into #39 (on Acts 2) and thus created space for #41 (on Galatians 5). Also, we were close to the end before we realised we did not have an email planned on the controversial issue of the judgment and fate of non-Christians, so comments and questions about this were woven into the final few entries. There were other tweaks along the way, and we’re aware that some significant gaps remain (there is nothing, for instance, on Jesus’ teaching about the future, e.g., Matthew 24-25).

In short, the exhilaration and challenge referred to above was because these sorts of issues about what was there and what was not there were constantly on the bubble throughout the year, all the time obliging us to consider why a particular event or theme had been chosen and not something else, and where it fitted into the overall grand scheme.

2. We selected the ‘biblical story’ mode of working even while being fully aware that there are other ways of doing biblical theology, other modes of looking at the Bible as a whole. And we did so not primarily because of the recent and happy proliferation of books adopting precisely this sort of approach, which can have the unfortunate effect of making it look ‘trendy’. We’re also aware of the huge current interest in the importance of story in human experience, but even this was not the driving force for the series. In fact, none of this would be nearly so significant were it not that ‘story’ seems to be a primary way God has chosen to reveal himself in Scripture. This is implicit in lots of emails throughout the whole series, but the point is self-consciously made in the introductory ones (#1 and #2) and in the conclusion (#50). In some respects, we were simply wanting to follow the example of Scripture itself, where some of the Psalms (e.g. 78, 105, 106) tell the story of Israel, where Nehemiah 9:5-37 also rehearses it, as does Stephen’s speech in Acts 7:2-53, and Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:16-41.

3. Related to the previous point, seeing the Bible as telling a big story has been important in some missionary situations where there is a lack of general literacy not to mention biblical literacy, and where missionaries have taught individual stories from the Bible in rough chronological order. Sometimes referred to as ‘chronological Bible storying’ or ‘Bible storying’, it’s a way of telling selected biblical stories in chronological order in order to bring people to faith and as part of their ongoing discipleship.

In one case, Bible translators in Central America identified 26 stories in the Bible that could be told in sequence. Major gaps in the sequence were bridged by phrases such as ‘after a long time’ or ‘much later’. This core of Bible stories provided a framework which enabled tribes to make sense of the message of the biblical story as a whole. The sequence was important, and the framework provided a fuller understanding of God and redemption rather than isolated truths abstracted from the larger story.

All of which is to say that, more than ever, we feel we’re standing on firm ground when it comes looking at the storyline of Scripture.

4. In spite of the significance of the biblical story and the events which make up the biblical story, we didn’t want to lose sight of the different types of literature in Scripture and their significance for theology and formation. That’s why we decided to include emails on the law (#12), psalms (#16), wisdom material (#17), prophets (#19), and letters (#43), inserted (we hope) at appropriate points along the storyline.

5. Most people who contacted us during the year have been positive about the series as a whole; some individual emails were particularly appreciated, and others generated a mixture of praise and occasional query. The fullest and strongest response was to #44 on the church as the ‘New Israel’. Objections tended to centre around the following main issues: (1) that our use of the title ‘New Israel’ assumed some kind of ‘replacement theology’ with associated negative connotations of anti-semitism; (2) that our two references to Stephen Sizer, persona non grata for many of those of a pro-Zionist persuasion, was highly problematic; (3) that our recommendations for further reading in the ‘for further reflection and action’ section were biased towards the anti-Zionist position. We responded in several ways, including by: (1) denying that LICC qua LICC embraces ‘replacement theology’ in the negative sense that has become attached to that phrase, (2) including in the website version of the email pro-Zionist writers in the ‘for further’ section, (3) inviting people to contribute other comments and recommended reading on the website, and (4) issuing the gentle challenge to show where the reflection on the biblical passage in the email itself – not least as part of the larger series in which it is found – is lacking.

6. Perhaps the biggest ongoing ‘hermeneutical’ issue was about how to relate the particular passage we were looking at any given week to the issue of whole-life discipleship. We were all too aware of the danger of starting out with a particular agenda (whole-life discipleship in this case) and reading it back into the text. And, of course, there is a sense in which passages may be illuminated in significant ways when read through particular lenses. We could have selected passages that more obviously addressed our ‘discipleship’ concerns, but that would run the risk of being accused that we’d selected passages to prove what we’d already decided beforehand must be the case.

For some parts of the biblical story, the link wasn’t always obvious. For instance, we wanted to include the division of the kingdom (#18), but its relevance to whole-life discipleship is not immediately apparent. But in many cases, it’s not too difficult to build a link, to see an implication, to trace a line of thought. And cumulatively, looking back over the whole series, the case feels strong.

So, our first concern throughout was to give the biblical story priority (albeit acknowledging our selection of passages and events already amounts to a kind of interpretive framework), to see what emerges, to allow the story to shape our understanding of God, his world, ourselves, and our relationship with him, each other, and the created world – broken but now redeemed in Christ – all the while looking forward to final and complete restoration.

I’m glad to get to end of the series, but it’s been great to do it.

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