The Drama of Scripture:
Finding our Place in the Biblical Story
Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen (Baker, 2004)Blurb Review by Dr Graeme Goldsworthy
Review by Dr Graeme Goldsworthy
Adapting an idea borrowed from N. T. Wright, the authors conceive of the unity of Scripture as a drama, a story in six acts from creation to new creation. In the preface, the reader is referred to the authors' website www.biblicaltheology.ca. This is an extremely useful tool that, apart from promoting the book, contains suggested syllabi, PowerPoint slides, and some important website links relating to biblical theology. What may be regarded as the authors' prolegomena and apologia to this book is their essay, "Story and Biblical Theology," in Bartholomew et al (eds), Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, Volume 5 (Milton Keynes: Paternoster; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004). It is here that they set out their approach to the narrative focus of their biblical theology.
In adopting the drama model in six acts the authors tie the book into the narrative structure of the Bible, which is, of course, their aim. The story is told lucidly as a coherent whole, while focussing on the key theme of the Kingdom of God with the covenant as a subsidiary theme. It is important to choose some focus for theological unity of the narrative, because many Christians have been taught by defective curricula and Bible reading programs to regard the biblical accounts as a collection of stand-alone stories with usually some immediate moral or spiritual application. The fragmentation of the Bible is probably the biggest hindrance to its proper understanding and application. This book addresses that problem.
The narrative focus of the book is at the one time both its strength and a weakness. Its strength lies in the way it gives the broad sweep of events and key people that figure in the metanarrative of the Bible. It makes clear that we have to do, not with mere ideas, but with events in time and space that form the grand drama of God acting in Christ for our redemption. It is true, as the authors' indicate in their essay, that rushing to diachronic synthesis should not displace an analysis of the shape of the story. But it is also true that the narrative shape must be integrated into such a synthesis. To me, one weakness of the approach in this book is that has allowed those parts of the Old Testament that sit within the broader narrative context, but which themselves contain either minimal or no narrative pointers, to fade somewhat into the background. Thus the Wisdom literature and, surprisingly, the Latter Prophets become almost part of the passing scenery. A glance at the index of references will show what I mean. Wisdom is briefly mentioned in connection with Solomon. The Latter Prophets, about one third of the bulk of the Old Testament, are dealt with in eight pages, half the space taken to give an outline of the Intertestamental period, which is assumed by the biblical narrative but not part of it. To be fair, much greater attention is paid to the New Testament claims to the fulfilment of the prophets' message in Christ. But this tends to give the impression that the prophets had little theological relevance to their own times.
The story of Jesus and the apostles in Acts 4 and 5 of the Drama is told in some detail and with attention to the key elements of the gospel message in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This leads to the mission of the church and to the pertinent question about where we today fit into the story. The hermeneutic value of this is rather understated, for where we find our place in the biblical story affects not only all the questions of faith and Christian living in the modern (or postmodern) world, but also the whole approach, that biblical theology demands of us, to those texts that belong to the times previous to our joining the narrative.
Logically, the final act deals with things yet to come. Here the authors wisely avoid the usual debates about the details of the Second Coming. Furthermore, it seems to me that when the message of the Bible is unfolded in the manner of this book, there is much less to debate than is often assumed! The New Testament is simply silent on a host of ideas that are exploited in some eschatological schema, and in Christian novels about the return of Christ.
The book contains two indexes and a number of very clearly produced maps. It's a treat to have a separate map for each of Paul's journeys instead of the usually tangle of different coloured lines on a single map. Some of the diagrams I found not clearly explained, and somewhat confusing. In fact Figures 25 and 26 seemed to make more sense to me if you switch the captions.
For the person who wants a coherent account of the narrative structure in the Bible, this book goes a long way towards providing it along with some key theological aspects that dominate and shape the narrative. The things that happen in the Bible do so with divine meaning and purpose. There is no ugly ditch separating biblical events from real events. This is the book for anyone who lacks a unified perspective on the Bible. But, given that the authors tell us in the preface that the purpose of this book is to provide a text for an introductory course in biblical theology for first-year university students, I have to say that it leaves me a little dissatisfied. On the other hand, if the book is only intended to serve as background or prolegomena to a course that opens up basic questions of the nature and method of biblical theology, then perhaps my fears are unfounded.
What I miss in this book, as introduction to biblical theology, is reflection on the structures of the theological message that lie behind the narrative structure and that drive it. The perfunctory treatment of the message of the prophets at the time of the kingdom's decline is a case in point. It is here that I think the drama scheme fails. Biblical theology is, I believe, more than simply relating the events of the story in order, even if accompanied by theological comment in the process, as this book provides. It needs to be analytical of the theological dynamics within the story. What is the nature of the progressiveness of revelation? Is it a gradual dawning of the light, or is it a series of discreet steps? Theological analysis and synthesis is not the sole property of dogmatics. I miss some theological reflection that would help the student to see the great recurring themes, both in their unity and diversity. I miss the sense that the prophets deliberately recapitulate the earlier history of redemption in their eschatological projections. I miss the analysis of the nature of the theological transition between the several Acts of the Drama. Act 3 needs some fine-tuning to point up these structures. How do the several expressions of covenant relate to a unifying covenant theme? How are the writing prophets related to the failure under Solomon? Are there significant differences between the messages and function of the pre-exilic, exilic, and post-exilic prophets? I also miss any analysis of the dynamics of prophetic fulfilment and typology.
When it comes to the New Testament, we are given an excellent summary of the key aspects of the person and work of Jesus. But, biblical theology should help Christians understand the hermeneutical implications of what happened before Christ's death and resurrection, as distinct from the events after his ascension. Do the words of Jesus apply to us now in the way they applied to his disciples who where with him? Should not the transitional nature of Pentecost and the events in Acts be pointed up? How does the end, as it was brought in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, relate to the union of the believer with the death of Jesus, and these to the end at the return of Christ? In Act 4, these are aspects of biblical theology that are seriously muted. Yet they are essential to finding our place in the story as a whole. Once the readers are able to place themselves in Act 5: "Spreading the News of the King" will they really be equipped to relate all the other Acts to their present Christian existence? I think that is debatable.
One final beef! Why must publishers, presumably with authorial assent, indulge in the unnecessary and most irritating practice of consigning the customary, reader-friendly footnotes to become endnotes? I suspect that I will not be alone in simply ignoring the notes altogether after fumbling pages for the first chapter or so.
In spite of my qualifications, this book is to be commended for its clarity, for its uncomplicated acceptance of the integrity of the scriptural account, for its important sense of the universal significance of the biblical story and the way it should shape our self-understanding and world view.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature