by Matthew Emerson.
When we think about the Bible, we need to come to it understanding the context in which it is given and the purpose for which it is given. The Spirit inspires Scripture in the context of God’s work of salvation, and he does so in order that his people might know how to come to him and know him fully.
The Bible is not just an instruction manual, although it certainly gives instructions. It is not just a guide for moral living, although it certainly addresses morality. It is not just an anthology of disparate stories, only connected by the front and back cover. The Bible is a covenant book, given to God’s covenant people so they might know him fully.
More directly, we can say that the triune God makes himself known specifically through the person of God the Son. Therefore, the Bible is not only about God generally, or about the Father in some places, the Son in some places, and the Spirit in some places. Instead, God chooses to reveal himself particularly through the person of the Son. This has to do with how the Trinity works in creation and redemption. God the Father works and is known through God the Son, who works and is known by God the Holy Spirit.
One Subject and One Story
This brings us to two aspects of Scripture that unite the Bible’s sixty-six books into one book—its subject matter and its structure. The subject matter of the Bible is Jesus. We see how passages point to Jesus through understanding their place in the structure of Scripture. We can summarize the structure as Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration (or New Creation). The Bible begins with God’s creation of the world and its fall into sin through Adam and Eve, and then the rest of Scripture is taken up with the story of God’s plan to redeem the cosmos. Situating a particular passage within this big picture is vital to biblical theology and biblical interpretation.
In addition to this narrative context, a number of concepts will assist us in seeing how and why structure is important to biblical theology. We begin with recapitulation. Commonly known as typology, recapitulation demonstrates a structural unity to the Bible and its story through patterns of smaller stories. These repetitive, smaller stories build up and point to the climax of the one big story of the Bible, the person and work of Jesus.
So, for instance, the Joseph story is repeated throughout the Old Testament, particularly in the stories of Mordecai and Daniel. Like Joseph, Mordecai and Daniel flee from sin, are exiled in Gentile kingdoms, and rise to second in command of those kingdoms. Mordecai, like Joseph, is clothed in the image of the king and is paraded through the capital city; Daniel, like Joseph, is able to interpret dreams. Joseph, in turn, is pictured as a new Adam: one who is clothed in the image of the king; is second in command to the king; rules over the land given by the king; is given a wife by the king; is fruitful and multiplies; and, unlike Adam, is wise, discerning between good and evil. There is a repeated pattern, in other words, from Adam to Joseph to Daniel to Mordecai.
This repeated pattern, in turn, points to and finds its culmination in the coming Messiah, Jesus, who is the image of God, the exact representation of his being (Heb 1:3; i.e., Jesus is clothed in the image of God), able to discern between good and evil (Matthew 4), fruitful and multiplies through his Spirit in the Church’s testimony (Acts 1:8), and rules over all things (Eph 1:20; Col 1:15–17). Jesus, the Second Adam, is the culmination of the pattern of the First Adam found in the Old Testament.
Related to this repetition of stories with the Bible is another key concept, intertextuality. This term refers to passages that quote or allude to previous passages of Scripture. In the example of typology above, not only do the patterns of the stories match, but the authors of those different books quote or allude to the similar stories in previous books. So, Mordecai’s story looks like Joseph’s story, but the author of Esther goes beyond narrative parallels and actually quotes from Genesis 37–50. Likewise, the Joseph story quotes and alludes back to Genesis 1–2 in portraying Joseph like a new Adam.
This kind of textual unity occurs throughout the Bible, in both testaments. The human authors of Scripture were inspired by the divine Author to connect their books to other books of the Bible on a textual level. We should, therefore, pay attention to how particular verses repeat or allude to other verses of Scripture. Further, we should pay attention to how these textual connections help us to see the Bible’s structural and conceptual unity. Many times these intertextual connections are related to one or both of those. So, for instance, the parallels between Adam and Joseph, and then between Joseph and Daniel and Mordecai, help us to see the typological, structural unity of those stories, which in turn points us to Scripture’s conceptual unity in that all of them point forward to Jesus.
A fourth important concept that helps us to see the Bible’s structural unity is that of covenant. The whole Bible is tied together through the covenants God makes with his people. The one covenant of salvation God makes progresses throughout the Old Testament and culminates with the new covenant inaugurated by Jesus. So, after humanity’s fall into sin:
- God makes a covenant with Adam to crush Satan through the seed of woman.
- He then makes a covenant with Noah not to destroy the earth before that redemption is accomplished (Genesis 6–9).
- Next, he makes a covenant with Abram to bring the Messiah through his line and to make Abram a great nation (Israel) (Genesis 12; 15; 17; and 22).
- After the Exodus, he makes a covenant with Israel regarding the land and the law (Exodus 19–23).
- During David’s reign, God promises him that David’s son will sit on his throne forever and that he will build God’s house (2 Samuel 7).
- And through the prophets God promises that, in the new covenant, Israel, exiled and scattered, will one day be restored and receive God’s Spirit so that they can follow God’s instruction and live under his reign, forever (Jeremiah 31–33).
These covenants tie the different parts of the Old Testament together and progress the entire Old Testament toward their fulfillment in Christ.
Finally, in addition to these narrative, textual, covenantal, and typological connective tissues, the Old and New Testament canons are structured in such a way that points to the Bible’s unity. When we think about the Old Testament’s structure, and particularly the order of the books in it, our English Bibles put the prophets at the end. This certainly helps us to see that the entire Old Testament ultimately points to Christ—it ends with prophetic hope about the coming Messiah.
But the order of the books in the Hebrew Bible, which differs significantly from our English Bibles, demonstrates an eschatological messianic hope as well. In the Hebrew Bible, the Law (Genesis–Deuteronomy) comes first, followed by the Prophets, both Former (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) and Latter (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea–Malachi). Finally, the Hebrew Bible ends with the Writings (Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra–Nehemiah, Chronicles).
As you can see, this order differs significantly from our English order. But there are narrative, textual connections that help us to see this order as pointing forward to the Messiah as well. The most important of these is the fact that at end of the Law (Deuteronomy 34), the beginning and end of the Prophets (Joshua 1 and Malachi 4), and the beginning of the Writings (Psalm 1), there are intertextual connections that tie each of these three sections together. These are typically referred to as “seams,” and if you were to go read each of those passages, you’d notice that all four of them are looking for a prophet greater than Moses, a wise king who will lead God’s people into the promised land.
In other words, each of the three sections of the Hebrew Bible is waiting for the same person. It evokes the same eschatological messianic hope that our English order has by ending with the prophets.
It might be helpful to picture Scripture by using a few different metaphors. One is the puzzle metaphor Irenaeus has discussed. Another might be to see the Bible as an intricate quilt. The different stories and passages are different patches on the quilt, while the intertextual links are the seams in between them. Further, this quilt is made in such a way that all these patches move on the quilt toward one central patch, the patch that shows us the incarnate Christ. Or, to put it like Irenaeus, the whole puzzle is a picture of Jesus. The different pieces are the different stories and passages of the biblical books. The lines that fit together are the textual and narrative links between them.
Whatever metaphor we use, the point is the same: the whole Bible is one book inspired by one author with one story that culminates in one person, the God-Man Jesus Christ. Biblical theology is the attempt to read the Bible in this structurally and conceptually unified fashion.
This post was adapted from Matthew Emerson’s new book, The Story of Scripture: An Introduction to Biblical Theology.