Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 38
Christians believe that all 66 books of the Bible, written by at least 40 different human authors over the course of millennia, are ultimately just one book inspired by one Author—God the Holy Spirit (2 Tim. 3:16)—about one person, God the Son Incarnate, Jesus Christ (Luke 16:31; 24:27, 44; John 5:46).
We confess this together, for instance, in Article I of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, and we teach it in our classrooms and from our pulpits. But when individual believers sit down to read and study the Bible, it often feels difficult to see exactly how a particular verse or passage fits this description of the unity of Scripture. It is especially difficult to see how the verse or passage might point to Jesus.
So, how do we read the Bible as one book about one person, Jesus, inspired by one Author, the Holy Spirit?
This isn’t a new question. The earliest Christians, both in the New Testament and in the post-apostolic age, wrestled with how to understand Jesus and his Church in relation to Israel and their Messianic hope. Unlike many modern biblical scholars, though, they wrestled with this question assuming the unity of the Bible for the same reasons listed above. The earliest Christians also believed the Bible is one book about one Person with one divine Author, and they wrote to each other and to their congregations about how to read Scripture in a unified way.
One of those who wrote about the unity of the Bible was Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130–202). In his intellectual battle against the Valentinian Gnostics, he had to emphasize that Scripture is one book and that the God of the Old Testament is the same God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, since that is exactly what the Valentinians denied. He also wrote The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he walks through the entire Bible and shows how each major story and figure points to Jesus. (In other words, Irenaeus was preaching Tim Keller sermons before Tim Keller was cool.) Although Irenaeus did not write a hermeneutics textbook, his writing as a whole can be characterized by three hermeneutical tools—hypothesis, economy, and recapitulation. These are three of what preachers call “$10 words,” but they are each incredibly helpful in understanding how the Bible is one book.
First, Irenaeus says that Scripture has a hypothesis, an overarching main point. He compares Scripture to a mosaic, a picture made up of many tiles, and the hypothesis tells us what the tiles are supposed to look like once they’re all put together in the right order and shape—the handsome king, i.e. Jesus Christ. For us, the more immediate analogy might be to a puzzle box top. Individual Bible verses and passages and books are like puzzle pieces, and we would have a much harder time putting them together correctly without the puzzle box top telling us what the finished product is supposed to look like. For Irenaeus, Jesus has already told us what the Bible looks like when we put the pieces together correctly. It’s a portrait of the crucified and risen Messiah (Luke 16:31; 24:27, 44; John 5:46).
Second, Irenaeus says that Scripture has a particular economy, or order, to it. The puzzle pieces fit together in a certain way because they are ordered in a certain way. In other words, most puzzles have edges (any good puzzle solver knows to start with the edges!) and prominent features that guide the person working on the puzzle. If they follow those patterns and the general order of the puzzle, they will have an easier time finding where the more obscure pieces fit. Scripture also has an order, a shape, to it. It follows what some call the “Grand Narrative of Scripture,” from creation to fall to redemption to new creation, all centered on the person and work, and particularly the death and resurrection, of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. If we follow the main trail of the biblical story, we can see more easily how other stories are connected to that one main story.
Finally, Irenaeus says that not only do all the puzzle pieces of Scripture form a coherent picture of Jesus when put together correctly, and not only do the puzzle pieces have a particular order or shape to them, but also each individual piece portrays Jesus in one way or another. This—recapitulation—is what he is after in The Apostolic Preaching, to show that each Bible story finds its culmination in the person and work of Jesus. An easy example that we might find familiar is Hannah’s story in 1 Samuel 1. In this story, Hannah is a barren woman who prays for a son in the tabernacle. God miraculously opens her womb, and Hannah gives birth to Samuel, takes a Nazarite vow for him, and dedicates him to the service of the LORD. Samuel eventually goes on to be the prophet who anoints and announces David as King of Israel. Like Hannah, Elizabeth is barren (Luke 1:7). Her husband Zechariah, while he is serving in the Temple, is told by an angel that God has opened Elizabeth’s womb and that they will have a son. Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist, who also takes a Nazarite vow and who is the prophet who baptizes and announces Jesus as King and Lord of Israel. In this way, we see that the story of Hannah recapitulates, or finds its repetitive climax, in the story of Elizabeth.
In these three ways, Irenaeus helps us understand how the Bible is one book about one Person written by one Author. When we come to a difficult passage or verse, we can remember the tools of hypothesis, economy, and recapitulation and, with the Spirit’s illuminating help, read them with Jesus in mind.
1 This material, and especially the summary of Irenaeus, is an adaptation of the introduction to my The Story of Scripture: An Introduction to Biblical Theology (Hobbs College Library; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 6–9.
2 I am indebted to John O’Keefe and R. R. Reno, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 33–44, for the identification and description of these three tools.
MATTHEW EMERSON |Associate Professor of Religion, Oklahoma Baptist University; Executive Director of the Center for Baptist Renewal