The Primacy of the Story
It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out. Psalm 25:2
The Bible is like a historical mosaic made into a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces have strange shapes, the overall outline of the puzzle isn’t a simple square as is the case for many puzzles, and often pieces seem like they could fit in any number of places. To add to the complexity, there are many pictures within the picture. There are stories within the overarching narrative, and mini-stories and subplots within those stories. The Bible is more than a list of laws, or a set of moral rules, or helpful principles for living. It is a set of stories, and the story is the basic unit of human culture. The Bible is filled with stories that intertwine, overlap, and echo one another and have impacted western civilization in incalculable ways.
The goal of this writing is to put together a frame for the jigsaw puzzle of Christian history using the pieces the biblical stories represent. This exterior frame is a starting point for filling in the rest. Christianity is not simply a religion or a 2000-year-old philosophy. It echoes ancient’s Israel’s patterns, history, calling, and promises, and thus claims to be more deeply rooted in the human experience. Hebraic patterns and culture were woven into the thinking of the Apostles and therefore those reared in European and other Christianized cultures, as secularized as many of them are today. All Christendom is part of a much larger heritage and chain of events where God and Man have interacted across time and space.
A common tragedy in western civilization is an extremely shallow historical context and therefore a lack of connection to our ancestors. It is easy to blame an educational system for this – and therefore remove the guilt of those who were derelict in their duty to preserve and carry on common culture – but given how this has emerged in more than just the United States, it’s something else. Something more ubiquitous is at work. Our educational curricula through the high school level are intense, if unfocused and overbroad. The real crisis is that most people in the western world (perhaps mostly in the United States) know very little about their ancestors beyond their grandparents and do not value the knowledge of what their family was like beyond a certain point. Nor do they have a belief system, a family coat of arms, a heritage of principles that acts all at once as a structure that guides the young toward their destiny yet also as a powerful impetus for responsibility to build their own heritage in the way, which their children will then carry on. Ancient people knew their relatives and stories of their ancestors relatively far into the past. Our crisis is one of identity, such that even the term “western civilization” receives sneers from many in academia and among the political elite. Most of us are adrift without a real identity to speak of other than what we consume and what relatively vacuous pleasures we enjoy.
In the internet age, we have access to a dizzying depth and breadth of historical knowledge, yet most Christians have formed their beliefs based on a set of assumed narratives that stretch back only a few hundred years, if that. While it is natural to have firsthand influences, secondhand influences, etc. based on their recent occurrence, one symptom of the modern society is a narrowing of our scope to more and more recent information along with cherry-picked moments in history that validate our worldview. This is because the rate of societal and technological change is so great, and because the sheer volume of information we filter through daily has so increased. We are used to disposable silverware, disposable clothes, fast food with disposable wrapping; and eventually disposable ideas.
There are certainly no lack of distractions and vanities in our age, and our addiction to 750-word articles and videos rather than deep content manifests in shallow substantive knowledge combined with a tremendous overconfidence in what we think we know. But it is also because political forces have firmly established certain recent historical events as the center of human history – the World Wars, the Holocaust (a term originally used of Christ’s sacrifice, ironically), the Cold War – whereas that center for the West used to be the three days encompassing the events at Jerusalem, Golgotha, and Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. That event and its re-creation – the Catholic Mass – was at one time the central event of human history and was a daily affirmation throughout the Christian world that reinforced that fact. The continuance of religious life among all who call themselves Christians continued to espouse the notion that it was the central event, no less in early Calvin’s Geneva or Puritan America.
Christians utilize biblical narratives and justifications – consciously and unconsciously – to explain their beliefs and practices. However, this is rarely applied to the justification of a denomination or branch of Christendom except as a defensive maneuver. A more thorough working out of why one’s own denomination even exists is rarely undertaken. Is there a larger pattern behind the Protestant reformation in the scriptures themselves? Both Catholic and Protestant have made enormous sacrifices and have laborers who have been instrumental in spreading the knowledge of Jesus to the world (albeit with doctrinal differences). Even so, the chasm between the two on issues of authority is not reconcilable without dilution of substance on either side. Rehashing the crucial events of the Protestant Reformation is necessary, but that is only a portion of this writing to discuss the larger pattern of which it is a part.
The internet is also replete with partisan explanations such as “Luther was an evil heretic and probably practiced the occult,” or “The Catholic Church was wholly decadent and is no longer legitimate.” Some partisan statements may have truth to them, and I am certain some of my statements will be “partisan” in the sense that they will create opposition in one direction and garner support in the other. However, spreading more of these types of statements is not my goal.
I am taking the theory that God infused meaning and purpose into history to its furthest extent. I am trying to offer a typological theology of history rather than ad hoc, shot from the hip attempts to hand-wave others’ positions regarding the events of history and of the scriptures. It is a tremendous risk.
To do so, I sought out how historical events fit into God’s overall arc of history. If it is appropriate for the oldest “Church” to have this claim to definitive authority, how does that fit into their view of history? Is there a biblical pattern that sets a precedent for this sort of “divine authority on earth”? Was there a pattern or a truth in Israel that predates the notion of Peter as Apostle and either points to it or originated it? The Apostles fundamentally referred to the stories of the Old Testament for guidance on questions such as these – I don’t claim to have anything they don’t except historical perspective. I don’t claim to be as intelligent, experienced, or as wise as many of the church fathers. I feel dwarfed when I read some of them.
So, that is my attempted contribution – perspective. I happen to live in an era well after the formative years of Christianity. I am not a historian and will not attempt to add to already voluminous and thorough works available about the Reformation and Protestant history, as well as the treasures of the early fathers. My goal is not to rehash the arguments that have been taking place for centuries between Catholic and Protestants but to present the theory that came very naturally when I poured into the history of these things and viewed them through the lens of biblical typology, and to discuss its implications. In other words, I looked at history and the Bible using the notion that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and “what has been is that which shall be.” My own expertise is the content of the scriptures, coming from a Protestant background which highly valued daily, cover–to–cover scriptural reading and analysis. I studied a substantial amount of biblical Hebrew in my undergrad and on my own afterward and can still read sections of the Old Testament and parse the Hebrew. I am on my 20th cover to cover reading of the Bible, along with countless hours of ad hoc study, outlines, and outlines of my outlines. Still, I do not consider myself that close to many scholars which I have drawn from in forming this theory.
Approaching the Bible as a book of types and symbols, I began to see a pattern that seemed to explain parts of Christian history. Whenever I analyzed a distinct era of Israel’s history, there was a corresponding phase of what happened to institutional Christianity. The signposts of Israel’s past – Moses, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and the Kings, Saul, David, Solomon, the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel – all of these seemed to mirror the developments within what became the Roman Catholic Church and the disparate Protestant denominations that emerged after the upheavals of the 1500s.
I was ruthless and dispassionate in my analysis. I kept in mind my own Protestant origins and bias when I began this work. It was an effort to connect the patterns I encountered in the scriptures and history. I quickly recognized that I needed more breadth of historical perspective. I began to dig into Christian history. Protestant plurality seems to be assumed as normal in the West, but widespread divisions and fiefdoms of Christendom is strange prior to the Reformation. For the greater part of Christian history, it was not this way. Most of what I found in Christian history created a small sense of alarm about how little of our heritage Christians really know and understand. The rich treasures of Christian European civilization are still left largely untouched by most of Christendom.
In my analysis of American Christianity, I was consistently disappointed in the lack of historical context. Certain facts that seemed rather important did not bother them: the fact that their denominations arose only a few hundred years ago (if that), were based on some odd quirk of emphasis (Baptism, Regeneration, the gifts of the spirit, etc.), were originally wrapped in end–times language, and that they all thought of themselves as the latest and greatest move of God. These adherents seemed unbothered that their movements evolved so much in such a short amount of time, and that every new movement used the same language as the prior movements. Even the non–religious are usually confused as to why there are so many denominations, so many fractures, and so little unity.
Some of these denominational questions were based on important questions of doctrine and were an attempt to preserve something important, but most Americans identified with their denomination more out of a tribal loyalty than a specific ideological commitment. This isn’t that belief wasn’t important. Belief is important, but as the Baptist pulpit cliché goes, in its quaint rhyming cadence common among Southern Baptist preachers: “Baptist born and Baptist bred. And when I die, I’ll be Baptist dead.” Denominations are only secondarily about belief for most believers; they are primarily about identity. That brings us back to the fundamental issue and deficit within our civilization: identity.
My prior studies in biblical patterns revealed amazing parallels between such things as the Feasts of Israel and the timelines and events of Jesus’ life which were based in his Hebraic/Abrahamic roots. I looked at the ways in which Jesus was “The Last Adam” and was a sort of new Jacob/Israel himself. These types of patterns emerge not only in the scriptures, but in the history of Christianity.
If the Church is “new Israel,” wouldn’t it repeat Israel’s patterns? If so, how deep do those correlations run? Wouldn’t Judges, Joshua, and the stories of the Kings of Judah and Israel have parallels in the history of the church? In fact, they do. Obvious patterns. So obvious that after reading works of the Church fathers, Luther, about the Reformation, and after sifting through Catholic writers along the spectrum of radical, conservative, and progressive, I was surprised. I was surprised that I couldn’t find this argument in a more comprehensive way. I had seen pieces of it in various places, such as separatist Protestants compared to Jeroboam and his rebellion from Judah. However, I would have expected someone to put these patterns together into a cohesive whole. There is nothing new under the sun, and well-educated theologians are rightly skeptical of “new” things.
I don’t consider anything I present in this book as “new,” so much as rediscovered, or perhaps the same beautiful, artful theology of Christianity presented with a new emphasis or from a different historical angle. I do consider typological interpretations of the scriptures to be sorely needed in the modern world.
One of the writers I came across had divided things up in a way that was helpful:
“When Jean Gerson (one of the most prominent activists in the Council of Constance) struggled to find a way of reconciling conciliarism with the traditional claims of the French monarchy, he developed a view of the Church’s history that became of great importance to Reformation leaders seeking to make the same balance between Church and secular commonwealth against more radical Christian thinkers. Gerson saw a threefold development in the Church: a first, primitive heroic era in which it was still unacknowledged and often persecuted by the Roman Empire; a second period after the Emperor Constantine I had allied with it, when Church leaders had justifiably and responsibly accepted power and wealth; but then a third era of decay after the time of Gregory VII, when this process had been taken to excess, so that it must now be curbed.”[i]
This view of history was very intriguing and worthy of consideration. It is true that corruption within the institutional Roman Church arose as it became more and more the center of Europe, and this was accelerated by the influence of a centralized and powerful papacy, but I feel there is a more fitting way to put together the various eras of Christian history: with reference to the eras of natural Israel in biblical history.
This book will argue that Christianity has repeated the patterns that occurred in the “first Israel” in Moses, Joshua/Judges, Samuel, Saul, the kingdom of David, and eventually the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and that these patterns give us a powerful frame of reference with which to understand Christian history. It is as if Israel, which grew from the roots of Abraham’s promise, was cut to the stump after the Kingdom of Judah fell, and that stump began to regrow in the years after the Jews returned from Babylonian Diaspora, and the people of God became “the Church” based on Jesus’ new Passover and Exodus. Jesus was “the branch” that was suddenly grafted into that stump like a javelin entering the dirt. Jesus gave it new life, along with providing the Gentiles a path into membership with the “Israel of God.” The Abrahamic promises were renewed in Jesus, and so the pattern restarts at that point. No surprise that the regrowth of the tree has traced a similar pattern as the original tree.
A second goal of this writing is to highlight the significance of biblical “frames.” Our “frame” acts upon our interpretation of the scriptures even when we are not aware – it excludes things from view and brings other things in by its very nature.
We interpret using symbols and parallel comparisons with the stories of the scriptures. Stories take archetypal notions and string them together in ways that resonate the most with people. When Christians practice faith, they trace back to patterns and principles derived from biblical stories, symbolic meaning and liturgy, teachings, or parables. To find meaning in suffering, they might revisit the story of Jesus, who “for the joy set before him endured the cross”; or they look to Joseph who was wronged by his brothers and sold into slavery and concluded at the end of his life that “God allowed this to save lives,” and so they might forgive those who have done wrong to them because of the good they made of it. We do not look to simple statements that say, “suffering leads to good things,” because that does not motivate us or give us the vision we need to persevere, by itself – we identify with the common humanity in the stories we have incorporated into our frame of reality.
Often, we do so in a very shallow way. We can draw moral lessons from Aesop’s fables or Marcus Aurelius the same as we can from the Bible. There are qualities that make the Biblical narrative unique, and that must affect how we utilize those stories in our lives versus the narratives we integrate into our being because of our culture. If the Bible is no different from any other set of stories, or, in the other extreme, it is the only text from which we allow ourselves to gain insight, our frame of reality will be inherently unbalanced. We naturally root ourselves in the facts of history and culture – frame again – and that affects our view of the Bible, regardless how pure we believe our interpretive faculties to be.
Jesus’ identity was as deeply rooted in Israel’s national history and culture as could be. The genealogy of Luke stretches all the way back to Adam, and Paul later expounded Jesus’ role as the “last Adam.” Abraham is mentioned fourteen times in the Gospel of Luke, and Mary’s glorification of God in the first chapter of Luke is filled with Abrahamic references: “all generations will call me blessed,” “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.” Jesus carried the wood of his own sacrifice, no less than Isaac did on Mount Moriah. As a baby he sojourned in Egypt (“Out of Egypt I called my son,” as the prophet wrote) as Israel and his sons did. Philip said that it was he “of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote.” Jesus likened himself to the serpent which Moses lifted up in the wilderness. He called himself the manna sent from heaven. He was the very Passover lamb for all who would believe, and he would rise from the dead as the firstborn from the dead – as God told Pharaoh that “Israel is my firstborn son.” The belief of a Jew of the era was that they were waiting for Messiah to unseat the Roman Gentiles and re–establish a kingdom to Israel. This view was partially correct.
Most people do not easily identify with law or abstract logical principles, and they certainly won’t invest in belief merely for that. We identify with stories that echo our own human story. We look for stories like our story, we realize how common our experience is with others, and we learn from how they dealt with those scenarios. We seek not only articulated truths but frames in which we can place those truths where they make sense. In other words, human understanding is fundamentally a form of pattern matching – an attempt to fit acquired pieces to the puzzle of reality into a larger whole. It is commonly stated in Protestant sermons that we have a “God–shaped hole.” We have that, but we have many more holes in our spirits as well. The daily life of a people also begets its own stories – the use of agricultural metaphors by Jesus is certainly no accident, as many of the parables and common stories of the people were related to the patterns they observed in agriculture. Meaning and truth cannot be simply injected into people and be retained as spiritual testosterone; it must be derived from what they observe, decipher, and experience day to day. Only the common experience of people can unify them – logic, law, reason, and argumentation are only the mortar that cements and adheres the bricks which are already placed closely together.
Narratives are expressions of reality that can move people closer; they have natural hierarchies, patterns, and structural components that transmit not only information but ways of approaching that information – a “frame” for reality. They assume or prefigure certain things and foretell others. They possess a kind of authenticity which can be lacking from cold, abstract reasoning. They also provide a surprisingly strong structure from which to interpret each other. “There is nothing new under the sun” implies that you ingest the stories, the patterns, the archetypal components of the biblical stories, and then the natural patterns themselves manifest in your life and in history at points of congruence. The same thing is done for modern movies and television shows – a good movie or TV show is a modern campfire story or village fable. We pretend these are “entertainment,” but they are much more. Good stories have components that are compelling to humanity for many reasons. Liturgy is the unity we experience with all Christian history and culture by re–enactment of the essential narrative.
It is no surprise that so much of the literature and culture of the ancient world was transmitted in stories and narratives – not lists of principles. For one, they are far more memorable to our brains, and the memorable quality of a story influenced whether it survived. Principles are built upon the foundation of stories – stories give laws and principles cultural backdrop, meaning, and stories themselves act as simulations of principles and laws in action.
Biblical typology then, is understanding the patterns within the stories of the scriptures and how those patterns repeat across biblical history. The question explored herein is this: how can we understand the history of Christendom through the lens of the biblical stories that influenced clergy, reformers, and teachers throughout history?
Specifically, why did the kingdom of Israel split after Solomon? Why did Luther break with the Catholic Church, really? What are the similarities between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve disciples of Jesus, and why do they matter? Of what significance is James’ reference in acts to the “Tabernacle of David”?
There is a progression – from the foundation of stories, we see patterns. From the patterns, we build concepts. From the concepts, we build laws and rules. It should not surprise us that the giving of the Law to Moses came many, many years after God had already given a narrative and a frame of reference for Abraham and his offspring. The Law was never the starting point. This story was critical for Jesus and his Apostles in setting the foundation of the Church. They did not go into the scriptures and take the list of laws and proverbs and simply transpose those laws and proverbs into the Church – in fact, they explicitly rejected this approach for several theological, historical, and practical reasons.
Our common stories and patterns develop into the concepts humans use to resonate meaning with one another, explain the world around us, make moral judgments, and make predictions for the future. Every decision we make is influenced by the various stories we have incorporated into our identity and the patterns that bind those stories together, as well as the varying importance we place upon those stories. Christianity is no different – the only difference is whether Jesus is made the preeminent story in a person’s hierarchy of narratives or it is just one among many others. The label “Christian” can be said to be a person who has in some way incorporated Jesus into their internalized set of patterns and stories. It does not mean they have placed appropriate importance on that story or that it is the core of what drives their actions – on the contrary, most of the time it is not. This is part of the meaning behind God’s first commandment – you shall have no other gods before me. In one sense, you shall not place other narratives and stories ahead of the one I have given you.
Too often we interpret Christian history with sort of a dead, academic sense that assumes randomness. To the Christian, events must be directed or allowed to occur by God. We also must avoid the error, as the Byzantines had it: Blues versus Greens. Recalcitrant tribalism is nothing new. It is natural, and can be a good thing, but it can also destroy merit.
The corruption of the Kingdom of Israel, the corruption of the earth and its subsequent flood, and the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the garden: we often sort those stories in the back of our minds for use in strictly “spiritual” or “theological” contexts, then we go about living our lives using the world’s ways of operating and acting because we have unconsciously assigned them greater weight and therefore placed them ahead of God’s narrative. This is a sort of metaphorical polytheism. Either we identify primarily and singularly with God and how he manifests everywhere else, or we have simply added him to our pantheon of stories. Our struggle is constantly rearranging the patterns we derive from stories to best engage reality. This writing is just one effort to properly reorient human perspective to the Bible and history’s narrative.
Patterns are the language of the scriptures. Across cultures and from the beginning of time, God laid down symbols and metaphors that would stir the minds of men and show them how God acted in their world. In Genesis, God says he made the stars for “signs and seasons.” People of the ancient world saw the stars in the night sky relatively unhindered from the light pollution of modern cities and awed at them no less than those who travel to remote locations and are given clear skies to view the panorama above them. The ancients studied them in fascination, tracking the movements of the stars and their patterns and made mythologies around them, like an ancient form of a movie re–told again and again in a new way.
Any Christian agrees that God speaks through the patterns in his authenticated writings. One of the reasons the Bible is so incredible is that it was written by many different individuals in different civilizations over a long span of time, yet its patterns and symbols repeat at nearly every level of interpretation. This is like the way systems such as our solar system orbit large heavenly bodies, planets orbit the sun, moons orbit their planets, and all are simultaneously moving in their parallel forms. Even down to the smallest level of matter, electrons are somewhere within a certain proximity of the nucleus. I am reminded of this reality whenever I read Ezekiel’s vision of the “wheel within a wheel.” The orbit of the Moon around the Earth is no less a “wheel within a wheel.”
With this in view, it’s silly to only view the Bible through a plain sense lens, as if it were a textbook. Jesus himself did not interpret the Old Testament only in this way. Some denominations have ignored or badly neglected teaching anything beyond the plain sense of the scripture which eventually leads to an erosion of that plain sense, as it was never intended to be a dead book read only skin deep. This “plain sense” approach is like making a circle out of a sphere, which strips a dimension of reality and kills the nature of the object. If read this way, a Christian is only dealing with only their slice or slices of the plain sense they’ve chosen to read – and humility is warranted, since none of us has all knowledge. Certainly, the gospels and Paul’s writings show many examples of going beyond the plain sense of what was written in the Old Testament:
Hos 11:1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
Mat 2:14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt
Mat 2:15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
In this example, the plain sense of Hosea 11:1 demands that it be interpreted as applying to Israel, and if we take that approach dogmatically, it is the only thing we will see. But the writer of the gospel has clearly applied that directly to Jesus, and for good reason. The similarities in the life of Jesus, Israel the man, and Israel the nation when they left Egypt are many. One should not let free association run wild, but there are times that the prophetic level of the scripture is functioning beyond what a stricter interpretation of biblical meaning might allow. There are many examples of this in the Gospels (Isa 8:16–22, Mat 4:12–16), Acts (Amos 9:11, Acts 15:15–18), and in Paul’s own writings. Jesus stopped in the middle of a sabbath day reading (Isaiah 61:1–2) and told those around him that it was fulfilled in their hearing. When they questioned Jesus about his heritage and he explained that Elijah and Elisha were rejected by their own people and it is a principle that “a prophet has no honor in his hometown,” they attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff.
If the first error is to obsess over the plain sense, the other kind of error on this spectrum is going too far with interpretive license, where we reject things that are clear from the plain sense of the scripture in favor of free–associated or spiritualized meanings bubbling from our imaginations, or we fill in perceived gaps with our own explanations, or we shade plain meaning with our own biases. Nearly all sentences and words have a range of possible meanings, so debate here is expected and needed. God is serious about truth, but he seems to have no problem giving humans the time work things out.
At its core, the scripture was never meant to be interpreted only as a book of doctrines or simple statements of principle. There are many other non–Christian written works which are just as nuanced, interesting, and practical for life as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Proverbs is mostly a book of principles or statements of wisdom, but even it has a strong prophetic level. The Bible is a prophetic book at its core, and this means it has the potential to be true on multiple levels and across multiple historical contexts.
Perhaps the most scandalous thing about God is that he allows human beings such freedom as we possess. He allows man to drift into error. He requires that human beings develop internal accountability and safeguarding structures, and even their own civilization safeguards against outside forces. He provides mentors, principles, and occasionally specific direction, but he leaves so very much in human hands. He forces us to choose between things. Every day is filled with choices we’ve already made, choices we are currently making, and setting the stage for choices that will be made. Those choices are constantly making us what we will become, as what we are is a culmination of our past choices and we are in the process of becoming how we act daily, regardless what we claim to believe or intellectually assert. God has made the choice the essential building block of the soul. Choice is what God presents to us, day after day:
[Jos 24:15] 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”
This presents a difficulty for those who really wish to follow where God’s words lead, because frequently this means we will have to completely deconstruct our own frame of understanding and rebuild it – something precious few are willing to do – as well as disappoint many of those in the social structures around us that reinforced that frame and have skin in the game to maintain it. A person who has never reconstructed or stripped their own ideas down to their most basic elements has never truly gone to war with themselves to understand their highest potential and purpose. The choice not to do so is itself a choice. Jesus discussed the nature of such a choice:
[Luk 14:31–33] 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33 So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
It is well worth the trouble to declare war by the truth and to demand no quarter. God scattered the tribes of Israel which were united in the Kingdom under David and allowed the creation of the split Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. God scattered the people of the earth at Babel. God does not always desire “unity” in the blind sense. He desires that every man and woman awake daily, thank him for that day, and seek to walk with him in greater truth than the day before. That pursuit might lead a person to separate from others (as Abraham did) or desire to be outside certain influences or to build the walls of Jerusalem. Truth is the only solid ground on which unity has meaning.
[i] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History.