It’s common to hear—from many sources and many teachers—about the need to grasp “the big story of the Bible.” The idea is that one needs not only to know what the big story is but that apart from knowing the big story one cannot read and understand Scripture.
Sometimes the approach is presented by way of an analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. The Bible is a collection of little stories—the pieces of the puzzle. To make sense of what one is reading (an individual piece) one has to have the box top in view. Without the box top—without the big story already in place—the argument is that it will be hard (if not impossible) to understand the pieces.
But could it be that there are problems with this approach even as popular as it is? What kinds of questions need to be addressed before adopting this approach?
If it is necessary to have the big story of the Bible in mind in order to understand what any particular passage in the Bible is about, where do we turn to get that big story picture? Where is the “box top” we need in order to know how to assemble the pieces? Those who advocate a big story approach to reading the Bible don’t seem to be able to point to any specific passage where their idea of the big story can be found.
If it is necessary to begin with the big story of the Bible in mind to understand God’s revelation, why did He choose to reveal His truth “in many portions and in many ways” (Hebrews 1:1)? Why did God reveal His plan in such a way that all the pieces were not given at one time (Ephesians 3:5)? Those who advocate a big story approach to reading the Bible don’t have a way of explaining how those who were living in the story of the Bible could have made sense of what God was doing in and through them.
If we privilege the big story of the Bible approach to Bible reading where every passage is read through the lens of what we already believe to be the message of the Scriptures, how will our view of what God is doing in the world ever be corrected by Scripture? The religious leaders in Jesus’ day seemed to think they knew what God was up to in the world (a version of the big story approach) and yet they couldn’t make sense of Jesus and His ministry. Jesus encouraged them to read Scripture (Mark 2:25; Matthew 21:16; and others); He didn’t start by explaining to them His understanding of the big story of the Bible.
It might just be that God’s intention—in providing us His revealed word in the way that He has—is that we simply start reading, somewhere, and grow to understand the Scriptures step by step.