The Problem with Reducing the Bible to One Theme

While I was at lunch with a college professor years ago, he told me about a friend of his who discovered the secret to the universe. His friend was in graduate school at the time. He’d been at a party one night and tried some hallucinogens.

While he was under the influence of the drugs, he suddenly realized the secret to the universe. He hurriedly found a piece of paper and wrote down the secret. When he arrived home later that night, he placed the note on his dresser.

He was at work the next day until he remembered that he had the secret to the universe written down at his house. At lunchtime he rushed home. He found the scrap of paper on his dresser. Written on that scrap of paper were these words:

“Ants can see molecules.”

ant

I can only imagine his disappointment. The secret to understanding the universe was that your garden variety ants can see molecules –– neither true or very interesting.

Good thing he wasn’t sober when he had that thought; any sober person who thought such a fact was the secret to the universe should have their sanity questioned.

But it’s not just the content of his secret that is silly. It is the very notion that there is one principle that can unlock the secret to the universe. Clearly something so complex as our universe cannot be unlocked by a simple statement.

But we repeatedly fall into such thinking. No, not about the secret key to understanding the universe, but when we study the Bible. We often allow one theme or insight to dominate our understanding of the Bible, seeing it as the key to understanding what the Bible really says.

I can remember doing my first in-depth Bible study of the Bible. I was studying Luke and teaching a small group. I was reading several commentaries. As I studied the temptation story of Jesus (when Satan tempts him three different times), and I began to see that the story had a lot to do with Jesus’s dependance on the Father.

As I studied sections of the Old Testament around that same time, I suddenly realized that there were a lot of passages that talked about depending on God.

So I came to believe that the central theme of the Bible was dependance on God. As far as overarching themes go, dependance on God isn’t a bad one. It helps us understand many passages in the Bible. It also provides practical guidance. What Christian doesn’t need to depend more upon God?

Over the next few years, however, I slowly realized that I had been misreading the Bible because I was so bent on reducing the Bible to the one theme of the Bible. It’s not that I grossly misinterpreted many passages. But I did misinterpret passages. How?

Because throughout the Bible, there are many themes that interact with one another. Whenever you take a passage and reduce that passage to one theme, you inevitably miss (or, at least, underemphasize) the other themes.

That is bad interpretation. Any time we miss a teaching or an underlying theme that God wants His people to have, then we are misreading and misusing the Bible.

Take my earlier mentioned example of the temptation of Jesus by Satan. I had previously been tempted to reduce that whole narrative to depending upon God. And I wouldn’t have been crazy to do so. The temptation story of Jesus has quotes several different passages from the Old Testament. If you check those passages in the Old Testament, you realize that many of the verses that are offered by Jesus all deal with one’s dependance.

But if one preached through the temptation story and only focused on depending on God, one would miss many of its other main features. For example, Jesus comes as the new Israel. According to some theologians like N. T. Wright, the gospel writers are showing that Jesus is the new Israel who obeys God rather than rebel and abandon him. It is no accident that Jesus was tested in the wilderness, and the wilderness is where the Israelites gave into the temptations and sin, not being faithful to what God has called them to do.

If you misses this theme when reading through the temptation narrative, then you’ve missed an important theme. It is just as important as depending on God, or studying the Bible, or whatever the other themes are.

I remember hearing N. T. Wright give some lectures that became his book, How God Became King. During the opening of the lecture, he used the imagery of balancing the speakers in a surround sound system to explain why he thought properly understanding the Gospels required a balance of multiple themes.

Though N. T. Wright meant something much more expansive and theological than I am discussing in this post, I like that analogy. When we allow one theme to dominate our understanding of a passage of Scripture that has multiple themes, then we distort the overall meaning of the passage. Our understanding is imbalanced. Furthermore, just as it is possible for the sound from one speaker to be so loud that it drowns out the sound from the other speaker, so it is possible for one theme to become so central to our thinking about the Bible that it drowns out the other themes.

The history of Christian theology shows us the temptations to focus too heavily on one theme –– and the dangers that result from doing so. Part of learning to read Scripture is learning to let all the themes come to the fore and play the role that God intended for them. Let’s strive to do this better and better.

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