Family reunions are glorious, chaotic, and exhausting affairs. We’ve hosted a couple with our three children, spouses, and grandkids. They’re always great, memorable, and loads of fun. But getting the whole family together requires planning. I’m not sure an algorithm has been invented to handle coordinating schedules and choosing a date for even relatively simple families like ours. Logistics is another complexity because we’re spread out all over the country. Plane tickets have to be booked and our grandchildren no longer fly free! Getting the family together is a major job, not to mention the hosting, feeding, and planning necessary when we are together. Virginia (my wife) is the point person behind this Herculean effort and labor of love. I’m just the cheerleader.
Gathering the family together helps me grasp what is involved in gathering the household of faith around the whole counsel of God. I’m suggesting that they are analogous. In the household of faith pastors are responsible for helping believers grow up in Christ and that involves grasping the whole counsel of God. Family reunions, at least for our family, don’t just happen. We have to be really intentional about pulling them off. Intentionality is also key when it comes to embracing the whole counsel of God in our preaching, teaching, Sunday classes, small groups, and Bible studies. Family reunions aren’t going to happen unless the family wants to get together and they’re not going to want to get together unless they have a good time when they are together. Timing and financial obstacles need to be managed, logistics solved, and plenty of planning thought through. Somebody cooks, somebody cleans up, and everybody pitches in. The same is true of preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God. It is a household of faith affair and when it is done right believers embrace it.
Finite Text / Infinite Truth
The Bible is not a huge undifferentiated mass of ancient material designed to feed your historical curiosity or make you feel better about yourself or to send you off on a guilt trip. Nor is it an archeological guidebook, a moralistic manual, a motivational self-help book, or a collection of inspiration devotional thoughts. The Bible is God’s breathed out revelation, telling the story of redemption from its ancient roots to its future consummation. It is helpful to see how the whole Bible focuses on Jesus Christ and how its individual parts contribute to telling the story of redemption. Faithful parents and pastors, friends and family, help the household of faith grasp the meaning of biblical revelation.
The biblical text has fixed canonical limits. The Bible has only so many pages—1,005 in my Bible. It is a finite text that proclaims infinite truth. Music relies on twelve pitches. The artist paints with a palate of five primary colors. The Periodic Table is made up of 92 natural elements. The English language uses 26 letters. The Bible is knowable: its literary forms are recognizable; its history is understandable; and its revelation of God is comprehensible. The truth is laid out for us in ways that we can comprehend and know. As complicated as our family reunions may be there are only twelve people in our immediate family.
Open up your Bible to the table of contents and you see 66 books listed in order of their purpose and genre. The first five books are commonly known as The Books of Moses and are foundational to the rest of the Bible. They tell the story of God’s creation of the world, from the cosmos to the first human couple and from the nations to the covenant people of Israel. God conceives, redeems, identifies, and gathers a people for himself to be a blessing to the nations. Twelve history books follow, from Joshua to Esther, charting the course of this tiny beleaguered people through Israel’s early history. Then, the Wisdom Books explore the human experience in relationship to God and each other: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. The rest of the Old Testament is made up of prophets, sixteen of them from Isaiah to Malachi. The prophets are confrontational. Their job is to declare the judgment of God against all sin and rebellion and the salvation of God for all those who turn to God in humility, repentance and faith.
The New Testament consists of five stories, twenty-one letters, and one visionary poetic epic. The Four Gospels place Jesus in the context of all that has gone before. He is the culmination and climax of all the Law and the Prophets. Everything points to him. They tell the story of Jesus in the street language of the day. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us a feel for how Jesus communicated through his personal encounters, parables, miracles, and messages. They take us to the cross and then to the empty tomb. Acts tells us the story of Christ and the early church. Luke picks up the narrative of the risen Lord Jesus and describes how the church grew from Jerusalem to Rome. Twenty-one letters give apostolic shape to the emerging mission of God. All their theology is practical. Nothing is esoteric and abstract. Everything involves the day-to-day life of the church. Sin and salvation, worship and judgment, mission and love get worked out in the real world. No one is playing church or going through the motions. The apostle John’s Revelation brings the canon to an end. In the Spirit, he orchestrates a powerful symphony of countervailing tensions, worship and judgment, judgment and worship.
Family reunions are great in theory but they present certain challenges in practice. Some families may be better off not gathering together in person. It is always easier to agree to disagree from a distance. Sadly, coming together may only confirm how far apart from one another they really are. When we gather around the whole counsel of God there are plenty of issues raised that are best handled by a mature congregation. But do we want to avoid doctrinal issues and social concerns by shrinking the biblical canon? The biblical text is a rich resource for dealing with all the personal, social, and political concerns we face. I know pastors who won’t touch the Book of Revelation, not because they don’t understand its message, but because they would have to do battle with popular eschatological interpretations. How is a congregation going to mature without the challenge of embracing the whole counsel of God?
Our failure to grasp the canonical scope of any biblical truth unwittingly fosters a vulnerable naivete among sincere believers. University bound believers are often blind-sided by simple issues, such as the so-called “synoptic problem” (variations of the Gospel accounts), or the apostolic use of the Septuagint version of the Old Testament, or various eschatological interpretations. It is surprising, but true, how many believers reach seminary without a sense of the overarching history of redemption. They have spent their whole lives going to church, listening to sermons, attending youth groups, and Christian camps, and yet they have never heard the meta-narrative of the gospel. One of the reasons Christians are open to conspiracy theories and political propaganda is because they have not been taught how to think biblically. It takes insight to understand Jesus’s use of parables, Paul’s use of irony, and John’s use of metaphor. It takes discernment to understand a biblical writer’s literal use of figurative language and poetic expression. It takes wisdom to understand what aspects of Old Testament worship and prophetic concern ought to be replicated in the New Testament church.
In their book, The Whole Counsel of God, Tim Patrick and Andrew Reid challenge pastors to preach through the entire Bible, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, over a thirty-five year period.
They admit that their time-line is arbitrary and their methodology is rigid. They even suggest that pastors can only preach a particular text once. “We must remember,” they write, “that whatever we plan to preach now we will not plan to preach again.” This means accordingly that “every time we pick an ideal psalm to contribute to a bigger point, we remove the option of preaching that psalm in the future” (149). I cannot imagine serving a congregation for many years and preaching the Sermon on the Mount or Psalm 1 or Ephesians only once! On the contrary, preaching the whole counsel of God involves coming back again and again to fundamental truths and particular biblical texts.
Gathered around the whole counsel of God workable. It is doable, even if it is challenging. But something of the Bible’s totality has to come together in the mind of pastors first. Hopefully there are some “fully mature” believers in the congregation who have a good grasp of the whole counsel of God, but if pastors are going to lead the household of faith in this endeavor they need to understand how the organic whole of Scripture is greater than the sum of its parts. They need to know how the message of the prophets relates to the witness of the apostles and how the Pentateuch prepares for the Gospels. They need to pray the Psalms and expound the gospel in Romans. All of this labor is born of love, love for Christ, love for his word, love for the people of God, and love for all people for whom Christ died. It takes a lifetime of prayerful diligence and devotion in the Spirit to pull it off.
Family reunions are great, but they take a lot of work. Gathering everyone together may not be easy, but it is worth it. The same is true in the household of faith. Gathering together around the whole counsel of God is hard work, but it's more than worth it.
Dr. Douglas Webster is professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches pastoral theology and Christian preaching.