It's hard to know where to begin to explain how wrongheaded this idea is. The Religion News Service and some other news outlets are carrying the story about a new Bible headed to our Christian bookstore shelves. Thomas Nelson is publishing the "Chronological Study Bible". This so-called Bible purports to put the canonical text in chronological order.
The order in which the books appear in our Bibles has long been a subject of debate; and when we use the word "long", this means all the way back to the time when Jewish theologians were debating the order of the Tanakh (Old Testament). Even New Testament scholars have debated whether 2 Chronicles or Malachi should be the last book leading into the Christ event of the New Testament. And, of course, the most popular arrangement question has been: who decided that the Gospel of John belongs between Luke and Acts, two books that actually tell us that they are a two-volume set? Some have even posited the tantalizing thought that the development of the order of the canon in redemptive has had a divine hand... kind of like... inspiration.
There are a host of fundamentally flawed and arrogant assumptions that would go into a disposition that would mutilate the text this way:
2. History is best understood chronologically.
3. Chronology is more important to our interpretation of the Bible than theology (or eschatology).
4. Historical context is more important for *meaning* than revelational (eschatological, Christological) context.
5. Chronology is more important to our interpretation of the Bible than the intentions of the original author or even the Divine Author in its backdrop.
6. The immediate event that either gives rise to any given passage or described by any given passage is more important than the intentions of the original author or the original context in which the passage has been placed.
7. Pseudepigrapha (the practice of falsely authoring a work under another well-known name, a name usually drawn from the past) was not only a legitimate practice for canonical authors, but widely utilized in the development of the canon.
8. Any passage of scripture can be better understood by biblically illiterate readers in a chronological format than its divinely inspired immediate context.
9. Narrative takes precedence over all other forms of literature in the canon.
10. Rearranging the content of the text has no impact on the content itself or its meaning.
11. The narrative is predominantly the chronicling of brute history for history sake, not history for theology/eschatology sake.
12. The life, meaning, and *power* of the Word is in its micro-form, not its canonical context.
13. Scripture does not interpret scripture, at the very least for the biblically illiterate, if not for the rest of us.
14. The writing, collection, and organization of the canon throughout redemptive history had little rhyme or reason and chronology recaptures this "rhyme or reason".
15. The reader's chronological orientation as a worldview is the correct orientation in which the Bible is to be interpreted.
16. Books of the Bible are almost exclusively a mishmash of human authors and a product of the faith community.
17. It's possible to arrive at a chronology of scripture.
18. The publisher of the CSB knows better than the Divine Author *how* the "sacred writings" (2 Timothy 3:15) should have been arranged.
This is just the beginning. I'm sure there are more that could be added by canonical scholars more learned than I. Certainly, the biblical studies field isn't all that stoked about such a Bible, with Pat Graham, a professor at Emory University telling the Religion News Service, "Any biblical studies expert worth their salt would not have much interest in this at all, except as kind of a curiosity." In surveying the above assumptions, it would be easy to point fingers at liberal higher criticism, the liberal scholarship whose not-so-subtle purpose is to deconstruct the text.
What is taking place in Colossians 3 between ethics and eschatology *is* the pattern of redemptive history, its revelation, and hermeneutic. Throughout the canon, then, chronology serves the higher purpose of bringing about the redemption of God’s people in the focal point of human history, Jesus Christ. Why is eschatology prior to chronology? Because chronology is so much a part of the human condition, chronology itself is bound up with what must be redeemed. Chronology had a beginning (creatio ex nihilo), thus it is a product of the Creator. Chronology cannot be in the hermeneutical driver’s seat, much less the theological driver’s seat, simply because it is inherent to the creature. It is only in the eschatology and soteriology of regeneration, Christ’s resurrection moved forward through time and space to quicken us (or better, down from heaven -- a deposit of that which is our future), that we are free from the tyranny of time. Our redeemed orientation is no longer a slave to the clock, which is especially manifested in our rest and contentedness in God's providence over time).
This doesn't mean that chronology is not important *at all*. Certainly it is. Redemption and revelation have taken place in time and space in the chronological unfolding of history. Without a very real chronology in history, the Christ event would be nothing more than an abstract, an idea so nebulous it would either be incomprehensible as other-worldly or completely malleable as a product of human ingenuity. Revelation must be tied to chronology if it is stand outside of ourselves as an act of God and a *fact* of history. Chronology provides the vehicle through which the Creator reveals himself to the creature in ever-increasing clarity.
The scripture’s own Christocentric hermeneutic reflects this reality. All of this may sound cerebral, but it has everything to do with this new so-called Bible which has been cast into a chronological mold. While the creature, because of his chronological orientation may be supremely interested in "when things occur", the text, its human authors, and divine authors, are not as interested. This text has come down from heaven (albeit through the pens of human authors) and thus bears heaven's eschatological orientation. Chronology is subservient to eschatology. And if chronology serves eschatology (or theology) in the text, then any attempt to chronologize the text makes the text meaningless. Correct interpretation becomes impossible. It is because the text is thoroughly eschatological, coming from heaven to earth and from the future to the present, that to rearrange the text according to chronology is to void it of meaning.
An example of how chronology serves eschatology, soteriology, and Christology (all 3 are really bound up together), and then, how meaning is corrupted if chronology reigns supreme is found in the Garden of Eden. The Garden is a foil for those who think they can chronologize the text. The Garden isn’t merely a historical event recorded for the purposes of being an apologetic for man’s origins. Genesis 1-3 doesn’t merely tell us where man came from and how sin corrupted the creature and creation. Eden serves to point us to the last Garden of God, the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22 and to Christ, the ultimate Resting Place of man’s destiny. Eden serves as a shadow of God’s eternal dwelling with man: the New Heavens and New Earth. So, while Genesis 1-3 certainly involves chronology (yes, I believe in 24/6 day creation) and in fact tells us where chronology began, its orientation and its intended meaning are not primarily chronological. From the Divine Author’s perspective, Genesis 1-3 was intended (even in the creative acts recorded) with Revelation 21-22 in mind.
If chronology is allowed to usurp the place of eschatology, then chronology seizes, mutes, or destroys the priority of the author's original intent, an intent, as Vos has shown, that is eschatological at every turn. This thought of the heavenly future injecting itself back and down into time and space is a thought captured by the canonical authors themselves, especially in the New Testament. Even in the Old Testament, the thought is embedded in the rich messianic typology and shadows being relayed by OT authors who, while not realizing the full import, still understood present *hope* in terms of the future. As they were carried along by the Holy Spirit and motivated by their prophetic office to write down, record, reflect on, and "theologize" the acts and words of God in history, they themselves are aware that the history they record, the chronology, serves a higher purpose -- a higher purpose that is lost if we "cut and paste" the texts they wrote without regard to the rest of what they or others wrote. More on this in a moment.
Further, both the Garden and Sinai act as a foil, not just in the eschatological trajectory of the text, but in the literary situation of the text. Some have asked the question, in the wake of Thomas Nelson's announcement, "whose chronology?" While those asking the question are speaking to the debate among scholars as to the dating of certain texts (later vs. earlier Deuteronomy, for instance), the same question must be asked in regard to the relationship between the original audience of the text and the events being recorded.
The Tennesseean reports that "the new Bible's chronology is based on the setting of each text — when the events in it occurred — rather than when it was written. That's a problem, says Doug Knight, Buffington professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Many books of the Bible, he said, were written long after the fact. For example, Knight says, the book of Joshua is set in the late Bronze Age, but was probably composed several hundred years later. Inserting notes about the historical context of a Bible passage won't help if that text was written hundreds of years later, he said. "Why would that be relevant, if the author is not living in the Bronze Age?," he said. "What's happening in the author's own time is relevant."
I don't happen to share Knight's view about the dating of Joshua, but his concern is a valid one. In fact, he understates the problem. It's not just that what is happening in the author's own time that is "relevant", what is happening in the author's own time necessarily takes priority over the chronology of the events described by the author. Again, revelation about the Garden of Eden in Genesis 1-3 provides an example. Obviously, the events recorded in Genesis 1-3 occurred first in human chronology. However, in the chronology of revelation, it's quite possible that Job predates the Pentateuch. That Moses is writing the Pentateuch for Israelites who have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years is itself a critical hermeneutical consideration that is jettisoned in a chronological framework. Again, with the original intent of the author in mind, the Garden is less an explanation of man's origins than it is an explanation of *Israel's* origins. We can't possibly begin to understand the theological import (the meaning) of the narrative if the narrative has been stripped from its situational, theological, and eschatological moorings.
This is no more apparent than in the example provided by the publishers themselves. The senior VP of Thomas Nelson told The Tenneseean, "Here's where David and Bathsheba did their thing," he said, "and right in the middle of that is when David wrote Psalm 51. So we dropped (in) Psalm 51, to give you, the reader, the spiritual impact of that psalm." He further claims that reconfiguring 2 Samuel 12 to include Psalm 51 provides the reader with "historical and spiritual context." Such an assumption isn't just problematic, it's historically revisionist (not to mention, arrogant). The historical and spiritual context for 2 Samuel 12 is found in Samuel. The historical and spiritual context for Psalm 51 is found in the Psalter. And both passages appear where they do via divine inspiration.
Had the author of Samuel thought David's Psalm important for the meaning of 2 Samuel 12, he would have included the Psalm in the midst of his narrative. Had the Divine Author thought 2 Samuel 12 necessary for the interpretation and meaning of Psalm 51, He would have either included the Psalm in 2 Samuel 12 or would have included narration in Psalm 51 (at least more than the explanation at the beginning of the chapter). 2 Samuel 12 cannot be rightly understood unless its unity is retained and its links to 2 Samuel 11 and 2 Samuel 13, a unity which is shattered by superficially injecting an alien text (Psalm 51) into the passage. Further, and most importantly, Psalm 51 is precisely where the Psalmist (and Divine Author) believed it should be. Contra the Thomas Nelson VP, the spiritual impact of Psalm 51, even for the biblically illiterate and postmodern reader, doesn't come from 2 Samuel 12 and the event chronicled there, but FROM THE PSALTER. The ultimate meaning ("the historical and spiritual context") of Psalm 51 is *not* bound up with the David and Bathsheba event, as important as it is to be recorded at the beginning of the Psalm. The ultimate meaning of Psalm 51 is bound up with "the unfolding world-drama" of the "Blessed Man" of Psalm 1 as sung and prayed by a redeemed people of God. Lifting Psalm 51 out of its Psalteric glory, complete with its messianic undertones, perverts the text itself, and its supposed "spiritual impact" is a mirage.
Additionally, The Tennesseean reports that "Parallel parts of the New Testament, such as the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — also have been woven together." This kind of apostolic mashup is no less problematic than what has been outlined above. Yet, this practice, ironically, has long historical precedence in popular "harmony of the gospels" and "life of Christ" studies. While the value of such studies is best left for another time, the critique is still similar. "Weaving together" the four Gospels obliterates not only the original intentions of each of the four authors, but the unique *meaning* of the parallel events in the theologies of the four authors. The gospel writers are *not* recording brute history. It is literal history to be sure, but again, history serves eschatology, soteriology, and Christology. Thus, the feeding of the 5000 for John does not *mean* precisely the same thing as it does in Matthew or Mark or Luke. One event. Four authors. Four different eschatological and theological ends in relaying the one/same event. The one event does not serve the same purposes from one author to the next, and such nuance -- nuance without which accurate interpretation is possible -- is destroyed when parallels are stripped of their context and conflated into the oblivion of chronology. How does one hear John's purposes in his own use of the feeding of the 5000 as his "last supper" event (see John 6:53-54 and compare to Matthew 26:26-28)? If the unique message of the canonical authors (and the Divine Author) has been lost, how is the postmodern who wants to "get closer to God" supposed to "get into God"?
In the end, the readers that the publishers claim to be helping are not helped at all. To resume the drumbeat of this blog over the past few weeks, the reader cannot help but interpret the text through the lens of moralism. Stripped of its canonical context, de facto moralism is the result because the unity of redemptive history isn't grounding the text or its interpretation. One cannot help but be a moralist when attempting to "apply" a text which has been extracted from its eschatological and theological context. In the example provided by the publishers, David becomes an ideal to be pursued and a change agent for behavior, rather than an imperfect type of Christ desperately in need of that to which he points forward.
Worse, when the unity of redemptive history in revelation is shattered, "Christ in all of scriptures" (the scriptures' own stated intent) is ruined. Regardless of whether one believes that singular authors were primarily responsible for the enscripturation of the canon or that multiple authors gradually compiled pieces and sections of the canon over a long period of time, One Divine WORD orchestrated the whole, breathing out His Word in and through the authors. And because there is a Divine Author who has comprehensively revealed himself through the text, that text has a divinely-ordained unity, a Christocentric storyline which functions as the glue holding the entirety of revelation together. The "Christ-centeredness" of the Bible disappears when the eschatological unity that reveals to us this Christ-centeredness is fractured by chronology.
Instead of interpreting the Bible on its own terms, a publishing company has allowed the end-user to hijack the interpretive process through chronology. A chronological Bible seems the right thing to do because it stems from and appeals to our human condition. But because chronology is inherent to the human condition, this so-called Bible has fashioned a text in (and molded the text to) the image of the creature. It is a project of the conumer, by the consumer, for the consumer and as such usurps the WORD's rightful place in the arrangement and interpretation of the Word.
If we are to allow the Bible's hermeneutic to dictate our life and worldview, we will allow our natural tendency to view everything chronologically to take a back seat to the Word's eschatology. And when we give priority to the eschatological continuity and unity inherent to the text, we preserve the essence of what it means for the Bible to be, well, the Bible. Philip Towner, dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship of the American Bible Society, told the Tennesseean that "the term Bible should be reserved for only canonical arrangement...I'd want to be quite careful in pitching this as a Bible."
Good call, Dr. Towner. It would have been better for the publishers to take the position of Paul who "renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways" by refusing to "practice cunning" i.e. getting overly creative in order to have "spiritual impact" in placing the felt needs of the end user over the integrity of the text, or by refusing to "tamper with God's Word" i.e. presuming that a change in the text itself is a legitimate means of "unveiling the gospel" (2 Corinthians 4:2-3a). -- crb