By David Chilton, 1982
I listened to a cassette tape of “Bible stories” the other day, a tape purporting to be something of a historical synopsis of the early chapters of Genesis, on a child’s level. It had been loaned to my four-year-old, and he happily plugged it in and sat down on the floor to listen, turning the pages and looking at the pictures in the accompanying book. Within a few minutes, the narrator had reached the creation of Adam, and this is what we heard: “Do you know why God made Adam? So He could have someone to talk to.”
I shut off the tape. With my mind full of juicy retorts that shouldn’t be printed here, I asked Nathan, “Is that really why God made Adam?” “No,” he replied, “God made Adam for His own glory.” He thought a minute, and continued: “That man on the tape doesn’t know very much about the Bible, does he? He says bad things. Why is he a teacher?”
Good question. Unfortunately, for too many schools and churches, the answer is: Because he’s a nice guy.
Incredibly, some of my readers are thinking, “Oh, big deal. So the guy made a little mistake. Aren’t you nit-picking? After all, the tape was designed for children, not for a seminary class. It doesn’t have to be theologically deep.” True enough. But it does have to be theologically correct.
That little, innocent-looking sentence contains the fundamental basis of the most prevalent of all false doctrines, the foundation of all apostate religions: the notion that God needs man. It presents, in reality, a false God, a “God” who is lonely without man’s companionship. Consider what Scripture tells us about the true God: “All nations before Him are as nothing; and they are counted to Him less than nothing, and vanity” (Isa.40:17). Could there be a greater contrast?
But the taped “Bible stories” contained another error which, though implicit rather than explicit, was just as serious, as far as the child’s understanding of the Bible and the nature of salvation is concerned. I suppose one way to state my objection is that (as with so many books about the Bible) the stories are just stories. They seem to be a series of unconnected “just-so” tales, revealing neither the Christ nor the Covenant. The stories in the Bible are components of one history. They are not moralistic fables (which happen to be true) about the adventures of certain individuals who lived long ago.
The Bible is about Jesus Christ. It is the history of the revelation of His Covenant, and the fulfillment of that Covenant in Him. Every story must be treated as revelation — not just something along the lines of “Hello, boys and girls! Did you ever hear the story of a great big ladder that went all the way up to heaven?” God didn’t take the trouble to record the story of “Jacob’s ladder” (whose ladder?) simply in order to give us an enjoyable and meaningless children’s ditty.
The revelation of the ladder took place in the context of the Abrahamic Covenant, and was a revelation of the Son of God (Jn.1:51). Stripped of its Biblical meaning, the story could almost be replaced by “Jason and the Golden Fleece.” If a story is ripped out of its biblical context and turned into an adventure story that centres in the individual who receives the revelation, its content as revelation is lost. Have you ever wondered why so many children — and adults — have virtually no concept of Biblical chronology? Why they can’t remember whether Abraham or Moses or Elijah came first?
Well, let me ask you one: Who came first — Hercules or Jason? See what I mean? You know the stories of both, but it’s hard to fit them together. (The reason is, of course, that they don’t fit together— not covenantally, anyway — and you learned them as “adventure stories,” without the need to see them in a redemptive-historical context. In other words, you learned them the same way many kids “learn” Bible stories.)
How, then, should you teach Bible stories? The best way to learn is by seeing how a really excellent teacher does it. The most helpful example of covenantal teaching I’ve found is in the work of S. G. De Graaf, the great Dutch theologian who authored Promise and Deliverance, a four-volume set published by Paideia Press (P. 0. Box 1000, Jordan Station, Ontario, Canada LOR 1S0). De Graaf wrote his book specifically for Sunday School and Christian school teachers, and it is a masterpiece.
Some of the best theologians and preachers I know study it avidly, yet it is written in a very simple, easy-to-understand manner. De Graaf covers all the historical sections of the Bible — the stories — giving first a short discussion of the main points in each chapter, then a sentence summarizing the primary idea, and finally the actual narrative. In each chapter, the author forces us out of our sinful individualism and mysticism again and again, teaching the Bible as it should be taught — in terms of the Covenant. As De Graaf observes in his Introduction (which, I predict, could be one of the most significant essays you will ever read):
Our aim in telling Bible history ought to be the same as God’s purpose in recording it for us in His Word. God had the stories recorded “in order that we might believe.” Accordingly, even in grade school, this aim must be kept in mind when we are imparting knowledge. It makes no difference at all that the children in your classroom already believe. In their case, too, the story is told to evoke faith, to deepen and broaden it.
De Graaf points out that there are three requirements we must keep in mind whenever we tell Bible stories. First, “we are to view the entire Holy Scripture as nothing more or less than the self-revelation of God.” This means that when we tell the story of Joseph, for instance, we must not focus on Joseph himself as the main figure in the story; for the story is, instead, the story of God’s revelation to and preservation of His people. “Such an emphasis,” says De Graaf, “teaches the children to fear the Lord instead of looking to Joseph as a moral example.”
And examples could be multiplied. How many times have you heard a series of sermons on the life of Moses or David, in which the centre of attention is the personal psychology of the “hero” — rather than God providing salvation for His people? We can avoid this error if we discipline ourselves always to remember that the Bible is not a sort of Christianized version of pagan hero-sagas. The Bible is Revelation.
Second, God reveals Himself in the Mediator. De Graaf says; “We will always have a great deal of trouble explaining the history in Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, if we do not proceed from the Mediator’s eager efforts to reveal Himself.” But this is true of the New Testament as well, and he cites the case of Zacchaeus as an obvious example: “When we tell the story of Zacchaeus, let’s make sure that the self-revelation of the Christ — and not Zacchaeus — is the main point.” The point is not, of course, that we should disregard the various individuals in the particular stories. It is, rather, that we are to see these people in their proper context: their stories are told in God’s word, and God’s word is God’s word — not man’s — in which God reveals Christ.
Third, The Bible reveals God in His Covenant with His people. Too often the emphasis in our teaching falls on God saving this or that individual, rather than on God’s covenantal relationship with His people as a whole. As De Graaf says about the story of Joseph: “The main point of that story is not what God meant to Joseph but what He meant to His people through Joseph, a people whose development was just beginning in the tents of Jacob.” We must remember that “in the covenant God always draws near to His people as a whole — never just to individuals.”
Another example is the story of God’s care for Hagar in Genesis 16. The Biblical emphasis is not that God was merciful to a certain woman; nor is it the story of that woman’s personal psychology of faith. Why did God take care of Hagar? Because she was in the Covenant.
Now, having said all that, is not to have said everything there is to say about teaching Bible stories. The basic perspectives given here must be fleshed out in terms of the particulars of the stories we are teaching. Moreover, the second most-common error among Bible teachers is the tendency to be a pedantic bore. Nothing I have said is meant to imply that we should treat our teaching of the stories as lectures in Biblical theology. If anything, lectures in biblical theology ought to resemble a story-time! As the Dutch storyteller reminds us:
As we tell a story, it should come alive; it should draw the children in and get them involved. The children should get wrapped up not just in the adventures of certain people but especially in the historical unfolding of God’s self-revelation and man’s response to it. We must tell the children of God’s great deeds.