The Hermeneutics of Grace: Discerning the Bible's Single Plot"

Article excerpt

The Bible offers a unified portrayal of a God who is essentially gracious, merciful, and loving. The discernment of the Bible's "single plot"-the hermeneutics of grace-has profound social and ethical implications.

In his essay "The Good Book as a Good Book," Frederick Buechner reaches the following conclusion.

Finally, I think it is possible to say that in spite of all its extraordinary variety, the Bible is held together by having a single plot. It is one that can be simply stated: God creates the world; the world gets lost; God seeks to restore the world to the glory for which he created it.1

Perhaps it takes the poetic vision of a writer of Buechner's stature to discern what we more prosaic biblical scholars have often missed: the Bible has "a single plot." In any case, it is the primary purpose of this essay to affirm the correctness of Buechner's conclusion by suggesting how major portions of the biblical canon participate in the articulation of "a single plot."

The obvious danger in this endeavor is oversimplification, but in my estimation this danger is worth the risk, especially in view of the greater danger of failing to discern the Bible's "single plot." In so doing, we risk the danger of missing the simple but profound biblical message that God is essentially, characteristically, and fundamentally gracious. Therefore, without intending to deny the Bible's "extraordinary variety," I will highlight unifying features of the biblical story that serve to constitute "a single plot." I invite the reader's consideration of the Bible's primary "voice" or "trajectory" against which all other voices or trajectories should be measured. This process and the accompanying results might be described as an exercise in the hermeneutics of grace.2


Although biblical scholars have not been very interested in, or adept at, discerning the Bible's unity, there are indications that this situation is changing. This development parallels the emergence in biblical studies of more literary-oriented approaches to the text, including those that are broadly labeled "canonical." To be sure, this adjective has been used rather loosely, and canonical approaches have varied considerably. However, rather than joining the methodological debate, we shall proceed illustratively. One of the most theologically fruitful exercises in canonical interpretation is an essay by Rolf Rendtorff in which he attempts to discern a unified theological witness in the first two books of the first major division of the Jewish canon, the Torah.

Citing Brevard Childs, one of the pioneers and leading proponents of interpreting the Bible from within the context of the canon, Rendtorff begins by stating his intention to focus on what Childs calls "the witness of the whole," meaning in this case not the whole Bible but the whole of the books of Genesis and Exodus.3 Rendtorff notices the appearance of berit, "covenant," in both Genesis 1-9 and Exodus 19-34 (the two blocks of material on which he more narrowly focuses). He also finds the existence of a "parallel structure" in the opening chapters of Genesis and the heart of the book of Exodus. Rendtorff describes this "parallel structure" as follows:

In both cases the original gift of God (creation/covenant) is counteracted by human sin; in both cases God determines to destroy the responsible human community (humanity/Israel); in both cases the future depends on one man (Noah/Moses); and in both cases the covenant is (re)established.4

In assessing the significance of Rendtorff 's discernment of a "parallel structure" in

Genesis 1-9 and Exodus 19-34, it should be noted at the outset that this "parallel structure" is nearly identical to Buechner's description of the Bible's "single plot." More explicitly than Buechner, however, Rendtorff makes clear that grace is at the heart of the plot:

Just as humanity no longer lives within the original creation, but in a restored one whose existence is guaranteed by God's grace, so also Israel no longer lives within the first covenant, but in a reestablished one guaranteed by God's grace . …