The 4-Chapter Gospel. Or Is It 3? Or Maybe 5?

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By Will Messenger

We’ve been having a lively debate in the Theology of Work Project about how many chapters there are in the biblical narrative. Are there 4? 3? 5? This question comes up, for us, in the context of engaging our audiences as fully as possible, especially the Reformed, who seem always to speak of 4 chapters, and the Wesleyans, who seem to regard 4 chapters as specifically excluding them.

To me this question has no doctrinal value, but only pedagogical. That is, the question is not “How many chapters did God put into the Bible?” but “How does dividing the biblical narrative into chapters help us understand the Bible most faithfully and live it most practically?” In other words, this is not a debate about God’s word, but a debate about how to teach God’s word.

I’ve tended to use the 4-chapter framework over the years because it seems to be the clearest to most students. I typically call the chapters Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation, more or less following R. Paul Stevens, who taught me how to teach the theology of work.

It usually makes sense to students that God created the world good and gave humanity a significant role in bringing its inherent goodness to completion. They can understand that the Fall severely marred God’s good creation, to the point that work is often difficult, unproductive, painful, and unfair, yet the original goodness is not extinguished. Likewise, they can take on board the idea that God’s response to the Fall is not to abandon the marred Creation, but to redeem it. This helps them see that the New Creation is not the annihilation of the original (and only) Creation, but the restoration and completion of it. The New Jerusalem is a physical city in this world (think of the 12 stones), not a metaphor in some spiritual cyberspace.

I don’t see anything particularly Reformed about this 4-chapter framework, and if I did, I would probably stop using it. (I don’t consider myself Reformed. I’m an Anglican, and good luck trying to pin any of us down.) I recognize that the majority of writers in the faith-and-work movement do seem to be Reformed, and they seem very devoted to the 4-chapter framework. The reason—as far as I can tell—is not that Reformed doctrine teaches 4 chapters, but that it’s in danger of being understood to teach only 2. Chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession (“Of God’s Covenant with Man”) teaches two covenants, the first of works, and the second of grace. The second replaces the first. A persistent misapplication of this doctrine is the notion that the created world is the realm of the covenant of works, and therefore will be replaced by heaven, which is taken to be the realm of the covenant of grace. Hence the widespread idea that salvation means leaving the physical world and going to heaven.

By no means are the Reformed the only ones to think this. But Reformed doctrine seems especially susceptible to being misunderstood this way. So it makes sense that Reformed teachers would be really strongly drawn to the 4-chapter framework. A good theology of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation makes a sharp contrast to the erroneous theology of Bad World-Good Heaven. I think the Reformed are the most enthusiastic users of the 4-chapter narrative because they need it more than anyone else, not because it is distinctively Reformed, per se.

Wesleyan doctrine, by contrast seems less susceptible to misunderstanding salvation as escaping the world of God’s creation. Sure, most modern Methodists also think of salvation as leaving the world and going to heaven, but this is because they don’t know Wesleyan doctrine, not because they misunderstand it. To the ones who do know Wesleyan doctrine, 3 chapters makes more sense: Creation-Fall-Salvation. Salvation incorporates both God’s redemptive work in the present age and its completion with the return of Christ. Personally, I find this division of chapters to be the most natural reading of the Bible. If you understand the Wesleyan notion of prevenient grace, it makes complete sense that there is continuity between God’s work in the now and God’s work to come. There’s no real point in dividing Salvation into two chapters of Redemption and Consummation, since they’re mutually continuous.

On the other hand, does it do any doctrinal harm to speak of Salvation in two chapters rather than one? There is a crucial event in there—the second coming of Christ with its world-transforming sequel—so what’s wrong with telling the story with a chapter break? Perhaps what Wesleyans really object to is the implicit rejection of (or ignorance about) prevenient grace. My suggestion to Wesleyans would be, “Don’t worry about 3 chapters vs. 4—that’s not where the Reformed are having their way with you. Instead, argue whenever you start hearing people talk about common grace vs. special grace. That is distinctively Reformed territory.”

If Wesleyan students actually came to my classes with a good understanding of Wesleyan doctrine, I would undoubtedly be more careful about the 4-chapter framework. Alas, they seem to have the same basic misunderstanding as the Reformed students, and almost everyone else. So in practice, the 4-chapter framework turns out to be a great teaching tool for them too. Wesleyan teachers, I challenge you to educate your students in Wesleyan doctrine so they will challenge me when I use the 4-chapter framework.

I think NT Wright may have a better way. He usually talks about the biblical narrative in 5 acts. He divides chapter 3 (in the 4-chapter framework) into two parts, Israel and the church. God’s redemptive work occurs pre-eminently through the people of Israel from the time of the Fall until the Resurrection of Christ, and pre-eminently through the body of Christ (the church) from the Resurrection until Christ’s return. Again, there are no doctrinal claims being made in this chapter division. It’s just another way of deciding where to pause and draw a breath while telling the biblical narrative. Wright makes this clear by comparing his framework to Shakespeare’s plays (which always have 5 acts). There are some great advantages to telling it this way, but that would have to be the topic of another post.

Maybe the upshot of all this is that we who present, teach and write about faith and work should mix it up a bit. Tell it sometimes with 3 chapters, sometimes with 4, sometimes with 5, and let our audiences know why. Make it clear that we’re not trying to take denominational positions unintentionally. Remind them that the big picture is the Bible itself, God’s grand story that begins with God giving people an essential role in bringing his good creation to fulfillment ends the same way, with God himself in every step in between.

Will Messenger is the executive editor of the Theology of Work Project.

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