Biblical Theology and Bible Studies in the Church: A Conversation with Nancy Guthrie
You are a woman on a mission. What is your mission?
I am on a mission to infiltrate women’s Bible study in the local church with biblical theology. It’s my contention that even in churches in which women are getting a regular diet of biblical theology and redemptive history in what is being preached from the pulpit, what is being offered to them in women’s Bible study is often devoid of it. We need biblical theology not only preached from the pulpit on Sundays, but also taught and embraced in the men’s and women’s Bible studies that meet throughout the week.
Sometimes I look at church websites to see what studies are being offered to the women of a church or in adult Sunday School classes. And I am often disheartened to discover studies that are felt needs driven, studies with little biblical or theological rigor, and studies oriented around self-improvement. I am thrilled when I see studies of particular books of the Bible, as that indicates an expectation that what we need most is God’s word and that we can expect it will speak to us. But sometimes even these studies can be oriented to jumping too quickly from what the text says to personal application, untethered to the larger story the Bible is telling that is centered on Christ.
What do you see as the benefit of biblical theology in what is being studied and discussed in small group Bible studies in the church?
Biblical theology keeps the emphasis on what Christ has done rather than on what we must do. When we approach the Bible as a series of stories from which we are meant to draw lessons about how to live, we miss what is being communicated to us about Christ. A biblical theological lens helps us connect the commands of God to the only person who ever obeyed those commands perfectly. It makes being united to Christ by faith urgent and necessary.
Another thing biblical theology does is correct sentimental notions about the future God is preparing for us. For most of my life, my understanding of the trajectory of the Christian life was that we are urged to put our faith in Christ now so that he will accept us into heaven when we die. But when we more fully understand the story the Bible is telling, rather than a diminished hope of a spirit-with-no-body existence forever somewhere away from this earth, our rich hope is anchored in an eternal life—resurrected body and soul—on a renewed earth.
So, what has been the method of your mission?
In 2009 I began writing five ten-week studies called the Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament Bible studies. I had been writing books for the broad Christian audience for a number of years, and over the course of writing my previous books I had been introduced to reformed theology and biblical theology and it was changing everything about how I read and understood the scriptures. So as I began writing the first volume in the series, I realized I had to make a decision about whether or not they were going to be distinctly reformed or if I was going to make them more broad in a way that they would not alienate readers who have been shaped by more generally evangelical or dispensational theology. And I decided I wanted them to be distinctly reformed because of the huge void of materials for women’s Bible study that are distinctly reformed. That decision made a difference in how I wrote beginning with the first volume on Genesis as I wrote about the connection between circumcision and baptism, how the promise of land to Abraham will ultimately be fulfilled, and the make-up of those God calls “my people.” My commitment to teaching biblical theology led me to put an emphasis on where the story of the Bible is headed in terms of consummation in every chapter of all five studies, which was completely new to many of those who read the studies.
Then, a couple of years ago my book Even Better Than Eden, was published. In that book I traced nine biblical themes from Genesis to Revelation helped especially by the writings of theologians such as G.K. Beale, Meredith Kline, J.V. Fesko, Richard Gaffin, and Geerhardus Vos. The response to that book got me thinking about offering training to women on how to trace major themes in the Bible on their own, so I launched a series of workshops in 2019 around the country and internationally called the Biblical Theology Workshop for Women. And it is hard to express the joy that permeates these workshops. Women love to get treated like they have a brain for theology! But this isn’t just dry theology for the head. As we trace the story of the Bible through the lens of various themes, the climax of the story is always in the same place—in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—and we are moved to worship. Women leave telling me that their minds are spinning and their hearts are full, and that makes me incredibly happy.
So how does this mission connect with your most recent publishing endeavor, a new book which releases this month called, God Does His Best Work with Empty?
Well I hope it doesn’t surprise you to learn that the heart of the book is a biblical theology of the theme of emptiness/fullness. But I don’t know that most readers would immediately recognize that.
If you peruse the Christian books offered at a Sam’s or Costco, they’re mostly written by people like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. Even the books by more sound Christian writers are generally very self-help oriented offering behavior modification, psychology, relational good advice, inspiration, believe-in-yourself, achieve-your-destiny kinds of messages. They are titled and packaged and written to meet felt needs, and the answers to the problems dealt with are most often not Christ-centered, but me-centered. I wanted to figure out if I could write a book that is essentially a biblical theology that might be able to sit on the shelf next to some of these other books. In other words, a book that by its title and packaging draws in the reader in regard to felt needs, but instead of offering self-help, psychological, relational, or inspirational answers to the issues, I sought to offer a Christ-centered answer to these felt needs.
Why did you pick the particular biblical theme of emptiness for the book?
In 2009, my husband, David, and I started hosting retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child. Since then we’ve spent a weekend with over 800 grieving parents talking through the emotional, practical, and spiritual challenges of dealing with the death of child. At one point at the first retreat I said to the gathered group, “I know that there is a huge empty place in your life. There’s an empty bedroom at your house, an empty place at the table, in the family photo, a huge empty place in your family and your future plans. Perhaps you see that empty place as your greatest problem. I want you to know that is not how God sees it. When God looks at the empty place in your life, he sees it as his greatest opportunity. Because God does his best work with empty.”
I would say something like, “How do I know that God does his best work with empty? Because this is what God has always done from the very beginning.” While I would not have been able to characterize what I was doing as biblical theology when I first began to speak about this at our retreats, really I was tracing the biblical theme of emptiness beginning in the second verse of the Bible, moving from the original creation to the new creation. We read in the first two verses of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void.’ Void. Empty. But this emptiness was not a problem to God because “the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Just by the power of his word, “Let there be . . .” he began to deal with the emptiness of the world. We see in Genesis 1 that he filled the world with light and life, beauty and bounty, meaning and relationship.
I then go to the empty womb of Sarai filled by God. And from there to the empty womb of Mary. Just as the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters at Creation, so the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary. Once again the Spirit was hovering, doing his creative work so that Mary’s empty womb was filled with the very life of God. Presenting this theme enables me to look into the eyes of the very sad and empty parents gathered at our retreat and assure them that the same Word and the same Spirit is at work in their lives to fill up their desperate emptiness.
From the first retreat when I said this, my husband began saying that I needed to write a book with that title, and when I finally got around to it, I organized the content of the book around emptiness and fullness as it is pictured and portrayed from beginning to end of the Bible—in the seemingly insatiable cravings of the Israelites in the wilderness, the bitter losses of Naomi, the cruel circumstances faced by Mephibosheth, the meaninglessness experienced by Qoheleth, the destruction anticipated by Habakkuk, the insatiable thirst of the woman at the well and finally the joyful self-emptying of the field worker and pearl merchant. Its conclusion is a reiteration of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians in Ephesians 3:14-19, that they would be strengthened with power through his Spirit in their inner being, that Christ would dwell in their hearts, that they would be filled with all the fullness of God.
The mantra being spoken over and over to women today is, “You are enough.” But convincing ourselves that we are enough is not the answer to our sense of emptiness. “The fullness of God” filling up our “inner being” is the ultimate answer to our emptiness. And it is my prayer that this book will convince readers of this glorious truth.