by Frank Viola
This article exposes the traditional way that most Christians – Protestant, evangelical, post-evangelical, and charismatic – have been taught to read, study, and use the New Testament. It then offers a brand new approach.
“In handling the subject of ministry in the New Testament it is essential to remember the order in which the books of the New Testament were written. If we assume, as the order in which the books of the New Testament are now presented would lead us to assume, that the Gospels were written first, and then Acts and then the letters of Paul, beginning with Romans and ending with the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy to Titus and the Letter to Philemon, we shall never be able to understand the development of the institutions and the thought of the early church. ”- Richard Hanson
Why is it that we Christians can divide up into thousands of different sects and all claim that we are following the Word of God?How is it that many of us can blithely embrace church practices and theological beliefs that are not rooted in Scriptural principle, yet read them back into the New Testament?
I submit that the problem is with our approach to the New Testament.
The approach most commonly used among modern Christians when studying the Bible is called “proof texting.” The origin of proof texting goes back to the late 1590’s. A group of men called Protestant Scholastics took the teachings of the Reformers and systematized them according to the rules of Aristotelian logic.
The Protestant Scholastics held that not only is the Scripture the Word of God, but every part of it is the Word of God in and of itself – irrespective of context. This set the stage for the idea that if we lift a verse out of the Bible, it is true in its own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or a practice.
When John Nelson Darby emerged in the mid 1800s, he built a theology based on this approach. Darby raised proof texting to an art form. In fact, it was Darby who gave fundamentalist and evangelical Christians a good deal of their presently accepted teachings. All of them are built on the proof texting method. Proof texting, then, became the way that we modern Christians approach the Bible. It is taught in every Protestant Bible School and seminary on earth.
As a result, we Christians rarely, if ever, get to see the NT as a whole. Rather, we are served up a dish of fragmented thoughts that are drawn together by means of fallen human logic. The fruit of this approach is that we have strayed far afield from the practice of the NT church. Yet we still believe we are being Biblical. Allow me to illustrate the problem with a fictitious story.
Meet Marvin Snurdly
Marvin Snurdly is a world renowned marital counselor. In his 20-year career as a marriage therapist, Marvin has counseled thousands of troubled marriages. He has an Internet presence. Each day hundreds of couples write letters to Marvin about their marital sob stories. The letters come from all over the globe. And Marvin answers them all.
A hundred years pass, and Marvin Snurdly is resting peacefully in his grave. He has a great, great grandson named Fielding Melish. Fielding decides to recover the lost letters of his great, great grandfather, Marvin Snurdly. But Fielding can only find 13 of Marvin’s letters. Out of the thousands of letters that Marvin wrote in his lifetime, only 13 have survived! Nine of them were written to couples in marital crisis. Four of them were written to individual spouses.
These letters were all written within a 20-year time frame: From 1980 to 2000. Fielding Melish plans to compile these letters into a volume. But there is something interesting about the way Marvin wrote his letters that makes Fielding’s task somewhat difficult.
First, Marvin had an annoying habit of never dating his letters. No days, months, or years appear on any of the 13 letters. Second, the letters only portray half the conversation. The initial letters written to Marvin that provoked his responses no longer exist. Consequently, the only way to understand the backdrop of one of Marvin’s letters is by reconstructing the marital situation from Marvin’s response.
Each letter was written at a different time, to people in a different culture, dealing with a different problem. For example, in 1985, Marvin wrote a letter to Paul and Sally from Virginia, USA who were experiencing sexual problems early in their marriage. In 1990, Marvin wrote a letter to Jethro and Matilda from Australia who were having problems with their children. In 1995, Marvin wrote a letter to a wife from Mexico who was experiencing a mid-life crisis.
Take note: 20 years – 13 letters – all written to different people at different times in different cultures – all experiencing different problems.
It is Fielding Melish’s desire to put these 13 letters in chronological order. But without the dates, he cannot do this. So Fielding puts them in the order of descending length. That is, he takes the longest letter that Marvin wrote and puts it first. He puts Marvin’s second longest letter after that. He takes the third longest and puts it third. The compilation ends with the shortest letter that Marvin penned. 13 letters are arranged, not chronologically, but by their length.
The volume hits the presses and becomes an overnight best seller. People are buying it by the truck loads.
100 years pass and The Collected Works of Marvin Snurdly compiled by Fielding Melish stands the test of time. The work is still very popular. Another 100 years pass, and this volume is being used copiously throughout the Western World. (Marvin has been resting in his grave for 300 years now.)
The book is translated into dozens of languages. Marriage counselors are quoting it left and right. Universities are employing it in their sociology classes. It is so widely used that someone gets a bright idea on how to make the volume easier to quote and handle.
What is that bright idea? It is to divide Marvin’s letters into chapters and numbered sentences (we call them verses). So chapters and verses are born in the Collected Works of Marvin Snurdly.
But by adding chapter-and-verse to these once living letters, something changes that goes unnoticed. The letters lose their personal touch. Instead, they take on the texture of a manual.
Different sociologists begin writing books about marriage and the family. Their main source? The Collected Works of Marvin Snurdly. Pick up any book in the 24th century on the subject of marriage, and you will find the author quoting chapters and verses from Marvin’s letters.
It usually looks like this: In making a particular point, an author will quote a verse from Marvin’s letter written to Paul and Sally. The author will then lift another verse from the letter written to Jethro and Matilda. He will extract another verse from another letter. Then he will sew these three verses together upon which he will build his particular marital philosophy.
Virtually every sociologist and marital therapist that authors a book on marriage does the same thing. Yet the irony is here. Each of these authors constantly contradicts the others, even though they are all using the same source!
But that is not all. Not only have Marvin’s letters been turned into cold prose when they were originally living, breathing epistles to real people in real places. But they have devolved into a weapon in the hands of agenda-driven men. Not a few authors on marriage begin employing isolated proof texts from Marvin’s work to hammer away at those who disagree with their marital philosophy.
How can they do this? How is this being done? How are all of these sociologists contradicting each other when they are using the exact same source? It is because the letters have been lifted out of their historical context. Each letter has been plucked from its chronological sequence and taken out of its real life setting.
Put another way, the letters of Marvin Snurdly have been transformed into a series of isolated, disjointed, fragmented sentences – free for anyone to lift one sentence from one letter, another sentence from another letter, paste them together to create the marital philosophy of their choice.
An amazing story is it not? Well here is the punch line. Whether you realize it or not, I have just described your NT!
The Order of Paul’s Letters
Your NT is made up mostly of Paul’s letters. Paul of Tarsus wrote two thirds of it. He penned 13 letters in a 20-year time span. Nine letters were written to churches in different cultures, at different times, experiencing different problems. Four letters were written to individual Christians. The individuals who received those letters were also dealing with different issues at different times.
Take note: 20 years – 13 letters – all written to different churches at different times in different cultures – all experiencing different problems.
In the early second century, someone took the letters of Paul and compiled them into a volume. The technical term for this volume is “canon.” Scholars refer to this compiled volume as “the Pauline canon.” It is essentially your NT with a few letters added afterwards, the four Gospels and Acts placed at the front, and Revelation tacked on the end.
At the time, no one knew when Paul’s letters were written. Even if they did, it would not have mattered. There was no precedent for alphabetical or chronological ordering. The first-century Greco-Roman world ordered its literature according to decreasing length.
Look at how your NT is arranged. What do you find? Paul’s longest letter appears first. It is Romans. 1 Corinthians is the second longest letter, hence the reason why it follows Romans. 2 Corinthians is the third longest letter. Your NT follows this pattern until you come to that tiny little book called Philemon.
Here is the present order as it appears in your NT. The books are arranged according to descending length:
What, then, is the proper chronological order of these letters? According to the best available scholarship, here is the order in which they were written:
The Addition of Chapters and Verses
In the year 1227, a professor at the University of Paris named Stephen Langton added chapters to all the books of the NT. Then in 1551, a printer named Robert Stephanus numbered the sentences in all of the books of the NT.
According to Stephanus’ son, the verse divisions that his father created do not do service to the sense of the text. Stephanus did not use any consistent method. While riding on horseback from to Lyons, he versified the entire NT within Langton’s chapter divisions.
So verses were born in the pages of holy writ in the year 1551. And since that time God’s people have approached the NT with scissors and glue, cutting-and-pasting isolated, disjointed sentences from different letters, lifting them out of their real-life setting and lashing them together to build floatable doctrines. Then calling it “the Word of God.”
This half-baked approach still lives in our seminaries, Bible colleges, churches, Bible studies, and (tragically) our house churches today. Most Christians are completely out of touch with the social and historical events that lay behind each of the NT letters. Instead, they have turned the NT into a manual that can be wielded to prove any point. Chopping the Bible up into fragments makes this relatively easy to pull off.
How We Approach the NT
We Christians have been taught to approach the Bible in one of seven ways. See how many you can tick off with a pencil that apply to you:
You look for verses that inspire you. Upon finding such verses, you either highlight, memorize, meditate upon, or put them on your refrigerator door.
You look for verses that tell you what God has promised so that you can confess it in faith and thereby obligate the Lord to do what you want. (If you are part of the “name-it-claim-it,” “blab-it-grab-it” movement, you are masterful at doing this.)
You look for verses that tell you what God commands you to do.
You look for verses that you can quote to scare the devil out of his wits or resist him in the hour of temptation.
You look for verses that will prove your particular doctrine so that you can slice-and-dice your theological sparring partner into Biblical ribbons. (Because of the proof-texting method, a vast wasteland of Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random, de-contextualized verse of Scripture ends all discussion on virtually all subjects.)
You look for verses in the Bible to control and/or correct others.
If you are a preacher, you look for verses that “preach” well for next Sunday morning’s sermon. (This is an on-going addiction for preachers. It is so ingrained that many of them are incapable of reading their Bibles in any way other than to hunt for sermon material.)
Now look at this list again. Did you find yourself there? Notice how each of these approaches is highly individualistic. All of them put you, the individual Christian, at the center. Each approach ignores the fact that most of the NT was written to corporate bodies of people (churches), not to individuals.
But that is not all. Each of these approaches is built on isolated proof-texting. They treat the NT like a manual and blind us to its real message. It is no wonder that we can approvingly nod our heads at paid pastors, the Sunday morning order of worship, sermons, church buildings, religious costumes, choirs, worship teams, seminaries, and a passive priesthood – all without wincing.
We have been taught to approach the Bible like a jigsaw puzzle. For most of us, we have never been told the entire story that lies behind the letters that Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote. We have been taught chapters and verses, not the historical context.
Needed: A New Approach to the New Testament
What is needed is a brand new approach to the New Testament. An approach not based in the New Testament letters as they are arranged in our Bible. But an approach that is based in “the story” … which blends together Acts and the Epistles in chronological order.
If every Christian, pastors and Bible teachers included, would obtain a panoramic view of the first-century church in its chronological and socio-historical setting, it would revolutionize the Christian landscape today. The following are four specific ways in which this revolution could take place in your own life.
First, understanding the story of the NT church will give you a whole new understanding of each NT letter – an understanding that is rich, accurate, and exciting. You will be ushered into the living, breathing atmosphere of the first century. You will taste what went on in the writers’ hearts when they penned their letters. The circumstances they addressed will be made plain. The people to whom they wrote will come to life.
No longer will you see the Epistles as sterile, complicated reads. Instead, they will turn into living, breathing voices that are part of a living, breathing story. The result? You will grasp the NT like never before! NT scholar F. F. Bruce once made the statement that reading the letters of Paul is like hearing one side of a telephone conversation. This book reconstructs –“the other side.”
Second, understanding the story will help you see “the big picture” that undergirds the events that followed the birth of the church and its subsequent growth. This “big picture” has at its center an unbroken pattern of God’s working. And this pattern reflects God’s ultimate goal – which is to have a community on this earth that expresses His nature in a visible way. This theme of a God-ordained community constitutes a unifying thread that runs throughout the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Therefore, reading this book will not only help you to better understand your NT, it will also give you a fresh look at God’s eternal purpose – that which is closest to His heart.
Third, understanding the story of the NT church will supply you with the proper historical context which will enable you to accurately apply Scripture to your own life. Christians routinely take verses out of context and misapply them to their daily living. Seeing the Scripture in its proper historical context will safeguard you from making this all-too common mistake.
Fourth, understanding the story will forever deliver you from the “cut-and-paste” approach to Bible study that dominates evangelical thinking today. What is the “cut-and-paste” approach to Bible study? It is the common practice of coming to the NT with scissors and glue, clipping and then pasting disjointed sentences (verses) together from Books that were written decades apart.
This “cut-and-paste” approach has spawned all sorts of spiritual hazards. One of them being the popular practice of lashing verses together to build floatable doctrines. Another is that of “proof-texting” to win theological arguments. (A vast majority of Western Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random and de-contextualized verse ends all discussion on virtually all subjects.)
The Medievals called this “cut-and-paste” method “a string-of-pearls. “You take one text, find some remote metaphorical connection with another text, and voilà, an ironclad doctrine is born! But this is a pathetic approach to understanding the Bible. While it is great for reading one’s own biases into the text, it is horrible for understanding the intent of the biblical authors.
It has been rightly said that a person can prove anything by taking Bible verses out of context. Let me demonstrate how one can “biblically” prove that it is God’s will for believers to commit suicide. All you have to do is lift two verses out of their historical setting and paste them together:
While this is an outrageous example of the “cut-and-paste” approach, it makes a profound point. Without understanding the historical context of the NT, Christians have managed to build doctrines and invent practices that have fragmented the Body of Christ into thousands of denominations. Understanding the sequence of each NT Book and the socio-historical setting that undergirds them is one remedy for this problem. 
I have stated four reasons why rediscovering the NT story is a worthwhile endeavor. But there is one more reason. There is a very good chance that it will revolutionize your Christian life and your relationship with your Lord!