Within the Trinity
Before the beginning there was communication. The Persons of the Trinity, from all eternity, shared intimate fellowship and counsel. They made promises to one another (Tit. 1:2). They assumed obligations (Jn. 14:31; 17:2). They took on roles. The Father gave the Son a people and instructions concerning them (Jn. 17). The Son became the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:19-20). The Holy Spirit agreed to wait on the earthly work of the Son and to come in His name (Jn. 16:7-15; cf. 7:39). They did these things in love, seeking the glory of one another (Jn. 14:13; 16:14; 17:1-5, 24-26).1
Furthermore, in those eternal counsels, the Father ordained the details of Christ’s mission: the conspiracy against Him, His betrayal, His sufferings and death, His resurrection, His ascension to the Father’s right hand, and His outpouring of the Spirit (cf. Ac. 1:15- 25; 2:23-35; 4:27-28). The plans were specific, for the prophecies that revealed them listed more than twenty details (some quite odd) that God would bring to pass.2 Obviously, the Son and the Spirit knew the mind of the Father in these things (Jn. 5:20; 1 Cor. 2:10).
God decreed other things in eternity: for His “own purpose and grace… was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Tim. 1:9). He ordained us to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). He foreordained all the good works we would do (Eph. 2: 10). In other words, God planned more than the Cross, and more than the moment of our conversion; He has planned the whole of our lives. In fact, He has planned everything. God works “all things after the counsel of his own will” (Eph. 1:11). He declares “the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Is. 46:10). In God’s decrees we find the magnificent doctrines of predestination and divine sovereignty. But we also find supreme storytelling.
God as Storyteller
Before the world began, the Persons of the Trinity communicated to one another the nature of the history They would create. They communicated all that They would do, all that would happen. And They rejoiced in their plan. This is where Storytelling began.
Christians have coined the phrase, “History is His story,” and this is true. But evangelicals who use this cliché rarely think through the implied analogy. For an author writes the entire story, every word. He creates the characters; he orchestrates the plot; he hammers out the details. He leaves no blanks in his manuscript.
Now this is exactly how Scripture presents God’s control of history. History is what it is because of what passed among the Persons of the Trinity in eternity. From eternity God ordained all of history’s details, large and small. He decreed the rise and fall of empires (Dan. 7, 11), the great crimes and the noble deeds of men (Ac. 4:26-28; Is. 44: 24-28), the roll of the die and the fall of the sparrow (Pr. 16:33; Mt. 10:29). We are comforted by Romans 8:28, and yet if God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him (Rom. 8:28), is it not precisely because He does control all things and does cause them to work together?
But in spite of the clear testimony of Scripture, evangelical theology often shies away from God’s sovereignty. It makes the story we call history a joint effort, a collaboration between God and man. God devises the basic plot line, but man makes sovereign choices that God must work around as best as He can.3 Evangelical theology gives us not “His Story” but “Our Shared Story — in Process.”4
Man as Character
It seems many of us are uncomfortable thinking of ourselves as characters in someone else’s story. We want more literary control, perhaps. Or we may fear such a situation would destroy our moral responsibility or our significance as human beings. Or maybe we think that it would somehow make God responsible for evil or callous to our suffering. There are several things we need to remember, however.
First, we are talking about God’s story. God’s story differs from all others in that God, being all-powerful, has made His story real. We are not characters on paper or celluloid; we are not moving images in the mind of God. We are real beings, distinct from the God who made us. Moreover, we are the image of God. We are significant. Our choices and feelings, though not absolute or divine, are nevertheless real.
Second, within His story God has ordained that consequences spring from choice, and choice from character. Jesus was arrested because Judas betrayed Him. Judas betrayed Him, not simply because the part was ordained for him, but because he was a thief and a traitor. He chose to betray Jesus because he wanted to betray Jesus. Likewise, Joseph’s brothers “could not speak peaceably unto him,” not because divine sovereignty had unfairly shut their mouths, but because their hearts were full of envy and hate (Gen. 37:4). They sold their brother into slavery, fully intending evil, though God intended good (Gen. 50:20). They acted out of their own character; they behaved as the men they were. We find the same thing in the life of David. Late in his reign, David conducted an illegal census. 2 Samuel 24:1 says he was moved by God; 1 Chronicles 21:1 says he was moved by Satan. Even so, David confessed, “I have sinned greatly, because I have done this thing… I have done very foolishly (1 Chr. 21:8).5 David had acted out of his own pride, and he knew it.
Third, God knows His own mind exhaustively, and He is infinitely wise. His story, therefore, is exactly what he wants it to be. Human authors may struggle with development or resolution. They may unwittingly generate artistic touches they had not intended.6 Or they may find it difficult to reconcile the characters they have created with the plot or theme they originally had in mind. An author, for example, may find that his naïve heroine, who was supposed to fall for the dark foreigner, is in fact too much of a provincial to do any such thing. But God does not have this sort of plotting problem. His characters never get out of hand. Character, plot, and theme function in perfect harmony. Fourth, God is not responsible for the evil men do (Jas. 1:13-14). Of course, we do not blame Shakespeare for the treachery of Macbeth. We do not charge Agatha Christie with the murder on the Orient Express. Even on the human level there is a sort of creator/ creation distinction that we all recognize. But what human authors can and can’t do only gives us hints about divine sovereignty. How does God work all things after the counsel of His own will? How does He ensure that His characters do all the things they’re supposed to? We don’t know. We’re not God. But what He does, He does in absolute holiness and purity.
Fifth, if we are in Someone Else’s story, then our lives have a meaning and value that transcend ourselves. We are defined by the story and its theme. But if God is dead, if there is no Storyteller, then we are all writing our own stories. The bad news is that we are pitiful writers; the irony is that, in this godless world, the very idea of story is alien to our existence. Story, like meaning, is only meaningful on the assumption that God is and that He created the universe. The alternative to God as Author is no story at all.
Sixth, God has entered His own story as its Hero. In that role He has suffered more than any of us. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched by the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). God does not regard His children with a callous eye. He pities us as a Father; He remembers we are dust (Ps. 103:14). We must learn to trust the Storyteller.
The Story in the Book
History is His story. But history is complex beyond our kin. There are too many facts, too many twists and turns, too many unknowns. It isn’t even finished yet. Deriving a philosophy of storytelling from our observations of history would be problematic at best, even if we didn’t have our fallen imaginations to work with. We have, however, a more sure word for storytelling. God has written a Book that contains the heart of His story.7 For the Bible has the same plot and theme as the story itself. But the Bible goes further. It teaches us how the Author thinks and how His world works. The Bible, for example, teaches us the source and nature of conflict. It explains what a hero really is and what he must do. It demonstrates plot complication, suspense, and foreshadowing. It shows us the possibility of resolution. It gives us climax, denouement, and unity of theme. It teaches both by doctrine and example.
And its lessons are necessary. For we are the image of God. We will tell stories. We will listen to stories. We will watch stories. And these stories can be powerful things. We had better learn from them.