Can We Go Too Far with the Big Picture?

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons.

Used in unaltered form by Creative Commons.

As a parent of young children, I’m thrilled with the work that people like Sally Lloyd-Jones has done with her Jesus Storybook Bible. Also, LifeWay has done great things with The Gospel Project. And Desiring God has also developed curriculum that walks through the Bible as redemption history.

All of these resources are exceedingly helpful. They explain the big picture narrative of Scripture in a way that I was unable to do until much later in life. They train young people to look beyond the bare facts of the stories to ask why the story is included in the Bible.

A recent article in Christianity Today provides a number of perspectives and reasons why the Big Picture approach to Scripture is important.

This approach is a vast improvement over the approach that many people still use and that was the sort of bread and butter of my childhood. However, I’ve recently begun to recognize the need for a hybrid approach to teaching Scripture.

The Story Model

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the story of David and Goliath. And the story of Daniel and the lions. And the story of Zacchaeus, the wee little man who climbed up in the sycamore tree. Or Jonah and whatever the large sea creature was that swallowed him.

These stories, with their details, we told and retold. Often the details were embellished with theological interpretations about how the individuals might have felt or what they might have thought.

Other times, the facts were actually misrepresented. For example, I grew up thinking that Jonah was swallowed by a whale. That may be, since there was probably no clear distinction between whale and fish as sea critters in the (human) biblical author’s worldview. However, the text actually says fish. Also, I was much older when I put together the fact that when Daniel got thrown into the den of lions he was probably pretty old. Daniel was cemented in my mind (often with the help of flannel graphs) at the tender age where he experienced the robust benefits of a vegetarian diet.

Despite the mistaken details, which may have been my fault as the hearer, the connections between these accounts were clearly missing. Clearly they were connected by being in the Bible. They all had something to do with God. However, there was often no cohesion to the tales, even after I had “heard them all” dozens of times.

The Big Picture

The approach that is popular in contemporary circles is more helpful in building an integral understanding of Scripture.

Over and over again Sally Lloyd-Jones emphasizes the redemptive themes that are woven through Scripture. Christ is in the text, often imperfectly represented by types.

For example, David is like Christ when he, the improbable hero, redeems the people of Israel from probable slavery to the Philistines by slaying the giant with the stone. The boy-shepherd-who-would-be-king is a picture of Christ, despite his later plummet from grace.

This is vastly improved over the “hero story” approach that finds moral examples in particular scenes of Scripture and bids the children to do likewise.

However, it’s a little difficult to be brave like David facing Goliath when a) you aren’t God’s anointed one and b) your childish ability to reason from literary types is limited such that you find yourself preparing to fight a literal giant, in case you ever encounter one. (Harvey Cox cites this as one of the reasons he drifted from a conservative understanding of Scripture.)

Also, there is the fact that sooner or later the children find out that David had some problems later in life. He didn’t just commandeer someone’s rubber ducky (as in the Veggie Tales version), but committed adultery (perhaps even rape) and killed a man for his wife. This is a good lesson in grace, but a difficult one for children to sort through when they’ve been presented the “moral example” method of reading Scripture.

The big picture approach is much better than that. And yet, it causes me to think.

The Pitfall

The most likely pitfall of the big picture approach is that, when it is taken too far, it can inadvertently reinforce the notions that a) every detail has to be tied to the big picture and b) if the details don’t fit, they probably don’t matter.

Let me be clear that I do not believe that Lloyd-Jones, LifeWay, Desiring God or any of the other proponents of the big picture approach commit, foment, or accept any of these errors; they are writing curriculum and books that meet a vital need and use a particular approach. Similarly, I do not believe that the authors of the moral example lessons necessarily missed the big picture. I am talking about implementation and receipt of information rather than authorial intent.

The big picture approach is wonderful for getting the main idea across, but it can allow the casual student (or teacher) to miss the vivid detail that is included in the text.

For example, Ehud was a deliverer of the people; a foreshadowing of what Jesus would be. He was also born left-handed, the king was fat, and he apparently liked privacy when he was relieving himself. These are providential pieces of the story; they are details that enliven it and undergird the historicity of it. All the details don’t fit into the big picture, but they allow the big picture to be what it ought to be—they help us know the stories are true.


This warning, then, is as much to me as to anyone else. As I teach my children, I do not want to lose the big picture or the details.

In other words, it is as bad to miss the forest for the trees as it is to see only the forest without distinguishing the beauty of the trees.

In order to understand the beauty of God’s redemptive plan, we need to teach our children the big picture. It will help them make sense of the various genres and accounts in Scripture.

In order to recognize the truthfulness of God’s Word, we need to emphasize the details as we teach the stories. It helps them to trust the documents written by both divine and human authors.

This is not an either/or but a both/and. We need to balance the approaches so that we have biblically literate students of the Word when all things are done.