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On Its Own Terms: Rightly Reading Scripture, Part 2

A correct reading of Scripture demands that we do so “on its own terms.” In a previous post, I began to develop the Bible’s “own terms” by first thinking through what Scripture is in terms of its claim for itself. What is Scripture? It is God’s authoritative and truthful Word written through the agency of human authors, given for our instruction, correction, and growth in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:15-17). Now I want to develop the Bible’s “own terms” by arguing that a proper reading of Scripture demands that we take seriously that it has come to us by many authors over time.

It seems obvious to say that Scripture did not come to us all at once, but this evident fact is important in a correct reading and application of Scripture. Our glorious triune God has chosen to unfold his eternal plan step-by-step, starting in creation and reaching its fulfillment in Christ’s two advents. As our triune God has acted through redemptive history, he has given us a Word-revelation to interpret his mighty redemptive acts through the agency of human authors. As later authors build on early authors under divine inspiration, God’s plan reaches its fulfillment and telos in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:9-10; Heb 1:1-2).

Hebrews 1:1–2 wonderfully teaches us this truth. “In the past,” the author writes, “God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets,” and he did so “at many times and in various ways.” God’s word-act revelation took place over time, and as it was given it anticipated more to come. In fact, this is the precise point that the author makes by his use of “at many times and in various ways.” Not only was the OT revelation repetitive, it was also incomplete. In God’s unfolding plan, what we call progressive revelation, God’s plan is gradually unveiled as it moves forward to Christ’s coming. In the incarnation and work of the Son, the last days have arrived (v. 2), thus underscoring that the final, definitive, complete revelation has now come in him. The author of Hebrews, along with the entire NT, places our Lord in a category qualitatively different than the previous prophets. This does not diminish the OT’s authority; rather, it stresses that it was incomplete and that it was intended to reach its God-ordained fulfillment in Christ, in whom all of God’s revelation and redemptive purposes culminate. Just as redemption occurs over time that culminates in Christ, so also Scripture as God’s word-act revelation.

Progressive Revelation and Interpretation

How do these truths impact our interpretation of Scripture? First, we are reminded that no “part” of Scripture is to be isolated from the “whole.” Our interpretation of Scripture must do justice to where each “part” is in God’s unfolding plan and how each “part” contributes to God’s plan brought to fulfillment in Christ. No doubt, Scripture consists of many literary forms which all require careful interpretation, but underneath these literary forms is an underlying storyline, moving from creation to the new creation. And it is crucial that we read Scripture in such a way that we do justice to the Bible’s unfolding story and how each text fits in the overall plan of God. Our reading of Scripture and drawing theological conclusions must not lift texts out of their biblical context since this kind of proof-texting often wrongly misapplies Scripture because it fails to consider Scripture’s redemptive-historical progression and covenantal unfolding. Our interpretation of Scripture must do justice to where each “part” is in God’s unfolding plan and how each “part” contributes to God’s plan brought to fulfillment in Christ. Click To Tweet

Second, and more specifically, it reminds us that Scripture must be read in context; in fact, in three contexts. The first context is the immediate context. Since we cannot read the Bible all at once, we must start somewhere, and wherever we begin is our first context. In this context, we interpret texts to discover God’s intent through the human author(s) by grasping what the author has communicated in his text. However, our interpretation of texts does not terminate here; it leads to the second context, what some have called the epochal context.

Here we read texts in light of their location in God’s unfolding plan. Since Scripture is given over time, texts do not come to us in a vacuum; rather, they are embedded in a larger context of what has come before them. As God communicates through biblical authors, these same authors write in light of what has preceded them. Furthermore, locating texts in God’s unfolding plan helps illuminate intertextual links between earlier and later revelation. As later authors refer to earlier texts, they build upon what is given, not only in terms of greater understanding of where God’s plan is going: they also begin to identify God-given patterns between earlier and later events, persons, and institutions within the unfolding of God’s plan—what is rightly labelled “typology.” As God unveils more of his plan, including the unveiling of God-given patterns (types), God’s plan moves forward and ultimately reaches its fulfillment in Christ. Later authors do not arbitrarily make connections by referring to earlier revelation; rather, they develop these patterns in ways that God intends and which do not contravene earlier texts. It is only by reading texts first in their immediate context and then in relation to where these texts are in God’s unfolding plan that we begin to grasp God’s redemptive plan and how we fit into that plan. Individual texts do not become fragmented, and the road from “text” to “reader” is not a matter of one’s intuition, preference, or prejudice.

Epochal Differences in Scripture

Is it necessary to be precise regarding the epochal differences in Scripture? This question is a major debate within the discipline of biblical theology. Most agree that the major epochal division is between the OT era and the fulfillment of God’s plan in Christ. But there are also other crucial divisions, and Scripture divides history in a number of ways. For example, in Romans 5:12–21, Paul divides all of human history under two heads: Adam and Christ. Under these two heads, Paul further subdivides redemptive-history by the following epochs: Adam (vv. 12–13), from Adam to Moses (vv. 14–17), from Moses and the giving of the law-covenant to Christ (vv. 18–21). Or, in Acts 7:1–53, Stephen identifies three distinct periods: the age of the patriarchs (vv. 2–16), the Mosaic age, which included within it the time of the exodus and conquest of the Promised Land (vv. 17–45a), and the age of the monarchy (vv. 45b–53). Or, in the genealogy in Matthew 1, Matthew divides up redemptive-history into three distinct periods: Abraham to David (vv. 2–6a); Solomon to the exile (vv. 6b–11); and the exile to the coming of Christ (vv. 12–17). As I will discuss in my next post, my suggestion is that the best way to structure redemptive history is by the progression of the biblical covenants. However, for now, the important point is to read texts in terms of their redemptive-historical location.

The final context that is crucial in our interpretation of any biblical text is the canonical. Given the fact that Scripture is God’s Word and is a unified revelation, texts must be understood in relation to the entire canon. We cannot adequately interpret and especially apply Scripture to us today if we ignore the canonical level. As I argued in the last post, to read the Bible canonically corresponds to what the Bible actually is.

How, then, should we read and apply Scripture? If we read Scripture “on its own terms,” a three-context reading is the place to start. In the final analysis, the best way to read Scripture and to draw theological conclusions is to interpret a given text in its threefold context. In this way, we are letting Scripture interpret Scripture; we are seeking to unfold how the Bible itself is given to us, so in the end, we read, apply, and draw theological conclusions from Scripture according to God’s intent. This is how we learn to rightly divide God’s Word of truth and life.

Stephen J. Wellum

Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Kingdom of Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the CovenantsGod the Son IncarnateChrist Alone, and Christ from Beginning to End.

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