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On Its Own Terms: Rightly Reading Scripture, Part 3

To read Scripture rightly is to read it “on its own terms,” but what exactly does this mean? In previous posts, I answered this question by emphasizing two points. First, we read Scripture according to what it is, namely God’s authoritative, coherent, truthful Word written by human authors. Second, we read Scripture as God’s word-act revelation given to us over time. This requires reading each biblical text in terms of a threefold context: immediate, epochal or redemptive-historical location, and ultimately in terms of the closed canon due to the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 5:17-20; Luke 24:25-27, 44-48; Eph 1:9-10; Heb 1:1-2). In this last post, I want to further develop the Bible’s “own terms” by focusing on how Scripture has come to us, not only over time but also by the progression of the biblical covenants.

To read Scripture properly involves more than merely getting the author’s meaning right and tracing large “themes” across the canon. No doubt, our reading of Scripture will carefully unpack how themes such as temple, land, sacrifice, priest, etc., unfold across the canon. But before we do, we must first ask whether God has “put together” his plan and revealed it to us in Scripture in such a way that there is a correct structuring or backbone to the Bible’s storyline that must be understood to read and apply Scripture properly? In other words, is there a specific structure that the Bible has that each part fits within and contributes to the larger whole?

Over the course of church history, people have wrestled with this question and answered it in various ways. Although I cannot fully defend my view here, I contend that there is a specific structure or backbone to the Bible’s storyline that is essential to follow in order to read and apply Scripture rightly. What is it? Following others, I suggest that the progression of the biblical covenants is how God has unfolded his plan and structured Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. If this is so, then to read Scripture correctly, we must not only interpret texts in their threefold context but also interpret those same texts in relation to their covenantal location. In other words, if our reading and application of Scripture are true to “its terms,” we cannot ignore how God’s plan has been unveiled by the progression of the biblical covenants and grasping how individual texts reach their fulfillment in Christ and the arrival of the new covenant. The progression of the biblical covenants is how God has unfolded his plan and structured Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Click To Tweet

In Scripture, the biblical covenants are not simply window-dressing. Instead, they are God’s chosen means to unfold his plan, hence why they serve as the backbone to the Bible’s entire storyline and are thus hermeneutically significant. The progression of the covenants is the Bible’s own way of unfolding and structuring God’s redemptive plan. To not attend to how the covenants relate to each other and culminate in Christ, will result in a failure to grasp the narrative plot structure of the Bible and inevitably to make crucial theological mistakes. On this point, think about how many debates in Scripture center on changes that have occurred in redemptive history due to the progression of the covenants and their fulfillment in Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant: Jew-Gentile (Acts 10-11; Rom 9-11; Eph 2:11-22); the Judaizers (Gal 2-3); the conclusions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15); and today, debates over the application of the OT to us today, the Sabbath, the nature of the church, baptism, land, and so on. All of these debates cannot be resolved unless we think through the biblical covenants.

In this regard, the recent book by Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, is helpful in thinking through the Bible’s “own terms,” namely the Bible’s own structure and categories, yet it needs to be supplemented by a better grasp of how the covenants serve as the backbone of the Bible’s metanarrative. As Goldsworthy compares and contrasts various approaches to the discipline of biblical theology within evangelical theology, he rightly contends that a crucial question that divides various conceptions of biblical theology is this: “What is the Bible’s own internal structure which determines how it should be “put together” and read so that we are reading the Bible on its own terms?” I believe that Goldsworthy is asking the right question. But given the lack of consensus among evangelicals on how the Bible is “put together,” what exactly is the Bible’s own structure if there is one at all? Goldsworthy proposes that the “Robinson-Hebert” scheme best reflects the Bible’s structure. His book is devoted to defending this scheme—a scheme he adopts from his former professor and colleague, Donald Robinson, at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, and Gabriel Hebert.

After Goldsworthy summarizes the various proposals of leading evangelical biblical theologians (e.g., Geerhardus Vos, Edmund Clowney, Dennis Johnson, Willem VanGemeren, William Dumbrell, Sidney Greidanus, Charles Scobie, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Gerhard Hasel, and Elmer Martens), he spends most of his time critiquing the Vos-Clowney approach that divides redemptive history into various epochs. Goldsworthy’s main critique is that the Vos-Clowney epochal divisions are not consistent with the Bible’s own structure. For example, for Vos-Clowney, the last great epoch of the OT in addition to creation, the fall, the flood, and the call of Abraham, is the period from Moses to the coming of Christ. But Goldsworthy questions whether this is how the OT divides redemptive history and whether this does justice to the watershed revelation associated with David and Solomon, let alone the later prophetic eschatology which focuses on the return from exile, the restoration of the people, and the anticipation of the renewal of all things.

Instead, Goldsworthy, following Matthew 1, suggests that the Bible moves from creation to new creation in three main stages: (1) the basic biblical history from creation to Abraham, and then to David and Solomon; (2) the eschatology of the later writing prophets; and (3) the fulfillment of all things in Christ. Goldsworthy argues that the first stage of biblical history not only provides the rationale and backdrop to the calling of Abraham and the covenant with Israel, it also establishes the typological patterns which are later developed in the prophets and fulfilled in Christ. Furthermore, he argues that the high point of the first stage is found in David and Solomon and in the building of the temple which represents God’s presence among his people, an echo back to Eden. The second stage begins with Solomon’s apostasy. Biblical history from this time on is primarily one of judgment that is overlaid with the prophetic promises that the Day of the Lord will come and bring ultimate blessing and judgment. In this stage, the typological patterns laid down in the earlier history are now recapitulated as they project a greater future fulfillment. In the final stage, the fulfillment of the previous stages now takes place in Christ who fulfills all the previous patterns in himself in an “already-not yet” fashion.

In my view, Goldsworthy is not only asking the right questions but also he has helpfully described the Bible’s “own terms” in regard to the Bible’s own internal structure. However, a challenge that he faces is warranting his redemptive-historical, epochal divisions and avoiding arbitrariness. Is there a better way of accounting for the Bible’s own structure and incorporating the insights of Goldsworthy? Yes, if we follow the progression of the covenants as the backbone to the Bible’s storyline. Beginning in Genesis 1-11, what frames these chapters is God’s covenant with creation first made with Adam and upheld in Noah. As God’s promise of redemption from Genesis 3:15 is given greater clarity through the respective covenants tied to Abraham, Israel, and David, we can make better sense of how God’s redemptive plan progressively unfolds in promise, prophecy, and type. As the covenants develop and unpack the various typological structures, and especially as the prophets recapitulate and project forward the typological patterns developed in those covenants and look forward to the arrival of the new covenant—what Goldsworthy rightly observes—is better structured by the progression of the covenants.

In this discussion, the crucial point to note for our reading of Scripture is this: the biblical covenants are not simply part of the Bible’s content or another theme. Instead, the covenants are central to the Bible’s own internal structure and foundational to grasping how God’s plan is unfolded from creation to Christ. Apart from thinking through the progression of the covenants and seeing how all of Scripture reaches its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant, we will miss what is central to Scripture and misread and misapply Scripture.

In these posts, I have sought to unpack the Bible’s “own terms” which are central to a correct biblical hermeneutic. Yet, what is most significant for us is not merely getting our theory right but reading Scripture rightly in order to obey all that it teaches. May our glorious triune God lead us to a greater knowledge of his Word for his own glory, our good, and for the spread of Christ’s name in our churches and in the world. May all of us become more faithful Bible readers, hearers, and doers.

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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