In this last post I intend to do three things. First, I will be drawing the conclusion that there are two very different ideas and hence definitions of “progressive revelation” (PR), and both operative words mean something very different both separately and together, depending on who is using them. Thus, there is no really agreed upon definition of this term within Evangelicalism (or, indeed, biblical studies generally). Second, I want to quickly address the straw man issue (I’ll call it Objection 2). This is in case someone says that I have misrepresented the position of covenant theologians. I have not, and I shall furnish a couple more examples to prove it. Finally, in line with my call for plain speech and good communication, I want to close by asking which position on progressive revelation really is what one would be led to think it is.
Two Conflicting Ideas: And the Importance of Recognizing Fuzzy Definitions
The definition of progressive revelation which I have been commending in this article is as follow.
“Progressive Revelation is the view that supplemental disclosures about a particular subject are built upon and traceable back to an original grounding revelation. The combined witness to the subject must evidence enough commonality so as to present a comprehensible picture of the subject which can be cross-checked and verified against every instance of the progression.”
From what I have written in support of this definition several things come out:
1. Revelation is, for the most part, unambiguous clear communication or it is not good communication
2. The progressive revealing must be amenable to tracking so as to ensure it is cohesive and non-contradictory.
3. The idea of progressive revelation, then, also carries the notion of expectancy, based on the content of what God revealed.
Corollaries to this include (based upon the alternative use):
4. If what is declared to be the fulfillment of PR is not at all what one would be led to expect by what came before, then the revelation was not clear (at least until the very last), because the progress did not lead up to what was supposed. A kind of bait and switch was involved all along.
5. This contradicts cases of PR which can be shown to exhibit clarity and coherence from start to finish (like prophecies of Messiah. or God’s triunity).
6. The problem appears to enter in when the text is not driving some versions of PR, but rather is being used in the service of a more domineering theological perspective.
In light of these observations, we must conclude that versions of Progressive Revelation which allow, and even necessitate, unforeseeable “twists” at the end of the “progress”, make PR (especially in the OT) uncertain and unreliable, and render the whole concept practically meaningless. This is so since where the true meaning cannot be known till the “fulfillment” is declared, no gradual revealing has really occurred.
Hence, those who admit ambiguity into their idea of PR should define their terms better so as not to mislead people. And as I have had cause to show before, a theology which permits such equivocation also promotes equivocation in those who must defend it. How often has this writer had to point out to some brother that their theological arguments are riddled with ambiguous use of terms (e.g. “land”, “Israel”, “temple”, “throne”, “promise”, “love”, etc.). Surely, this is not the result of the biblical revelation itself, but of imposing human ideas on that revelation?
Since the Fall our default position has been to reason independently of God and His revelation. We, like Eve, want to assess the rationality of God’s words. If what He says seems reasonable to us, we will accept it. If it seems unreasonable, we will alter it. This is what happened with the disciples in John 21:21-23. Jesus stated to Peter concerning John, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
But then what happened? The disciples allowed their reason a magisterial role in interpretation, and they came up with this:
Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die (v.23a).
These were spiritual men, yet they still put reason above the words of Jesus and they came up with the wrong interpretation. To drive home this point the evangelist writes,
…yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” (v23b & c).
It is this problem which I believe is evident in the ambiguity of terms and definitions one meets with in some presentations of PR. Moreover, if covenant theology is to be believed, even after Jesus taught, “of things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), the PR up till then seems to have deceived Jesus’ own disciples. Their question, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6) was wholly mistaken according to Calvin, Goldsworthy, Beale and many others. Yet many of these men admit that previous revelation had encouraged this very expectation.
Progressive Revelation Opposing Itself – and Objection 2
Here one can expect to hear, “But we do not believe Progressive Revelation is equivocal”. Often the argument is that just as redemption is historically conditioned, so revelation is historically conditioned. Hence, revelation is incremental and thus progressive. There is an underlying issue which cannot be gone into here. This is the matter of understanding Scripture as (rather than including), a history of redemption, and interpreting it in those terms. Usually tied to this is the notion of theological covenants, and the belief that the NT reinterprets the OT. Read more »
Recently I was interviewed by an Australian brother ministering in England, where I’m from. Lindsay Kennedy, who teaches at the Calvary Chapel College in York, asked me some questions as part of a series he is running on differing perspectives within Premillennialism. I tried to represent Traditional Dispensationalism; Darrell Bock was interviewed about Progressive Dispensationalism, and James Hamilton was asked to write on Historic Premillennialism. As you will see, my answers were longer than those given by the other two men.
Here are the links:
Progressive Dispensationalism (Darrell Bock)
Historic Premillennialism (James Hamilton)
One thing these interviews show is how different these positions are. Especially Hamilton makes it plain that he interprets much of Scripture typologically.
I trust you will be benefited by each interview. Lindsay also asked each one of us to answer a question from one of the other interviewees. I addressed one from Darrell Bock centering on Acts 2 and the reign of Christ. That piece will be linked to once it appears on Lindsay’s blog.
In the first part of this series I referenced some things to which I should now like to return. Even before getting into what is meant when the two words “progressive revelation” are brought together, I said that we needed to settle on what revelation is. At bottom revelation is communication from God to man. The next question up is, how accessible a communication is it? Is it both constant and consistent? That is to say, does the revelation crop up repeatedly, and/or unequivocally? Does it have a character which is traceable backwards and forwards?
What Did You Expect?
I gave the examples of the Trinity and the Messianic prophecies to do with the first coming. I illustrated it by imagining tracking leopard tracks in the snow. One would expect the tracks to lead to a leopard. In the same way, a reliable progressive communication about a subject through time would produce an expectation based on the data contained in the words being revealed (unless the words were incompetent or else deliberately misleading), Just as one would not expect leopard tracks to lead to a bear, one would not expect OT predictions of Christ to be fulfilled in someone born in Jerusalem, from the tribe of Asher, begotten through an earthly father. Why? Because the those things were not part of what was communicated! And any “transformation” in the subject’s identity along the line of progression would manifestly terminate said progression!
Yet this is precisely what many evangelicals teach when they refer to “progressive revelation.” I provided some examples. One more is found in Michael Lawrence’s book, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church. In his book, Lawrence makes a case for progressive revelation early on. He puts forth four features of progressive revelation as he understands it. The first is that Scripture was revealed at different points in history. This says nothing about the content of revelation or the nature of its progression other than it wasn’t given all at once. However, he does seem to say that the progression is fulfilled at “the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (27). That is to say, the progression is fulfilled at the first coming.
Lawrence’s second feature highlights a common view among many evangelicals that revelation is all about redemptive history. Again, once this is noted we can move on to the next feature. Before we do, I shall just note that the fourth feature is about practicality, so we need not be detained by it. In fact, of the four characteristics of progressive revelation Lawrence supplies, only the third one touches on what progressive revelation actually is.
Lawrence’s third characteristic refers to the “organic nature” of progressive revelation. This term is commonly used by those with supercessionist tendencies. It is the lead-in to a brand of typological hermeneutics and the theology based upon it. He writes,
It doesn’t simply proceed like a construction site, which moves progressively from blueprint to finished building. Rather it unfolds and develops from seed-form to full-grown tree. In seed form, the minimum and beginning of saving revelation is given. By the end, that simple truth has revealed itself as complex and rich, multilayered and profoundly beautiful. It’s this character of revelation that’s going to help us understand the typological character if Scripture, the dynamic of promise and fulfillment, and the presence of both continuity and discontinuity across redemptive history. – Ibid, 27-28.
He will state that the discontinuity is that indicated in the Book of Hebrews between the temporary Old Covenant and the eternal New Covenant in Christ. The movement of progression is “the movement between shadow and reality” (80). To describe it in terms of our illustration: this translates into following leopard tracks and discovering that they lead to something utterly unexpected. The tracks, if literally interpreted as belonging to a leopard, would mislead the tracker.
But allow me to make some observations on the larger quote:
First, you will notice that in the opening sentence Lawrence uses the adjective “progressive” in the way we have been recommending in these posts. When you look at the blueprint you can follow the building process till you see what you expected to see – a building. But he rejects this meaning.
Second then, he says the progression is akin to a simple seed which grows into a complex tree. The idea seems to be that because a seed is very different looking than the tree it grows into, so the words revealed progressively in the OT “grow” into a fulfillment which looks very different than what the prophecies would lead a person to expect. Of course, everyone knows what an acorn will grow into – and it isn’t a gooseberry bush (I might also point out that leopard prints don’t look like leopards).
Third, this “tree” illustration helps us understand “the typological character of Scripture.” That is, the revelation of God in the OT Scriptures communicated only shadows, not anything real. As we pointed out previously, the reality could not be known from the line of progression, but only in its “fulfillment” when it became something different than was expected.
This brings us to a fourth observation: the “progression” was merely that of historical pronouncements couched in types and shadows, not in plain language. All that is meant by “progressive” is “communication at different times.” Meanwhile, all “revelation” turns out to be is “obtuse disclosure” which would remain unclear and misleading until the “fulfillment” was announced!” Read more »
Revelation Cannot Be Divorced From the Character of the Revealer
Plain-speaking is usually thought to be a virtue. One should say what one means. On the other hand, it is not a virtue to use words which one knows beforehand may lead another person to conclude we mean one thing, when, in actuality, we mean something more obscure and inscrutable, or even utterly different.
To show how impactful this truth is, I’ll pick an example from another sphere. In his recent book against the false claims of Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Sarfati writes this:
It is…disingenuous for an ardent antitheist like Dawkins to profess concern about a creator’s alleged deception. However, biblical creationists respond that the real deception would be for a creator to use evolution then tell us in the Bible something diametrically opposed in every respect – the time frame, the method, the order of events, and the origin of death and suffering. – The Greatest Hoax On Earth?, 26
The complaint against Dawkins stems from his blindness to his own presuppositions. However, the thrust of this statement is not against Dawkins, but against any “creator” who would employ language to beguile his creatures. Like a person who deceives a dog into running after a stick which she only pretends to throw, the kind of god who would “reveal” the creative work in the words of Genesis 1 and 2 when, as a matter of fact, he did it by evolution, would deserve to be labelled, as Sarfati says, “disingenuous.”
As I have said more than once before, our definition of “revelation” requires that we say something about the character of God. As one OT scholar puts it, “Revelation as an act of God reveals our God, with all of his goodness and perfections.” - Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption, (Paternoster), 446. It also requires of us that we don’t forget this link between revelation and God’s character. Our doctrine of revelation is the bedrock of what ever else we as Christians might want to say. Revelation entails clarity of intention. In speaking about “progressive revelation” we are always talking about the character and consistency of the Revelator. For God to lead us into thinking He did X when He in fact did Y would be, as the example above declares, a disingenuous thing to do.
In light of this let us consider what someone like Willem VanGemeren says about progressive revelation.
VanGemeren says that God’s Name “I Am who I am” may communicate the fact that,
Yahweh declares that he is free in the progression of fulfillment of his promises…Further, no one can predict how or when he will work out the full redemption of his people (cf. Acts 1:7). – Ibid, 149
Using Acts 1:7 to support his statement is a bit of a stretch. There the Lord Jesus was simply telling the disciples that it wasn’t for them to know the times or seasons when the kingdom would be restored to Israel (see v.6). Hence, Acts 1:7 in its context supports the idea of “progression” I have commended in these articles: that of supplemental revelation which can be traced backwards and forwards through all the others in the set. The revelation cannot undergo transformation in any sense which would affect that understanding of “progression”, otherwise the term itself becomes equivocal (that is to say, “progressive revelation” would mean different things depending on whether one is talking from an OT or a NT perspective).
VanGemeren himself restricts this “freedom” of God by making it clear that God’s acts “in fulfillment of his promises are intended to instill…confidence that he is faithful and able to deliver them.” (150). This is an important point for him. Earlier he writes,
The purpose of the revelatory Word of God is to prepare individuals to respond to that Word when it is addressed to them. – Ibid, 55.
Saying What We Mean
Nevertheless, in reading VanGemeren one senses that the underlying reason for the “freedom” and unpredictability of how God will work it all out, (and his use of Acts 1:7), is because he believes in wholesale alterations to what was to be expected based on earlier revelations in the set. This would involve tinkering with the word “progressive” to make it mean something like “modified.” The modification usually involves the substitution of one thing for another, and this significant alteration of specified content within the promises becomes not terribly unlike the homologous “adaptations” we’re all familiar with in evolutionary dogma. Read more »
This is a response to comments left for me in the combox at this post about Sam Storms’s views on eschatology. I appreciate the brother bringing them to my attention. I am responding mainly to this:
Thanks for the post. I am not sure the last section really represents Sam’s view. He would say that Paul and Peter leave no room for a milennium since Paul has the last enemy death defeated at the parousia in 1Cor 15:24ff, 50 therefore death will not exist after Jesus returns and Peter has Jesus returning and then begins the renovation of heaven and earth by fire without a milennium. Since the thrones in Revelation are always in heaven and when they are setup for those who reign on them it could be that their reign is in heaven. He does admit difficulty with anastasis so he defaults to the fact that Paul and Peter are clearer than Revelation therefore he is inclined to be amillennial. This is Storms’ view summarized.
Comment by Rick Tatina | July 7, 2013 |
Just in case, the passage concerning Peter was from 2 Peter 3:9-12.
Here’s a brief response.
Let me address these texts 1 Cor. 15:20-28 first:
“But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be abolished is death. 27 For HE HAS PUT ALL THINGS IN SUBJECTION UNDER HIS FEET. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. 28 When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.”
Okay, let’s examine this, beginning in v.23:
This passage is dealing with physical resurrection (anastasis). Christ is raised first, in expectation of more to come. V.24 then speaks of “the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to the Father.” Is that it? No. V.25 says “He must reign until He has put all enemies under his feet.” So the question is, “Is Christ reigning now?” “Yes” says Storms. Does the Bible say He is? No! Not unless He reigns over the “principalities and powers” of Eph. 6:10ff. Not unless He is reigning over the countless tragedies and acts of wickedness which continue day in day out since He rose again. If so, He would be the worse ruler imaginable. The buck would stop at Him.
In Matt. 19:28 Jesus looks forward to sitting “on the throne of his glory” at “the regeneration” (palingenesia). This coincides with the “times of refreshing” and “times of restoration” of Acts 3:19 & 21, which Acts 3:20 tells us occur when Jesus returns. In Lk. 19:12-15 Jesus makes it clear that He (the nobleman) would go away and only reign once He returned. In Rev. 3:21 we’re told that Jesus sat down on His Father’s throne. 1 Cor. 15:20ff. could support amillennialism, but only if we are prepared to spiritualize a whole bunch of other verses.
Here I should like to quote from my “Parameters of Meaning” series (which I have neglected):
“Parameters of Meaning – Rule 9: If a literal interpretation leads you into wholesale allegorizing, or causes head-on conflicts with other clear texts, which then have to be creatively reinterpreted, it is an illegitimate use of “literal”. There will always be another literal meaning available which preserves the plain-sense of the rest of the passage in its context.”
Well, is Christ subduing all things now? Look around. Of course not. Does the Bible say He is? No. Romans 8:19-23 places this at the time of our resurrection (“the redemption of our body”). When will that happen? 1 John 3:2 & Phil 3:20-21 answer, at the Second Coming. So at Christ’s second advent this world will be “regenerated” or “delivered” or “refreshed” or “subdued” and not before. Christ shall reign (Lk. 1:31-33; cf. Rev. 20:4 & 6) just as the Prophets said He would. He will rule with a rod of iron after the second coming as Rev. 19:15 makes quite clear (see also Rev. 2:27; 12:3 which make it future). Psalm 2:6-9 refer to this subduing when Christ reigns. See also this: http://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/christ-at-the-center-pt-6a/
I really don’t know what Storms is thinking with 1 Cor. 15:50. But it seems He is just equating the kingdom of God with heaven. And, as I said above, this thinking of New Heavens and Earth after the coming of Christ is a big problem for amillennialism, because it discards THIS earth as useless after the Second Advent. No dominion for the second Adam on this earth in successful completion of Adam’s failed dominion! It is easy to fit the literal Millennium in 1 Cor. 15 without having to revise our reading of all the plain verses which speak of an actual reign of Christ on this earth after the second advent. Read more »
We have seen that the idea of progressive revelation is connected to two things: the intent behind the communication, and the boundaries prescribed by previous revelation/communication. I have said that these two concerns, together with a definition of the adjective “progressive” as building or augmenting one thing upon another, necessitates an approach in which the picture does not change out of recognition, but is trackable both forwards and backwards from every point in the progression. This implies that the progressions are self-evident at every point along the line of revelation, even though the full picture may not be seen for what it is until the very end. This in turn produced the following definition:
“Progressive Revelation is the view that supplemental disclosures about a particular subject are built upon and traceable back to an original grounding revelation. The combined witness to the subject must evidence enough commonality so as to present a comprehensible picture of the subject which can be cross-checked and verified against every instance of the progression.”
When “Progressive Revelation” Becomes Misleading
Notice that commonality and continuity of ideas are essential to this definition. If there is ambiguity there is always uncertainty about what is being revealed. This results in a “progression” which may not appear as a true advancement. If that is the case the terminology “progressive revelation” only refers at best to the completed revelation, but not the process of revelation. This makes the adjective “progressive” misleading, for if one cannot trace the progression, then it hardly deserves to be called either “progressive,” nor “revelation.”
However, many ideas about progressive revelation do not include these salient ingredients of clear commonality and continuity. Consider these statements from Graeme Goldsworthy:
We begin with the New Testament because it is there that we encounter the Christ of the gospel, through whom by faith we are made God’s children – “Gospel and Kingdom,” in The Goldsworthy Trilogy, 48.
…hermeneutics aims at showing the significance of the text in the light of the gospel. To interpret an Old Testament text we establish its relationship to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ…Our whole study of progressive revelation goes to show that the Gospel event is the reality which determines all that goes before and after it. – Ibid, 123, 125.
Notice here that interpretation of revelation must begin where it ends: at the Christ event (which is reduced hermeneutically to the first coming). Thus, any “progress” in the revelation can only be seen from the final vantage point; it cannot be seen while it is being accumulated. Not only that, but Goldsworthy has confined God’s revelation to those “whom by faith… are made God’s children”, so that it wasn’t and isn’t a revelation to all who come across it. One upshot of this view is that one should not expect to use progressive revelation with the unbeliever for apologetic purposes, for the revelation can only be seen to be such by the believer. This turns progressive revelation into an esoteric thing.
We see the same thing here:
God’s gospel message is always the same. Yet God reveals it progressively with ever increasing clarity and fullness until he completes its disclosure in the New Testament. – Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptist Perspective on God’s Covenants, 131.
By gospel reformation Christ spiritually transforms God’s people from Hebrew Israel under the old covenant to Christian Israel under the new. – Ibid, 115
In this view then, one must start at the end and interpret OT revelation from the perspective of its transformation in the NT.
If we go back to the leopard tracks illustration of the second post; leopard tracks lead to leopards, not to bears. It is no great help saying they are both animals and we are following animal tracks, because we are following definite animal tracks determined by the beast that made them. Their specificity cannot be ignored, and any asserted rough commonalities between leopards and bears will do nothing to disguise the fact that a leopard is not a bear. There exists a lack of constancy between the progress of the tracks we are following and the bear which could not have made them. Read more »
Towards a Definition of Progressive Revelation
Progressive revelation relies in the first instance upon the competence of how that revelation has been communicated. To deny this point is to cast doubt upon the utility of the modifier “progressive.” Revelation has to reveal or else it is not a revelation. Progressive revelation has to reveal progressively in a logically connectable way in order to be what it claims to be, and to thereby substantiate itself.
The Example of the Trinity
Think about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a classic illustration of progressive revelation. As it starts out the Bible introduces God. Then it speaks about the Spirit of God who broods in contemplation over the unformed mass (Gen. 1:2). We get to the shema (Deut. 6:4), and we learn that the God who is “one” (echad – which can mean a plurality in unity as in Gen. 2:24), is perhaps just such a plurality in unity. Numbers 6:24-26 hints also at this, as of course do the inner discussions of God with Himself (the “let us” passages) in Genesis 1:26, and 11:7, and also the occurrence of the Visitor to Abraham, who, as Yahweh, called down fire and brimstone from Yahweh in heaven in Genesis 19:24. Then Psalm 110:1 and Proverbs 8:22-31 add to the picture of a Deity who is alone God but is not unitarian. Indeed, Messiah is given Divine attributes in Micah 5:2, and is called “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14, and “Mighty God” in Isaiah 9:6. Yahweh is betrayed for thirty pieces of silver in Zechariah 11:12-13, but this refers, not to the Father, but to the Son.
Without pressing the point too much, the Book of Judges is filled with the activity of the Spirit of God. David says, in 2 Samuel 23:2: “The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, And His word was on my tongue.” In Isaiah 48:16 we have the following intriguing passage:
Come near to Me, hear this: I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; From the time that it was, I was there. And now the Lord GOD and His Spirit Have sent Me.
The Spirit of God “grieves” (Isa. 63:10), and sends (Zech. 7:12). The New Covenant activity of the Spirit in the prophetic literature is pronounced: e.g. Joel 2:28-29; Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; 39:29; Zech. 12:10. Throughout the OT the picture of a triunity in God is being built up.
Once we come to the NT we are on unmistakable Trinitarian territory: e.g. Jn. 1:1-3, 18, 32-34; 14:7-21; 16:7-15; Rom. 8:14-17; Heb. 9:14, 10:29, etc.
The Example of Jesus Christ
Think about the OT predictions about Christ, and how they are progressively revealed. I have provided a handful below:
He would come from the tribe of Judah – Gen. 49:10 – c. 1750 B.C.
His garments would be divided and His robe gambled for – Psa. 22:18 – c. 1000 B.C.
His bones would not be broken – Psa. 34:20
He would be born in Bethlehem Ephrathah – Mic. 5:2 – c. 700 B.C.
He would be born of a virgin – Isa. 7:14 – c. 700 B.C.
He would be the heir to the throne of David – Isa. 9:7
He would be rejected – Isa. 53:3
He would be buried with the rich – Isa. 53:9
He would die for others – Dan. 9:26 – c. 539 B.C.
He would be betrayed and the purchase money would be used to buy a potter’s field – Zech.11:12-13 – c. 520 B.C.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, and I have been careful to select prophecies which can be clearly related to Christ’s first coming. This is the sort of list one would use to prove to the non-believer that Jesus was indeed the Messiah prophesied in the OT. Please notice something very important. None of these predictions contradict or impinge on any of the others. They may impart some different information not given in other revelations, but they can all be taken as read without being specially groomed to point in some desired but questionable direction. In point of fact, it is crucial that they do so, for otherwise their usefulness for apologetic purposes would disintegrate. Read more »
Introduction: The Bible as a Communication
The Bible is one Book, not two. It should be read from front to back, not in reverse. Tracing the chronology of Scripture is, in general terms, an important part of Bible study. Everyone is aware that there are cases where specific time-slots cannot be allocated with certainty to some episodes in Judges or the historical vantage point of Obadiah. You will always find a more liberally inclined person ready to correct you about the date of Daniel or “Second Isaiah” or Matthew’s Gospel. But from the standpoint of someone who says he believes in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture the Bible is a fundamentally Divine Word to creators formed in His image.
This Word from God, which we now have in the Bible, was produced over many hundreds of years. As the Story of the Bible unfolds certain things are put in place which will relate to things to appear later on. In most cases these key things are initiated by God Himself, the Author both of the Book we’re reading, and of the circumstances we read about.
The Bible is not simply a storybook. The Bible is, as I like to call it, “a word from outside.” By this I mean that it comes from the One who made and sustains our reality, both now and in the future. And this One, the God of Creation, has done two things which are presupposed by the existence of the Bible. He has spoken truth to human beings, and He has enabled human beings to speak His truth to one another. Putting aside for the minute the problem of our common failure to reflect God’s truth in our every communication (something I’ll return to), the fact remains that communication; from God first and then to each other, is happening. So before we can get into our main subject of progressive revelation, we must initially ponder what makes for effective communication.
For communication to work well there needs to be a common language between the speaker or writer and the hearer or reader. Assuming, of course, the basic comprehension abilities of both, it is first necessary that they share many of the same pool of words and metaphors with each other. If they don’t, communication can hardly continue effectively. But if we grant this point the next one comes on its heels: that is, if the speaker wishes his or her meaning to be understood they will communicate in such a way as to minimize possible misunderstanding due to ambiguities or hidden meanings. Either of these increase the likelihood of the intended meaning of the speaker being missed.
One thing that the speaker may wish to do to help decrease possible misunderstandings of his words is to include certain keys or touchstones whereby his true meaning can be tested. A Users Handbook may have occasional reminders to the reader to make sure they have read Part 1 of the manual before proceeding to more complicated chapters for instance. Such touchstones help keep the reader on the right track, so that when they close the book they’re understanding of the author’s words closely overlaps that of the author himself.
If it turns out that the reader or hearer has come away with ideas which were far removed from the intent of the communicator, the fault lies either with the communicator or with the reader/hearer. If the first, it is because they communicated their meaning poorly. If they wanted to be understood they should have used plainer language. This home truth is only more so if the communicator has employed words which could very easily be misconstrued, or figures of speech about which people would come to wildly different conclusions. But in truth the fault lies with the speaker/author.
If, on the other hand, the communicator has clearly declared their intention, it is the listener or reader who has failed. There could be several reasons for this failure, but surely the most common are, a failure to pay attention to the words being communicated, or else the hearer persuading themselves that the speaker really meant such and such. In the former case the problem is inattention. In the second case the problem is an overreach of ‘reason’ (i.e. rationalizing more than is actually there).
God Has Spoken – so as to be understood
When we apply this basic theory to the Bible as the Word of God things can start to become problematical, although they really shouldn’t! If we take for granted that God as a Communicator: indeed, the Supreme Communicator, wants to be understood by His creatures, then we can assume that He has said what He means to say in such a way that human beings can understand.
Objection 1: Time & Culture
Right here I can hear the objection about the Bible written to Semitic peoples thousands of years ago in a totally foreign culture. In shorthand this amounts to , “the Bible wasn’t written to you!”
This is one of the objections which I shall have to return to in this series. But to give a brief riposte, I would say three things:
A). If the Bible is not written to me then, as an outlook on how I should look at the world it is irrelevant to me. The question is, in what way is the Bible addressed to me? Not certainly its every statute or command addresses me; there is much in it which doesn’t; but as a vehicle of Truth I must receive it as God’s Word to me or it leaves me in a position of having to say that it is not God’s Word for me. And every cognizant person living or dead to whom the Word of God comes is in the same boat as me. God’s Word demands right response, which presupposes right understanding.
B). Just because there are many things recorded in Scripture which I am not included in directly, either because I was not there, or because I was not being spoken to, or because I do not belong to a specific group, does not mean that God did not want me to know what He said and did. Read more »
SERIES: Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
7. Christ in Biblical and Systematic Theology: Part 7a,
Christ and Systematic Theology
From the things we have already said it is not difficult to see that by placing Jesus Christ at the center of Biblical Theology – a position advocated in these posts and called “Biblical Covenantalism” – it becomes natural to move on to formulating doctrines.
Many both within and without the evangelical tradition have written about the connection between Biblical and Systematic Theology. In fact, perhaps most scholars who are not evangelicals are less than confident that Systematic Theology is a viable exercise at all. The reason for this is their findings in Biblical Theology.
The first post stepped right into matters of Christology (unsurprisingly), Creation, and Ecclesiology. By the end of the second we were on firm Eschatological ground. In the third post I could write:
Hence, the Plan of God outlined in the biblical covenants converges on the crucified Jesus and emerges from the resurrected Jesus!
My contention in Part Two was that the other unconditional covenants were channeled through the New covenant, because the salvation realized under the New covenant ensures covenantal continuity into the kingdom era. Thus, both Soteriology and Providence were in view.
In Part Three: “The Covenant God Incarnate,” I of course dealt with the Incarnation. But I also referred to the interesting surmise of Meredith Kline that the pre-incarnate Christ was the antitype of the bodily form of Adam. Hence, we were dealing with Anthropology.
My discussion of Christ as the Logos in Part Four brought me round again to Creation and the doctrine of God. Included in this chapter was something about the connection of the Word as God with the Bible. I was writing concerning biblical interpretation (Hermeneutics), and so was in the realm of Bibliology. The hermeneutical question; tied as it is with the Person of Christ as Revealor and New covenant; with the Person of the Father as covenant-Maker; and with the Holy Spirit as the Author of Scripture and agent of eschatological new life, points inevitably to the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the veracity of God.
In all this I was always on Eschatological ground, as every good Theology is. This led into the important theological issues to do with Israel and the Church, as well as the Nations, and their part in reflecting the Triunity of God (Part Five).
Then in Part Six we returned to the Cross and the offices of Christ. Finally, the Resurrection was viewed as “a glorious anachronism” which points us all to the fervent hope of His appearing and Kingdom.
Although this series could not go into much detail in connecting Biblical Theology to Systematic Theology, I truly hope that I have done enough here to arouse the interest of those who want the Lord Jesus Christ to be central to both disciplines, but who, like me, are not impressed by the pretensions of Covenant Theology, with its overwhelmingly inferential way of “Christotelic” formulations – stuffing Christ into texts where He doesn’t fit; and most Dispensational Theology, where Christ only pops His head in now and again under certain categories of the system.
Biblical Covenantalism brings Christ forward in both disciplines in two main ways. Firstly, by simply paying heed to what is plainly said about Him in the Bible. To recall something said in Part 4a:
I want to make sure that we have established a very strong connection in our minds between the Bible, the world, and the personal Savior who is our Lord. Just as the Bible is His, this world is His and we are His; and all these things exist, in the first place, for Him. He is the judge of all of His creation and He shall rule over all of the creation. This world is of Him, for Him, by Him, to Him. If we’re going to have a scriptural doctrine of the Creation it will bear some correlation to Jesus Christ. I don’t say we must “find Him in it,” only that we must relate it to Him.
The same applies then to the doctrine of the Revelation of God. Here the danger of abstraction becomes a very real one. The teaching about the Bible has got to be in accord with the worldview which springs from the Bible. And, as we hope we have begun to make clear, a world and life view that is a truly biblical one will have to be centered in the Person of Christ.
The Bible puts the Lord Jesus in the middle of everything!
In the second place, and this point calls for some reflection: Christ has been “set forth” (cf. Rom. 3:25) by the Father and exegetes Him (Jn. 1:18). Christ is witnessed to by the Spirit; so that to know the first and third Persons one must go through the second Person. What this yields, I believe, is a starting assumption of doing Systematic Theology first Christo-centrically. Many theologians have started Trinitarianly, and I am not decrying that. But the makeup of Scripture places the access to the Divine Trinity through Jesus Christ. He is the Designer, Creator, Sustainer, Archetype, Savior, Covenant Guarantor, Restorer, King and Judge over all Creation. The Father has willed it be so. The Spirit makes sure it is so. So the Lord Jesus is the means by which Biblical and Systematic Theology live in harmony. As Word and Covenant Jesus Christ puts all around Him in its proper place!
SERIES: Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
Jesus Christ in Biblical and Systematic Theology
Christ and Biblical Theology
As I bring this study to a close I want to do two things. First, I want to recap on where we’ve been, and to show how Biblical Covenantalism is extremely Christ-focused, but not through any forced theological predetermining or eisegesis. Christ fits within the Story of the Bible so naturally because of His function at the very core of it from beginning to end. One doesn’t have to go looking for Him in every verse, determined to see Him whether He is present or not. I am not advocating such a fallacious course of action. And we must guard ourselves from those who, with pretensions to piety, speak to us about finding Jesus in each verse of each Book of Scripture. Our imaginations were not given us to overlook the obvious while collecting a useless and confusing melange of types, allusions, and the like. These things we have often brought with us and our searching will inevitably be productive if we pretend to discover those things which we have spread so liberally. The truth is, Christ is not in every verse. Nor indeed is he to be found in very many chapters and verses. It is not impious to speak the truth. But the truth can sometimes sound impious to those with a manufactured piety.
These studies have sought to show that Christ’s Person and offices lie behind the Plan and Purposes of God, and that though there are many verses where He is absent, still He cannot be removed from any Act in the Story.
I started out in Colossians 1, There I aimed to show how Paul makes Jesus Christ preeminent, not by employing religious rhetoric, but by simply stating the reality of who Christ is: Creator, Upholder, Owner. Further, the future regeneration of the whole of creation depends on Christ. Thus far the Introduction. But although the apostle is writing of the church’s relation to its Head in Colossians 1, it would be a mistake to limit the fallout of his words to the Church alone. There is more to the Plan of God than the Church, and Christ’s relationship to the New Covenant in His blood proves this (Part 2). We saw that the covenant promises of the Old Testament are guaranteed literal fulfillment through their association with the Coming of Christ to reign on earth. The Second Coming is more important fulfillment-wise, than the First coming, crucial as that was. This is because covenant fulfillment centers in Jesus Himself, who encapsulates the New covenant upon which the other covenants rely. Since the covenants name this world as essential to their purposes, the roles of Christ as covenant guarantor and Christ as Second Adam combine in His earthly reign.
Here we encounter our main thesis (Part 3):
Our main thesis is that Christ will perform all this restorative and promissory work by the New Covenant, which in Him (Isa. 49:8) provides the requisite cleansing unto righteousness that obligates God to fulfill His covenants. This Christ-centered approach is what I call “Biblical Covenantalism.”
The incarnation does more than just make it possible to “kill” the Second Person of the Trinity. It highlights the importance of creation to God, especially God’s image-bearer. Simply put, if there were no incarnation there could be no resurrection. If no resurrection, then no hope would remain for us, and God’s telos in making the world would have fallen into nothingness.
Part Four now displays the worldview implications of all this. He is the measure of all things. But He is also the way of seeing all things correctly. The last two posts in Part Four try to tie together the outside world as created and upheld and redeemed by Christ with the actual hermeneutics of Christ as found in the Gospels; the one confirming the other. This sets us up for Part Five where the teleological and eschatological goals of creation and redemption take on a triadic appearance in the coming Kingdom. This is in line with covenant expectations too. The triadic peoples of God image the Trinitarian God whose stamp appears on everything.
In Part Six I rehearsed the Cross and Resurrection work of Jesus to remind us that all our value and all our hope is in Christ.
Thus, Christ is ubiquitous, even if He is not in every verse of Scripture. Big things as well as small things find there anchor in His Person and covenant work. And it is this fact of the pervasiveness of Christ in a Biblical Theology built mainly upon the covenants of Scripture that lends ‘Biblical Covenantalism’ its coherence and its power. These two things, as we shall show, make it natural to go from biblical Theology into a Christ-centered Systematic Theology.