Biblical Covenantalism

Has the Davidic Covenant Been Initially Realized in the Church?

This is a slightly revised version of what I wrote as a response to a question from progressive dispensationalist Darrell Bock about the inauguration of the Davidic Covenant at the first coming of Christ.  

Darrell Bock: How can a dispensationalist see the current application of the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant (see the Last Supper in procuring forgiveness we now experience) and not see the Davidic covenant being initially realized by what Jesus has done, as Luke 3:16 predicts and Acts 2:14-36 proclaims?

My Answer

With regard to the Abrahamic and the New Covenants, I think the NT is very clear about their application to the Church.  Galatians 3 and Romans 4 deal with the application of the Abrahamic Covenant to the Church; at least the parts of it which are appropriate.  1 Corinthinans 11:23-26, 2 Corinthians 3:6 (cf. also 2 Cor. 6:14-18) pin the New Covenant securely on the Church.  These explicit statements settle the question for the Abrahamic and New Covenants.  But the Davidic Covenant is quite another issue.  Here one is dealing with implications and inferences which can bend in different directions.

Firstly, in Luke 3 Jesus has not yet been baptized and presented as Christ. The two phases of Christ’s work are bundled together in the passage in typical OT fashion. The baptism with the Holy Spirit I take to be the New Covenant promise of the Spirit’s vitalizing coming to Israel with the kingdom. There is no Church yet in view as far as the context of the revelation goes. Jesus is rejected by Israel, but He has come, and that fact cannot be reversed. At His coming Jesus introduced the New Covenant (Lk. 22:14-20), yet in a context in which the kingdom is now driven into the future (Lk. 22:29-30).

Thus I see the first phase of John’s prediction; the baptism with the Spirit (Lk. 3:16) initialized in the New Covenant made with those who would be foundational to the Church (Cf. Eph. 2:20). This explains the use of Spirit language in Acts 2 where these ‘foundations’ (minus Paul) were present.

Yet the full realization of that blessing as it pertains to Israel (per John’s audience and context in Lk.3), awaits the Second Advent. At that time Jesus comes in judgment (the “fire” and “winnowing” language in Lk. 3:16 & 17), after which He inaugurates the New Covenant with Israel along the OT pattern.

That there is some sort of “already” aspect here is true, yet I would want to lay stress upon the object of that “already” – viz. the “new man”, the Church, not Israel. Here is where there is some chronological transition between “the Church age” and the “times of restoration” which Peter was holding out to Israel in Acts 3 (and in Acts 2 for that matter). I take Acts 3:19-21 as referring to the Davidic New Covenant Kingdom.

In the Acts passage (Acts 2:14-36) we face several issues, none of which I will pretend to give the final answer to. I will try to move through the passage briefly to bring out the logic of my position.

In Acts 2:14-21 there is the debated use of the Joel prophecy preceded by the “this is that” formula (v.15). The first thing to say is that whichever interpretation is brought to the use of Joel 2, nobody believes these extraordinary happenings (of vv.19-20) actually occurred at Pentecost (e.g. R. N. Longenecker). Further, the Holy Spirit was not poured out on “all flesh” (v.17). So we have to ask, what was Peter doing?

My answer is that Peter was still thinking within the basic framework of OT eschatology and Jewish expectation which we find in the Gospels and in Acts 1:6. His immediate concern in this setting was to point to the Cross and (especially) the Resurrection as the eschatological breaking- in of God into Israel’s history. The “this” of v.15 is answered by the references to the resurrection throughout Peter’s speech (vv. 24, 30, 31, 32). This is what proved that Jesus was “both Lord and Christ” (v.36).

The reference to the outpouring of the Spirit (vv.17-18, 33) is intended to show the Jews that the New Covenant has been inaugurated, and that there is still opportunity for them to repent and believe (in this sense the baptism of v.38 may be seen as a partial fulfillment of John’s baptism).

Of course, the nation did not believe this message. They rejected it again in chapter 3:12-26, where the expectation of the arrival of the Davidic Kingdom was still patently in the air (see esp. 3:19-21). In other words, these were good faith offers of the kingdom, referred to by Peter as “the times of refreshing” (3:19) and “times of restoration” (3:21), which were rejected by all but a relative few.

Viewed this way the one work of Christ in its two phases of Cross and Crown are still held together in Acts 2 and 3. If so, the “signs and wonders” of Acts 2:19 are in a real sense, still at the doorstep pending national acceptance of Jesus as Messiah; not only crucified Messiah, but Risen Messiah – bringing the two phases into close proximity.

Allowing this line of reasoning helps us with the Joel prophecy. How so? Because the “signs” and “wonders” which Jesus did prior to Calvary (v.22), portend the “signs” and “wonders” of v.19 which speak to the Second Coming. Here I again appeal to Acts 3:19-21 for help.

If I haven’t lost everyone, let me proceed to Acts 2:25-35 and try to fit it into my picture.

Jewish national acceptance in the fact of the Risen Christ ought to have come because the OT predicted it (vv. 25-28 cf. Psa. 16). For present purposes I shall forego verses 25-29 and pick it up in Acts 2:30. Progressive Dispensationalists like Dr. Bock appeal to this verse because it speaks about the “raising up” and the investiture of Christ upon the Davidic throne. If this was what actually happened in Acts 2 I would have to concede the point. But as I see it this “raising up” is a reference to Christ’s resurrection not installation (see esp. v.32). As I have said, the resurrection was uppermost in Peter’s mind in these verses. The next verse proves this by saying that David “spoke concerning (peri) the resurrection.” (2:31). In verse 33 the emphasis is now on the ascension “to the right hand of God”, which I do not take as a reference to the throne of David, for otherwise Acts 3:19-21 makes no sense to me (cf. also Rev. 3:21).

Acts 2:33 appeals to the coming of the Spirit, yet actual fulfillment of the Joel New Covenant prophecy awaits the condition of national repentance, which was not forthcoming. The quotation of Psalm 110:1 refers then to the present continuing session of Christ in heaven awaiting the fulfillment of the Davidic New Covenant kingdom announced, first by John the Baptist, and then by Peter.

I hope this rather convoluted explanation will be seen as viable. Whichever position is taken on Acts 2 and 3, it is easy to get ones theological wires crossed. This is my attempt to sort them out.

Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path (2)


This completes the thoughts offered previously.

4. Systematic Theology

Coming now to Systematic Theology the first thing that must be said is that the pretended stand for a partial system must be summarily dropped. Dispensational Theology cannot be switched out for the term Dispensational Premillennialism. In point of fact, I make bold to say that the notion of Dispensational Premillennialism is a bit of an odd bird without a full-orbed system to back it up. Most Dispensationalists have been blithely contented to append their eschatology on to the end of another system – most often the Reformed position. But this is a dubious, and, let us admit it, halfsighted maneuver.

When DT is tagged onto an already developed system of theology it can only present itself as a correction to certain aspects of that system of theology. In so doing it tangles with the methodological presuppositions of that theology. But because it allies itself so often to say, Reformed theology, it must act deferentially towards Reformed formulations in areas other than ecclesiology and eschatology. For if it failed to acknowledge Reformed theology’s right to assert itself in these other areas – the doctrine of God, the doctrine of man and sin, the doctrine of salvation, for example – it could not think of itself as Reformed. This is because in claiming its right to question Reformed assumptions in any theological corpora save in regard to the Last Things (and perhaps the Church), Dispensational theology would be asserting its right to formulate ALL its own doctrines independently of other theologies. It would grow to dislike its assumed role as a beneficial parasite, cleaning up areas of another theological system, and would wish to be “Dispensational” in every area! Ergo, even if its formulations of all the theological corpora were closely aligned with Reformed theology here and there, they would be its own formulations! This is precisely what I am pleading for!

Every knowledgeable person knows that Systematic Theology ought to be an outgrowth of Biblical Theology. The fact that most Dispensationalists are content to tack their views on to an already existing whole system doesn’t speak well for their Biblical Theology. For if Dispensational Biblical Theology cannot produce the impetus to formulate a distinctive and whole Systematic Theology of its own perhaps the trouble goes deeper? I believe it does, and that reformulating Dispensational Theology from a Biblical Covenantalist viewpoint gives you all the main points of traditional Dispensational Eschatology and Ecclesiology, but it also gives you enough material from which to formulate clear and distinctive versions of Prolegomena, Theology Proper, Anthropology, Christology, Pneumatology as well. As I have said elsewhere, I do not think that tracking the “dispensations” produces enough usable doctrine to work up a solid systematics or worldview. If one is going to follow the standard definitions of Dispensationalism as a “system of theology” there will be slim pickings when it comes to forging a Dispensational Systematic Theology. The irony should not be lost on us.

In the last part of my series Christ at the Center I tried to sum up the strong Christological emphasis of Biblical Covenantalism with some of the solid by-product from which robust doctrines in Systematic Theology could be constructed. Although I have recorded over two hundred lectures in Systematic Theology along conventional lines, I think if I were to try to write a volume I would use the triad God, Man and the World. Beginning with the title “God Has Spoken” and introducing epistemological and ontological concerns, which in turn require ethical responses, I would ask questions about the knowability of God and (following Calvin) the knowability of ourselves in Creation. This introduces the doctrine of Revelation. Here I would want to press the joint reliance of the Sufficiency and Clarity of Scripture for the job ahead. That would open the door to hermeneutical questions.

Even so, dealing with Christ I would take up the same rubric: God, Man and the World. In this way I would attempt to discuss the pre-existence of Christ along with the incarnation and cross and resurrection. I would want to ‘lace’ the whole Systematics with Eschatological (and teleological) concerns, being careful to converge these themes in the section called “Eschatology” at the end of the work. This way one would hopefully see the inevitability of the convergence rather than now turning to “The Last Things.” The covenants of Scripture, dealing as they do with the same triad of God, Man and the World, could help accomplish this.

5. Worldview

Contrary to some views, Systematic Theology sets out the Bible’s teaching on God, Man and the World. It does not go cap-in-hand to worldly science and unbelieving philosophy because it knows that the Biblical Worldview is the only workable worldview. (more…)

Renewing Dispensational Theology: A Suggested Path (1)

What is a Dispensationalist Theology?

For one reason or another traditional Dispensationalism has been abandoned by all but a relatively few Bible students.  The wild success of the Left Behind novels is no sound indicator to the contrary.  Two much better indicators which point decisively the other way are the degree of serious attention given to this point of view in most Biblical and Systematic theologies, which is nugatory; and the stunning lack of scholarly works in these areas by Dispensationalists themselves.  As to the latter, I believe I could count on one hand the publications of traditional Dispensationalists of the past generation which even attempt to rival the surfeit of such work from covenant theologians. I say it as a friend; Dispensationalism may be likened to an old car pulled to the side of the road with serious transmission problems.  And it has been there for a good long while looking like it needs hauling away.

I feel no need to prove this, as any perusal of the volumes of Biblical and Systematic Theology which have been rolling off the shelves for the past 25 years will show that their authors don’t consider Dispensationalism to be much more than a smudge on the edges of the theological map.

This being said, here are some thoughts on five sectors of truth where Dispensational Theology (DT) might be renewed.

1. Self-Understanding: What Are We About?

In many ways, defining oneself by ‘dispensations’ is more restricting than defining oneself under the theological covenants of Covenant Theology (CT).  The dispensations of Dispensationalism are in reality blinders which severely attenuate the exciting potential of plain reading of the Bible.  They are non-essentials which have been borne aloft for so long that no one has bothered to look up to see how abject they actually are.  What do the concepts “innocence”, “conscience”, “government”, “promise”, “law”, “church” (or “grace”), and “kingdom” have in common as theological ideas (other than their obvious adoption by dispensationalists)?

Why, for example, would “government” be a more emphasized stewardship than “conscience” after Noah?  Wasn’t Israel’s theocracy far more of a government than anything found in Genesis 9?  The time of Abraham is often called the Dispensation of Promise.  But are not promises made to Adam and Eve and to Noah before Abraham?  Moreover, as John Sailhamer has stated, ‘the OT itself does not have a word or expression for the NT idea of ‘promise.’ – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 421.

Realizing that Sailhamer is referring to the promise-fulfillment motif, but this is certainly relevant to the ‘Dispensation of Promise’ which assumes such a motif.  If Sailhamer has a point it would seem wise to replace the imprecise term “promise” with “covenant.”  But once we do that we will be required to drop the theme of “dispensation” too, so as to give the Abrahamic covenant the developmental scope it clearly must have.

In addition to this change of emphasis from what seems nebulous and inexact to what is plainly revealed and stressed in the biblical text there needs to be a rethink about what dispensationalists mean when they refer to their theology as a “system.”  It needs to be made clear that if dispensationalists continue to accept a limited definition of DT as essentially relevant to only two or three areas of theology, or, (which is much the same thing), if they are content to assimilate DT within the narrow band of “dispensational premillennialism,” then they have admitted tacitly that DT is not and cannot be a complete “system.”  Restricting, as many dispensationalists tend to do, DT to ecclesiology and eschatology, militates strongly against those definitions of DT which describe it as “a systemof theology.”  Patently, any viewpoint which only chips in when either the Church or the Last Things is being discussed does not qualify – neither does it deserve to be identified – as a system of theology.  And this for a very good reason: only whole theologies can be systematized!

For the record, here is my working definition of DT: “An approach to biblical theology which attempts to find its raison d’etre in the Scriptures themselves, and which constructs its systematic presentation of theology around a primary focus on the biblical covenants.”

You will see that I have booted out the dispensations and thrown the spotlight upon the covenants in the Bible.  That may disturb some people, but the profit of this move is immense.

2. Hermeneutics

Dispensationalism has often been associated with grammatico-historical interpretation.  Quite apart from whether many older dispensationalists actually contented themselves with approach, the fact is that the very term “grammatico-historical” no longer enjoys a static meaning.  So it becomes necessary to spell out what kind of hermeneutics is envisioned by that terminology.

In its most basic sense language conveys thought into words.  God is the Author of language and when He speaks in the early chapters of the Bible there is a correlation between His thought, the words selected to convey His thought, and the product brought into existence by His word.  This flow from God’s word to God’s action is so obvious in the Bible that it scarcely needs proof.  Let the reader study the Bible Story with this in mind and he will see it everywhere.  Thus we have an important hermeneutical marker from inside the Bible.

As we have seen God also makes covenants.  We may easily locate Divine covenants, for instance, in Genesis 9, 15-22, Exodus 19-24; Numbers 25; Deuteronomy 29-30; 1 Chronicles 17; Psalms 89; 105; 106; Jeremiah 31, 33, Luke 22 and many other places.  God does not need to bind Himself by an oath, so why does He do it?  One reason, I want to suggest, is because of our propensity judge God’s word by our own capacity for belief.  Like Eve sizing up the forbidden tree, we want to come to our own conclusions independently.  It is our default position, and the covenants set up the boundaries within which our interpretations ought to operate.  The biblical covenants might well be seen as ‘a reinforcement of Divine speech.’  If this be the case then God’s covenants serve to boldly underline the God’s word/ God’s action motif we saw earlier.

Hermeneutically speaking then, we have two powerful interpretive ideas coming at us from the pages of the Bible itself.  And this is given further emphasis in such places as 2 Kings 1 and John 21 where goes out of His way to explain that He means what He says.

This hermeneutics take us a surprisingly long way when applied to all of Scripture.

3. Biblical Theology

If there is one thing that most biblical theologies fail to take seriously it is the doctrines of the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture.  These concepts are inseparable.  If Scripture isn’t clear (except, of course, to those highly skilled practitioners in the genres of ANE and typology), then for sure it isn’t sufficient.  When one adds to this the miraculous coincidences wherein each type and genre corroborates the particular theological bent of the writer it all begins to look a little suspicious and question-begging.  Understandably, dispensationalists prefer to stake out their hermeneutical tents on firmer ground.  But the myopia induced by paying too much attention to dispensations prevents them from setting out a sound alternative Biblical Theology.  Once the covenants are seen for what they are and the dispensations are allowed to merge into the background the program opens up invitingly before them.  (more…)

What is Progressive Revelation? (Pt.6)

Part Five

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(more…)

An Interview With Yours Truly About Dispensationalism

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:

Dispensationalism (Part One)

Dispensationalism (Part Two)


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.

What is Progressive Revelation? (Pt.5)

Part Four

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!”  (more…)

What is Progressive Revelation? (Pt.4)

Part Three

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. (more…)

When Literal Interpretation Leads to Wholesale Spiritualization

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:
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. (more…)

What is Progressive Revelation? (Pt.3)

Part Two

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. (more…)

What is Progressive Revelation? (Pt.2)

Part One

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. (more…)