Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
The Hermeneutics of Jesus (Part One)
We have seen that everything in the biblical outlook is centered on Jesus Christ. Naturally, I’m not the only one who says such a thing, but virtually all non-dispensationalists fix on the first coming of Christ as the time of fulfillment of OT covenant promises, whereas I believe this to be a significant interpretative error which leads to them drawing unwarranted hermeneutical conclusions. It is about time we examined the words of Christ in relation to how He expected those to whom He was speaking to interpret what He said to them, and what had been written in the only Bible they had: the Old Testament. Any hermeneutical connections they would make would be confined to that revelation, not any NT revelation to come. I shall start with what the angels said about Him:
a. The Birth Narratives
In the Lukan account we read the about angel announcing to Zacharias, a priest, that a son would be born to him who would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Lk. 1:16). He would go forth “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (1:17 – He would state emphatically that he was not Elijah in Jn. 1:21). This, of course, was John the Baptist.
Six months later the angel Gabriel is sent to the house of Joseph, who is said to be “of the house of David” (and addressed as such in Matt. 1:20), to speak to Mary. The angel’s message had as its main theme the birth of One who would sit upon the throne of David (1:32) over “the house of Jacob” in a kingdom that would have no end (1:33). In Mary’s ‘Magnificat,’ with its echoes of Hannah’s praise-hymn, she mentions Israel (1:54) and “our [Israel's] fathers,” and alludes to the Abrahamic covenant (1:55). A few verses later it is Zacharias’s turn to prophesy. In the ‘Benedictus’ he mentions Israel who are “[God's] people” (1:68) who are to be redeemed through One born to “the house of David” (1:69). To a Jewish priest, just as to a Jewish maiden, this reference would be construed as a reference to the Davidic covenant. But there is a pairing of the Davidic promise with the promise of redemption not found in the terms of that covenant. This pairing is found in Jer. 31:31f. in reference to the New covenant! Zacharias also speaks of the Abrahamic covenant (1:72 – at the apex of a chiasm), and the long hoped-for time of peace and safety so often run across in the Prophets.
In the next chapter it is important that Jesus is born at Bethlehem (2:3-7. cf. Mic. 5:2). Then the angels announce His birth to shepherds nearby and speak of a hope for “all people” (2:10). When the child is presented at the temple we run into Simeon, who has been waiting “for the Consolation of Israel” (2:25). Simeon’s words gather up the joint hopes of the nations (2:31) and the nation of Israel (2:32), but he is careful to distinguish the two.
Please note that what had been promised by God happened exactly as was predicted. The promises had a literal interpretation in line with the wording of the OT covenant expectations. Thus, the “problem” of interpreting the OT in any other way than what it says is not restricted to the OT!
b. Jesus and Satan
Remaining with Luke, we see Jesus’ temptation by Satan in 4:1-13. The first temptation Luke records is repelled by the statement that God’s Word is at least as important to life as bread (4:4). The third temptation (in Luke’s order) involves the misapplication of Psa. 91:11-12 and Jesus’ reply that Satan’s interpretation is false because it flatly contradicts a plain command not to tempt God (4:9-11). We don’t read of Satan trying to convince Christ of multiple interpretations or anything of the sort. He knew better.
But it is the second temptation in Luke 4 which is crucial from a hermeneutical standpoint. Satan shows Christ “all the [physical] kingdoms of the world” (4:5), and then says,
all this authority I will give you, and their glory; for this has been delivered to me, and I give it to whomever I wish. (4:6).
The Devil then requires worship in exchange for these earthly kingdoms.
Now the question must be asked, “what sort of temptation was this to Jesus?” It is useless to answer that Satan was lying, because that would be known to the Lord and there would have been no temptation at all. So what, we repeat, was the power within the temptation?
The only sensible answer to this question is that Satan did indeed have the authority to hand over the earth to Jesus (notice that the Lord doesn’t question or dismiss the Tempter’s assertion), and that Jesus could have had a literal throne on this earth if He had wanted it there and then. But this brings up another question. If Jesus plan for this earth did not include Him reigning over it (as amillennialists have argued), then why was He tempted?
Any response which implies that He was tempted to do something He had no mind to do seems ridiculous. Why would Christ be tempted to do something He didn’t want to do? He didn’t have a sin nature remember! Therefore, we maintain that the strength of this particular temptation, and Jesus’ response to it (in 2:12 – which shows, I think, that He was tempted), present proof that it is indeed within His plan to reign over this earth one day; and this is in-line with Lk. 1:32-33 and OT expectations in Mic. 5:2; Isa. 11:1-10; Jer. 33:15f., Zech. 14:9 etc.
Additionally, these texts are covenantally linked texts. Thus, we are once more dealing with a covenant-regulated hermeneutics which will not budge and cannot be warped by typological subterfuges. Read more »
Most of our English Bible versions translate Hebrews 9:16-17 this way (I have provided vv.15 and 18 for context):
And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. 16 For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. 17 For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. (NKJV, vv. 16-17 are in italics)
Or the ESV:
Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. 16 For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 18 Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. (ESV vv.16-17 in italics)
With the translation diatheke as either “testament” or “will” the reader is led to conclude that these verses are not talking about the new covenant. In verse 15 the Greek word diatheke is translated as “covenant.” The same translation (“covenant”) is repeated in v.18.
If I were to give all the occurrences of diatheke in Hebrews you would see that, apart from 9:16 and 17 the word is uniformly translated “covenant.” One doesn’t have to think hard about why this word is rendered as “covenant” in these 16 other instances. The contexts make it very clear that the writer is referring, either to the Mosaic Covenant or Law, or to the New Covenant which replaces it. And one doesn’t have to seek too far for proof of this. Hebrews 9:15 contrasts the “first covenant” with the “new covenant,” as does verse 18. The chapter itself reinforces the contrast and the appropriate translation “covenant.”
Why translate diatheke, which has been expressed as “covenant” everywhere else in the Book, as “testament” or “will” in vv.16-17? The answer is because it has been assumed that “the death of the one who made it” refers to a “testator” as per a modern “Last Will and Testament.” For we all know that when a person makes a will it only comes into force when they are dead. Thus, one writer stated,
In the New Testament the diatheke as a ‘last will’ is once brought into connection with the sacrifice of Christ… – Geerhardus Vos, “Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke,” in The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. 13, No.4, , 601.
But is he right? What is it in the context which demands the switch from “covenant” to “testament,” other than this assumption that a will is being referred to simply because of “the death of the one who made it”? It seems to me that the whole case depends upon the supposition that diatheke can only mean “last will and testament” in Hebrews 9:16-17. There are several reasons for believing this to be a faux pas:
1. The meaning of diatheke in Hebrews 9:15 is “covenant.” This is clear because the writer is referencing the Mosaic “covenant” in the preceding verses (vv.11-13). If the word meant “last will and testament” in v.15 the connection with the Mosaic Covenant in vv.11-13 would be lost and the writer’s whole argument rendered suspect. Such a switch would create an equivocation within the argument. That is, it would have the author mean two things by one word in a confusing way. This problem comes into sharp relief once chapter 8 is considered. The superiority of the “better covenant” (e.g. Heb. 8:6) demands it be contrasted with the Mosaic Covenant, and hence, that it be itself a true covenant and not a last will and testament. This understanding is assured by the contrast in 8:7 which see. Following on from this, Hebrews 8:8-12 gives the longest quotation of the OT by any NT writer. Is this quotation to do with a testament or a covenant? The answer is impossible to ignore. It is to a “covenant” (OT “berith“), not a testament! Read more »
Everybody knows it. The Bible is composed of two parts: what we have come to call the Old Testament and the New Testament. Too, most people understand that by the Old Testament we mean the 39 books of the Protestant Bible. These are the same books which in a different arrangement and enumeration make up the 22 books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. In similar fashion the New Testament is the name given by Christians to the 27 “Apostolic” books written before the close of the First Century A.D.
What fewer people know is that these designations for the two parts of the Bible are not themselves found in the Bible. Nowhere in the 66 books is there a reference to the number of books or the specific contents of the Bible. As if anyone needed to be told, the Table of Contents at the front of our Bibles is not itself a part of the Bible.
We cannot go into it much here, but the tradition of referring to the two parts of the Bible as the two “Testaments” comes from a time after they were all written. As Bernhard Anderson observed,
The covenant motif is employed significantly in both the letters of Paul and in the Epistles to the Hebrews. Eventually the custom arose of referring to the apostolic writings of Christianity as the New Covenant (Testament) and the canonical writings of Israel as the Old Covenant. - “The New Covenant and the Old,” in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, ed. Bernhard W. Anderson, 225-226.
The first known occurrence of this designation is found in ca. 170-180 in the work of the second century writer Irenaeus in his Against Heresies 4.28. 1-2. But it is seems probable that the Greek designation diatheke (“covenant” or “Testament”) for old and new collections of biblical books was at that time quite new and not widely accepted. The same cannot be said of the covenants (berith) of the Tanakh, our “Old Testament.” These covenants were crucial parts of “the Law and the Prophets” long before the Apostles started writing.
These facts need to be well digested by all students of the Scriptures. To repeat, when we speak of the books of the Bible as “the Old and New Testaments” we are simply using a tried and trusted term which arose after the Canon was completed. It is not the way the Bible refers to itself. When the Bible employs this term (diatheke) it is referring, not to the Canon, but to specific historical agreements between God and men.
A corollary to this is to say: when the books we call the “Old and New Testaments” refer to the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant” they are not referring to the 39 books and 27 books in the Biblical Canon, they are speaking of certain actual biblical covenants which are revealed and expounded within the books of the Bible.
I’m sorry to hammer away at this but there’s a very good reason for it. Unfortunately, in certain Christian circles theology has overwhelmed history. Sometimes theologies confuse the matter further. Read more »
Series so far: Christ at the Center: The Fulcrum of Biblical Covenantalism –
Christ is the New Covenant! (Isa. 49:8)
Several passages in the Bible are crucial for studying the New Covenant. In the OT, along with Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 there is in particular Ezekiel 11 and 37, as well as early notices of the need for inner renewal in Deuteronomy 30:5-6. The NT references include Luke 22, 1 Corinthians 11, 2 Corinthians 3 and a number of chapters from the Book of Hebrews (viz. chs. 7-13). Important supplemental passages would be found in Isaiah 44, 54, 62, Hosea 2, Micah 5, Zephaniah 3, and 1 John, although there are plenty more salient passages which might also be considered.
One very important reference which interests us is found in Isaiah 49:8:
Thus says the LORD: “In an acceptable time I have heard You, And in the day of salvation I have helped You; I will preserve You and give You As a covenant to the people, To restore the earth, To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages…
Here in this verse, included in one of the so-called “Servant songs” of the prophet, is a prediction of a Servant who will “restore the earth” and bring blessing to Israel in line with her covenant expectations. We must recall that to be in covenant with God is to be in relationship to God. When that covenant is one-sided, putting the Divine Initiator also under obligation to ensure fulfillment of the terms, then God Himself will mend the relationship with those with whom He covenanted. He will do this through the “promised Seed” – the Messiah.
Many interpreters have commented on the Messianic import of this verse (Cf. also 42:6). For instance, Motyer says,
…the Servant is more than a covenant officiant or instigator; he is in his own person the Lord’s covenant….To speak of the Servant as the covenant means that while, as we know, it is through his work that covenant blessings become available, it is only in him, in the union of personal relationship, that these blessings can be enjoyed. Prophets preached the covenant and pointed away from themselves to the Lord; the Servant will actualize the blessings and point to himself. – Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, UK edition, 391.
We would in places expound the features of these points differently than Motyer by tying the literal fulfillment of the unilateral covenants to the ” New Covenant Man” (Christ), but we fully concur with the author’s words.
In a similar vein P. R. Williamson writes,
This individual will be the very embodiment of God’s covenant; hence the agent and guarantor of God’s covenant love and blessing to all the people.” – Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s unfolding purpose, 160.
Paul’s use of part of the verse in 2 Corinthians 6:2 links it closely to the New Covenant which he has been talking about previously in that epistle. But we must not miss what is being said here. Jesus Christ doesn’t just bring about the New Covenant; He is the New Covenant. This is what we have already taught in the previous installment, but here it is spelled out for all to see.
Although he was not dealing with this passage, my conclusions on this agree with the statements of Karl Barth when he insisted that,
[Christ] brings, and in His whole existence He is, the evangel, good news for all…
He Himself was and is the event…He speaks for Himself whenever He is spoken of and His story is told and heard. – Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV.1.225, 227.
This prophetic linking of the coming Christ as the personification of the New Covenant, when it is understood to be the means of fulfillment of the other unilateral covenants, cannot be overstated. Everything must “go through” Christ just as everything is for Christ and will be subdued by Christ.
On the back of what we have seen so far it seems to me that to hold a system of theology which places any important prophetic covenant word beyond the directing influence of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood is to have a half-system – a system which somewhat relies on a flat fiat of God sending out the renewing Spirit of God without involving the immanent work of the Son of God. I believe, therefore, that without the New Covenant it is not possible for God to join this world or anyone on it to the full realization of the Noahic, Abrahaimic, Priestly, or Davidic covenants.
More than this, to attempt to circumvent the Person of Christ, not just as the Mediator of the New Covenant, but as Isaiah has it, the New Covenant in Himself, is to inadvertently deprive Him of the glory which is rightly His as the central figure in our history. That history shall not come to an end when Jesus returns to earth. It will move into a new and better phase under His direct kingly presence, but it will still be the history of this world – the world made for Him, and not the world to come.
More next time…
I have reduced my Introduction down to three shorter pieces for ease of reading and digestion. This brief piece finishes off the exposition of Colossians 1:13-20 and leads into a preamble on the New Covenant.
And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. – (Col 1:18-20)
Paul uses the phrase “all things” repeatedly in this section (vv. 16, 17, 18, 19, 20), to illustrate the total dependence of the created order on Christ. The “fulness” (v.19) is understood by the translators of the NKJV as the fulness of God, and we agree. But in light of the immediate context we would suggest that God as Creator of “all things” is especially in view. Thus, the Source of everything is its Sustainer and Owner and Redeemer (v.20a). Here is an enigma: that the One who was “despised and rejected” sustained the despisers and rejectors! Whatismore, the materiality of Christ; – His becoming human so that His blood could be shed for humans (v.20b), and His remaining human in resurrection so that man’s original eminence among the creatures could be guaranteed to persist, is seen as central to God’s good pleasure. Paul is speaking to the Church here (of which more in a moment), but the passage proclaims a fabulous truth; the truth of a Christological World.
Because Paul is writing to the Church he naturally relates this stupendous truth to the doctrine of the Church. Christ preeminent is “the head of the body.” He bears a relation to the Church analogous to the relation of the head to the body. He is more than this. He saves and forms and sanctifies the Church. But He is foremost in the Church. He has “first-place” (v. 18c lit.) in it while not yet enjoying preeminence in the hearts of most people.
It would be a mistake to reduce Christ’s glory to the Church. He bears a special relationship to the Church as its Bridegroom, but He bears a relationship to everything. Hence, I am just now using this passage mainly to demonstrate the centrality of Christ to my understanding of the biblical story. That story cannot come to its desired close without “the blood of His cross.” And mention of the Blood of Christ leads us to “the New Covenant in His Blood.” It’s function, it’s timing, and its fulfillment dictate how it all comes together.
Continued from last time on Colossians 1:15b
There is a great deal which might be said about the term “firstborn.” Primarily of course it concerns right of inheritance and prominence among brethren. As the examples of Isaac and Jacob and Judah and Solomon show, the first to be born is not the main idea in “firstborn” (prototokos). The primary idea involves status, not physical birth. Notice how this is true in Psalm 89:27, ” I also shall make him My first-born, The highest of the kings of the earth.” The verb translated “make” in the verse carries with it the idea of placing or constituting, but not generating. The Psalm also portrays the promise to the firstborn as earning the very highest status among the “kings of the earth,” further underlining this understanding of the word.
So it is here. Certainly, some primordial creation of the Son as per the Arian heresy is not at all in the Apostle’s mind. There is a Time in Paul’s thoughts: though not the time of the original creation, but rather that of the second creation heralded by the Resurrection which he is thinking about. Just compare “the firstborn from [among] the dead” in v18, where this is made more clear.
Verse 15 also states that Christ is “over all creation.” He is over the creation because:
The World depends on Christ for its being created and its continued existence.
- all creation was made through Him – (v. 16). Jesus is the ever-living Word through Whom the Father spoke the world into being (Jn. 1:3; Heb. 1:2).
- all creation was made for Him – (v. 16). Jesus is the One for Whom the Father made the world. This staggering fact calls us all to prayerful meditation. “For Him.” This world. You and I. Creation is a Gift from the Father to the Son. And while we may despise God’s gifts, the Son does not. The created realm is valuable to Jesus first of all because it is His from God the Father! And it is for that reason He redeems it. Yes, and for that reason He will beautify it (cf. Rom. 8:20). This world will not be discarded like an old car when He comes, like some teach. It will be regenerated by the One who saved it. Jesus will be enthroned within it (Matt. 19:28). That is the only fit place for Him to be in it (cf. Lk. 1:33; Zech. 14:6; Rev. 19:16). As James Fergusson (The Epistles of Paul) put it so quaintly, “The setting forth of his glory is a rent due by all creatures.” And there will come a day when it will be payed before Him in person in His creation.
- all creation is held together by Him – (v. 17) Christ’s Lordship over the elements of bread and water and life and death is a logical outcome of what Paul speaks of in this verse. Everything that is – that possesses being – whether it be visible or invisible (v.16), exists providentially under His hand. The writer of Hebrews expresses a similar thought:
And He is the radiance of His [God's] glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. – Heb 1:3a
Among the many similarities of thought between the two passages is that of the whole disposing of the history of the Cosmos devolves upon Christ. John Owen, in his magisterial Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 3.105, writes,
And from these last words we learn: -
I. Our Lord Jesus Christ, as the Son of God, hath the weight of the whole creation upon his hand, and disposeth of it by his power and wisdom.
II. Such is the nature and condition of the universe, that it could not subsist a moment, nor could any thing in it act regularly unto its appointed end, without the continual supportment, guidance, influence, and disposal of the Son of God.
It is this “by Him, for Him, subsisting because of Him” teaching which situates the Son unquestionably at the center of the unfolding revelation of God to men. It may be explored in several promising ways. Read more »
Introduction To The Series
There are all sorts of places one can launch out from when writing about the grand scheme of things in the Bible. Certain passages are just packed with theology! This has been seen and utilized by many writers down through the ages. From John Calvin to John Stott men have built solid arguments from expounding a few verses and establishing connections with the Biblical worldview. For all his faults Karl Barth is often a master at this. Theology as exegesis as meditation!
While I cannot hold a candle to such men I would like to follow suit. I’m going to do a series of posts showing how the perspective I call “Biblical Covenantalism” is radically Christocentric. This is in contrast with most Dispensationalism which, although certainly not obscuring Christ, nonetheless does not place Him at the center of their systems (I believe this is another handicap of defining oneself by “dispensations”).
Biblical Covenantalism hinges on two main presuppositions. The first is that God means what He says. The Bible is a revelation to Everyman and therefore communicates its meaning in a straightforward manner. This is in contrast to what tends to be put across by covenant theology where often the Bible is portrayed as a revelation to the elect only. Or, on the other hand, scholarly opinions which rely upon modern extra-biblical materials or structural-linguistic findings only known to the very few, thereby obliterating any meaningful notion of Sola Scriptura and the Sufficiency of Scripture.
True, genres and figures of speech and structure must be appreciated, but they must never be made into the preserve of the scholars to argue over people’s heads about.
The second assumption is that the covenants we come across in the Bible are essential to a correct understanding of the Bible story; including its conclusion. This is something I shall bring out more in a future series on Teleology and Eschatology. I shall only say that neither presupposition is blind.
1. A Place To Begin: Colossians 1:13-20
He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, 14 in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. 17 And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. 18 And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. 19 For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, 20 and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. – (Col 1:13-20)
Now that I’ve said this about the centrality of revelation and the biblical covenants someone might ask themselves why I don’t begin the set of posts with John’s Prologue, which addresses somewhat both issues (the covenants indirectly as will be shown). I shall be going there in time, but I think this passage in Colossians gives me the grist I want to kick the thing off with.
Verse 13. In the thirteenth verse it is God the Father who has “delivered us.” So we see that the Father is the Deliverer and can be properly called the Savior (as in 1 Tim. 1:1; 4:10). Notice also that just as a human father requires a son or daughter in order to be a father, so God the Father requires a Son to be who He is. Therefore, we should understand that the doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ supports the doctrine of the eternal Fatherhood of God. God’s “paternity” is part of his eternal function in the Trinity, so Christ’s Sonship must be viewed as eternal in consequence. I don’t say that is all one can point to in support of the eternal Sonship of Christ; just that this text assumes the doctrine.
Now notice where the Father has “conveyed” us. It is into the Son’s kingdom. This kingdom is viewed by Paul in context as being both with us but ahead of us (cf. the “inheritance” language of v.12 and the “reconciliation” language of v.19). It is, as they say, both “already” but “not yet.” (This is not the same thing as allowing the “already/not yet” to determine our hermeneutics! The hermeneutics produce the idea). The “already” part is what makes us “strangers and pilgrims,” (Heb. 11:13), while being “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20). The “not yet” is what makes us look up and gain perspective from our futures instead of the present (as in Col. 3:1-2). Read more »
This post will summarize the main points I would wish to make about how best to understand the seeming tension between Paul’s teaching about the “Seed” in his discussion of faith in Galatians 3. I believe if we are not going to turn much of the testimony of Scripture on its head we should not go down the road suggested by Grover Gunn in his explanation of the passage and his inferences based thereon.
In disagreeing with Gunn I am not saying that he is not justified in attending to the places in Genesis where the apostle appears to be getting his language about “and to your seed” from: that is, from Genesis 12 through 22. The problem comes in when he extrapolates from the false notion that Paul is quoting from only two places in the Septuagint and claims the land promise of these “seed” passages must be transferred to the Church and turned magically into promises of heaven. When Christians insist that this must be done they are going beyond the teaching of the NT, not to say the apostle Paul elsewhere (e.g. Romans 11). They are also claiming the OT cannot be properly understood without the New – a claim which sounds pious enough, until it is analyzed in light of its logical outcome (more on this soon).
My response (which, remember, was just a part response) is that in order for the Abrahamic covenant to be tied to the Church (especially its Gentile contingent), that covenant must be connected to the New covenant in Christ. If that is true then Paul is thinking along these lines when he cites the four words “and to your seed” from Genesis. He most probably does not have an exact reference in mind, as he did with his earlier quotation of Genesis 15:6, but rather has in view the repeated use of the phrase through the Abrahamic narrative (if I had to make a guess which passage Paul may have been citing I would go for Gen. 22:18).
If one accepts this thesis then the corporate dimension of the AC – which Paul needs to complete his argument in Galatians 3:29 – remains intact, but is channeled through the “Mediator of the New covenant” – the one “Seed” of Galatians 3:16. Thus, because the Church is a participant in the Abrahamic covenant via the promises in Genesis 12:3 and 22:18, it does so just because of its participation in the New covenant in Christ.
I realize that this view has not been widely accepted by many dispensationalists, but that is because they have gotten bogged down in Jeremiah 31:31 and have not recognized that the prophet is speaking there about the [future] participation of the Remnant Israelites in the eschaton. Why would Jeremiah mention the Church? No, if we are going to see whether the Church has any stake in the New covenant we must study the NT teaching about that issue. Surely 1 Corinthians 11 settles it? The Church also participates in the New covenant through Christ and therefore, can draw upon those promises in the AC which pertain to it. As for Israel, they shall enter into their promises; promises which include the land promised to Abraham and his [plural] seed (Psa. 105:6-11).
I think this is all I want to say about this interesting subject right now. The actual reasoning in the exposition of Galatians 3:1-16 is given in Part Two. Lord willing, when I write my longer series of posts on “Teleology and Eschatology” I shall revisit this question. Part Five
So far we have seen that there is something in the contention that the Apostle Paul does have in mind the covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; promises which include the land given to the nation of Israel, in his theology of the Seed (singular) in Galatians 3. But what is that “something”? Gunn, along with supercessionists generally, believes that because the Genesis passages cited or alluded to by Paul include the land-promise, that the Church – the “New Israel,” gets that promise. Although what they get is not the land of Canaan but Heaven (other writers like Anthony Hoekema would run off to Romans 4:13 to prove that Paul was speaking about the new Earth), still the idea is that the promises of the land to Israel in the covenants of the OT have been transformed in the hand of the Apostle to mean “not this land but that” and “not this people but that people.” This is thought to be clinched by Paul’s argument in Galatians 3. Gunn writes:
As we have seen, the dispensational position also stresses that the spiritual seed of Abraham as defined in Galatians 3 have no claim to the national land promise of the Abrahamic covenant. Paul’s teaching on the Christian and the Abrahamic covenant will not allow such a conclusion. Paul argues in Galatians 3 that God intentionally used seed as a collective noun that has both a singular and plural reference so that the singular reference could refer to Christ and the plural reference could refer to those who are in Christ. Paul’s point is that the Abrahamic promises were made to Abraham and to his seed (verse 16), that the seed of Abraham is Christ (verse 16) and all who are in Christ (verse 29), and that therefore the promise given to Abraham belongs to all who are in Christ (verse 29). In his argumentation, Paul specifically quotes from the Old Testament the phrase “and to thy seed,” the “thy” referring to Abraham (Galatians 3:16; see also Romans 4:13). The Greek phrase in Galatians 3:16 translated “and to thy seed” could have come from only two passages in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek: Genesis 13:15-17 and Genesis 17:8.10 And in both of these Old Testament passages, that which is promised to Abraham’s seed is the land promise.11 Beyond this, every time in the book of Genesis where the phrase “to your seed” is used in the context of a divine promise to give something to somebody, the reference is to the Abrahamic land promise.12 When Paul was talking about the Old Testament promise that belongs to the Christian, he was referring specifically to the land promise, the one promise that dispensationalists argue that Paul could not have been referring to.
I am sure that Gunn’s assertion about the Septuagint is unsustainable. But what about his main assertion – that the land promise in the Abrahamic covenant “belongs to the Christian”?
My answer is that Gunn is again wrong, but he is wrong not because, as per his point about the use of the Septuagint, his opinion cannot be substantiated, but because he has not conceived of the fulfillments of the covenants in the same way Paul conceived of them. In Gunn’s theology, the OT must be interpreted by the NT, and when that is done, the OT promises are seen as shadows and types of the eventual realities to which they point. What needs to happen is for there to be a hermeneutical change to accommodate this shadow-promise/fulfillment pattern. The New Testament is thought to provide it, especially the theology of Christ and the Church. The question of whether anyone but an inspired Apostle knew about this and what this does to the reliability of God’s promises for non-apostolic persons before they read Paul is sidestepped. We are living, are we not? in the light of the realities!
But I do not think this is Paul’s view at all. Neither do I think it at all wise to suppose that the NT reinterprets the Old in this way. As adverted in Part Two of this article, we should take into consideration the fact that the biblical covenants such as the Abrahamic, Priestly and Davidic, do not contain the means for their own eschatological culmination in salvation, but instead depend upon the New covenant that was to be brought about by and in Jesus Christ. This is what provides Paul with the means whereby he can take up OT passages that plainly refer to a plurality of persons and also the promised land, and route them all through the single Seed in Galatians 3:16. In so doing he does not have to leave behind the plural meaning of “seed” (i.e. “descendents”). But he also does not have to forge OT Israel into a “New Israel” which is the NT Church. Furthermore, he has no need to set aside or transform the promised land either. The original referents remain intact. God’s covenants are at least as fixed and immutable as any covenant of men (Gal. 3:15, 17).
My time is ebbing and I must conclude here for today. Lord willing, I shall finish this subject off next time.
I’m going out of town again for a few days, and, what with Christmas and everything, I don’t expect to be posting much till the New Year. I wanted to finish this topic off with this post, but I’ve actually become a little engrossed in it, so expect at least one more effort.
Grover Gunn is sure that Paul is quoting Genesis 13:15-17 and 17:8, 10 from the Septuagint to make his argument in Galatians 3:16. There is no evidence that Paul is quoting the LXX. As for which particular passages he is citing, one cannot be that exact. I. Howard Marshall (New Testament Theology, 226) thinks Paul is citing Gen. 22:18 in Galatians 3:16. Daniel P. Fuller thinks it’s Gen. 17:7 (The Unity of the Bible, 335-336). I tend to think he has the Abrahamic narrative itself in mind.
But Paul is well aware of the ambiguity residing in the word “seed.” So how can he relate it to Christ in Gal. 3:16 and yet preserve the collective meaning he knows is clearly there in the original contexts he is citing? As Gal. 3:29 makes clear, Paul has not lost sight of the collective meaning of the word, but as was alluded to last time, and as I shall try to explain, the corporate is included by Paul in the One – Jesus Christ. To Paul’s mind, fulfillment was always understood to require Christ the Fulfiller. Once this is acknowledged one must choose between several hermeneutical options:
Option 1. Paul was employing some kind of semi-apocalyptic interpretation through which he could summon any OT passage to take on a new meaning in his argument.
This is the position of Richard B. Hays in e.g., The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture. Since it posits a change of meaning under the influence of Paul’s supposed hermeneutic, it has not caught on with many conservative evangelicals.
Option 2. Though he never said it, Paul intended us to infer that the Genesis texts he referred to (whichever ones they were) had intended meanings beyond those found on the surface of the passages in their original setting. Paul was only now declaring to us what God meant by those OT promises.
This would be Gunn’s position, along with all those who believe the NT is necessary to rightly interpret the Old. A clear implication of this position is that there is hermeneutical, or at least linguistic discontinuity between the two Testaments. The meaning of a particular term or phrase in the original context without recourse to the NT would procure a different sense than it would once the NT was consulted. Another outcome of this approach would be to separate the original author’s intended meaning from that of the Holy Spirit. While this possibility should not be ignored, the burden of proof for such a claim is on those who make it, whether they are aware of it or have to be made aware of it by others.
Option 3. Paul understood that “seed” could not be legitimately confined to a singular noun referring to Messiah, since the word is a collective noun and is used as such many times in the OT, and, indeed, by Paul himself (Gal. 3:29). In which case the singular and the corporate must be closely related; the corporate fulfillment being predicated on the coming Messiah.
Only this view preserves the integrity of the OT contexts, not to mention the specificity of God’s covenant promises to Israel. Promises which Paul elsewhere says are inviolable (Rom. 11:25-28). Only on this view can we avoid the treacherous waters of hermeneutical and philosophical ambiguity upon which the first two views implicitly rely. This third way would be our position. To demonstrate it one must try to show that there is no need for an OT passage to be considered a “shadow” or “type” of a NT reality, but rather that the witness of both Testaments can be hermeneutically aligned to allow all the relevant verses to speak in their own words.
Paul’s Argument in Galatians 3:1-16
If we take a look at Galatians 3 we will find Paul reasoning about the role of faith in God’s saving economy. We will not find him saying anything about God’s covenants with the people of Israel and the land grant God promised them. Of course, Gunn realizes this. His contention is that because the Apostle speaks of OT texts which not refer to Christ as the “Seed” (e.g. Gen 17:7), but also contain promises about the “land,” it only stands to reason that the word “Seed” in Genesis (and the rest of the OT?) is not in fact a reference to the nation of Israel (“descendents”), but only ever to Christ; and the “land” likewise is not Canaan (or the portion described in Gen. 15), but Heaven (some would say the whole land surface of Earth). What the Apostle has done, so the thinking goes, is to offer an inspired interpretation of terminology only dimly understood before Paul wrote Galatians circa 50 A.D. (see Option 2 above). Read more »