Biblical Covenantalism

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Pt.1)

After Abraham

Having arrived at the crux of Abraham’s saga, which is the test of his faith as recorded in the twenty-second chapter, the story of Genesis moves to the death of Sarah and the purchase of a gravesite for her. Abraham bought the burial ground and the cave of Machpelah because although he had wealth, he was never a recipient of the land itself (cf. Gen. 37:1). When the covenant was being solemnized God had told His servant that he would go to his Fathers in peace, and his posterity would only claim the land after spending four hundred years in Egypt (Gen. 15:13-16, 18). This is the reason Abraham “waited for a city… whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). He knew that he himself would not own the land of promise. Genesis 25:7-10 records Abraham’s death and burial.

From the emphasis which has been placed upon Isaac by Moses, the author of Genesis, one would have thought that he would receive about the same amount of treatment as his father did, but in truth there is not much about him by comparison with Abraham, or indeed his son Jacob. We are told God blessed Isaac (Gen. 25:11), and answered his petition for a child for Rebekah who was barren (25:21). When Yahweh spoke to him concerning the famine which was in the land, He said,

Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father.
And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; because Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” – Genesis 26:3-5

The Lord’s word to Isaac is to have faith and to dwell in the land. The mention of the plural “lands” no doubt refers to the possession of enemy territories within the bounds of the promised land (cf. 22:17). The reference to “the oath” in verse 3 brings both seed and land together again. We also see the refrain of blessing for the nations, as in 22:18. This, as we have seen, is best understood as a messianic expectation; all peoples of the earth will be blessed through the woman’s seed as per Genesis 3:15.

The comment about Abraham’s obedience shouldn’t be thought of as a conditional element to the covenant itself. God knew His man before He called him. It is important that we differentiate between the oath taken, which formalizes the covenantal bond between Yahweh and Abraham, from the conditional elements which keep obedient Hebrews inside the bond.  Abraham was obedient in the conditional aspects adjoined to the covenant, therefore he fulfilled the conditions. It is useless to speculate on what would have happened had he not circumcised himself and his household, or had become an idolater. The Lord chose a faithful man; a man with whom He could enact such a covenantal relationship involving such an immense and far-reaching teleological vision.

Two Sons

The birth of Isaac’s twin sons (in 25:21-23) provides an occasion for a reflection upon what God had said regarding nations coming from Abraham in chapter 17. In God’s providence, Rebekah had two sons; Esau and Jacob, who would become two distinct nations. Yet the birth was the subject of prophecy. The elder (Esau) was to serve the younger (Jacob). As we all know, as human beings go, Esau had more character than Jacob. But being the better man means next to nothing if you take a dim view of the promises of God; the only One who is truly good (Mk. 10:18). This was Esau’s folly. The tale is painful to tell:

Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.” And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. – Genesis 25:30-34

The narrative is a masterpiece of brevity, but it graphically portrays the attitudes of the two men. In comes Esau from the hunt. He is famished. Jacob has been cooking, with an eye no doubt for an advantage. There is nothing subtle about Jacob’s words. He is quite blunt. He wants the right of the firstborn, which, in Esau’s case, is no less than the entitlement to the greatest covenant in the Bible, barring the New covenant.

This is no trifling matter. But it is treated by the hungry Esau in a way that almost defies belief. “What is this birthright to me?” he asks. Good question. It is God’s covenant pledge to him! No wonder the writer of Hebrews refers to Esau as a “profane person” (bebelos – Heb. 12:16).

When the Lord shows up to confirm His covenant to Isaac He does so in uncompromising terms:

Dwell in this land, and I will be with you and bless you; for to you and your descendants I give all these lands, and I will perform the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. And I will make your descendants multiply as the stars of heaven; I will give to your descendants all these lands; and in your seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed. – Genesis 26:3-4

All the ingredients which one finds in chapter 12 are present here. The land is prominent, as is the blessing to the world. There is absolutely no reason to keep the latter and not to retain the former. Covenants are covenants. Abraham’s obedience is a model for his people after him (26:5) , but God’s obligations hold anyway. That is why Isaac’s lapse of faith and duty, which is recorded next (26:7), does not cause the blessings to be repealed.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.6): Abraham’s Temptation to Spiritualize?

Part Five

With Abraham on Mt. Moriah

When we come to Genesis 22 we arrive at one of the key events in the Bible; the offering of Isaac, the son of promise to the Promiser.  The retelling of this story by Kierkegaard in his book Fear and Trembling poses the question of how Abraham could possibly have justified his actions to himself or to his son.  The philosopher’s conclusion is that he could not.  Neither in the three days’ journey and especially in the final moments before the intervention of God could he have been absolutely sure that it was God who commanded him.  For what was commanded seemed to fly in the face of what God had so deliberately promised.  But, as Kierkegaard so poignantly puts it, “Abraham is not what he is without this dread.”[1]

We have not got the character of Abraham right if we conceive of him performing his duty in the cold analytical strength of unperturbed trust.  Faith he had, and we must pay close attention to its form and function, but this was the man who buckled when dealing with Pharaoh (Gen. 12:15-20), and Abimelech (Gen. 20), and who implored the Almighty that Ishmael would be the chosen seed and so receive the inheritance of the covenant blessing (Gen. 17:18). It was Abraham who heeded Sarah’s bad advice in the matter of having the child who would be Ishmael (Gen. 16:1-2).  And this latter incident was nothing if not Abraham and his wife’s solution to the dilemma of God’s promising something that looked more and more improbable: that Sarah would herself give birth to an heir.

We might say that the conception of Ishmael was a hermeneutical conception before it was a physical conception.  Yes, Abraham was very human, and one can be sure that his ascent up the slopes of Moriah was a deeply troubling one; a time of crisis for him personally.  Yet, for all the confusion that must have penetrated his thoughts from the time God told him to sacrifice his son (and notice how the text stresses “your only, whom you love” – 22:2)[2], Abraham showed that the word and character of his God were more sure than his unaided reason and churned up emotions.  How could he put faith above reason?  He didn’t!  He put reason in service of his strong faith.  This is what the writer of Hebrews explains in an extraordinary passage:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense. – Hebrews 11:17-19.

Abraham concluded “that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead!”  His faith led his reason in the direction of a logical outcome which was guaranteed by the covenant oath which God had given to him.  The words of the covenant supported his faith, and his faith guided his reasoning.  This is the interpretative structure that I am proposing as the iron backbone of Biblical Theology.  If Abraham had not reasoned by faith in what God literally said, he would doubtless have succumbed to the sort of reasoning that comes easily to those of us whose faith does not aspire to reason that way.  Abraham would have reinterpreted the command, perhaps as figurative and typological, and would not have been ready to literally sacrifice Isaac.

A Critical Hermeneutical Lesson

There is a critical hermeneutical lesson to be drawn from this story and its commentary in the Book of Hebrews.  The temptation to reinterpret what God has pledged to do must not be overlooked or dismissed from our hermeneutical methods.  When our predisposition to reason independently  is also factored in (that is the default position we inherit from Eve), the re-interpretation of the Book of God via spiritualizing the words or devising a typology to fit our predetermined theologies should be viewed with suspicion.  What is clear is that the symbolical approach to God’s words can never duplicate Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22.  That faith did not venture on types and transformations.  Faith took God at His word!  For faith to be faith it has to take God at face value.  To proceed by another way is to introduce independent human reasoning into the scriptural situation and so to place a filter over what God is really saying so as to view it differently.  But the “literal” word is guided by the biblical covenants that lie easily identifiable upon the open pages of Scripture.  Our reinterpretations will always threaten to skirmish with those covenant oaths until one or the other gives way.

This episode and its interpretation by Scripture itself is to me one of the key hermeneutical guideposts in the Bible.  Not to stop and ponder it is to make a fatal mistake.  Abraham’s offering of Isaac in faith is surely one of the greatest exemplars of how to take God at His word and make faith drive reason rather than the other way round.  Here we have a hermeneutics from the inside (from Scripture itself) rather than a hermeneutics from the outside (from extra biblical sources).

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[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, 41

[2] Humphreys brings this out very well when he says, “Now, at just the point at which the narrative reached certain stability – when the long-promised son and seed were granted, when in spite of all appearances God begins to secure the future of the one he chose for a special covenant and destiny – all is destabilized by a test devised by God, whose designs and purpose are not clear at all.” – W Lee Humphreys, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis, 139. Emphasis in original.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.5): Hermeneutics as a Test of Faith

Problems with the Promise and Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise – fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel.  Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. [1]

 

This might sound very good.  As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals.  So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament.  But the “promise – fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination.  The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ.  Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT.  Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT.  Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT.  An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.[2]

Because Goldsworthy is not interpreting the OT on its own terms, but through his own understanding of the NT, he is not hesitant about converting the covenantal promises of the land to Israel into a “true fulfillment” in Jesus Christ and the Church.  In this promise – fulfillment scheme, the OT does not serve up enough clear data to furnish its own interpretation.  But one might well ask, is there something wrong with the Old Testament or is there something wrong with the way some scholars look at it?[3]

The Birth of Isaac and the Hermeneutical Test of Faith

The next two chapters in Genesis (i.e. 18 and 19) are ostensibly about the judgment and destruction of the cities of the plain for their wickedness.  However, the three men who visit Abraham at Mamre are there for more than that.  One of the visitors is the Lord Yahweh Himself, as the text makes clear.  After the two angelic companions leave for the rescue of Lot in Sodom, the Lord tells Abraham,

I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. – Genesis 18:10

After hearing Sarah laugh at the promise, God reiterates it almost verbatim:

Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. – Genesis 18:14

As the story moves on we read in chapter 21,

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken.  For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. – Genesis 21:1-2

In calling the reader’s attention to these verses I want to drive home the precision of God’s word.  God means what He says.  The tragedy of Ishmael is that Abraham and Sarah they did not take God at His word and instead attempted to help the situation along by a reinterpretation of His covenant words.  But the message of Genesis continues to be that God’s words are to be taken at face value.  The next chapter puts the seal to this truth, but before we study it, I should say something about the phrase “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” in verse 18.  This statement, which is a close match to Genesis 12:3[4], is not to be construed as a coverall statement of the whole Abrahamic covenant, land promise and all, to be given to every saint in the entire history of redemption.  The words draw attention to an important aspect of the covenant; the seed promise that will eventuate in salvation offered to the nations through Jesus Christ.  But they do not extend to the promises of geo-political statehood or geographical location.  The phrase is repeated by Peter in Acts 3:25 in a very Jewish setting (see 3:12-13).  It appears then to have been understood by Peter in the same terms Abraham had understood it.

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[1] E.g., “As Christians, we must return to the principles of Old Testament interpretation dictated by the New Testament.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 54-55

[2] Ibid, 50.  The conclusion drawn from this way of reading the OT is that not only does it not reveal enough of God’s intent, but many of its prophetic assertions are in need of revision via the NT.  So Goldsworthy can say that “the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.  See also G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431

[3] I simply pose the question for the time being.  Still, I cannot suppress the urge entirely.  In the words of John Sailhamer’s criticism of Geerhaardus Vos; “The divine promises as objects of faith in God were more important than their objective fulfillment… The lack of fulfillment of the OT promises was the primary means of teaching God’s people to look for spiritual and future dimensions of God’s promises.  Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of fulfillment.” – Meaning, 424-425.  It is this presupposition that invites typology to assume the upper hand in OT hermeneutics.

[4] The only change is the substitution of “families” (mishpachah) in 12:3 with “nations” (goyim) in 18:18.

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.2)

Part One

The whole episode in Genesis 15 is highlighted by the time stamp in verse 18, “On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…”  Yahweh declares that He has already given the land to Abram’s descendants.  Therefore, as we have said, the covenant serves to reinforce and amplify the plain and clear word of God.

But what about the dimensions of the Promised Land?  Can they be determined?  If they can, can we say that Abram’s descendants have received it all?  Has the gift ever been fully given?

The answer to the question in part hinges on what is meant in verse 18 by “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”  Is the river of Egypt the Nile?  Or is it a seasonal Wadi?  The less usual term nahar for river (of Egypt) persuades most commentators that the Nile is not intended.  Also, we should observe the fact that the adjective “great” (gadol) is used of Euphrates only and not the river of Egypt.  It seems, then, as if this “river” is the Wadi mentioned in Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4, 47, and 1 Ki. 8:65, and is what is known as the Wadi el-Arabah[1], which leads to the Gulf of Aqaba, circumscribing the area known as the Negev (south).[2]  So if we take the southern part of the land to be the Wadi el-Arabah, and the northern part to be the Euphrates, we must then ask whether this land area has ever been truly inherited by Israel at any time in its history, and if it is to be inherited in the future.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, supercessionists believe that the promise of inheritance has already been fulfilled:

Eventually, under Solomon, Israel claimed the land from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt, just as the Lord had promised originally to Abraham (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 23:31; cf. 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26).[3]

If it is indeed the case that Genesis 15:18-21 was fulfilled in Israel’s past then is there anything more to be said?  Hasn’t that oath of God been satisfied?  There are problems with such a view.  One such difficulty is how anticlimactic the whole thing is.  Abraham gets called away from his homeland with the promise of a land in which he will remain a sojourner all his life.  The nation that springs from him spends four hundred years out of the land in Egypt.  When they return they quickly apostasize and begin to splinter into factions.  When they do finally “inherit” the whole piece of real estate in the days of David and only fully with Solomon (a mere eighty years maximum), it all ends with an unceremonious division of the nation and the land amid gradual declension until the descendants of Abraham are shipped off as captives back to pagan Mesopotamia in shame!  In the history of nations this would be hardly worth a mention, let alone an honorable one.  If the hope of the land covenant was extinguished so early, as Robertson and many other covenant theologians think, the fulfilling of God’s unilateral promise to Abram leaves little grounds for any tangible hope for Israel.  It is one of the main purposes of the present book to show that this way of telling Israel’s story is fatally wrong.

Returning to the question of the land’s dimensions, Ronald B. Allen says that the land promise includes parts of ancient Aram as well as Canaan.  He writes,

Although the period of conquest and the later expansions under Saul, David and Solomon began a fulfillment of the extent of the promises, the pattern was still only a partial fulfillment. 

Citing Charles L. Feinberg, Allen believes the land promised in Genesis 15 would range over 300,000 square miles.[4]  This is considerably bigger than the land occupied at present by the nation of Israel.  If Feinberg’s estimate was right, God would still have covenantal obligations in regard to the land coverage itself, never mind the promises of perpetuity included in the covenant.

As we have seen, it is an act of purely arbitrary interpretation to divide the seed promise from the land promise in this crucial chapter of Scripture.  As far as the biblical history has come to this point, there is no reason to create such a cleavage in our understanding of the narrative.  We must suspend judgment on what we think we know and allow the story to unfold at its own pace, marking carefully the outworking of God’s covenants as they come into view and drive the teleological and eschatological picture as it is steadily forming.[5]

Genesis 16 contains the story of the birth of Ishmael.  Ishmael was born after Abram had been in the land for ten years (16:3).  He was not the son of Sarai but of her handmaiden Hagar.  Like Adam many centuries before Abram had listened to his wife in contradiction to the word of God.  The pragmatic solution which Sarai devised is still being felt by us today.  This ought to remind us how placing our reasoning above the clear statements of God is always dangerous.  It has been the cause of many theological errors.  Despite the temptations to problem solve for God, we are never in a position to alter His timetable, nor His meaning.  Basic hermeneutics should seek to be guided by this rule.

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[1] Also known as Wadi el- Arish

[2] See David M. Fleming, “Wadi”, in Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 951

[3] O. Palmer Robertson, Understanding the Land of the Bible, 9.  It is not uncommon to find supercessionist author’s skipping the vital details of Genesis 15:8-21 in their argumentation.  See also Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 423-424.  An example of this is Sam Storms’ book, Kingdom Come.

[4] Ronald B. Allen, “The Land of Israel”, in Israel: The Land and the People, H. Wayne House, General editor, 24

[5] To cite John H. Sailhamer, “We must keep our eye on the author and follow him throughout his work.” – The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 154

Making a Covenant with Abraham (Pt.1)

This is another excerpt from the book I am trying to write.

The Abrahamic covenant is pivotal to the history biblical which unfolds thereafter, and Genesis 15 is perhaps the key passage to understand with respect to it.[1]  The initiative is God’s, and it is here that God binds Himself by oath to perform the details of the promises He makes to Abraham.  It will be useful to reproduce the first part of the chapter.

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.  2 But Abram said, “Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”   3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”  4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”  5 Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”  6 And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.  7 Then He said to him, “I am the LORD, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.” – Genesis 15:1-7

 

Sometime after the blessing from the priest of God Yahweh Himself appears to Abram and reiterates His word of promise.  The interchange is instructive.  Abram’s immediate response to the vision of God is to ask about a child (cf. 11:30).  If the land was going to go to his descendants (zera – “seed”) as God had said (13:15-16), then something needed to happen about Sarai’s condition.  As every Bible reader knows, God was to do something about that – eventually!  But Abram has been brooding on the promise.  And he and his wife would certainly have been sensitive on the matter in any case.  He is quite forward with God.  There is an air of desperation and even irony in his words; “what will you give me, seeing I go childless…You have given me no seed.”

Little did he know that many more years were to pass by until God finally came through.  At a time when all hope seemed lost, God showed He was as good as His word.  This ought to remind the reader that God will perform exactly what He has said He will do in regard to Abraham’s descendants (national Israel in the context – 15:13) although it appears to many that their time is passed.

The Lord’s reply reassures Abram that his original expectation based on God’s promise (12:2a), was accurate.  “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.” (15:4).  And yet, every reader of the Bible knows that his trial of waiting for a son was far from over.  But Abram did believe what God said to him, not only about an heir, but also about his descendants.  Faith in God’s promise is faith in His character, and God’s character can only be trusted if His words can be trusted.  Abram’s faith in the promise glorified God and God’s response was to justify Abram as righteous before Him.

The context is very clear that the content of the declaration by God concerning the stars of the heaven and the sand on the seashore evoked trust in Abram and that God reckoned that trust as righteousness to Abram’s account.  Abram was not presented with a message about a crucified and risen Messiah.  He wouldn’t have known what crucifixion was in any case.  When the Apostle uses Genesis 15:6 in his argument for justification he repeats the content of the message while observing the response of God to Abram’s faith (Rom. 4:3-5; Gal. 3:6-7).  The onus for Paul is on the faith in God, not on what Abram believed.[2]

Upon the heels of this faith/righteousness transaction the very next thing that comes up is the gift of the land (15:7).  For the writer of Genesis, as in the Old Testament generally, the seed and the land belong together.  They ought not to be separated in our theology.  It is to the subject of the land that the chapter now turns.

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God Chooses One Man – Pt.2

Part One

Before moving on I should say that the promise to make Abram’s name great[3] is not a part of the covenant oath which God takes in Genesis 15.  It is worth noting that a covenant then is more than just a promise.  God can promise something without including it within a covenant.  As we shall see, a lot of confusion has come about by Bible teachers not taking care to differentiate between a promise of God within a covenant oath and a promise not housed within an oath.

The second part of Genesis 12 concerns Abram’s lack of faith and its fallout.  Although descending into Egypt and promoting a lie concerning Sarai (12:11-19), God averted the dire consequences of Abram’s decisions, and at the beginning of the next chapter we find him living in the south part of the Promised Land.  The ensuing story of the separation of Abram from Lot is not just the rehearsal of a necessary parting of the ways.  Despite the sermonic grist found in the deference shown by Abram to his nephew, Dempster is certainly right to point that his offering a choice to Lot about where to live threatened the promise.[4]  Still, verse 14 notes that it was “after Lot had separated from him”, that God invited Abram to survey the land “for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever” (13:15).  The Lord then repeated His promise about those descendants being great, at least in terms of number (13:16).  Although I do not think we should designate these Divine utterances by the word “covenant”, at least until chapter 15[5], it should be noted that in repeating His promises to the man He called out of Mesopotamia, God is reiterating His intention to do precisely what He told Abram He would do.

Before we can turn to the enactment of the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15 we must pause to describe the meeting between Abram and Melchizedek in chapter 14:18-20.  Melchizedek is the king of Salem (which would become Jerus – salem), and he just appears[6] as “the priest of God Most High” (El Elyon).  Abram is returning from victory over the five kings who invaded Canaan, taking Lot captive.  His meeting with the king of Salem is not described as a shock meeting.  The narrative gives the impression that the two men knew each other.  Melchizedek acts as the priest of God to bless Abram, and it is in that role that he receives tithes from Abram.  We may wish to speculate about why Abram’s interactions with Melchizedek are not given more extensive coverage, but we must be satisfied with the little we have got.  Those three verses are referenced by the writer of Hebrews to make several important points.  Prior to speaking directly of this ancient king, his priestly role is spoken of via references to Psalm 110:4.[7]  The writer ties in the High Priestly function of the Risen Jesus with the Melchizedekian priesthood.  In doing so he makes the point that this priesthood is superior to the Levitical one which would be instituted later under the Mosaic covenant (Heb.7:4-19).  For one thing it is everlasting, and for another it is linked to “a better covenant”, the New covenant in Christ’s own blood.  Even the name Melchizedek, and his title, king of Salem, are not passed over, but the author of Hebrews stops to mention that his name means “king of righteousness”, and his title, “king of peace” (7:2), showing that these adumbrate Christ’s future role.

The coincidences which the NT writer picks up on look upon a second glance to be arranged.  Here we have a priest of God who appears on the scene to be almost forgotten by the time the Levitical cultus is established in the Book of Exodus.  But this man is situated in what would become God’s city, Jerusalem (city of peace or foundation of peace), and he officiates, at least for a time, as the priest of God in Abraham’s day.  More must be said about him, but it is enough to note that his possession of this priesthood gives Christ a non-Levite priesthood to step into in His mediatorship of the New covenant.  Further, it may indicate that just as Jesus assumes Melchizedek’s priestly role, He will also one day assume his kingly role over earthly Jerusalem, thus bringing the throne and the priesthood together as indicated in Zechariah 6:12-13.


 

[3] I want to notice that the name ‘Abram’ was not the name which God would make great, but the revised name ‘Abraham.’  That said, it does not mean that God is in any way misleading him, for: 1. It was the same person to whom God promised a great name, 2. The expanded name is clearly related to the first, and 3. God told Abraham that it was under that name that he would henceforth be known.  It wasn’t left up to the ingenuity of later interpreters to make the connection.

[4] Stephen G. Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty, 78

[5] Cf. William J. Dumbrell, The Search for Order, 35

[6] This is unusual in a book filled with genealogies.  I take this to be what is meant by the cryptic language of Hebrews 7:3.

[7] See Hebrews 5:6, 10, & 6:20

 

A Reluctant Dispensationalist

Some of you know that I am a reluctant dispensationalist.  In writing this (actually re-writing it) I thought it appropriate to use my moniker as a title.   

Dispensationalists have not always done themselves many favors.  They have sometimes squandered the opportunity to make profound long term contributions to the Church through the publishing of detailed commentaries, biblical and systematic theologies and the like, for the sake of short term pragmatic and populist goals.  Bestsellers seldom influence the direction of biblical teaching for long, if at all.  And although the sin of academic obfuscation should be avoided and the merit of conciseness recognized, the Truth is properly respected when its deeps are probed and its channels explored.

For this reason, Dispensationalists are not, or should not be, fixated on the defense of a system.  Any approach to theology must be concerned with only one thing – its adequacy as an explanation of the whole Bible.  We may be persuaded that we have gotten certain things right.  That is a good thing.  But the last word will not be said in this life.  We must take seriously the obligation to explore and expound the Scriptures as we try to improve on what we know (and what we think we know).  The explanatory power of Dispensationalism has often been concealed behind the well-meaning but rather myopic views of its defenders.  Not that it doesn’t sorely need some trained defenders, but much more it needs knowledgeable and courageous exponents.

We have work to do to make Dispensational theology more prescriptive.  We like to call it a system, but we have often been less than adventurous in our proposals for a systematic expression of the Dispensational outlook in all areas of theology and its attendant disciplines (e.g. worldview and apologetics; biblical counseling).  “Why reinvent the wheel?” the satisfied objector complains.  Okay, I reply, but can’t we improve the wheel a bit?  Can’t we look the whole thing over and tighten things up here and iron out a problem or two there?  Can’t we make it run better and farther?

God has given us the Bible to understand Him, ourselves, and our world.  He has not just given the Bible to tell us how to get saved.  We understand from Scripture that we need a Savior and we discover who the Savior is and we discover our responsibility.  Therefore hermeneutics becomes extremely significant to the understanding of truth, reality, God, salvation, and destiny.  God invented communication in order for Him to communicate Himself to man.  From the beginning God created man to understand His revelation; even before the Fall.  God has done the same thing with His Word.  God has created man and given to him His Word in order for God to be understood.  Man has an automatic system of hermeneutics built inside of him in order to interpret God’s revelation.  Of course the affects of sin have perverted our ability to observe and understand revelation.  However, with the regeneration of the Spirit man’s ability is enhanced.  Without hermeneutics we cannot communicate whatsoever, whether reading, writing or speaking.  We need know the correct method of interpretation in order to distinguish between the Voice of God from the voice of man.

Craig Blaising, though identifying as a Progressive Dispensationalist, has shown that this straightforward way of reading Scripture is in agreement with the way performative language is understood (see his essay in The People, the Land, and the Future of Israel, eds, Darrell Bock & Mitch Glaser, esp. 160-161).  In my so-called “Rules of Affinity” I have tried to show that all the primary doctrines of the Christian Faith are drawn from either direct (word for word) affinities between biblical texts and doctrinal propositional statements or from “inevitable” conclusions based on the collusion of those direct affinities.  The Dispensational method of interpretation, which gives preference to these affinities, is therefore naturally geared to producing doctrines from one clear spring of vocabulary, not from a wider variety of murkier ones.

Personally, I am an avid advocate a “Dispensational” account of every aspect of Truth in theology and worldview.  But for this to become a reality I am convinced that it ought to stop defining itself by dispensations and begin opening up the possibilities of unifying itself around the biblical covenants and defining its system and procedures by them. Then a fully-rounded theology which includes all the corpora of theology, not merely ecclesiology and eschatology, will be created, with the result that a Dispensational worldview will be developed and proclaimed.  One may argue back and forth about the dispensations; their number and features, without abandoning “Dispensationalism.”  But one cannot ignore the biblical covenants without demolishing the whole project altogether.  I only wish the position that I love to be freed from the torpidity which is often the unintended outcome of defending a point of view rather than of strengthening it.  I am in sympathy with the Dispensational understanding of the Bible, and it has many advocates more able than I on its side.  My main qualm concerns its understanding of itself.  Many reflective dispensationalists will tell you that the dispensations themselves, both in definition and number, are not at the central core of what it’s all about.  But because the name has stuck it creates almost an apprehension to look beyond it.  The covenants stand there upon the open pages of the Bible but they are rarely heard outside of a prearranged ‘Dispensational’ recital.  Given their wings their power to organize, punctuate, and direct the eschatological movement of the Bible Story is unexcelled – and only “Dispensationalism” is in the right position to unleash their power.  But…those dispensations!

Mt plea is for the biblical covenants to be given their rightful place and dispensations to be made subordinate to them.  This will do nothing but invigorate the whole enterprise.  Nothing would be lost; much would be gained.  And I think the enemies of Dispensational theology would be harder put to disparage it.

Frank's place

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (pt.10)

Adam is Tested

In the next section (2:15-17) we read of God giving the man a straightforward command:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was an actual tree.  It is not called a symbol and need not be seen as one.  I agree with Merrill that we should not think of “good and evil” in this place as contrasting values so much as an idiom for comprehensive knowledge.[1]  Certainly, ethical knowledge would be included, since all knowledge bears an ethical stamp, but the innocence of our first parents does not at all lead us to think they were ignorant of the meanings of the terms “good” and “evil.”  God is communicating meaningfully to Adam, not speaking over his head.  Every word which God speaks to Adam presupposes his ability to receive and comprehend it.  Thus, the expression “to freely eat” was just as well understood as the designation “every tree of the garden.”  Again the warning “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die” was God speaking to a comprehending and responsive creature.  He was not speaking into the air.[2]

Because this is so I wish to re-emphasize the communicative aspect of revelation.  Words which cannot be understood, either because the hearer does not have the tools to understand them, or because they lack the capacity for language itself, are very poor conveyers of meaning and intention.  We cannot, without veering close to blasphemy, predicate such a thing of God.  Adam and Eve understood God’s every word.[3]

Although these verses refer to a prohibition, they in no case speak of a promise for obedience, or any Divine commitment to grant anything to the man and woman.  There is no trace of covenantal language in this section.[4]  And any and every attempt to read a covenant into Genesis 2 (or 3) requires the interpreter to bring along far more speculative material than textual material to fill out the content of such a venture.[5]

But then, why the prohibition?  We are not told outright, but one reason which I find useful is to test and deepen the level of trust and love between the man and God.  Sometimes in life we allow certain trusted friends to know more about us than we vouchsafe to others.  We feel that they are able to understand who we are more deeply because a level of trust has been reached which was not present at the start of our friendship.  Seen like this, God’s warning and testing of Adam was a means of developing the relationship and of teaching Adam more about God as Lord.  It was a test of friendship as much as a test of obedience.

Adam under God’s Instruction

Genesis 2:18-25 features two episodes in which Adam names those brought to him by God.  At first sight the two episodes don’t appear to be related at all.  In fact, the second one; the naming of the animals, almost seems to cut across the first: the problem of the man’s solitariness.  But as the passage is pondered it becomes apparent that what is happening is that the Lord is using the exercise of describing the animals to teach the man about his own situation.  It is noticeable that God does not simply inform the man directly that he does not have a helper and companion.  He sets Adam a course of study through which Adam himself arrives at that conclusion.  Thus, under the guidance of his God, Adam was coming to knowledge through reflecting on what he was encountering in God’s world.  I have no doubt that this is the way all our knowledge (as scientia) was to be gained and used; that is to say, knowledge gained either listening directly to what the Creator said about His world, or indirectly through the process of accruing knowledge by examining and reflecting upon the world under God’s tutelage.  Today the only access to this tutelage is through believing God’s Word.  Yet we remain hugely privileged.  It has rightly been said: (more…)

deserted-town-old-west-casket

Repost: ANSWERS TO THE 95 THESES IN ORDER

I have just returned from a nice rest with my family in Tennessee and will post a new item soon.  Meanwhile, here are the responses I gave to a group of Evangelical scholars who really have trouble with Dispensationalism.  I thought their objections and concerns were often unfair or wrong-headed, although sometimes they were just opposed to their own views.    

For those of you who have wished that yours truly would come into the 21st Century and list my answers to the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism in order…well, you have your wish!

1. Introduction to the Series

2. Responses to Theses 1-6

3. Responses to Theses 7-9

4. Response to Thesis 10

5. Responses to Theses 11-17

6. Responses to Theses 18-23

7. Responses to Theses 24-25

8. Responses to Theses 26-30

9. Responses to Theses 31-36

10. Responses to Theses 37-40

11. Responses to Theses 41-45

12. Responses to Theses 46-48

13. Responses to Theses 49-52

14. Responses to Theses 53-56

15. Responses to Theses 57-60

16. Responses to Theses 61-67

17. Responses to Theses 68-70

18. Responses to Theses 71-74

19. Responses to Theses 75-79

20. Responses to Theses 80-81

21. Responses to Theses 82-85

22. Responses to Theses 86-89

23. Responses to Theses 90-95

24. Reflections on the 95 Theses (1)

25. Reflections on the 95 Theses (2)

Rio

The Creation Narrative: Genesis 1 and 2 (Pt.6)

Part Five

Image and Function in Genesis 1:26-28

Another significant fact related by these verses is our creation in the image and likeness of God.  We cannot here enter into all the debates about the imago Dei, but some few things should be said.

Firstly, God does not say ‘according to My likeness.’  He says ‘Our likeness’.  The “Let us” statement is no plural of majesty, since it appears to be ideational, and is to be understood (I believe) as a statement of plurality in the Speaker.  The question arises then, in what way is God a plurality?  This question is not fully answered until the NT era.  Or, on the other hand, and as much OT scholarship insists, is the plurality meant to convey some sort of heavenly council scene, such as one finds in ANE accounts of the assemblies of gods?

If the latter is the case then one will have to go outside of the Bible for added data to interpret the passage.  This indeed is what many scholars in the evangelical community do.  But if we pause for a moment and read the context we quickly see that such an interpretation must be wrong; for the Speaker goes on to say, ‘Let us make man in our own image, according to our own likeness.’  And, in line with the words/actions pattern which we have already noted, it says, ‘So God created man in his own image’, and underscores it right after with, ‘in the image of God he created him.’  That ought to clear up the interpretation.

“Man” (adam) here is plural: ‘male and female’.[1]  Both are made in God’s image.  There is no hint of a conversation between God and the angels (which would not mirror an ANE council of divinities anyway).  Angels are nowhere said to be made in God’s image and likeness.  Plus, creation is a grand prerogative of God.  Why would the Creator discuss His creative proposals with creatures?  Angels have no part in the work of creation (See Isa. 48:11).

The passage also states that man was to be given dominion over ‘all the earth’ not just Eden. This must be kept in mind when we reach chapter 2.  The dominion applies to the function of man and woman as God’s image-bearers.

In the third place, just what constitutes the image of God?  Again, many today would claim that the image includes the function as well as the constitution of man.[2]  Unsurprisingly, resort to ANE records features largely in their arguments.  But the text appears to make the function contingent upon the image.  In other words, man and woman cannot fulfill their function until they are made in God’s image.  This would restrict the image to at least our material and immaterial natures.

But then we must enquire whether the image assumes the material part of human beings along with our immaterial natures.  Here I think we are on safer ground if we define the image and likeness classically along non-physical lines.  If we make the image merely physical we run into the problem of what God looks like.  Our difference from the rest of the created realm is not just physical.  Fish and birds and cattle and creeping things differ physically one from another as much as we do from them, so it is doubtful that we image God merely physically.[3]

On the other hand, can we dismiss the possibility that both the soulish and the physical aspects of man image God?  Authors Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum point out that,

“the traditional view is inadequate… because it does not come to grips with the fact that “image” normally refers to a physical statue and cannot be exegetically validated as the author’s intended meaning or the first audience’s natural understanding of the text in terms of the ancient Near Eastern cultural and linguistic setting.”[4]

But this begs a rather crucial question.  Did Moses report the words God actually spoke in Genesis 1:26-27?  Nobody else was around, and certainly God meant what He said in the rest of Genesis 1, as we have seen.  That being so, the matter of whether people of the ANE living in or after Moses’ time (ca. the fifteenth century B.C.) thought “image” meant a physical statue is by the bye, and may even be anachronistic.  The context will have to tell us.  Gentry and Wellum opt for “rulership and sonship” as the image.[5]  But this leaves us with the problem of the spread of little rulers and sons of God upon the earth.  If everyone is a ruler then surely nobody is.  (and if “image” equates to sons, what about daughters?  In OT times – if we’re insisting on “cultural setting” – daughters did not enjoy the same rights as sons).  The biblical text leans toward thinking of the image primarily as non-physical and the body as the vehicle for the expression of the image in the extended world.

Anticipating the Human Form?

Reading the progression in Genesis 1, we follow a logical as well as a chronological order.  Dry ground comes before plants and trees.  The plant kingdom is readied before creatures are made to live off them.  The apex of the creation week is the fashioning of man from the dust of the ground.[6]  Man is God’s image-bearer: a stupendous privilege and responsibility, and he is given dominion over what God has just created.

(more…)