At some point in many of our conversations someone steps up to the plate and says “that’s not, or that is, how to read the Bible.” For years I have thought one of the most important sorts of books to write for Christians is a book on how to read the Bible, but there are very few professors who teach the whole Bible. Most are specialists — Old Testament or New Testament. Sure, lots of people teach us how to study the Bible, but this is not the point. I don’t mean procedural things like word studies, sentence diagramming, outlining books — but instead getting a grip on the big picture of the Bible. How do we read the Bible? How do we put it together? How do we relate to the Mosaic law?
There are three basic approaches in the Christian world:
1. Historical: either by assuming biblical history is historically accurate or by reconstructing history by using the Bible, some just read each passage in its context. These people are strong on background and on specific passages; or they may focus (as I do) on the teachings of Jesus; others focus on Paul’s theology.
2. Dispensational: I’ll not even try to define that here since this expression is now so different than when I grew up that I’m not sure it is accurate to describe much of what goes on today as dispensational is really dispensational. Modified dispensationalism has become a form of covenant theology. But, the big idea here is that God has worked at various times (Mosaic, Davidic, Church) in various ways (Law, covenant, new covenant) with his people (Israel, Church). A major point is that there is still a future for Israel.
3. Covenant: the big idea here is that God made one promissory covenant with humans, first with Abraham and the established other another kind of covenant with Moses. The covenant with David and the New Covenant are connected to that Abrahamic covenant. But it is one covenant arrangement and that foundation has not changed.
Within this view are some other very important categories: the covenant of works with Adam and with the children of Israel in order to stay in the Land. Then there is the covenant of redemption that God makes within the Trinity to redeem his people. Third, there is the covenant of grace that was established originally with Abraham in Genesis 3 and then with Abraham in Genesis 12 and 15, and then with David, and then with the Church in Jesus Christ.
While I’m no expert on the ins and outs of covenant theology, this I take to be a fair description of what covenant theology is about. Not all agree, and there is some serious shifting going on, and this gets those within that camp a bit riled up, but for now I think these big categories ought to work.
Where are you?
The first point I want to make is that everyone reads the Bible in one or more of these ways. We call this our hermeneutic. Whether you are aware of it or not, you do this. And it is better to be aware of what you do than not be aware of what you are doing.
It all comes out when someone says to you that they think you should follow the codes of Leviticus — say not mixing two kinds of fabric (wool and cotton). What you say to the other person, “I don’t worry about those codes because of ….” reveals your hermeneutic.
So, what we are often most in need of is a book that puts all this together for us and shows us the best way to read the Bible. Every time such a book comes out, I try to read it. Not all of them, of course, but any major book along this line is worth our attention.
So, I read Dan Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible and his dissertation Gospel and Law. Long ago I read Charles Ryrie’s book on dispensationalism, and then when Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock came out with their book on progressive dispensationalism I looked at it.
One I liked more than any of these was by Chris Wright and was called Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament. What I like about it — a biblical focus on covenant — was offset at times by the title: which made it seem like the author was forcing texts. But, he wasn’t; the book is a good one and I recommend it regularly for evangelicals.
The more historical approach creates problems: historical studies tend to get too complex, OT histories are incredibly intense and critical, but the major issue that those sorts of books do not give a more comprehensive theological reading of the Bible, and I find most are in need of that sort of book.
When Brevard Childs came along with his “canonical approach” many jumped ship to float along with him because he was proposing some kind of canonical unity, even if it was not subsumed under covenant but under a narrative approach.
One reason many today like Tom Wright is that he makes sense of the whole Bible with his “story” approach. The best access to Wright’s mind on this is his first big book, The New Testament and the People of God, but he has a snapshot of this in both his The Final Word and Paul in Fresh Perspective.
America’s best scholar on covenant Bible reading is Scott Hahn, the former evangelical now Catholic theologian. His dissertation at Marquette was all about coveanant, and he wrote a book called A Father Who Keeps His Promises, but he is now at work on a big-time book on covenant theology. I’m really excited about what he will propose.
This is not a bibliographical essay, so I’ll stop right here with one final observation: I find Christians today wanting a book that puts the Bible together for them. And we are in need of a really good one; one that is readable and suggestive and clear and useful to Christians across the spectrum.
So, I’m excited that Michael Horton, an overtly Reformed and Covenant theology professor at Westminster (the one in California), has now published God of Promise. This week we’ll look at this book that contends that the architecture of the Bible is all connected to covenant and it pulls the whole Bible together. We’ll see.