On Its Own Terms: Rightly Reading Scripture, Part 3

I want to further develop the Bible’s “own terms” by focusing on how Scripture has come to us, not only over time but also by the progression of the biblical covenants.

Our reading of Scripture will carefully unpack how themes such as temple, land, sacrifice, priest, etc., unfold across the canon. But before we do, we must first ask whether God has “put together” his plan and revealed it to us in Scripture in such a way that there is a correct structuring or backbone to the Bible’s storyline that must be understood to read and apply Scripture properly? In other words, is there a specific structure that the Bible has that each part fits within and contributes to the larger whole?

 

To read Scripture rightly is to read it “on its own terms,” but what exactly does this mean? In previous posts, I answered this question by emphasizing two points. First, we read Scripture according to what it is, namely God’s authoritative, coherent, truthful Word written by human authors. Second, we read Scripture as God’s word-act revelation given to us over time. This requires reading each biblical text in terms of a threefold context: immediate, epochal or redemptive-historical location, and ultimately in terms of the closed canon due to the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 5:17-20; Luke 24:25-27, 44-48; Eph 1:9-10; Heb 1:1-2). In this last post, I want to further develop the Bible’s “own terms” by focusing on how Scripture has come to us, not only over time but also by the progression of the biblical covenants.

To read Scripture properly involves more than merely getting the author’s meaning right and tracing large “themes” across the canon. No doubt, our reading of Scripture will carefully unpack how themes such as temple, land, sacrifice, priest, etc., unfold across the canon. But before we do, we must first ask whether God has “put together” his plan and revealed it to us in Scripture in such a way that there is a correct structuring or backbone to the Bible’s storyline that must be understood to read and apply Scripture properly? In other words, is there a specific structure that the Bible has that each part fits within and contributes to the larger whole?

Over the course of church history, people have wrestled with this question and answered it in various ways. Although I cannot fully defend my view here, I contend that there is a specific structure or backbone to the Bible’s storyline that is essential to follow in order to read and apply Scripture rightly. What is it? Following others, I suggest that the progression of the biblical covenants is how God has unfolded his plan and structured Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. If this is so, then to read Scripture correctly, we must not only interpret texts in their threefold context but also interpret those same texts in relation to their covenantal location. In other words, if our reading and application of Scripture are true to “its terms,” we cannot ignore how God’s plan has been unveiled by the progression of the biblical covenants and grasping how individual texts reach their fulfillment in Christ and the arrival of the new covenant.

In Scripture, the biblical covenants are not simply window-dressing. Instead, they are God’s chosen means to unfold his plan, hence why they serve as the backbone to the Bible’s entire storyline and are thus hermeneutically significant. The progression of the covenants is the Bible’s own way of unfolding and structuring God’s redemptive plan. To not attend to how the covenants relate to each other and culminate in Christ, will result in a failure to grasp the narrative plot structure of the Bible and inevitably to make crucial theological mistakes. On this point, think about how many debates in Scripture center on changes that have occurred in redemptive history due to the progression of the covenants and their fulfillment in Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant: Jew-Gentile (Acts 10-11; Rom 9-11; Eph 2:11-22); the Judaizers (Gal 2-3); the conclusions of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15); and today, debates over the application of the OT to us today, the Sabbath, the nature of the church, baptism, land, and so on. All of these debates cannot be resolved unless we think through the biblical covenants.

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