Biblical Theology and the Significance of the Biblical Covenants
Biblical Theology and the Significance of the Biblical Covenants
Stephen J. Wellum
Professor of Christian Theology
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
In recent days, the term “biblical theology” has become somewhat of a buzzword; however there is little agreement on exactly what it is and how to do it. At a popular level, when people use the term they simply mean that one appeals to Scripture to warrant their theological beliefs. In the academic world, people mean different things by the term as evidenced in two books that discuss various conceptions of biblical theology within the academic guild (Edward Klink and Darian Lockett, Understanding Biblical Theology [Zondervan, 2012]; Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology [InterVarsity Press, 2012]).
In this article, I will employ Brian Rosner’s definition of biblical theology as a place to begin in reflecting on the nature of the discipline. Rosner defines biblical theology as follows: “Biblical theology is theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds from historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus” (New Dictionary of Biblical Theology [InterVarsity Press, 2000: 10). There are many crucial points in Rosner’s definition, but what is most significant is that biblical theology is the discipline that seeks to read and apply Scripture by putting together the entire canon “on the Bible’s own terms.” In other words, Scripture is interpreted and applied by first grasping the Bible in terms of its own content, structures, and categories instead of superimposing “outside” categories back on Scripture. Biblical theology is the discipline that seeks to unpack all that Scripture teaches from Genesis to Revelation in the way that Scripture itself unfolds and reveals the whole counsel of God.
Obviously, when we say that biblical theology reads Scripture “on its own terms” this raises the question of what precisely are the Bible’s terms? Much could be written to answer this question, but minimally the Bible’s own terms involve first, Scripture’s own claim for itself, and second, how the Bible has actually come to us. In regard to the first point, the Bible claims to be God’s Word written through the agency of human authors (2 Tim. 3:15-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21) which entails that we read the entire canon as fully authoritative, unified, coherent, and reliable. In regard to the second point, it is important to note that Scripture has not come to us all at once. Instead, over time, our triune God has unfolded his eternal plan step-by-step by later authors building on early authors under divine inspiration, which ultimately reaches its fulfillment and telos in Christ Jesus (Heb. 1:1-2; Eph. 1:9-10). As we are attentive to God’s unfolding revelation, we trace out that plan from creation to Christ and discover God’s glorious plan of redemption for us and his purposes for creation.
In this way, biblical theology is the discipline that allows us rightly to understand the unfolding of God’s plan, rooted in history, and how all the parts fit together with the whole, without neglecting any of its parts. Biblical theology is exegesis of texts in light of the whole canon. It is the discipline that examines the unfolding nature of God’s plan and revelation in history and thinks through the relationship between before and after in God’s plan and its relation to Christ as the one who brings all of God’s purposes to their consummated end.
Biblical theology, then, provides the basis for understanding how texts in one part of the Bible relate to all other texts so that we will read and apply them correctly. In this way, biblical theology is the attempt to understand “the whole counsel of God” and “to think God’s thoughts after him.” As such, biblical theology provides the warrant and ground for all theology. Given the progressive nature of God’s Word-revelation, biblical theology involves simultaneously a synchronic and diachronic reading of Scripture. By reading texts in their immediate context, placing those same texts in God’s unfolding plan, and then seeing how those same texts reach their fulfillment in Christ, biblical theology allows us to discover God’s intention, which is discovered through the individual human authors and ultimately in terms of the entire canon.
To use today’s vocabulary, we read Scripture, not in a “thin” way, that is, i.e., as isolated texts apart from the whole. Instead we read texts in a “thick” way, that is, in light of entire canon, and it is only at the canonical level that we truly discover God’s intent through the writing(s) of the biblical authors. This is where progressive revelation, or God’s unfolding revelation over time, intersects with hermeneutics and discovering God’s intent through human authors. As authors wrote under divine inspiration, what they wrote was God-given, true, authoritative, and reliable. However, earlier authors probably did not understand fully where the entire revelation was going, given the fact that God had not yet disclosed all of the details of his eternal plan. As more revelation is given over time and through later authors, more of God’s plan is understood. This is why the NT’s interpretation of the OT becomes definitive in helping interpret the details of the OT, since later revelation brings with it greater clarity and understanding, yet the NT will never contravene the OT text. Instead the NT develops the OT in ways which are consistent with the OT understanding as that understanding is developed progressively from author to author. Thus, biblical theology, properly understood follows the great Reformation principles of sola scriptura and “Scripture interprets Scripture.”
However, to grasp fully the nature of biblical theology another point needs to be added. If biblical theology is the discipline that reads Scripture “on its own terms” it does more than merely trace “themes” across the canon. No doubt, biblical theology will trace out, for example, how temple, land, sacrifice, priest, and so on, unfold across the canon, but it does so by following the Bible’s own structure and categories. But this raises a further question: What are the Bible’s own structure and categories? My proposal, following others in biblical theology, is that the biblical covenants reflect how God has unfolded his plan across time, and that biblical themes must be unpacked through (in the diachronic sense) the biblical covenants from creation to Christ. In other words, if one is to be true to the Bible’s own terms, before one draws broad conclusions and works out various themes across the canon, one must do so by working through the covenants and seeing how the entirety of Scripture reaches its fulfillment in Christ and the arrival of the new covenant. In this way, the biblical covenants serve as the backbone to the entire metanarrative of Scripture and are thus hermeneutically significant. The progression of the covenants is the Bible’s own way of unfolding and structuring God’s redemptive plan. In fact, if we do not pay careful attention to how the covenants relate to each other and culminate in Christ, we will not only fail to grasp the narrative plot structure of the Bible, but also make crucial theological mistakes. Apart from working through the biblical covenants, we will not properly discern the message of Scripture and hence God’s self-disclosure in our Lord Jesus Christ. On this point, just think about how many debates in Scripture center on covenantal debates: 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 issues that cannot be resolved unless we think through the biblical covenants.
In this regard, the recent book by Graeme Goldsworthy, Christ-Centered Biblical Theology, is helpful in thinking through the Bible’s own terms (e.g., categories and structures), yet it needs to be supplemented by a better grasp of how the covenants serve as the backbone of the Bible’s metanarrative. Goldsworthy rightly wrestles with the nature of biblical theology and contends that a crucial question that divides various conceptions of biblical theology is this: “What is the Bible’s own internal structure which determines how it should be “put together” and read so that we are reading the Bible on its own terms?” I am convinced that Goldsworthy is asking the right question since biblical theology seeks to read Scripture according to its own internal structure. But given the lack of consensus among evangelicals on how the Bible is “put together,” what exactly is the Bible’s own structure? Goldsworthy proposes that the “Robinson-Hebert” scheme best reflects the Bible’s structure. His book is devoted to defending this scheme—a scheme he adopts from his former professor and colleague, Donald Robinson, at Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia and Gabriel Hebert.
After Goldsworthy summarizes the various proposals of leading evangelical biblical theologians (e.g., Geerhardus Vos, Edmund Clowney, Dennis Johnson, Willem VanGemeren, William Dumbrell, Sidney Greidanus, Charles Scobie, Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, Gerhard Hasel, and Elmer Martens), he spends most of his time critiquing the Vos-Clowney approach that divides redemptive history into various epochs. Goldsworthy’s main critique is that the Vos-Clowney epochal divisions are not consistent with how the Bible structures itself (see pp. 111-132). For example, for Vos-Clowney, the last great epoch of the OT in addition to creation, the fall, the flood, and the call of Abraham, is the period from Moses to the coming of Christ. But Goldsworthy rightly questions whether this is how the OT divides redemptive history and whether this does justice to the watershed revelation associated with David and Solomon, let alone the later prophetic eschatology which focuses on the return from exile, the restoration of the people, and the anticipation of the renewal of all things.
Instead, Goldsworthy, following Matthew 1, suggests that how the Bible moves from creation to new creation is in three main stages: (1) the basic biblical history from creation to Abraham, and then to David and Solomon; (2) the eschatology of the later writing prophets; and (3) the fulfillment of all things in Christ. Goldsworthy argues that the first stage of biblical history not only provides the rationale and backdrop to the calling of Abraham and the covenant with Israel, it also establishes the typological patterns which are later developed in the prophets and fulfilled in Christ. Furthermore, he argues that the high point of the first stage is found in David and Solomon and in the building of the temple which represents God’s presence among his people, an echo back to Eden of old. The second stage begins with Solomon’s apostasy. Biblical history from this time on is primarily one of judgment that is overlaid with the prophetic promises that the Day of the Lord will come and bring ultimate blessing and judgment. In this stage, the typological patterns laid down in the earlier history are now recapitulated as they project a greater future fulfillment. In the final stage, the fulfillment of the previous stages now takes place in Christ who fulfills all the previous patterns in himself in an “already-not yet” fashion.
In my view, Goldsworthy is not only asking the right questions but also he has helpfully described the Bible’s “own terms” in terms of the Bible’s own internal structure. However, a challenge that he faces is warranting his redemptive-historical, epochal divisions and avoiding arbitrariness. Is there a better way of accounting for the Bible’s own structure and incorporating the insights of Goldsworthy? Yes, if we follow the progression of the covenants as the backbone to the Bible’s storyline. Beginning in Genesis 1-11, what frames these chapters is God’s covenant with creation first made with Adam and upheld in Noah. As God’s promise of redemption from Genesis 3:15 is given greater clarity and definition through the respective covenants tied to Abraham, Israel, and David, we can make better sense of how God’s grand plan of redemption progressively unfolds in promise, prophecy, and type. As the covenants develop and unpack the various typological structures, and especially as the prophets recapitulate and project forward the typological patterns developed in those covenants and look forward to the arrival of a new and better covenant, and what Goldsworthy rightly notes, is better structured along the plotline of Scripture by the progression of the covenants.
The bottom line is this: the biblical covenants are not simply part of the Bible’s content, or another theme of Scripture. On the contrary, the covenants are central to the Bible’s own internal structure and foundational to grasping how God’s eternal plan is unfolded from creation to Christ. Apart from thinking through the progression of the covenants and seeing how all of Scripture finds its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant, we will miss what is central to Scripture and misunderstand and misapply Scripture. Biblical theology is the discipline that allows us to grasp the whole counsel of God and the biblical covenants are central to putting Scripture together the way God intends, for his glory and the good of the church.