What does it mean to read the Bible covenantally?
In a Facebook status update last week, I made mention of the joy found in reading the Bible covenantally. Since that day, it has been on my mind to write something more at length regarding what is meant by that.
Most of the time the term "theology" is used with regard to particular doctrines or teachings of the Christian religion -- the doctrine of God, the doctrine of sin, the doctrine of the atonement, and so forth. However, the term "covenant theology" does not refer to a doctrine. Rather, the term refers to a type of hermeneutic -- that is, an interpretive system -- through which Scripture is to be understood. Now, someone may ask, why should we start off with an interpretive scheme when approaching the Bible instead of letting the Bible speak for itself? I will answer that in a moment, but first I should briefly explain what covenant theology means with regard to its approach to Scripture.
Understanding the glory of God as constituting the ultimate end of all things, and viewing the themes of creation, fall, and redemption as being central to the biblical message as to God's intention for His creation, we can discern three covenantal strands running their way through Scripture:
1. The Covenant of Redemption, made among the three persons of the triune God, regarding the plan of God to create all things, to permit the fall, and to redeem a people for Himself, as well as the means by which that redemption will be accomplished.
2. The Covenant of Works, made by God with Adam as the federal head of the human race. Adam, in behalf of us all, failed to meet the stipulations of the covenant, bringing death to the human race. The Covenant of Works is also seen in modified form in God's covenant with Israel at Sinai, which was intended as a covenant of national preservation and was never intended as a means of personal salvation. While Sinai in many ways represents a works covenant, it is important to note that it is modified in its provision of means for forgiveness for failures to meet its stipulations. The Sinaitic covenant also contains much that in shadows and types points to Christ.
3. The Covenant of Grace, entered into with Adam after the fall, renewed dramatically and vividly through Noah, Abraham, and David, and finding its ultimate fulfillment in Christ, who alone fulfilled the requirements of the Covenant of Works and thereby offers to us the privileges of the righteous wholly by His grace. Christians understand that we are saved by works, but the works that save us are not our own, but rather we are saved by the righteousness of Christ.
There is much more that can be said here, and perhaps I will write more in a future note, but for now I said that I would explain why having an interpretive approach is appropriate and even important.
While some people might suggest that one should approach the Bible with no preconceived interpretive scheme, this is not only inadvisable, it is impossible. Whether by academic training in theology or philosophy or by presuppositions based on life experience, or some combination thereof, everyone brings interpretive assumptions not only to the Bible, but to any text, religious or otherwise. The question is whether our interpretive suppositions are consistent with the message of the text or whether they are imposed upon it as an alien philosophy. For clarity, I am talking about how presuppositions must be assessed in order to understand a text. This is a different question from that of how presuppositions are appropriately utilized in critiqing a text. My point here is to suggest how Scripture is to be understood. In any event, understanding must precede evaluation and/or criticism.
In the popular, nonacademic, sphere, there are many philosophies alien to Scripture that will lead a person down the wrong path. For example:
1. If a person reads the Bible legalistically, they will certainly find much support for their perspective that religion is about living by a list of do's and don'ts, but Bunyan was right that such a view is like a series of steep and perilous cliffs posing a danger to the soul.
2. In our day, it is common for people to read the Bible through a therapeutic mindset. Such people manage to suppose, for example, that the death of Christ reveals human value, when actually it was a judicial punishment revealing the depth and extent of our sins. Christ died to deliver us from sin and death, not to help us feel better about ourselves.
3. Many conservative Christians have been taught the dispensational system of Christian thought. This view, which arose during the 19th century, divides history into a series of dispensations, periods in which God administered life for his people in differing fashions. Dispensationalism, at least in its classic form, misunderstands personal salvation under the Old Testament, exaggerates the discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New, and misapprehends the relationship between Israel and the Church. This view has also done great damage through its unbiblical, paranoid misunderstanding of biblical teaching regarding the last days.
There are also academic fads that have misled:
1. Liberation theology, the view that made the news 3 years ago when it was said to be the viewpoint of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is an attempt to impose Marxist philosophy on the scriptural data that first arose among Latin American Catholic theologians and then spread to other groups. However, the effort to turn the Bible's promises of deliverance from the oppression of sin into a promise of sociopolitical deliverance from bourgeoisie oppression is not credible.
2. Classical liberalism, and many of the forms of liberalism that succeeded it, represents an effort to impose naturalistic philosophy on the Bible. Surely, philosophical presuppositions favoring materialism will not lead to a proper understanding of the Bible.
In order to understand Scripture, we must allow the biblical data to provide the basis for our interpretive approach. The Bible's message to us provides the means by which we understand the Bible. Clearly, the central message of the Bible is that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. That reconciliation was planned in eternity past, and it reaches its consummation in eternity future. Reading the Bible in this covenantal fashion brings great joy and hope to the reader.