Introduction. No one opens a newspaper expecting fiction, poetry, or a recipe for banana bread. You open a newspaper with specific expectations, and you assume that you’ll find the whole thing working together with order and purpose. And because you know what a newspaper is, what it’s for, and how it functions, you can read it and make sense of it.
So it is with the Bible. To read Scripture correctly and to avoid interpretive disorder, we need to be clear on the Bible’s purpose, method, and structure—on the nature of Holy Scripture. The Bible alone isn’t enough; we need a framework for reading, interpreting, teaching, and preaching the written Word of God. To read the Bible without the proper framework will ensure that God is misunderstood and misrepresented. So we need, in other words, a theology of the Bible.
The Bible itself expresses its own self-understanding in explicit, programmatic statements. Because the New Testament is the full, climatic unfolding of the Old, clear and determinative programmatic statements appear there. Such NT statements speak with fulfillment-authority about the nature of the entire canon. Examples are Matthew’s repeated emphasis on Jesus’s fulfillment of prophecy; Jesus’s description of his work as fulfillment of the law (Matt 5:17-20); Jesus’s own hermeneutical rule for the OT (Luke 24: 25-26, 44-47); Paul’s interpreting Christ in light of the OT (Rom 1:1-2;1 Cor 15:3-4); Paul’s pithy statement on the doctrine of Scripture (2 Tim 3:15-16); and Peter’s statement that Christ himself is the primary author of OT prophecy (1 Peter 1:10-12).
In addition to these instructive statements, Scripture everywhere displays its nature in terms of unity and epochal progress. Scripture unfolds in unified, organic, epochal progress from its beginning to its end, and approaching Scripture as progressive organism ensures that interpretation will be fruitful and faithful.
Unity and Redemptive Substance. The unity of Scripture reflects the unity of redemption. Scripture is a single, self-consistent organism because its subject matter—Christian salvation—is also a single, self-consistent organism.
But redemption is not merely the subject matter of Scripture; redemption is the only reason for Scripture, its single reason for being. And so there is perfect economy here: all of Scripture is effectual unto salvation and the building up of the church: “all Scripture,” writes Paul (2 Tim 3:16). There is no superfluous text, nothing dispensable; Scripture in every word is by the work of the Spirit effective unto salvation. Every part of Scripture contributes something distinctive to its larger redemptive unity—because each redemptive-historical episode described in the Bible contributes something distinctive to the progressive completion of redemption in Christ.
Of the Old Testament saints, Geerhardus Vos writes:
“The object of their faith was much less definite than that of ours, who know the personal Messiah. But none the less, the essence of this faith, subjectively considered, was the same, viz., trust in God’s grace and power to bring deliverance from sin” (Biblical Theology, 44).
The unified substance of redemption—the grace of Christ—is the unified substance of redemptive Scripture. The Old Testament saints looked forward to the day of Christ, and were glad; the Scripture preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham; the prophets said these things because they saw Jesus’s glory and spoke about him; in the prophets, Jesus Himself was bearing witness about Himself (John 8:56; Gal 3:8; John 12:41; 1 Peter 1:10-12).
Every story, every utterance, every person and event in all of the Old Testament is fulfilled in and by Christ—meaning that Christ, his pre-existence, humiliation, and exaltation, and the preaching of repentance and forgiveness in his name, is the purpose and substance of every and all Hebrew Scripture. Accordingly, the New Testament displays the unfolding of the Old in inspired retrospective reflection on the accomplishment of the messiah of God. The NT expounds the OT in light of the work of Christ; and the NT expounds the work of Christ in light of the OT.
Substantial and Covenantal Structure. As the substance of redemption is the substance of Scripture, so also the structure of redemption is the structure of Scripture. Redemption in Christ is administered by the triune God in the form and structure of covenant. In the garden God offers imperishable holiness and flourishing, eternal image-bearing life in the presence of the Creator, upon condition of perfect, willful obedience, to all humanity through Adam as covenant representative. This covenant of life being broken by the disobedience of the first Adam gives way to a covenant of grace in which a second Adam accepts against his own body and person the covenantal penalties earned by the transgression in the garden; and by his perfect obedience even unto death he earns imperishable resurrection life which the Spirit conveys to those given by the Father to the Son (Gen 15; Rom 5; Phil 2; John 17). Grace is Christ’s vicarious submission to the penalties due to covenant infidelity and his obedience in fulfillment of the original covenant of life between God and the image-bearer. That single covenant of grace brings salvation to perfection in the successful humiliation unto exaltation of the Son on behalf of the church in the fullness of time. The covenant structure of Scripture is this: God deals with mankind through a representative from among them. And all men are either in covenant under Adam or in covenant under Christ.
In Scripture we see the covenant of grace in Christ administered through sub-covenants moving through biblical history, mainly Abraham and Moses. But it must be remembered that the covenant of grace is not the broadest category; the covenant of works from the garden of Eden preceded it, and in fact grace does not annul the requirement of perfect obedience but upholds and affirms that requirement—Christ does not destroy God’s requirement of perfect holiness, he becomes that holiness for us. Grace is not the irrelevance of the law, but rather its complete and perfect satisfaction. Christ fulfills Abraham and Moses, but ultimately he is a counterpart to Adam.
Structure and Interpretation. Successive covenantal figures fall within the broader Adam-Christ structure. All successive covenantal components of redemption and of Scripture share the same substance: gracious satisfaction of the covenant of life, the Son reconciling His people to the Father. And each covenantal epoch offers (i) historical progress toward fulfillment in Christ; and (ii) additional, distinctive revelation of Christ and his benefits.
The bedrock covenants within the covenant of grace are: Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic. The Mosaic covenant contains other covenantal figures within it, mainly David and Solomon, but at the end of the day the line from Moses to Christ is a direct one.
The covenantal structure of redemption and Scripture may be pictured as follows:
Biblical interpretation according to this structure might look something like this:
(1) First, a given passage must be understood at the grammatical level. The nuts and bolts of ancient Scripture must be carefully attended to so that interpretation is guided by the text, and so that exegesis of God’s Word is fortified against unwarranted eisegesis. We must know in the most concrete sense what the text says. We must be aggressively receptive.
(2) Second, a passage should then be interpreted within its proper historical-covenantal horizon: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, or new covenant. By viewing a given passage within its historical-covenantal horizon we are intentionally reading Scripture theologically. There is no room for ‘history as such’ in biblical interpretation. This second step must be protected against immediate application to our own context. We cannot move from the words on the page directly to ourselves; a passage must be viewed within its own redemptive-historical era if it is to be read biblically.
(3) Third, by way of steps one and two, a passage must be related to the whole structure of redemptive history, principally and definitively fulfilled in the resurrection of Christ and the inauguration of the last days.
Says Edmund Clowney:
“The latter days have come, the days in which the Lord is glorified, and he has poured out his Spirit upon men. But it is not yet the time of the restoration of all things. The glorified Lord is also a coming Lord. It is the end time but it is also the interim time—the days between his first and second coming.
The joy of his resurrection, the power of his Spirit, the hope of his coming—preaching oriented in this perspective honors Christ” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 68).
The accomplishment of Christ brings the saving power of any text of Scripture to the foreground, but only if the previous steps are secure. By contrast, says Clowney:
“Preaching that has lost urgency and passion reveals a loss of the eschatological perspective of the New Testament” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 67).
This simply means that interpretation is most fruitful if it is faithful to the nature and structure of the Bible. Superficiality, unwarranted eisegesis, and self-serving abuse of the biblical text occur when we proceed prematurely to ‘application’, ‘relevance’, or what it means ‘to me’.
So writes Clowney:
“Most important of all, biblical theology serves to center preaching on its essential message: Jesus Christ. Preaching must be theological. Salvation is of the Lord, and the message of the unfolding of the plan of God for our salvation in Jesus Christ. He who would preach the Word must preach Christ” (Preaching and Biblical Theology, 74).