I must have read Hebrews once a week as a young Christian. Nothing thrilled my heart more than seeing the One by whom I had been redeemed being exalted to the place of highest honor when the writer contrasted Christ with His forerunners in redemptive-history. I fell in love with biblical theology by sitting at the feet of the writer of Hebrews. The Scriptures made sense. Rather than viewing the Old Testament as a series of disconnected biographies and stories, I saw that Christ was the center of the meta-narrative that gave the individuals and groups set out in the pages of the OT their significance. One by one they took their place on the canvas of redemptive history. They were all preparatory and anticipatory figures. Whether it was Melchizedek, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the Veil of the Temple, the Showbread or the animal sacrifices it was all pointing to the redemptive glories of the Redeemer. One can hardly start in on the book of Hebrews with spiritual eyes and miss this precious truth.
Since the days of Old Princeton and the early days of Westminister Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, there has been a developmental interest in Biblical Theology. Often hailed the father of Biblical Theology, Geerhardus Vos stands at the head of this movement. It would, however, be a mistake to think that he invented the discipline, or that he somehow departed from the Reformed tradition at this point. Far from it, Vos was actually building on what so many before him had already integrated into their expositions of Scripture. In fact, it can be safely said that Biblical Theology is nothing other than Reformed Covenant Theology. To prove this point, one only needs to consider any of the volumes recommended here. Jonathan Edwards was obviously a master of biblical theology and typology. For an example of his typological understanding of the Old Testament see how he handles the David/Goliath passage, and see the Yale University edition of his volume, Typological Writings. The Puritan commentator Matthew Henry also stands out as a model of one who integrated biblical theological exposition into his teaching (e.g. see this post). Richard Barcellos has also provided further historical evidence of this assertion in his work The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology: Vos and Owen. This historical defense of the theological loci ought not surprise us since biblical theology is really nothing other than a focus on the progress of revelation as it centers in the Person, work and saving benefits of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. For my top 20 list of modern biblical-theological volumes see this post.
There are, however, some in the Reformed world at present (e.g. see this post) who insist that we can preach Christ and Redemptive History too much, make Him too central in our preaching, and in so doing, weaken the force of the warnings and examples in Scripture and so leave the people of God spiritually impotent. Reflecting on this criticism, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of these critics are approaching the Scriptures in an atomistic way–taking an approach of over-systematization to biblical teaching to the neglect of the organic and Christocentric unity of the Scriptures. In other words, the critics of redemptive-historical interpretation make the error of reading the Scriptures categorically rather than cannonically. When I say that some read the Scriptures “categorically”rather than “cannonically” I mean that some approach a passage of Scripture atomistically, saying, “Here is a warning passage. It teaches that if you do these things you will go to hell. Stop doing these things.”
While it is true that there are severe warnings in Scripture by which members of the visible church (which is made up of believers and unbelievers) are warned that they will not inherit eternal life if they persist in disobedience, they are never meant to drive a person to obey out of servile fear apart from the grace of God in Christ. They are meant to drive individuals to Christ in faith so that obedience will then follow. We must view every promise, warning, command, etc. in light of the Christ of the Scriptures (as the apex of revelation), Instead of reading certain portions of God’s word (i.e. the moral law, NT imperatives, warnings, examples of disobedience, etc.) as something additional to or independent of the Gospel. In a canonical approach all of these teachings stand in direct relation to the Gospel. They are not the Gospel, but they are only useful for the believer insomuch as they serve to keep us established in the Gospel.
Systematic and Biblical Theology
Sometimes mistakenly viewed as a debate about the primacy of either systematic or biblical theology, theologians on both sides have left many thinking that they must pick one or the other theological disciplines. Whether knowingly or not, many have given the sense that either systematic theology and applicatory exhortations are what really matter, or that redemptive history is the singularly important element in preaching. We have been pressured to choose one over the other. There are certainly some proponents of Redemptive History who give lip service to application and Christian imperatives, and there are critics of Redemptive History who give lip service to it’s place in the sermon by essentially making it something that should be relegated to a minor section of the sermon. In other words, we have, been sometimes intellectually bullied into a false dichotomy. We are never justified in abandoning a Reformed systematic theology. This is utterly vital to our biblical interpretation, but so is a robust Ref0rmed biblical theology. We don’t want fall into the ditch of pitting one against another. We must avoid the trap of falling into a hyper-systematization that leaves biblical doctrines unconnected, just as much as we need to avoid a biblical-theological approach to Scripture that empties the sermon of imperatival or exemplaristic applications. To this end, Richard Gaffin has written two helpful articles “Systematic and Biblical Theology” and “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards” to help us establish the relationship between Systematic and Biblical Theology.
We also need the OT examples of righteous and unrighteous men and women–not because the Gospel is somehow insufficient for our Christian living, but because those who lived righteously did so as they walked by faith in the Redeemer. Their example serves to encourage us in the same way of faith in Christ. By way of contrast, those who lived unrighteously did so because of their unbelief in the coming Redeemer. The human experience that we share with those who have gone before us makes these examples in Scripture so useful to us.
Interestingly, the book of Hebrews, which gives one of the most magnificent displays of redemptive-historical principles of OT interpretation, also contains a robust use of positive and negative examples from the OT together with some of the most severe warnings in all of Scripture. What are we to make of these seemingly contradictory doctrines? Are we to view them as mutually exclusive of one another? Are we to see the Gospel as something we need at the beginning of our Christian life, and then the warnings and negative examples as what we need to progress in Christian living? Or, are we to see them as organically related to one another?
Last Sunday I taught a lesson in which I attempted to explain how redemptive history and example meet in the book of Hebrews. You can listen to it here.