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or the theory of textual interpretation, is one of the hot topics in
New Testament studies today. Many are puzzled over the whole matter,
for it is finally recognized that one's hermeneutical approach has a
significant effect upon the results of one's interpretive conclusions.
A generation ago, Cornelius van Til explained this repeatedly: there
are no "brute facts," he said. Facts are mute and are always
interpreted in conformity with one's presuppositions, whether those
presuppositions are explicitly understood, or not. The inaugural task
of a Christian theologian is to conform one's presuppositions, including
one's hermeneutics, to the Bible.
As an illustration of how presuppositions affect the facts, consider
the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For Paul, it meant the inauguration
of a whole new era of cosmic renewal, a new creation. But to an Epicurean
the resurrection was nonsense. They had adopted the theory that all
things were composed of atoms in constant, mindless movement, so that
even if the resurrection of Christ did take place, it meant no more
than that some groups of atoms has swerved out of their normal path
like so many quarks. This undoubtedly explains why some Epicureans objected
so strongly to the resurrection (Acts 17:16-34).
Today, hermeneutical reflection and practice often reflects not the
biblical viewpoint, but the agenda of our pluralistic, special interest
culture. In the scholarly literature on hermeneutics we find, for instance,
structuralist hermeneutics and post-structuralist hermeneutics, feminist
hermeneutics, as well as black womanist hermeneutics, third world hermeneutics,
and Marxist-liberation hermeneutics (still), and a host of others.
While we appreciate that one must take the "two horizons"
of the biblical culture and our culture into account in the interpretive
enterprise, one wonders just how subjective special interest hermeneutics
have become. Our suspicions are confirmed in one of the newer outlooks,
the so-called "reader response" hermeneutic which states,
in effect, that the legitimate meaning of any text is up to the reader.
Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty could very well speak for this position:
"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful
tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean‹neither more nor
lessS¹.'" [Through the Looking-Glass]. Humpty Dumpty could very
well now say, "When I read a textS¹."
Our evangelical friends are puzzling over hermeneutical theories as
well, seen especially in the watchwords, "unity and diversity,"
and "unity in diversity," and so on. To some people this means
searching for the essential "core" of inspired biblical teaching
which is surrounded by a potentially tension-filled periphery. Others,
though, legitimately see that Matthew differs from Luke or John in theological
perspective and concerns without implying contradiction; rather, it
provides pleonasm‹"fullness" of viewpoint.
The brilliant old Princeton theologian, Geerhardus Vos, anticipated
many aspects of today's hermeneutical discussions, notably, issues regarding
unity and diversity. The perspective he developed, carried forward by
Herman Ridderbos, Richard Gaffin, Edmund Clowney, and others, is called
"biblical theology," or the "Redemptive Historical"
A full description of biblical theology and its hermeneutic is not always
easy. Because it has suffered from caricature, it is easy to jump to
hasty conclusions about it. For example, biblical theology has been
equated with Christianizing allegory, such as that practiced early on
by Clement, Origen, and other Alexandrian church fathers. They found
a symbolic meaning to nearly everything. The "great whales"
created in Genesis 1:21, Origen said, represent "impious thoughts
and abominable understandings" that we too should "bring forth"
before God that he may assign them their place after their own kind!
The reason that biblical theology suffers mistaken identity with allegory
is probably its persistent habit of reading the Bible as a book about
Jesus Christ from beginning to end. Thus, a biblical theologian reading
about Adam in the Garden of Eden tends to think of Christ in the Garden
of Gethsemane. This does not imply that Adam was a parabolic versus
an historical figure. Quite the contrary, biblical theology is staunchly
opposed to taking historical figures mythically, since biblical theology
is predicated on the fact that redemption was accomplished in genuine
history. Someone (I don't remember who) once put it well: "Fact
without word is dumb; the word without fact is empty."
But is biblical theology warranted in reading Christ into Adam, and
vice versa? Apparently Paul thought so when he equates Christ with the
Last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) and Adam as a "type" of Christ (Rom.
5:14). Adam stood as covenant head of the first creation, whereas Christ
is head of a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:15). Therefore, if anything
else, biblical theology is a hermeneutic of the Emmaus road: "And
starting with Moses and all the prophets he [Christ] interpreted for
them the things concerning himself in all the scriptures" (Lk.
24:27; emphasis added). Biblical theology is Christocentric: "MosesS¹wrote
about me" (Jn. 5:46).
So far, however, we could simply identify biblical theology with older
ideas about typology and be done with it. Well, biblical theology does
have typological elements. As mentioned, Adam and Christ have a type-antitype
relationship as Paul makes explicit in Romans 5:14. Elsewhere he interprets
the rock at Meribah as a type of Christ. It was, he says, a "spiritual
rock" that followed Israel in the wilderness, "for the rock
was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4).
But typology can typically present the Old Testament symbols as pictures
that are meaningful in our era alone, whereas in the Old Testament era
they may have had a different value. Biblical theology would insist
that the Old Testament types spoke as witnesses to the coming realities
of Christ in their own day, as well as in ours. Through the types and
shadows "the elders received testimony" to what lay in their
future (Heb. 11:2). The faith of the actors in biblical revelation constituted,
as we can paraphrase, "the inner core of things hoped for, as evidence
of things not yet seen" (Heb. 11:1).
So what exactly is biblical theology? Geerhardus Vos provides the best
definition: "Biblical theologyS¹is nothing else than the exhibition
of the organic progress of supernatural revelation in its historic continuity
and multiformity."1 Vos offers a helpful analogy to explain "organic
progress." The revelation of Christ in the Bible begins like an
acorn that sends out its shoot and progresses toward the "fullness
of time" when it grows into a full and stately oak. As a growing
shoot, the tree if still and ever an oak; similarly, God's revelation
is always genuine, true, and unified in all its multiform expressions
during its historic progression.
Revelation never loses its focus on Christ, although as an historically
progressive revelation, not all elements of the revelation were completed
or completely understood in its earlier phases. Peter then expresses
this fact when he says that the revelation given through the prophets
by "the Spirit of Christ" who testified "in them"
was not fully understood by the prophets themselves, even though "they
made careful search and enquiry into these matters regarding the sufferings
and consequent glories of Christ" (1 Pt. 1:10-12). Nevertheless,
they did understand that there was a future reality awaiting fulfillment.
This is all fine and well, but are we truly justified in adopting this
outlook for our principal hermeneutical orientation? This is an excellent
question, and one that deserves fuller discussion some other time. Let
it suffice to say that most practitioners of biblical theology employ
a wide range of traditional tools in the process of biblical interpretation:
analysis of the historical-cultural setting, studies in the original
languages, discourse analysis, attention to genre, etc. These are all
But one of the key convictions of Vos and all who follow is that we
must conform our hermeneutics to that of the Bible. And if Jesus displayed
a Christocentric, biblical theological hermeneutic on the road to Emmaus
and elsewhere, then it is normative for us as well. Any other hermeneutic
is lacking an essential ingredient. In what follows, we will explore
parts of Galatians three, one place where this biblical theological
hermeneutic is manifest.
So, to begin, Paul introduces in Galatians 3:17 the proposition that
he will develop: "You know, then, that those who are of faith are
the sons of Abraham." After this introduction, he begins his argument
in verse 8 with a provocative assertion: "Now since scripture foresaw
that God would justify the Gentiles from faith, it preached the gospel
ahead of time to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations will be blessed in
In passing, we should not neglect to point out that Paul accepted the
divine authority of Scripture, since he says that it was the scripture
that "foresaw" and "preached the gospel ahead of time."
What the Scripture says is what God says; what God foreknows, the scripture
foreknows. Likewise, Scripture locks up all under sin, which is properly
God's action (Gal. 3:22). This interchangeability of "God"
and "Scripture" indicates the highest view of inspiration
and authority of Scripture at the start.
Secondly, in Galatians 3:8, Paul shows that God's program too bring
the Gentiles into his covenantal blessings was anything but a contingency
plan developed ad hoc when Christ was rejected by his contemporaries.
Rather, God's plan to justify the Gentiles by faith was the very basis
of his proleptically preaching the gospel to Abraham in the form of
a promise. In this pre-preached gospel, Abraham looked ahead to the
day of Christ and rejoiced (Jn. 8:56), and he perceived in this way
that the land of his inheritance was not Palestine, but "the city
whose architect and maker is God" (Heb. 11:10).
Nevertheless, the blessing we inherit is not inherently different from
the blessing given to Abraham, for we receive it along with him (Gal.
3:9). Although the Old Testament saints had not fully inherited that
which was promised yet, they did have a genuine encounter with Christ
in the unfolding revelation of their day. But it always had a future
orientation, so that they might not "be perfected apart from us"
(Heb. 11:39-40; 12:22-23).
What unifies all biblical promises is Christ, for there is one promise
in the variegated covenants (Eph. 2:12), because there is one Son of
Abraham to whom all the promises were made. Paul makes this latter point
in Galatians 3:16: "The promises were made to Abraham and to his
seed. It does not say, 'And to his seeds,' as though to many, but to
one, 'and to your seed,' who is Christ."
It may appear on first reading of Galatians 3:16 that Abraham had a
co-equal share in the promise with Christ, his Seed. But even Abraham
recedes into the background when we read that the promise was still
unfulfilled "until that Seed should come to whom it had been promised"
(Gal. 3:19). Even Abraham received that which was promised only through
the coming of the Seed, who is Promisor, Promisee, and Promised One!
"As many as are God's promises, they are 'Yes' in him" (2
Thus we see that there is unity to the Old Testament revelation; it
pointed to Christ, and the saints back then, like Abraham, saw Christ
dimly and from afar, but truly. Revelation had progress, but in it,
the Old Testament saint experienced a genuine encounter with Christ,
albeit, a proleptic encounter.
Nevertheless, Paul boldly proceeds to show that the revelation in Abraham's
day‹despite it being based on faith‹was still incomplete
revelation. He expresses this by showing the fact that the promise to
Abraham was awaiting the Seed to whom it was primarily directed (Gal.
3:19). And this promise is now granted after the first Advent by way
of a specific "faith in Jesus Christ to those who believe"
This explains how Paul can say, in verse 23, "Before the faith
came, we were imprisoned under the law." And in case we miss the
obvious point that this specific faith was impending under Moses, he
continues in verse 24, "And we were locked up until that coming
faith should be revealedS¹.But now that this faith has come, we are
no longer under a nanny [paidagogos]."
Now, Paul does not at all intend to say that no one prior to Christ
had faith, nor that they were justified by law-keeping back then, instead
of by faith. He is showing that the organically developing revelation
of God was not completed until Christ should come‹indeed, it still
awaits consummation at his Second Coming, the one climatic event still
The difference between the pre-Advent and post-Advent faith is so dramatic
in its intensity, clarity, and fullness that Paul expresses it as if
it were future in prior eras. Remember, the gospel preached to Abraham
was an anticipation of the apostolic preaching. God spoke to Abraham
with us in mind (Rom. 4:22-24), who have tasted of the powers of the
age to come" (Heb. 6:5). Our faith is qualitatively new because
we live in "these last days" (Heb. 1:2; cf. 1 Cor. 10:11;
Jm. 5:3; 1 Pt. 1:20; 1 Jn. 2:18; Jude 18), upon which the prophets of
old and even angels had longed to gaze (1 Pt. 1:12).
Paul wraps up his discussion in Galatians three by returning to the
main issue: we are sons of Abraham by faith. He concludes, "So,
if you are Christ's [disciple], then you are Abraham's seed, heirs according
to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). Wait a minute! I thought there was
only one seed "Who is Christ," remember? Ah yes, Paul says,
but in that one seed through whom all God's promises intersect, the
people who are united to Christ by faith also become sons and seed and
heirs! This is union with Christ in all its glory: "So it is no
longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And this fleshly existence
of mine now is lived by faith in the son of God" (Gal. 2:20); cf.
To conclude, then, we have described the hermeneutics of biblical theology
as a Christocentric approach to the bible that we found was commended
to us by Christ on the Emmaus road, and by Paul in Galatians three.
And although we have not used the term until now, biblical theology
is a recognition that eschatology‹or the biblical teaching on
the last things‹is central throughout the entire course of redemptive
history. As Vos put it, "Eschatology is prior to soteriology."
This is nothing but another way of expressing the proleptic character
of the promise to Abraham, as in Galatians 3:18. The coming promise
was experienced ahead of time by Abraham; it was an eschatological blessing
cast backward into redemptive history.
But we, who live this side of Christ's resurrection, live in the "fullness
of time" (Gal. 4:4). Although this age will not be consummated
until the Second Coming, we live in a "semi- eschatological"
era (to use Vos's term). Thus we have received a "down payment"
and a "first fruits" of the promised inheritance, the Holy
Spirit (Gal. 3:14; Eph. 1:14; 2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5; Rom. 8:23). It is this
perspective, we believe, that makes the most sense of the whole of Scripture,
for in Christ "all things hold together," both in the old
creation and in the new creation (Col. 1:15-20).
1. G. Vos, "The Idea of Biblical Theology As a Science and As a
Theological Disciple," Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation
(R. Gaffin, ed.; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 15.
Dr. Steven M. Baugh (Ph.D., University of California, Irvine) is associate
professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in California,
and the author of A New Testament Greek Primer (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian
and Reformed, 1995).