Usually, when we are trying to understand the overall meaning of the Bible, we are doing systematic theology – the attempt to line up everything in the Bible so that it all fits together harmoniously. When we struggle with questions like, “What must I do to be saved? Just believe or also repent and be obedient?” we are attempting to reconcile the many different verses on this subject. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote that we have freedom to even eat at a pagan temple (1 Cor. 8:4-13). However, the Book of Revelation indicates that we don’t have this freedom:
· “But I [Jesus] have a few things against you [the church at Pergamum]: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:14)
· But I [Jesus] have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (Revelation 2:20)
When we attempt to resolve this apparent contradiction, we are engaging in systematic theology. How then do we reconcile this paradox? The critical issue is not the action of eating food offered to idols but what we believe about it. It is apparent that the false teachers in these churches were teaching that believers should eat this food in order to receive some spiritual blessing. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have recommended this practice. Meanwhile, Paul denied that any food could exert could exert such an influence.
We find the same kind of apparent contradiction in Paul’s teaching regarding circumcision. On the one hand Paul taught against circumcision:
· Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Galatians 5:2-4)
However, he had Timothy circumcised:
· Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:3)
At first, it might look like Paul had contradicted his own teaching. However, once we understand that Paul was not concerned about the physical act of circumcision – he too had been circumcised – but, instead, what was believed about circumcision, the “contradiction” disappears. It was okay to have Timothy circumcised as long as he didn’t believe that he needed to do this to be saved.
However, there are also other ways to do theology. Historical Theology looks at how we have understood the Bible and God over the centuries and how this understanding has evolved and how it has affected the church and its doctrines.
It is helpful to understand how Augustine, Calvin, and Luther understood the Word of God. Why! Because we tend to be products of our culture and even our denominations! Consequently, we might wrongly understand the Bible. Therefore, it helps us to see how others understood it. I find some of Augustine’s reflections refreshing:
· “True happiness is to rejoice in the truth, for to rejoice in the truth is to rejoice in you, O God, who are the truth… Man’s love of truth is such that when he loves something which is not the truth, he pretends to himself that what he loves is the truth, and because he hates to be proved wrong, he will not allow himself to be convinced that he is deceiving himself. So he hates the real truth for the sake of what he takes to his heart in its place.” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book 10:23)
Augustine describes how a neglect of the Word carries its own punishment – darkness:
· “I am aglow with its fire. It is the light of Wisdom, Wisdom itself, which at times shines upon me, parting my clouds. But when I weakly fall away from its light, those clouds envelop me again in the dense mantle of darkness which I bear for my punishment.” (Confessions, Book 11:9)
Augustine writes in a way that few do today. He exulted in a low self-esteem, so contrary to the spirit of our age:
· For I am needy and poor, but you who care for us, yet are free from care for yourself, have enough and to spare for all those who call upon you. (Confessions, Book XI:2)
· By confessing our own miserable state and acknowledging your mercy towards us, we open our hearts to you, so that you may free us wholly, as you have already begun to do. Then we shall no longer be miserable in ourselves but will find true happiness in you. (Book XI:1)
However, the Church Fathers were far from faultless in their theology. Regarding the martyrdom of the saints, in History of the Christian Church (83), the late historian, Philip Schaff, wrote that two Fathers ,Origen and Cyprian, believed that “Their prayers before the throne of God were thought to be particularly efficacious.” Origin “Ascribes to the martyrs an atoning virtue for others.” Tertullian believed that “Martyrs entered immediately into the blessedness of heaven, and were not required, like ordinary Christians, to pass through the intermediate state.”
From where did they get such beliefs? It seems that they had misunderstood:
· Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. (Colossians 1:24)
It sounds as if Paul was saying that the Cross of Christ was inadequate, and that Paul and the other martyrs would have to add something to the atoning value of the Cross. However, there is no reason to assume this. What then would Paul be “filling up” in regards to “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions?” What we all must “fill up,” as the light to this world! We must evangelistically carry forth the atonement already purchased by our Savior!
There is also Biblical Theology (BT), which merely provides a different focus on Scripture – the chronological and gradual unfolding of God’s Word. While Systematic Theology (ST) regards Scripture somewhat statically, BT regards it progressively - how it has changed over time.
Have you ever asked how our salvation post-Cross is different from salvation pre-Cross or how we should apply Old Testament (OT) law to New Testament (NT) times? If so, you are asking a question of BT.
However, theologians come up with different answers. Some emphasize the discontinuity between the OT and the NT, arguing that there have been abrupt changes and that OT laws no longer apply.
Others emphasize continuity, that the OT still represents the wisdom of God and that it is part of the one continuous plan of God. We emphasize the fact that the NT quotes the OT hundreds of times as if to say, “If the OT said it, that settles it.” Besides, all Scripture are the Words of God:
· All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
This means that even though we are no longer under the Mosaic Law, it is still instructive and therefore “profitable.” But what does this continuity say about OT laws regarding tithing, Sabbath keeping, serving in the military, and capital punishment?
When we try to apply the teachings of the OT about honoring the Sabbath day to the NT, we find that we still must uphold the Sabbath (Romans 3:31; continuity) but are free to uphold it in different ways (discontinuity):
· One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:5-6)
But perhaps this flexibility had already been built into the Mosaic Law. Jesus reminded His critics that the priests worked on the Sabbath, babies were circumcised on the Sabbath, and farmers took care of their animals on the Sabbath.
Indeed, there are many things that have remained unchanged between the two Covenants:
1. The nature of God and man
2. Our relationship to God based upon faith, confession, repentance, and obedience
3. Salvation based upon the mercy of God
4. The moral prohibitions against stealing, lying, murder, adultery, kidnapping…
However, we are no longer required to circumcise our children, make offerings at a temple, or even to fast. Many things have been fulfilled and, therefore, no longer have to be obeyed:
· Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17)
Yet as shadows or symbols of what was to come, they remain both instructive and encouraging. Encouraging? Yes! I teach a course on Christ in the Old Testament, where I attempt to show how the Messiah had been progressively revealed in the OT, starting with the faintest shadow of a prophecy:
· The LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Genesis 3:14-15)
Later, it is revealed that a strange being, often called the “Angel of the Lord,” is playing a pivotal role among the Israelites. In fact, it becomes apparent that this Angel is actually Yahweh (Genesis 16:13; 19:18). Jacob actually wrestles with this Angel and discovers that he is actually wrestling with God but, miraculously, doesn’t die (Gen. 32: ). Moses later encounters the Angel in the burning bush, but finds out that He is God and must remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground (Exodus 3:2-5).
These indications of Christ in the OT are important, especially because the Rabbis insist that God cannot appear in a human form. The Rabbis also accuse us of misusing their Hebrew Scriptures by claiming that they provide evidence of the Trinity. Although the evidence is not as explicit as in the NT, it is still to be found in the OT (Gen. 1:2, 26-27; 3:22; 11:7; 19:24; Psalm 110:1; 2:7, 12; Isaiah 44:6; 48:16; 63:9; Hosea 1:7; Zech. 2:10-11; 4:6; 12:10; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; 11; Jer. 23:5-6; Micah 5:2; Mal. 3:1-3; Ezek. 2:2-3; 11:5).
I sometimes challenge my students to identity one NT doctrine that is not found, in some form, in the OT. They cannot. This is because both Testaments represent one progressively revealed plan of God. This is encouraging because it reveals that such continuity, even on the deepest levels, can only be explained if the Bible has one supreme Author.
Knowing this also affects the way we interpret Scripture. While it is important to attempt to understand the Bible according to the intent of the human authors and the way that their audience must have understood it as God’s Word, we cannot limit our interpretations to these very valid perspectives. Why? Because, as God’s Word, there was much that the human authors did not understand about what they were led to write! They had even been counselled about this:
· Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them [by the Spirit] that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. (1 Peter 1:10-12)
Amazingly, much of what had been written was not written for its original audience – the children of Israel. Instead, it was written for us, but why? We already have the full revelation of the NT. Why do we also need the Prophets of Israel? Because their writings provide us with powerful confirmation and assurance of the Gospel!
I think that we have a tendency to minimize the importance of the full revelation of the Gospel. Without this revelation, Israelites stumbled in relative darkness. We find evidence of this even in the writings of Israel’s wisest man, Solomon. Because his wisdom quest failed to provide him with the glorious revelation of what God had prepared for His children, Solomon complained:
· Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity… So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:15-20)
Solomon wasn’t toiling like others, but his life was oppressive to him. Why? From the perspective of his great wisdom, life was without meaning and, therefore, burdensome. Through the eyes of his wisdom, he could not fathom any meaningful advantage of humanity over the beast:
· For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)
Why didn’t Solomon know about heaven? Hadn’t Moses written about this final reward? Not explicitly! Yes, Solomon’s father David had written about dwelling with the Lord forever, but perhaps Solomon regarded David’s Psalms are more about a figurative reality rather than a concrete physical one. Or perhaps Solomon just wasn’t sure about this?
In any event, despite his wisdom about things of this world, it seems that he was uncertain about the next, the very thing that he needed to know. However, we are the beneficiaries of our Lord’s progressive revelation, enabling us to glory in His Gospel
· We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:19-20)