Rightly Dividing the Word

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

Often we find that differences among Christians over end-times views reveal broader disagreements about how to interpret the Bible as a whole. Ancient Gnostics (especially Marcion) rejected the Old Testament, pitting Yahweh the Creator God of the Jews against the New Testament Christ of Spirit and grace. Irenaeus, second-century bishop of Lyons, refuted Gnosticism not only at the level of its heretical doctrines, but in terms of its insistence upon a radical discontinuity between the two testaments. As a result, the church father's Against Heresies remains one of the most articulate explorations of covenant theology in the church's history.

During the medieval era, the emphasis fell on continuity. The New Testament was called "the new law," revealing more of God's truth but not fundamentally different in its administration. In fact, it was generally assumed that "Christendom" was an extension of Israel's history. Monarchs were anointed as David's successors, leading the armies of the Lord against the infidels–as well as against each other. Led by John of Leiden and Thomas Müntzer, radical Anabaptists in the sixteenth century captured some German cities and instituted a violent though short-lived theocracy. Most Anabaptists, however, were pacifists. Instead of invoking Joshua's holy wars, they withdrew from secular society, taking the Sermon on the Mount as their constitution. Emphasizing the discontinuity of the testaments, Anabaptists rejected infant baptism. Although the old covenant included the children in the covenant, entrance into the new covenant community can only be secured by a personal decision.

The Protestant Reformers opposed all of these options. On the one hand, the fusion of Christ's kingdom and Europe (or a few German cities as the "New Jerusalem") was seen as a "Judaizing error," similar to the mistake of Jesus' contemporaries who sought a renewed old covenant theocracy. On the other hand, they affirmed the continuity of the gospel and the covenant of grace. The promise that God made to Abraham remains the basis for the covenant, even though the theocracy constituted at Sinai has become obsolete with Christ's advent. Therefore, children are still included in the covenant. In other words, the Reformers recognized continuity in terms of God's unfolding covenant of grace, while affirming on the basis of the New Testament the points of obvious discontinuity between old and new covenants.

In our own day, we see a similar spectrum of opinion about the relationship between the two testaments. At one extreme are those who emphasize continuity to the point where the New Testament is seen merely as an extension of the old covenant, at least at the level of the civil laws. A small but influential movement in the 1970s and '80s, known as Christian Reconstruction (or Theonomy), was an example of this extreme. At the other extreme is dispensationalism, which divides biblical history into various dispensations that have their own program, each ending in failure. A sharp contrast is drawn between the age of law (corresponding to most of the Old Testament) and the age of grace (corresponding to much of the New Testament). Following C. I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, and Charles Ryrie, many dispensationalists have gone so far as to suggest that some New Testament passages remain "under the law," while others (like the Lord's Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount) are relevant only for a future "kingdom age."

Dispensationalism is not just a particular view of the end times; it is a hermeneutic–that is, a way of interpreting the whole of Scripture. It stresses the discontinuity between God's various covenantal dealings with human beings and especially the distinction between Israel and the church. Instead of reading the Old Testament in the light of the New, we should read the Bible progressively. As we will see, this is the heart of the difference between covenantal and dispensational hermeneutics. Furthermore, dispensationalists generally adhere to a literalistic hermeneutic. That is, although they recognize typology (for example, the Old Testament sacrificial system pointing forward to Christ's work), they believe that every prophecy naming Israel refers literally to the nation of Israel and that details, such as lions lying down with lambs, are to be taken literally as references to actual animals. Nondispensational interpreters have usually regarded such prophecies as referring to the expanded Israel of God in the new covenant, with a remnant from Israel and the Gentile nations, with the apocalyptic imagery of peace between the nations and a church that is no longer persecuted. Obviously, this requires that we read the Old Testament promises in the light of their New Testament fulfillment, just as the apostles interpreted the Scriptures.

According to the traditional scheme, there are seven dispensations: (1) Innocence, (2) Conscience, (3) Civil Government, (4) Patriarchal, (5) Mosaic, Grace/Church, (6) Millennial Kingdom, and (7) Eternal State. Even those who do not accept all seven dispensations divide biblical history into three broad categories: the age of law covers the whole period of the Old Testament; the age of grace that occupies a brief parenthesis of the Church Age; followed by the age of the kingdom.

In the past, strict dispensationalists taught that there were even parts of the New Testament that are not applicable to believers in the Church Age. They hold that Christ offered his kingdom to the Jews but that they rejected it. When he returns to establish his millennial kingdom, the Jews will embrace it; but for now there is no kingdom of Christ on the earth. In the meantime, the Church Age is a parenthesis between God's dealings with the nation of Israel. More recently, progressive dispensationalism has emerged, with more continuity between Old and New Testaments.

In spite of their differences, the tendency in both of these extreme positions is to treat the biblical plot as coalescing around the Sinai covenant that established the nation of Israel as a geopolitical theocracy.

Over and against both of these extremes, traditional Reformed (covenant) theology maintains that the principal covenant that runs through both testaments is the covenant of grace, especially as it was announced to Abraham. Both testaments give us the history of the church, from infancy to adulthood. It is the theocracy that was a parenthesis in God's plan, pointing forward typologically to Christ and his kingdom. Although the old covenant is obsolete, having been fulfilled by Christ, the Abrahamic covenant continues in its new covenant administration.

There are obvious discontinuities, of course. Baptism has replaced circumcision. Females as well as males are given the sign and seal of the covenant. The Lord's Supper has replaced Passover. Furthermore, we are no longer under the shadows of the law–its ceremonies and the civil laws that governed every aspect of Israel's life in the land. There is no holy land, except Christ and his church spread throughout the world. There are therefore no holy wars to be waged; Christ has defeated the serpent and driven him out of heaven where he accused God's people day and night. And one day, Christ will return to cast Satan and his angels, along with unbelievers, into the lake of fire. At long last, the whole earth will be filled with God's glory, cleansed of everything that defiles, and the saints will be glorified in everlasting righteousness, justice, and peace.

So, on one hand, there is the continuity between Old and New Testaments. There is one covenant of grace unfolding from promise to fulfillment, from shadows to reality, from less clarity to greater clarity. It actually begins in Genesis 3, when God promises our fallen parents a Redeemer. It is this gospel that creates the church and sustains it throughout its history. On the other hand, there are differences that are evident within the Old Testament itself, especially between the old covenant (Sinai) by which the nation preserves its right to remain in the land and the promised new covenant (Zion) to which believers were directed in faith, longing for the Messiah's arrival.

Whenever we come to the Scriptures, either as hearers or readers, we bring with us certain presuppositions about continuity and discontinuity. It's pretty simple either to eliminate differences or to divide God's Word into Old and New Testaments (law and grace, respectively). The challenge for all of us is to allow the cumulative evidence of many biblical passages to determine where these continuities and discontinuities lie. In that process, we cannot help but appreciate the nuances in the Scriptures through the different covenants that nevertheless serve the ultimate end of realizing the covenant of grace. The following are some important questions that help us think through these issues of continuity and discontinuity.

Should we interpret the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament?

Yes, on the grounds that this is the way that Jesus and the apostles preached and taught the Scriptures (Matt. 5; John 24). Peter in his Pentecost sermon interprets the Old Testament in the light of Christ's life, death, and resurrection. So does Stephen. All of the sermons in Acts reflect this pattern. In fact, at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, James interprets Amos 9 in this way: through the prophet God declared, "After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old." In a dispensationalist interpretation, a prophecy like this that refers to rebuilding the tent of David and the ruins of Israel has to be taken literally as referring to the nation of Israel. James, however, interprets it as being fulfilled now, as justification for including Gentiles in the church without demanding that they first adopt the Jewish customs.

Does the Bible emphasize continuity or discontinuity in God's plans?

This question is a little more complicated. Dispen-sationalists properly recognize that there are different covenants in the Scriptures. We dare not flatten out biblical history, treating it as a collection of timeless doctrines and principles. But these different covenants can't simply be divided into discrete eras. For example, the Mosaic covenant was based on law ("Do this and you shall live"); it pertained exclusively to the typological land of Canaan and to the people of Israel.

God's covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 is quite different. God promises to bring blessing to all nations through Abraham's seed. It's not a conditional promise based on human faithfulness, but a divine oath that is fulfilled in the new covenant with the coming of Christ. Especially Paul emphasizes that the Mosaic covenant, which came over four centuries later, cannot annul the earlier (Abrahamic) covenant, and that everyone who has faith in Christ is now a true child of Abraham. Moses was saved by grace, in the covenant of grace.

In fact, Paul and the writer to the Hebrews explicitly state that the children of Israel had the same gospel preached to them as we have heard, although we have heard it more clearly on this side of its fulfillment. However, the promise of long life and blessing in the earthly land was conditioned on Israel's faithfulness. So the covenant of grace runs continuously through both testaments. It is based on God's enduring and unconditional promise to Adam and Eve after the Fall to send a Redeemer.

Dispensationalism interprets the Bible as distinct periods of law and grace, while Scripture teaches an unfolding covenant of grace throughout redemptive history–with the Mosaic theocracy added for a time. In other words, while dispensationalism sees the church as a parenthesis in a history that revolves around God's relationship with the nation of Israel, we see the old covenant theocracy as a parenthesis in a history defined by the covenant of grace.

Does the New Testament treat the new covenant church as the expansion of Israel (the old covenant church) or as two separate entities with different programs?

The prophets themselves tell of the day when a remnant from all the nations will be brought into Zion and its borders will be expanded to include the whole earth. They speak of Egyptians, Assyrians, and other former hostile enemies of Israel being united in a fellowship of salvation and worship. It was Ezekiel who prophesied an end-time sanctuary built without hands.

Paul says clearly that everyone who has faith in Christ is united to Abraham, that the earthly Jerusalem is actually now in bondage and is the heir of Hagar rather than Sarah. It is the heavenly Jerusalem that is free. Hebrews says that the new covenant has made the old covenant "obsolete" (Heb. 8:13). There is no longer a holy land or a holy people, apart from Christ and his body. There are no more sacrifices. The shadows have served their purpose and have vanished now that the reality has come.

So the church doesn't replace Israel. All along, the church has existed in embryo to infancy to adulthood. All along it was God's purpose to unite Jews and Gentiles into one family. The church is older than Israel and the new covenant people of God are called by Paul "the Israel of God" (Gal. 6:16).

Peter applies to the new covenant church the cherished designation of Israel as "a spiritual house/temple" and "a holy priesthood," bringing "spiritual sacrifices" of thanksgiving through Jesus Christ. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people. Once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Pet. 2:4-10).

Are we to expect catastrophe and then Christ's kingdom, or is Christ's kingdom present now in suffering and progress of the gospel to be consummated in glory at Christ's return?

There are good and bad versions of amillennialism. Following the New Testament, the early Christians recognized the "already" and the "not yet" character of Christ's kingdom. However, the fusion of Christ and culture since Constantine announced prematurely the consummation of Christ's reign. Why long for Christ's bodily return when we're doing so well, when the church seems to be in charge of things?

Jesus and Paul explicitly invoke the distinction between "this age" and "the age to come" (Matt. 12:32; 24:3; 1 Cor. 2:6; Gal. 1:4). The contrast, however, isn't as observably cut-and-dried as many had expected. With his triumph over the demonic forces, culminating in his death and resurrection, Jesus has inaugurated the age to come. And yet, it is breaking into this present evil age. There is a clash between the realities of the age to come and the bondage of this age. There is an "already" and a "not yet" aspect to the kingdom.

John the Baptist announced that "the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 3:2) and Jesus announced that it had arrived, as he healed the sick, raised the dead, and declared after the return of the seventy disciples from their mission, "I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning" (Luke 10:18). "But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons," Jesus said, "then the kingdom of God has come upon you." The strong man (Satan) has been bound, so that his house may be looted (Luke 11:20-22). Above all, sinners and outcasts are being forgiven directly by Jesus, without any connection to the temple machinery. With Satan bound, the apostles are called to go into all the world and unlock the prison doors and free the captives. They are given by Christ the keys of the kingdom, to bind and loose on earth what has been bound and loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; John 20:23). The exodus is past, but now is the era of conquest through the witness of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Only when Jesus returns will the conquest be consummated as the kingdoms of this age are made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ.

Contrary to the expectations of most of Jesus' contemporaries (including John the Baptist and his own disciples), this single event will not happen all at once. It will unfold in a series of fulfillments, and the space that we now occupy as the church today is the parenthesis in which the final judgment is postponed, so that the gospel of the kingdom can be proclaimed to the whole world.

So we must be careful not to fall into the same misunderstanding of the kingdom that was shared by Jesus' contemporaries. Tasting morsels of that day, with various healings and victories over the demonic forces in the ministry of Jesus and his apostles, we want to see fully realized here and now the consummation to which these signs pointed. If necessary, we will bring about the consummation of this kingdom ourselves! This is a danger we have to resist, because it misunderstands that the most crucial vocation of the church in this present age is the proclamation of the gospel. "Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, [Jesus] answered them, 'The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, "Look, here it is!" or "There!" for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you'" (Luke 17:20-21).

The kingdom of God in this present phase is primarily audible, not visible. We hear the opening and shutting of the kingdom's gates through the proclamation of the gospel, in the sacraments, and in discipline. Taking no notice of the kingdom of God, the nations will be going about their daily business, engaging in violence and immorality as in the days of Lot, "eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building" when Jesus will return suddenly (Luke 17: 22-30). We, however, are called to repent and believe in Christ, to make disciples, to be disciples, and to proclaim this gospel to the ends of the earth. The kingdom is present, but not yet fully present.

Only if we hold in slight esteem the forgiveness of sins, rebirth into the new creation, justification, sanctification, and the communion of saints, can we fail to revel in these present realities of Christ's reign. In his resurrection, Christ has inaugurated the final resurrection of the dead. Already, the verdict of the last judgment is being rendered in the present. Those who believe in Christ are already declared righteous, and those who do not are already condemned (John 3:16-19, 36). "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). The decisive verdict of the Last Day is already known for all who believe the gospel.

Everything that was promised through the prophets (including John the Baptist) is indeed part of the kingdom that Christ brings. In fact, it is true that they belong to one and the same event. It becomes clearer as the Gospels unfold, however, that the manifestation of this kingdom occurs in two phases. At present, this Spirit is raising those who are spiritually dead and giving them faith, uniting them to Christ for present justification and sanctification as well as future glorification. Yet believers, like unbelievers, still suffer common ills as well as blessings. They eventually die, but believers die with the hope of the resurrection in a renewed heavens and earth. By his Word and Spirit, Christ is now gathering a people for himself. Only when he returns, however, will the angel proclaim with a loud voice, "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).

When we return to Jesus' teaching and actions in the Gospels, we can see this already/not yet tension. No longer "at hand," Jesus announces that the kingdom is "here" (Mark 1:15; Matt.11:5-6; 12:28; 13:1-46; Luke 11:5-6, 20; 17:20-23:15:4-32). The king is present, inaugurating his kingdom. At the same time, he speaks of its full realization in the future (Matt. 6:10; 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 6:20-26; 9:27; 11:2; 13:28-29). The kingdom is coming but also has come (Matt. 12:28-29; Luke 11:20).

How is the kingdom coming?

The manner in which the demons respond to Jesus shows his authority over them, but it is not just a raw power: it is his coming in his kingdom of grace and forgiveness that they fear most. Satan and his emissaries are busiest not with plotting wars and oppression–these are symptoms of the sinful condition that human beings are capable of generating on their own. However, Satan knows that if the Messiah fulfills his mission, the curse is lifted, his head is crushed, and his kingdom is toppled.

All of Satan's forces are deployed in this last battle for "all authority in heaven and on earth." All of Jesus' miracles are pointers to this saving announcement; they are not ends in themselves. The kingdom comes with words and deeds. In the miracles, it is said that Satan has bound these people (viz., Luke 13:11, 16). Christ is breaking into Satan's territory, setting history toward a different goal, bound to his own rather than to demonic powers. This is why Paul's call to spiritual battle in Ephesians 6 identifies the gospel, faith, the Word, and Christ's righteousness as the armor and weapons. Satan's energies are now directed against the church and its witness to Christ. The devil knows his house is being looted and his prisons are being emptied as the gospel is taken to the ends of the earth.

Whatever the salutary effects of this kingdom on the wider society, with Christians living as salt and light, this age cannot be saved. It is dying. Through his apostles, Christ declares to the churches, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever" (Gal. 1:3-5). To be sure, the Spirit is also at work in common grace, restraining the spiritual entropy of this present evil age. However, the Spirit's saving mission is not to improve our lives in Adam, under the reign of sin and death, but to crucify us and raise us with Christ. Paul reminds us that "the appointed time has grown very short." We marry, live, and work in the world, but without anxious attachment to this present age: "For the present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). Like God's counsel to the captives in Babylon, Peter exhorts believers to "conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ" (1 Pet. 1:17-19, emphasis added). Fully involved with the common life of our neighbors, we are nevertheless pilgrims who, with Abraham, are "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Heb. 11:10).

Instead of calling down God's judgment and driving out the Gentile nations, Jesus commands us to pray for our enemies. "You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' [Exod. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21]. But I say to you, 'Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him your left'" (Matt. 5:38-39). God no longer sends plagues among the godless but "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous," and he expects us to imitate his kindness (Matt. 5:43-48). This is not the time to judge our neighbors, but to take the log out of our own eye (7:1-5), to diligently seek God's good gifts (vv. 7-11), to enter through the narrow gate (vv. 13-14), and to bear good fruit (vv. 15-27).

In fact, when Jesus went to a Samaritan village preaching the good news and was rejected, James and John wanted to call for fire to fall from heaven in judgment upon them. "But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went to another village" (Luke 9:51-56). Nicknamed "sons of thunder," James and John were clearly looking for a kingdom of glory all the way to the very end (Mark 10:35-45). They even asked Jesus if they could be seated at his right and left hand at the presidential inauguration, but Jesus told them that they had no idea what they were asking: namely, crucifixion with Jesus (vv. 35-40). As such, there is no holy land over which to fight. There aren't even holy places, shrines, or sanctuaries, since Christ and his people together form the end-time sanctuary. Jesus was announcing the arrival of the new covenant, which he would inaugurate in his own blood (Matt. 26:28).

Confusing Christ's kingdom of grace with the Sinai theocracy was precisely the error that Paul addressed especially in Galatians. The kingdom of God in its present phase simply is the announcement of the forgiveness of sins and, on this basis, entrance into the new creation. The signs that Jesus performed were evidence that the age to come had indeed broken in on this present evil age. That is why he told John's disciples to return with the news of healings, but especially that "the poor have the gospel preached to them," adding, "and blessed is the one who is not offended by me" (Matt. 11:5). In other words, this is his mission in his earthly ministry and blessed are those who are not put off by it, expecting something other than this salvation of sinners. God's kingdom is all encompassing, yet it arrives in two stages with Christ's two advents.

When Christ returns in power and glory, there will be no need for the proclamation of the gospel, no need for faith or hope. There will be only love, since the reality will be evident and fully realized for everyone to see (1 Cor. 13:8-13; Rom. 8:19-25). "At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb. 2:8-9).

It's not that the horizon of Jesus' contemporaries was too broad but that it was too narrow. While they were settling merely for a messiah who would restore geopolitical theocracy, Jesus Christ was bringing a universal dominion–not just overthrowing Gentile oppressors but casting out the serpent from heaven and earth forever: "For behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:21). In the present era, his kingdom of grace is a reprieve for repentance and faith in Israel and throughout all nations before Christ's return. It is a new creation at work in the world–a new covenant yielding new relationships with God and with each other based on forgiveness and fellowship rather than on judgment and exclusion.


The late Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher and French Reformed believer, reflected on the Bible as a vast inter-text, weaving together diverse genres in service to one unfolding plot. Some of these reflections in Figuring the Sacred may be helpful as we think through this issue. "In effect, what progressively happens in the Gospel is the recognition of Jesus as being the Christ," says Ricoeur. "We can say in this regard that the Gospel is not a simple account of the life, teaching, work, death, and resurrection of Jesus, but the communicating of an act of confession, a communication by means of which the reader in turn is rendered capable of performing the same recognition that occurs inside the text." (1) "The narrative of the life and death of Jesus is organized in such a way that the knowledge unveiled right at the beginning should be appropriated by the actors themselves and, beyond them, by the reader. It is the work of the text to do this." (2)

The Bible is "one vast 'inter-text.'" (3) The laws and the narratives can't be pulled apart, as is often done in higher criticism. (4) The laws (and doctrines) keep the narrative from simply passing away into the past, while the narratives ground the laws and doctrines "in its theology of the covenant in speaking of God's faithfulness." The covenants give the narratives a "cumulative aspect" to biblical time and the identity of Israel's God. (5) The old is always at work even in the new, as the new covenant is still talking about "a new exodus, a new desert, a new Sinai, a new Zion, a new Davidic descendance, and so on….A few centuries later, the early church will turn this procedure into a hermeneutic and find in it the basic structures of its typological reading of the OT" (6) –a retrospective and prospective dialectic already at work in the Old Testament itself. Prophecy and eschatology keep the history from standing still.

1 [ Back ] Paul Ricoeur, Figuring the Sacred (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 162.
2 [ Back ] Ricoeur, 162.
3 [ Back ] Ricoeur, 171.
4 [ Back ] Ricoeur, 172.
5 [ Back ] Ricoeur, 173.
6 [ Back ] Ricoeur, 176.
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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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