Thursday, March 12, 2009

How to read the Bible

"Against those forms of Judaism that saw the law-covenant not only as lex [law] but as a hermeneutical device for interpreting the Old Testament, Paul insists that the Bible's story line takes precedence and provides the proper hermeneutical key."

D. A. Carson, "Reflections on Salvation and Justification in the New Testament," JETS 40 (1997): 585.

There are two ways to read the Bible. We can read it as law or as promise.

If we read the Bible as law, we will find on every page what God is telling us we should do. Even the promises will be conditioned by demand. But if we read the Bible as promise, we will find on every page what God is telling us he will do. Even the commands are conditioned by provision.

In Galatians 3 Paul explains which hermeneutic is the correct one. "This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise" (Galatians 3:17-18).

So, if we want to know whether we should read the Bible through the lens of law or promise, demand or provision, burden or gift, command or grace, we can just start reading on page one and see which comes first. And in fact, promise comes first, in God's word to Abram in Genesis 12. Then the law is added later, in Exodus 20. The category "promise" establishes the larger, wraparound framework for everything else added in along the way.

The deepest message of the Bible is the promises of God through grace. The Bible presents itself to us this way. The laws and commands and examples and warnings are all there. We must revere them. But they do not provide the hermeneutic with which we make sense of the whole. We can and should understand them as qualified by God's gracious promise in Christ.