One of the greatest challenges in studying and preaching the book of Galatians is one and the same with studying and preaching the whole Bible: what is the relationship between the different parts? Paul contrasts the gospel and law, John writes about the the difference between Moses and Jesus, and Hebrews discusses how the New Covenant relates to the Old Covenant. There are obviously differences between parts of the Bible. However, there are also continuities. The Bible is one redemptive story – from Genesis 3 where God promises to crush the head of the Serpent with the heel of the Seed of the women to the cross where Satan and death are defeated by Jesus to Revelation where Satan is finally cast into the lake of fire. The Bible is one unified story.
Much of the debate in hermeneutics (interpreting the meaning of the Bible) centers on how we understand the unity and disunity of the Bible. Traditional covenant theologians have emphasized the unity of the Bible – challenging Bible students to interpret every part of the Bible through the lens of the redemptive narrative of God’s saving work in Christ. Traditional dispensational theologians have emphasized the disunity in the Bible – challenging Bible students to interpret every part of the Bible in its immediate context and in light of the discontinuities between the parts. However, what I have found interesting in my study of Galatians is how contemporary scholars seem to have been listening to each other and learning to appreciate both the unity and disunity in the Bible. Two illustrations:
Darrell Bock, a research professor of NT at Dallas Seminary, has written a new book on the essence of the gospel. Bock is one of the major voices in progressive dispensationalism – the position that most best describes my understanding of how the Bible is put together. Bock, firmly in the middle of a tradition that highlights the discontinuities of the Bible, spends significant time showing how the gospel finds its fullest meaning in the fulfillment of the Old Testament covenants – specifically the promises made to Abraham, David, and Jeremiah. Here are Bock’s own words on how we must read the New Testament in light of the Old Testament in order to understand the full meaning of the work of Jesus Christ:
Together the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New covenants form the gospel’s backbone. God would form a people through whom the world would be blessed. He would do it through a promised King, a Messiah. That king would bring two key things the world desperately needed: forgiveness and a restored relationship with the living God. The two were always connected to be good news from God.
In other words, the major unconditional, covenant promises of the Old Testament are not only about the people of Israel even though they were first given to the people of Israel. They are primarily about Jesus Christ through whom the world would be reconciled to God (including Israel). Bock is emphasizing the unity of the Bible – God has had one end in mind from the beginning of creation – to redeem a people for Himself through the work of His one and only Son. We need to read the Bible as this one story in order to interpret its pieces correctly.
The other book that I’ve been reading lately is a collection of essays from Modern Reformation magazine about the doctrine of justification. Justification by grace alone through faith alone is one of the key doctrines in the book of Galatians, and these articles interact with passages from Galatians throughout. The third article in the collection is by T. David Gordon on Paul’s use of the Law. Gordon, firmly in the middle of a tradition that highlights the unity of the biblical narrative, actually critiques the work of some 20th century Reformed scholars who have missed the importance of the differences in the biblical covenants. Here are Gordon’s words on John Murray’s overemphasis on grace in every covenant in the Old Testament:
Murray’s tendency to see “unity” in all biblical covenants has the effect of eroding the distinctives of each covenant, and tends to promote an expectation of continuity between covenants that was not true of the previous covenant theology tradition.
In other words, Paul’s strong contrast of the gospel of grace and the Mosaic Law don’t make sense in Galatians if we read the Old Testament as simply saying the exactly same thing as the New Testament. Something has changed – the covenant promises of the people of God would not be fulfilled in through the law – they could only be accomplished through the substitutionary death of the Son of God. The Old Testament helps us understand the gospel of Jesus not only in the similarities it has with the New Testament, but also in the contrasts it has with the New Testament. It seems to me that only if we see the continuities and the discontinuities clearly will we interpret the Bible correctly.