“The Preacher Who Takes Up Vos’ Biblical Theology…” (Clowney)

Preaching and Biblical Theology Over the past 15+ years I’ve come to a pretty strong conviction that an understanding of redemptive history is of utmost importance in the pulpit ministry.  Preaching that has no understanding of redemptive history is preaching that lacks.  There are nuances to this discussion of course.  I’m not an advocate of hyper redemptive-historical preaching.  And I believe there is a time and place in the pulpit for topical and doctrinal sermons as well as solid application.  Basically, my view is that the pulpit ministry should have a firm and balanced grasp of systematic theology and biblical theology, both of which should be generally evident in the preaching.  I like how Edmund Clowney spoke about this in his very good book, Preaching and Biblical Theology.

“There is…no opposition between biblical theology and systematic or dogmatic theology, though the two are distinct.  Systematic theology must draw from the results of biblical theology, and biblical theology must be aware of the broad perspectives of systematics. …The development of systematics is strictly thematic or topical.  …The development of biblical theology is redemptive-historical.”

Later Clowney mentioned Geerhardus Vos; I’ve always liked these paragraphs:

“The preacher who takes up Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ for the first time enters a rich new world, a world which lifts up his heart because he is a preacher.  Biblical theology, truly conceived, is a labor of worship.  Beside Vos’ ‘Biblical Theology’ should be set his little book of sermons, ‘Grace and Glory.’  There we hear a scholar preaching to theological students (the sermons were delivered in Princeton Seminary), but with a burning tenderness and awesome realism that springs from the grace and glory of God’s revelation, the historical actualization of his eternal counsel of redemption.”

Clowney then talked about the text and the pulpit.

“An old Dutch preacher has sagely observed that the pulpit must not drive us to the text, but rather the text must drive us to the pulpit.  In biblical theology that scriptural dynamic impels the preacher’s heart with unimagined strength.”

Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology, p. 18-19.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


Dispensationalism, Theonomy, and Biblical Theology (Lints)

The Fabric of Theology It is very important to remember that there is historical progression in Scripture. The Bible is a historical book that records stories from the beginning of the world to the 1st century AD (and beyond, if you think of the prophecies).  But the Bible isn’t a regular history book; it is what we call redemptive history.  That means the Bible contains the inspired history of God’s redemption of his people.  Hand in hand with this truth is the fact that there is also a progression of God’s revelation in Scripture.  As time marches on, God slowly but surely reveals more of himself to his people.  There is progression in God’s revelation from Genesis to Revelation.  These are some assumptions of biblical theology gleaned from Scripture.

Richard Lints does a nice job explaining the importance of bibilcal theology in chapter seven of The Fabric of Theology. He wrote this in 1993, so it might be a bit more nuanced today, but it is still a helpful quote:

“A theological framework that fails to capture the ‘organic unity’ in this flow of redemption and revelatory history will likely be guilty of unnecessary abstraction from the text of Scripture.  Normally one of two errors is committed by modern evangelical interpreters who take this route.  Some overstress the continuity between the epochs (a la theonomy); others overstress the discontinuity of the epocs (a la dispensationalism).  I concur with Edmund Clowney’s observation that ‘modern dispensationalism rightly recognizes that there are great divisions in the history of redemption; it errs in failing to grasp the organic relation of these successive eras, as the developing manifestations of one gracious design.'”

“The theonomic movement rightfully recognizes the underlying unity of the Old and New Testaments but fails to notice the organic progression present between the two Testaments.  While I cannot settle all of the exegetical questions that arise in this context, I do think it is important to remember that an interpretive framework built on the assumption of divine authorship in history will seek to make clear the organic relations among the divergent epochs of the Bible.  This need not result in a bland uniformity or essential contradictions of principles across epochs; rather, it should help the reader to see the overarching purpose progressively revealed through the different epochs of the Scriptures.”

Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, p. 278.

Shane Lems

Moses and Israel, Genealogy and Geography

Dominion and Dynasty: A Study in Old Testament Theology (New Studies in Biblical Theology) I’ve been thoroughly impressed with Stephen Dempster’s Dominion and Dynasty: A Theology of the Hebrew Bible.  If I have time later on I’ll give it a fuller review here.  For now, I do want to note that it is an excellent OT biblical-theological resource.  To give our readers a snapshot, here is an insightful paragraph on Dempster’s comparison of Moses to Israel as found in the Exodus story.

“…The narrative focus [in Exodus] narrows from a stress on births (Israelite seed in general) and persecution, to a particular birth (Israelite seed in particular) – Moses, who narrowly escapes disaster by being placed in an ark in the River Nile (Exod. 2:1-10).  Moses’ salvation from the water echoes backwards and forwards in the text; backwards to the salvation of humanity from the judgment of the flood by Noah (Gen. 6-8), and forwards  to the Israelites’ future escape from the waters of the Reed Sea (Exod. 14).”

“Significantly, as Fox (1997: 253) shows, the figure of of Moses, this child born as a type of savior figure, not only saves Israel but embodies Israel at times.  His rescue from the water prefigures the nation’s salvation from the water; his escape after the death of an Egyptian (Exod. 2:11-15) is a prelude to the Israelites’ flight after the death of many Egyptians (Exod. 12:29-39); his experience of being in the desert for forty years (Exod. 12:29-39) foreshadows the same for Israel (Num. 14:33); his divine encounter before the burning bush (Exod. 3) anticipates Israel before the fire at Sinai (Exod. 19-24).  As was the case with Joseph, another significant Israelite, this member of the tribe of Levi gives greater significance to the understanding of divine dominion in the world” (p. 94).

Stephen Dempster, Dominion and Dynasty (Nottingham: Apollos/InterVarsity Press, 2003).

shane lems

A Review of Hamilton’s Biblical Theology

God's Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology I (Shane) have been working through some OT theology books lately – one of them being God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment by James Hamilton.  This book is a 550+ page discussion of Hamilton’s thesis, namely, that the main theme of the Bible is “God’s glory in salvation through judgment.”  Hamilton says that this is the center of both the Old and New Testaments.

The structure of the book is pretty straightforward.  After an introduction that talks about a “center” of biblical theology and Hamilton’s thesis, the rest of the book is a walk through the Bible.  From Genesis to Revelation and every book in between, Hamilton attempts to prove his thesis – that each book of the Bible is about God’s glory in salvation through judgment.  To summarize it in a most basic way, Hamilton simply discusses every text in every Bible book that proves his point.

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment is a very detailed and dense book.  It doesn’t really read like a story; rather, it reads like an intricate defense of a thesis.  (This is not necessarily a critique, just an observation).  I was hoping to read it straight through, but I have to admit I got bogged down around Leviticus and Deuteronomy because there were so many details that I became overwhelmed.  I then began to read sections of it that interested me (including a few books of the Bible that I’m currently preaching on).  Hamilton has done his homework – there are scores of proof texts on almost every page (which is good to see but makes for cumbersome reading).

So what do I think of the book?  Well, as I already mentioned, it’s not an easy read because of the density.  Also, I have to admit that I’m not 100% convinced that “God’s glory in salvation through judgment” is the main message or center of the Bible.  I do believe it is one of the big themes, but I’m not ready to say it is the theme (for example, it doesn’t hold true before Adam’s sin [pre-fall]).  However, the book is still helpful in tracing this theme throughout the Bible in great detail.

Another thing that struck me was that other major themes in the Bible were downplayed at the expense of Hamilton’s thesis.  For one glaring example, Hamilton didn’t really deal too much with the covenants in the Bible.  He did mention them, of course, but not in much detail or in a way that really affected his theme/thesis.  And unfortunately Hamilton only spent 3 pages discussing the book of Hebrews.  Another theme I was hoping Hamilton would discuss was revelation – but there was almost nothing on how/when God reveals himself or the progressive aspect of revelation.  I suppose anytime someone traces a theme through the Bible there’s a good possibility of missing or downplaying other themes.  It’s impossible to do it all in one book, to be sure.

Finally, while Hamilton’s thesis and his walk-through of the Bible is a helpful addition in the area of biblical theology, I noticed that some of the content of the book builds on other work (i.e. Greg Beale, N.T. Wright, and Thomas Schreiner, among others).  And some of the summaries of Bible books are similar to those in evangelical commentaries and Bible summaries, so I saw overlap there as well (for example, I read Hamilton’s summary of 1 Samuel, which didn’t really tell me anything that my commentaries had not already told me).

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment is a helpful resource that discusses a major Bible theme in a biblical-theological way.  It is level-headed, well argued, and very comprehensive.  Even though I’m not 100% in agreement with everything Hamilton says, his argument is stimulating and it gets the reader into the text and story of Scripture – for this I am thankful!

If you’ve read other biblical theologies (i.e. Vos, Beale, Goldsworthy, etc.) this book might simply be a review of biblical theology from a different angle.  Also, if you have a lot of newer evangelical commentaries and resources on various books of the Bible, the material will overlap them to some extent.  But if you’re not familiar with biblical theology and you want an extremely detailed defense of Hamilton’s thesis (that the center of the Bible is ‘God’s glory in salvation through judgment’), then you’ll for sure want to get this one.

By the way, for a condensed summary of Hamilton’s thesis, you might want to check out his similarly titled essay in Tyndale Bulletin 57 (2006): 57-84.  For those of you who are already well-read in Biblical theology, you may want to read the essay before getting the book.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Historicity, Revelation, and Redemption (Vos)

Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos As many of our readers know, the historicity of Adam and Eve has been discussed in Christian circles these past few years and before.  In light of these discussions, I very much appreciate how Geerhardus Vos linked Christ’s birth and resurrection to this earlier events recorded in Scripture (emphasis mine):

“Granted that our salvation stands or falls with the actual occurrence of the supernatural birth of Christ and his resurrection, can we affirm the same with reference to, say, the historical character of Noah and Abraham and all that is related of their lives?”

“To this we would answer as follows: if we can show that revealed religion is inseparably linked to a system of supernatural historical facts at its culminating epoch in Christ – as we think can be done – then this creates the strongest conceivable presumption that the same will hold true of every earlier stage of the process of its development.

“It is certainly reasonable to assume that God will have adjusted the course of things that led up to Christ, to the fundamental character of the work of Christ – in the sense that he will have scattered over it great miraculous interpositions, to shadow forth the true nature of redemption, and, more than this, that he will have hung it not on the slender thread of legend and fiction, but on the solid chain of actual history.”

“We confess that it would impose a severe strain not merely on our intellectual belief in supernaturalism, but also on our practical faith, were we compelled to admit that back of the time of the prophets or of Moses there lies a great prehistoric blank, in which for aught we know God remained a hidden God.”

Redemption and revelation, in order to be intelligible and credible, require a degree of continuity.  A system of supernatural interpositions which suddenly emerges from the midst of an immemorial evolutionary past satisfies neither our intellect nor our heart.”

“And therefore we say, it is not a matter of small consequence whether or not we are permitted to continue to believe in the historical character of the account of the exodus or the patriarchal narrative.  To make light of such questions is but a symptom of the spiritual levity [fickleness] of our age.”

Supernatural history is an organism, not a mechanical aggregate of pieces, and it behooves us to treat it with the respect that is due to the organism of a divine economy of grace.  In every one of its parts, even those that might seem to us to have but the remotest connection with the center in Christ, it is worthy of our defense and protection.”

I appreciate Vos’ words because he approaches the subject not from a fundamentalist point of view, but from a redemptive historical point of view – a Reformed point of view.  In other words, we can argue for the historicity of Adam and Eve as we start with Christ and trace him back through the Old Testament in light of the covenants (cf. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2-5).

The Vos quotes above are found in his article/address called “Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History” from Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ch. 26.

rev shane lems

Natural Law Rejects the Idea of Human Autonomy

 Many Reformers and Post-Reformation theologians talked about laws of nature – natural laws that God has fixed in creation and in humans.  John Calvin, William Ames, Francis Turretin, John Owen, the Westminster Confession, and others used the term “law(s) of nature” favorably and (mostly) in continuity with Christian theologians that preceded them.  In his most recent book, Divine Covenants and Moral Order, David VanDrunen expands upon this doctrine of natural law in an exegetical, redemptive historical, and Reformed systematic manner.  I’ve not read all of it, so I can’t yet comment on it.  However, I’ll share a quote that explains the book a bit.

“…This book offers a Reformed biblical theology of natural law.  It is genuinely an account of natural law, in organic continuity with broader Christian natural law traditions, including the famous medieval formulation of Thomas Aquinas.  Yet it is also a Reformed biblical theology of natural law, since I believe, in the spirit of the Reformation, that Christian doctrine and ethics must be reformed according to the word of God.  Thus I develop this account primarily through the exegesis of Scripture, as hermeneutically guided by classic Reformed covenant theology.  By grounding natural law in God’s covenants with all creation, this theology of natural law rejects the idea of human autonomy but instead interprets natural law in terms of humanity’s relationship to God and accountability before him.”

“By presenting natural law in connection with the series of covenants (plural) revealed through biblical history, rather than as an ahistorical reality, this account seeks to place natural law in the context of the whole story of Scripture, identifying both its universal relevance for the human race and its relation to God’s particular work of redemption as it culminates in the first and second comings of Jesus Christ.  By presenting natural law in connection with these biblical covenants, furthermore, this account utilizes a theological theme distinctly important in the Reformed tradition, and thus this account constitutes not simply a defense of natural law by a Protestant, but a Protestant exposition of natural law.  Through this biblical theology of natural law I hope both to provide all readers with a stimulating case that will advance broader discussions of this topic and to convince my fellow Reformed Christians of the importance of natural law for Christian faith and life” (p. 3).

David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

rev shane lems
hammond, wi

New Book: Reading the Bible as the Story of Redemption

  Here’s a new book that has to do with reading God’s Word rightly and for profit: Welcome to the Story by Stephen Nichols.  In just over 150 pages, Nichols introduces the main storyline of the Bible, how our lives fit into that story, and how to read the Bible (story).  This is a helpful “big picture” introduction to profitable Bible study.

To give a little more detail, Nichols discusses creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.  He then gives some specific examples of individuals in the Bible’s story and examines the main point of the story (God’s glory).  In the last section, Nichols explains what the Bible does to us and through us.  He closes by giving some practical advice for reading the Bible.  Along the way, Nichols covers most of the main truths of the faith in this book, including sin and bondage, salvation in Christ, Christian service out of gratitude, and so forth.

As a sort of minor side note, the only tiny quibble I have with the book is the amount of anecdotal stories Nichols used.  I realize this is subjective, and some people may appreciate it, but in my opinion there were simply too many illustrative stories.  It seemed like they made up about 20% of the book.

If you’ve done any amount of reading in redemptive-history (or biblical theology – i.e. Clowney, Vos, Horton, etc.) this book will be too elementary for you.  However, it is the perfect one to give to Christians who don’t really understand or know the overarching story of Scripture.  It also might be a good book to use in a high school setting.  I’m thinking about giving it to a few visitors at the church I pastor – visitors who are just learning about the grand story of the Bible.

Though there are already quite a few decent books that explain redemptive history in an introductory manner, and though there are a few good books out there that give practical advice on reading the Bible, this is the first I know of that puts these two things together.  If you want both of these things in one book, put Welcome to the Story on the top of your list (it’s only around $10)!

shane lems

sunnyside wa