I Still don’t Know what Redemptive-historical Interpretation is!
Though in our churches the redemptive-historical interpretive model is held up as the best way to understand God’s Word, many still say, “I still don’t know what redemptive-historical interpretation is!” It is important for teachers who want to draw deep from the riches of Scripture to understand and to learn what it is, and how to apply its principles. Many have tried to explain it. Perhaps some counter examples will help us to understand.1 I suggest that there are three other basic models of Scripture interpretation: intellectualist, moralist-exemplarist, and liberal-critical. By better understanding those three we can more clearly see what redemptive-historical is.
The intellectualist method stresses facts and data. God is someone to be known and studied as one might study an object. God is a rational being and Scripture is God’s thoughts and words about himself. Scripture becomes simply a series of proof texts to be memorized, concepts to be learned, and truths to be organized in a systematic way. Man is created in the image of God; He is a rational being who has to learn the facts. The intellectualist teacher will have the students do intellectual activities. Students will be required to recite Bible texts and to explain doctrine with supporting proof texts.
Learning the facts is important, but it is not the final purpose of Bible study.
The moralist looks at Scripture a little differently. He sees God not as an object to be studied, nor the Bible as a book of facts about God. Rather, he sees God as judge whom we will all meet someday. God is busy writing down all our faults in a big book. Man is a moral being. He must choose between the right and the wrong. The Bible is our case book to guide us on the way; it is a book of rules. The stories teach us what to do and what not to do. Bible class is to build up moral character. Moralism thrives on drawing lessons from the Bible. It uses the Bible as a book of examples: good or bad. The students should learn right from wrong by emulating Bible characters (or by distancing themselves from their behaviour).
Learning moral behaviour is a good thing, but this is not the first nor final purpose of Bible study.
Proponents of a liberal-critical method try to find the background sources to the Bible. They asks a different set of questions. “Where did Matthew get his stories? How can we explain the miracles? Where do the folk tales and myths of the Ancient Near East fit into the Bible? Through what processes did the stories come together?” To the liberal-critical teacher the Bible is not revelation from God but the account of Israel’s religious history and the, perhaps true, perhaps not true, story of the birth of the Christian religion. The Bible is the testimony to, and the account of, the religious experience of various groups of people and of individuals. In the Bible we can find the aspirations and evolution of Old Testament Israel and New Testament Church. It is the product of human processes.
This method is not based on a high view of Scripture and so is not beneficial to us. It is however, important to know about it, for it lies back of many books and resources that the Bible teacher will use. Ignorance of this perspective causes many Reformed confessors to adopt very poor hermeneutical principles and foundations.
The redemptive-historical method studies God’s Word as the history of redemption as found in the unfolding and progressive revelation of God’s mighty acts for and in his people, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It, first of all, tells the account of God’s redemptive work and grapples with it in its historical setting. “Where does the narrative fit in the big picture?” The redemptive-historical approach also attempts to deal with the literary character of the passage. For example, Psalm 105 is a song of praise to a covenant-keeping God. When it is studied it should be studied as a song, not primarily as a synopsis of Israelite history, even though in a sense that is what it is.
The historical, geographic, political situation will be brought to bear on the matter. We can use good commentaries, encyclopaedias, atlases, Bible hand books, dictionaries, lexicons, etc.
The redemptive-historical method acknowledges and highlights that the whole of Scripture testifies of Christ. The Old Testament points to Him. The New Testament witnesses of Him. The Old Testament anticipates his coming; the New Testament confirms and anticipates his return. Jesus Christ is the centre, the focal point of history, but He is also working through history. An interpretation that does not point to Him and his redemptive work is lacking in precision and is at best incomplete.
Moral/Ethics - Knowledge/Facts
All this does not mean that there is no moral or ethical lesson in the Bible or that knowledge and fact learning and memorization are unnecessary. There is a role for moral example. We should not approach the Bible as if it were just a history book with no concrete impact in our lives. Memorization of Scripture is important. The study of doctrine is essential. A Christian ethic is based on Scripture. But to come to these, doctrine and ethics, we must first have a good interpretive model from which to work.
Old Testament Illustration
To better understand these various interpretive models we should look at some biblical narratives and see how they might be interpreted and taught in Bible class. First we will examine the account of Joshua and Jericho.
Israel crossed the Jordan, marched thirteen times around Jericho and the walls fell down.
The intellectualist might say, “Class, we’ve read the story of the fall of Jericho. What can we learn? This is the lesson. The destruction of Jericho is proof of the doctrine of double predestination. The wicked are destroyed, but Rahab is saved.” Or the teacher might ask, “How many times did the Israelites march around the city?”
The Liberal critic has another approach. This teacher will say to the class after having read the account, “Of course we understand that this is just an ancient myth. The walls could not have fallen miraculously; there must have been an earthquake! If the people of Israel actually did march around the city so many times the shaking of the ground caused the foundations to weaken and the earthquake caused some of the walls to collapse. It is doubtful that this happened when Israel entered the land but is likely just an ancient tale that developed around an event long lost in the mists of time. Perhaps it was told to explain why Jericho was an un-walled city for so many years. In fact, class, the story may have been part of the Sodom and Gomorrah myth with Jericho situated in the same valley. Jericho was ‘moved’ from the south to its location on the Jordan River by an editor in order to make a dramatic opening to the story of Joshua.”
The Moralist-exemplarist Model
The curriculum from Bob Jones’ University helps us illustrate the moralist-exemplarist model. Joshua’s conquest was the result of obedience.
Your students must recognize that God demands (obedience) from them. The Bible is not just a book for pastors and Bible teachers or just a textbook for their Bible classes. It is the rule book for their lives ... With each passage they must ask, “How does this affect my life?”... What does God’s word demand of me?” God will reward their efforts; obedience will bring good success. 2
So the account of the defeat of Jericho is a lesson for obedience. If you, like the people of Israel, do exactly as told, then God will bless you with every success. The history of Achan is a counter example. Disobedience will cause God to withdraw his blessing. The lessons are obvious. The same God who brought Israel into the promised land can meet our every need.
A teacher using the redemptive-historical model will have an entirely different look at things. This teacher will point out that “God had made his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and now He is fulfilling his promise to bring their children to this land. Jericho is the first fruits. He brings the people across the Jordan in the time that the river was high and miraculously conquers a fortress city guarding the way. Jericho was a pagan city. God himself was the leader of the army. The people could see that God was keeping his covenant promises and that they could depend on Him to conquer the whole land. As God took Jericho through the mediator Joshua and secured blessing for his people and executed his wrath and judgment on the wicked, so also the better mediator (see Hebrews 4) Jesus Christ has laid claim to the new heaven and the new earth for his people.”
New Testament Illustration
We can also use a New Testament illustration. In John 6:1-14 the Lord Jesus feeds the five thousand. Five thousand follow the Lord Jesus into the hills to the other side of the sea of Galilee. They need something to eat. A boy has five little loaves and two fish. The Lord receives them and feeds the five thousand and the disciples collect twelve baskets of leftovers.
The Intellectualist Lesson
In the classroom of an intellectualist teacher the account is told and then: “Well children, what did we learn from the Bible story today? How many people were there on the hillside? Who supplied the bread and fish? How many loaves were there? How many fish? How many baskets left? Very good. Let’s open up our arithmetic books.”
The liberal-critical method demands to understand how the account came to be written as we have it today. (This lesson would not work well in primary grades but imagine it anyway.) “From where did John get the story? Did he get this from one of the other gospel writers. Did a later editor add it? Are the words of Jesus authentic? What actually happened? How does this story compare with the other times that Jesus feeds great crowds? Are the stories repetitions of the same myth but just different versions?”
The teacher might say, “Well boys and girls, if Jesus was actually teaching in the countryside (and that’s probably not true) it was likely just outside Jerusalem and not in Galilee. And even if there were five thousand people, they would not all go out to follow Jesus without food except for one boy. The generosity and kindness of the little boy with the five loaves and two fish shamed all the grownups and so they all took out the food they had hidden in their robes and in the end they had more than enough because everyone had taken food along.”
The moralist-exemplarist is always looking for a moral/ethical lesson. “Well boys and girls, what did you learn from this Bible lesson today? Yes, just as Jesus fed the hungry so we too should feed the hungry. What else? Yes, of course just as the little boy was generous, so we too should be generous and share our food. This is a good lesson in sharing. Sharing is good. Let’s all try to share today.”
The teacher teaches a good moral point here but he missed the story. The account of the Lord Jesus Christ was just a launch pad for his little moral application. But the account in John 6 is not about sharing. It is not about selfishness. It is about the Christ, the Lord Jesus. John 20:31 says that these signs (including the feeding of 5,000) were given that we might believe that Jesus is the Christ. That is why John wrote down the story. The moralist, in trying to build the character of his students, lost the Lord Jesus in whom alone lives are changed.
We need to ask of the characters how they function as prophet, priest or king. How was David responding as king to God? How was Moses, the mediator of the Old Covenant, prophet, priest, and king? How was Elijah a prophet? What of Ahab? Did he fulfill his calling? Or Solomon? Not Solomon as a good example/bad example, but Solomon as the Anointed of the Lord. The Lord Jesus says that Solomon was great, but that a greater one had come.
We must ask, “How was the Lord functioning as prophet, priest and king in John 6?” He was the prophet who taught the people. In his priestly office, He dealt mercifully with them. He had compassion on them. As King, He had authority over all creation. He could do even the impossible in providing for his people. He not only cared for their spiritual welfare but also for their physical, for the gospel is more than just about your soul but also about your body. He himself is the bread of life, as He explains in John 6:22 ff. He tells how Moses provided manna but that the Father gives bread from heaven. Jesus, by feeding the five thousand, was the One greater than Moses. And we know that He gave himself as our heavenly food and drink by which we are nourished to everlasting life. This caused a separation among his followers.
We could reflect on other examples. How would the moralist or the intellectualist interpret various stories? On the other hand, how would we interpret within a redemptive-historical framework?
The story of Joseph and the butler who forgot becomes a lesson against forgetfulness. The moralist will explain how we are not to forget those shut in, not to forget kindness to old folks or poor people or even maybe those in prison. But this is not really the point. Rather, this account of Joseph and the butler tells us of how God used the butler’s forgetfulness as his means of saving Joseph’s life and getting him to Pharaoh’s court at the right time so that Joseph could intervene on behalf of God’s covenant people.
To the moralist, Gideon becomes a lesson on how God can use shy and insecure people to do great things. The account of David and Goliath is a lesson on standing up for God.
The moral of Lot’s story is, “Bad company ruins good morals.” The liberal-critical interpreter would say the story of Lot and his daughters is simply a nasty bit of negative PR against the Moabites and Ammonites, Israel’s mortal enemies. It is not really a true story, says he, but a myth made up by Israel to say that their enemies to the east were the offspring of incestuous relationships. A bunch of illegitimate children!
We need to root our Bible teaching in the redemptive-historical method with the Reformed confessions as our paradigm. Teachers need to use all sorts of resources to show the mighty deeds of God which He has done for the redemption of his people that they might praise Him. They must use those resources to explore the Bible and to make it memorable and fascinating. When this is done with the history of redemption as the framework and when this is done within a Reformed world view, informed by Scripture and Confessions, then they will equip their students with lifetime skills which they can use to interpret and rightly understand the Word of God. Ultimately that should be the aim and objective of Bible teachers.