A Synthetic Overview of the Bible

Introduction

At the time of this writing, the well-achieved online company, amazon.com, announced a new program that will enable all who enlist at a price of $9.99 per month to gain access to over 600,000 eBooks and thousands of audiobooks. Undoubtedly, stories have captured the minds and hearts of billions of people in all of world history, and it does not look like people will be avoiding them any time soon. Christians, then, have the magnificent blessing of being part of a religion that has arguably the most awe-inspiring (and wholly factual) story that has ever been recorded, that is, the Holy Bible. And the way in which one understands the Bible as a whole is likewise important. Although many people despise doctrines and those who are dogmatic in their beliefs (sadly, even Christians fall in this category), Dorothy Sayers once wrote, “[T]he dogma is the drama.”[1] Indeed, the Bible presents the greatest story ever told, but one can become easily bewildered by the sheer magnitude of the Bible’s length. Thankfully, many proficient Bible scholars, pastors, theologians, and even ordinary laymen have made great attempts to systematize the Bible, that is, divide the Bible into sections in order to make the whole more understandable and cohesive to contemporary audiences. This research will attempt to further develop previous writers’ ideas (exegeted from the Bible, of course) with the goal of producing a cogent, biblical, lucid, and sufficient synthetic overview of the Bible.

Necessary Presuppositions for a Synthetic Overview of the Bible

            As Charles Ryrie notes, “Consciously or unconsciously everyone operates on the basis of some presuppositions.”[2] Within this research, certain presuppositions are present in the attempt to formulate a synthetic overview of the Bible. First of all, the beliefs that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and sufficient are all steadfastly insisted. Without a high view of Scripture, one is left without an ample basis. Secondly, the presupposition of “Sola Scriptura” is also urged. Michael Horton clarifies that this Latin phrase means “by Scripture alone,” and that “Ultimate authority always resides outside the self and even outside the church, as both are always hearers of the Word and receivers of its judgment and justification.”[3] Thirdly, this research presupposes that God has revealed His Word progressively, or to use the technical term, “progressive revelation.” Paul Enns explains, “God did not reveal all truth about Himself at one time but revealed Himself ‘piecemeal,’ portion by portion to different people throughout history (cf. Heb. 1:1).”[4] Fourthly (and this presupposition separates the author of this research from other conservative, theological perspectives), the practice of a consistent hermeneutic that is literal (that is, plain and normal), grammatical, and historically concerned is crucial. When something is obviously figurative, then a literal interpretation of that text would be to explain that which is figurative to mean something figurative. Otherwise, one should interpret the Scriptures in the most natural sense that the author intended. Finally, the presupposition is affirmed that God’s purpose for all of His creation is intrinsically doxological—glorifying to God. Christopher Cone has argued rather proficiently for this truth: “The major works of God revealed in Scripture all serve the doxological purpose.”[5] Therefore, upon presupposing these five beliefs, one can readily discern a synthetic overview of the Bible that is true to the pages of the Word of God.

Options for a Synthetic Overview of the Bible

            When one attempts to organize the Bible in a systematic, divisional manner, there are essentially two options to choose from: canonical or chronological. If one chooses to work in a method pertaining to the first (canonical), then there the major emphasis would seem to be on manner of synthesizing according to the way in which the Bible is canonized. Thus, the first “dispensation” in that framework would begin in Genesis 1 with the creation of the world. The canonical approach would seem to be more of a “biblical theology” focused methodology (i.e. a book by book and author by author approach). However, if one chooses the latter option (chronological), then the dimension of focus is in “systematic theology,” meaning that, the theologian does not necessarily establish the system moving from Genesis to Revelation, but draws from various books of the Bible to produce a biblical overview that is consistent with the progression of time since eternity past. For example, one would not look to Genesis 1:1 on the teaching of election, but to a passage such as Ephesians 1 or Romans 8, which is much later in the unfolding of progressive revelation. Ultimately, while both methods of formulating a synthetic overview of the Bible are helpful, the canonical method of systematization is somewhat limited. Yet, that might also be due to the inherent definitions of what constitutes a dispensation. Charles Ryrie, who holds to a canonical perspective, believes “A dispensation is from God’s viewpoint an economy; from man’s, and in relation to progressive revelation, a stage in it.”[6] In other words, man has a responsibility in that dispensation, and oftentimes, there will be judgment for man’s failure.[7] This, of course, is limited in some instances, such as in election where man was not responsible for the sovereign choices of God. Therefore, how one ends up in producing a synthetic overview of the Bible is most likely a result of his definition of a dispensation.

To be more specific in the systematization of a biblical overview, there are two main views to consider[8]: Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. Now, it should be noted that both positions believe there are “dispensations” in the Bible, but where the two differ is in the distinction between Israel and the Church. Such a difference results in distinguishable systems and differing dispensations. Covenant Theology views the Bible in light of two or three theological covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (the third being the covenant of redemption). Michael Horton, an unabashed supporter of Covenant Theology, has provided widely accepted definitions that will be used in this research. Horton refers to the covenant of works as the “covenant of creation” (or covenant of nature) and states that this was a “covenant between the triune Lord and humanity in Adam, with Adam as its covenant representative (federal head). With disobedience, Adam (and humanity whom he represented) would die (Gen. 2:15-17; Rom. 5:12-18).”[9] After Adam and Eve sinned, there was allegedly a proposed covenant of grace defined like so:

[It was] between the triune God and Christ with the church, with Christ as its head and mediator. It began with God’s promise of salvation to Adam and Eve and continued through the family of faith leading from Seth to Noah and on to Abraham and Sarah all the way to the new covenant as inaugurated by Christ’s death. In this covenant, God promises to be our God and to make believers and their children his own redeemed family, with Christ—the Last Adam—as its federal representative, head, and mediator. It is the historical unfolding of the eternal plan of God in the covenant of redemption.[10]

Some proponents of Covenant Theology, Horton included, hold to a third covenant, the covenant of redemption, which holds the following: “[This] covenant [was] entered into by the persons of the Trinity in the councils of eternity, with the Son mediating its benefits to the elect. This covenant is the basis for all of God’s purposes in nature and history, and it is the foundation and efficacy of the covenant of grace.”[11] It should also be noted that some covenant theologians even maintain that there are dispensations within the framework of the covenant of works and grace. For example, Charles Hodge proposes four dispensations: (1) Adam to Abraham (2) Abraham to Moses (3) Moses to Christ (4) The Gospel Dispensation.[12] One can, therefore, be a covenant theologian who professes that there are biblical dispensations without being a “Dispensationalist,” which would include Charles Hodge and others. The main distinction, then, pertains to how one views the relationship between Israel and the Church. Covenant Theologians often see the Church as the fulfillment of what national Israel could not complete, whereas Dispensationalists staunchly argue that God will indeed fulfill all of His unconditional covenants made with Israel (Abrahamic, Land [Palestinian], Davidic, and New Covenant).

Upon exegeting the Scriptures, and utilizing a literal, grammatical, and historical hermeneutic, Dispensationalists still differ between one another as to the exact number of dispensations, but this is due in large part to the way in which a dispensation is defined. The Greek word “oikonomia” means “house-law,” and connotes an idea of economy or management.[13] Most importantly, it is a biblical term, and it is sometimes translated as dispensation (KJV).[14] Furthermore, a necessary distinction to be made is that a dispensation is not simply a period of time (though it requires time), but that there are operations at work between God and man. Another facet to consider is the actual purpose of each dispensation. Different writers have emphasized different foci such as the progression towards the Kingdom of God, salvation, and doxology as the goal of each dispensation. Since everything was created for God’s glory (Revelation 4:11), one can reasonably assume that dispensations are also doxological in their supreme intent, even though the Kingdom of God and salvation are very important as well. Overall, then, one’s definition of “dispensation” will greatly influence how one organizes and identifies the dispensations.

A solution to the various dispensational schemes resides in the meaning the word dispensation, allowing room for two types of dispensations. Dispensationalists are well aware of the “two parties” involved in most dispensations (God and man), as Ryrie notes in his overview of the characteristics of a dispensation: “Basically there are two parties: the one whose authority it is to delegate duties, and the one whose responsibility it is to carry out these charges.”[15] However, Louw and Nida simplify the definition of “oikonomia” as meaning “a plan which involves a set of arrangements.”[16] While it is true that the biblical inclusions of the word “oikonomia” usually speak of God giving man a responsibility, in the case of eternity past, God was the sole “administrator.” He essentially gave Himself the stewardship of saving those whom He elected. Whereas, in the case of, say, the dispensation of “Innocence,”[17] God is the administrator, but Adam and Eve were the stewards. Therefore, this research proposes that it is acceptable to differentiate between a bilateral and unilateral dispensation. One should not think that a bilateral dispensation is left up to chance, for in both types of dispensations God is sovereign and will see to it that His plan (as administrator) is carried out. However, the unilateral dispensations actually form bookends, and they are comprised of eternity past and eternity future.[18] Since the biblical inclusions of “oikonomia” only reference the bilateral dispensations, one would do well to consider the proposition of the two types of dispensations with humility. But it is nevertheless an honest attempt to make sense of Scriptural data in order to formulate a synthetic overview of the Bible.

Conclusion

            Now that the necessary presuppositions have been discussed, along with a comparison of potential viewpoints for arranging a synthetic overview of the Bible, it is finally time to briefly include the proposed dispensations in this research:

  • (1) Unilateral – Eternity Past[19]
  • (2) Bilateral – Innocence (Garden of Eden)[20]
  • (3) Bilateral – Conscience[21]
  • (4) Bilateral – Human Government[22]
  • (5) Bilateral – Promise[23]
  • (6) Bilateral – The Law (Kingdom in Sight)[24]
  • (7) Bilateral – The Church (Kingdom Delayed, but Not Lost)[25]
  • (8) Bilateral – The Tribulation (Purification)[26]
  • (9) Bilateral – The Kingdom[27]
  • (10) Unilateral – Eternity Future[28]

To be clear, all of these dispensations are under the sovereign will of God, nothing will thwart God’s plan (Daniel 4:35). But at the same time, a significant amount of responsibility has been given to humanity. It is hard to fathom what eternity will be like, especially since sin among those who dwell with God will no longer be a possibility (as is the case from dispensations 2-9). But we can trust this glorified future with confidence because it is promised in God’s Word. This (hope for a world unadulterated by sin) and other great theological treasures can be found in one’s attempt to produce a synthetic overview of the Bible. Indeed, such a study is not mere information; it can lead to transformation as well.

 

———————

Sources:

[1] Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos (New York, NY: Harcourt & Brace, 1949), 3.

[2] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1999), 16.

[3] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 187, 194.

[4] Paul Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1989), 20.

[5] Christopher Cone, Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics and Method. 2nd edition. (Hurst, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2012), 16.

[6] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 36.

[7] Ibid., 44-45.

[8] Other views that have a strong following of adherents include New Covenant Theology and Progressive Dispensationalism. Due to brevity, this research will not be able to include these latter two positions.

[9] Horton, The Christian Faith, 992.

[10] Ibid., 992-993.

[11] Ibid., 993.

[12] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1946), 2:373-377.

[13] Cone, Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics and Method, 297. It should likewise be noted that the Latin word “dispensatio” is the linguistic base for the later English term dispensation.

[14] See especially Ephesians 1:10, 3:2; Colossians 1:25.

[15] Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 30.

[16] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1996), 1:357.

[17] See Appendix, “The Traditional ‘Canonical’ View,” dispensation 1.

[18] It should also be noted the unilateral dispensation of “Eternity Past” is still being fulfilled, though certain facets have been accomplished (i.e. the death of Christ, the salvation of many of the elect). One could reasonably argue that both unilateral dispensations (Eternity Past and Eternity Future) are one long dispensation that never really ends, whereas the bilateral dispensations all come to a point of completion.

[19] See John 17:24; Romans 8-9; Ephesians 1:4; 1 Peter 1:20. Most of the dispensations’ biblical support comes from Cone, Prolegomena on Biblical Hermeneutics and Method, 331, but with some adaptation.

[20] See Genesis 1:1-3:6.

[21] See Genesis 3:7-8:14.

[22] See Genesis 8:15-11:9.

[23] See Genesis 11:10-Exodus 18:27.

[24] See Exodus 19:1-Acts 1:26.

[25] See Acts 2:1-Revelation 3:22.

[26] See Revelation 4:1-19:10.

[27] See Revelation 19:11-20:6.

[28] See Revelation 20:7-22:21.

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