For printable pdf file, click The Marvelous Unity of the Bible by Stephen Hague
The Marvelous Unity of the Bible
Jesus says in Jn 10:35 that “the scripture cannot be broken” which means that the OT is completely trustworthy (and by implication, it is a unity). Similarly, in 2 Timothy 3:16 we read that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” By implication, its multifaceted parts from many authors and centuries is a textual and theological unity trustworthy in every aspect, and therefore it cannot err.
Considering the increase of contemporary interest in the many spurious texts such as the so-called, “gospel” of Judas, questions are often raised about the independent unity, uniqueness, and veracity of the Bible. Such texts, nevertheless, do not pose any worthy challenge to the authenticity or unity of the Bible whatsoever, since these texts arose in Gnostic circles that were a counter-community to the Christian church in its early history. These texts are not from the Christian church, and indeed were often penned to contradict the NT gospels and epistles. In fact, Gnosticism has frequently posed similar challenges to the church’s historical claim of only one unified revelation, the canon of the Bible.
Indeed, there has also been a significant increase of Gnostic views in recent years in the USA. Gnosticism is a reinterpretation of the Christian faith in terms of pagan philosophy and religion. This essay is not, nevertheless, a lesson in Gnosticism, but in the unity of the biblical text which can be illustrated by briefly contrasting it with those who advocate disunity, such as the Gnostics.
Ancient and modern advocates of disunity: Marcion Sinope (70AD-150AD) was a Gnostic who believed in a sharp dualism between the NT God of mercy in Christ and the OT God of justice. This meant a total disunity between the OT and the NT, Israel and the church: he considered the God of the OT a vindictive God of law, inferior to the NT God of grace, love, and mercy. Marcion was excommunicated from the Roman church c.144 AD, but he succeeded in establishing churches of his own to rival the Christian church for some two centuries. Marcion’s Bible rejected the Mosaic Law and the three NT Gospels, but accepted ten epistles of Paul and some Gnostic texts. Though the church fathers condemned Marcion as a blaspheming heretic, he is praised widely in modern times: Adolf Von Harnack called Marcion “the first Protestant.” Nevertheless, Polycarp, who knew the Apostle John, called Marcion “the first-born of Satan.”
Despite rejection of Gnosticism by the majority of Christendom over the centuries, today there is a prevailing Marcionite viewpoint on the Bible. This is seen in a widespread, bifurcated overemphasis on the NT and an under emphasis on the OT (indeed, frequent avoidance). This is seen in the widely noted fact that the majority of teaching and preaching and Christian devotion concentrates on the NT. This is characterized in diverse ways:
- Some assume a radical discontinuity between the OT and the NT, a permanent “antithetical tension.”
- Others, such as R. Bultmann, believe the OT is a miscarriage of history, and assume a complete discontinuity between the two testaments. (Some of this derives from the Lutheran law/gospel polarity between the OT and the NT.)
- Other, such as A. Harnack, completely dismiss the OT, and some like F. Delitzsch say the OT is an unchristian book!
- Many others today accept mistaken, radical dualities between OT law and NT grace, OT holiness and NT love, OT judgment and NT mercy.
In contrast, in the early church, such leaders as Irenaeus (A.D. 180), a pupil of Polycarp (pupil of John), emphasized “the unity of God’s progressive revelation.” And, this has been the orthodox view from that time, although not always held to universally. In support of the orthodox view, it can be demonstrated that the canon of the Scripture has an unmatched continuity and a textual and topical/theological unity that displays a coherence and cohesion of both the individual books and the diverse texts as a whole.
In another fragmenting way, Saint Augustine’s (b.354) latter influence up into the medieval era analyzed the OT on the basis of five distinct historical periods and encouraged the use of the allegorical method. The allegorical method prevailed for centuries, and prevented a proper historical understanding of the Bible’s unity and coherence. Although, in response to this, Martin Luther wanted to return to more biblical hermeneutics and biblical theology, he unfortunately placed a strong emphasis on the discontinuity between law and grace, assuming the law was from the OT and grace from the NT. This polarity prevails in many circles today, and is quite contrary to the gospel of grace revealed in both the OT and the NT, as well as the ongoing relevance of the law for believers in all ages. Such supposed dualities as holiness and love, judgment and mercy, cannot be found in a careful study of the relationship of the two Testaments.
The later Protestant Reformation did eventually bring a major shift away from the medieval allegorization of the Scripture, and also Luther’s polarization of law and grace. In this sense, the Reformation was a hermeneutical return to what we now call grammatical-historical exegesis. This perspective stresses the covenantal unity of the Bible, non-allegorical, literal-historical interpretation, and avoidance of spiritualizing and exemplorizing the text that fragments the whole into disconnected moral lessons: it is essentially a CONTEXTUAL interpretation.
As noted already, modern historical-critics (a.k.a.,“liberals”), sharply distinguished OT Theology from NT theology (B. Gabler) and have held a rationalist distrust/denial of the supernatural in the Bible (L. Baur). They have also generally held to a total fragmentation of the unity of the Bible due to the supposed conflicting theologies of the Bible. This is an indisputable doctrine of faith for most modern critics. Practically speaking, this results in treating the Bible as a hodge-podge collection of ancient tales and fables with occasional moral lessons worth considering.
Similarly, and ironically, in conservative and Evangelical circles, Dispensational hermeneutics has often sacrificed the unity of scripture and plan of salvation and obscured the one people of God with one destiny, which the scripture teaches. Dispensationalism rejects both the unity of God’s revelation and the fact that God’s purpose is “held forth with more fullness” (Confession of Faith, Ch. VII, Sec. 6) in the NT than it is in the Old. Dispensationalism holds that large portions even of the New Testament are for the Jewish Nation, not for the Church. In speaking of the Scriptures for the Church, L. Chafer says, “The Scriptures addressed specifically to this company are the Gospel by John—especially the upper room discourse,—the Acts and the Epistles.” Dispensationalism declares that the Sermon on the Mount is for the Jews of the Kingdom period, and is “law not grace.” The Lord’s Prayer and the Great Commission are assigned by some to the Jews of the “tribulation” period, and not to the Church.
There is also another common interpretive approach taken in conservative contexts that largely reads and teaches the Scripture from a moralizing perspective that considers the many stories, characters, institutions, and events of the Bible as primarily a source-book for moral behavior. This too fragments the unified metanarrative of the redemption-story of the Scripture, reducing the parts to the equivalent of Aesop’s Fables. Even more concerning in this approach, than failing to understand the contexts of the text in its redemptive-historical context, is that recipients receive a “gospel” of works and “sin management” (as Dallas Willard calls it). Graeme Goldsworthy describes this present problem in this way:
Countering the deliberate attacks on the unity of the Bible mounted by humanistic criticism is one task that we must undertake. In addition, we must also recognize that the unity of the Bible has suffered by default in the evangelical camp. This is nowhere more clearly evident than in the way the Bible is preached by many evangelicals. Texts are taken out of context; and applications are made without due concern for what the biblical author, which is ultimately the Holy Spirit, is seeking to convey by the text. Problem-centered and topical preaching becomes the norm, and character studies treat the heroes and heroines of the Bible as isolated examples of how to live.
The logic of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) involves the unity and diversity intrinsic to God’s nature and revelation (one divine author, many human authors of the text), as well as the disunity and diversity intrinsic to human interpreters. Redemption-history has a diversity of forms, and thus adequate principles must be applied to interpret properly both form and content. The logic of biblical theology is the history of redemption itself which follows the broad scheme of Creation–Fall–Redemption. And which also will include final Judgment.
The logic of biblical interpretation also involves the function of the Bible in the life of believers and the church. There is an intrinsic need for our hermeneutics to correlate with life lived and the need for it to transform our logic and thinking through accurate interpretation of revelation and life. That is, hermeneutics must enable us to interpret God’s revelation for the church – a divine necessity – to bring the Word of God to God’s people with clarity and conviction. In order for this to occur, we must have full confidence in the textual and theological unity of the whole of the Scripture in order to honestly apply it in that way. This will also include showing the unity and complementarity of the many themes of the two Testaments (especially those that are often understood dualistically: e.g., law and grace, holiness and love, judgment and mercy).
An important final question regarding biblical unity: does the word of God have a center (Mitte)?
This must be asked, considering that many claim (emphatically) that there is no unifying theological center for the Bible, as already stated in modern biblical criticism’s view of total textual and theological fragmentation of the biblical canon. Such a view is an entirely unsatisfactory consideration of the biblical text and does not stand up to the evidence. The same can be said of all moralistic exemplorizing of the Scripture that fails to grasp the unity of the text and thus completely fails to interpret it contextually.
There have been numerous suggestions for a unifying center of biblical theology, arising naturally out of the unified nature of the Bible. Even from those who would not hold to a “high view” of the Bible as inspired and inerrant, there have often been suggestions of a central thread or theological spine for biblical theology. Some suggested “centers” of OT theology include: Covenant, Holiness of God, God is Lord, the Election of Israel, Rulership of God, Kingdom of God, Universal dominion of Yahweh, Communion of God and Man, Yahweh the God of Israel, Israel the people of God, the dialectal theme of the Presence and Absence of God, God’s promise and blessing first stated in Gen 12, the Christian gospel, and the Biblical notion of community.
As interesting as this search is for a unifying center for the Bible (in light of the general consensus that there is no unity whatsoever), I would suggest that these proposed “centers” do not suffice because they are more properly defined as major and minor themes that serve the overarching main theme of the Bible which is the revelation in deed and word of God’s redemption of sinful humankind. Redemption of sinful humanity involves the restoration of communion with God who is holy. That is, it is a restoration to the presence of God, a “re-creation” of the Edenic relationship of God with his creation, and also of eternal glorification in the kingdom of God in the new heavens and the new earth. This does not mean that every single verse and word of the OT has as its “center” this theme, but that every single verse and word has its significant place within the larger context of God’s redemption, and that redemption is indeed the center of all human history. The backdrop to that redemption theme in Scripture is the complimenting concepts of creation and covenant: God the covenanting Creator is God the covenanting Redeemer. It can be said that all of the themes in biblical history, from Gen 3 onward, are an exposition of the relationship of creation theology to the promise and fulfillment of redemption and the new creation.
Intrinsically, and centrally related to the theme of redemption, is the Kingdom of God theme. The redemption of humanity is brought about in the process of the establishment of God’s kingdom that will never pass away. Redemption is the restoration of humans to God’s kingdom. Indeed, most all of the “centers” mentioned correspond in some way to the purposes of God in redeeming his people and establishing his kingdom, but taken as isolated themes they do not do justice to the unified revelation of the Old and New Testaments and their comprehensive relationship.
In terms of the comprehensive relationship between the two Testaments, some summary considerations for their unity and continuity:
- The OT offers the key to the right interpretation of the NT.
- The NT is an extensive commentary on the OT.
- Therefore, the interpreter should beware of minimizing the OT, while also the interpreter should guard against reading into the OT that which is unwarranted and unfounded.
- There is very extensive NT reliance on the OT, directly and by allusion, confirming their complementarities and unity.
- All key theological NT words have their derivation from OT words, although often enriched.
- All NT themes are rooted in, or derive from, OT themes.
- Biblical typology has both horizontal and vertical correspondences, yet must be rigidly controlled on the basis of direct relationships the counterparts of prototype and antitype. NT antitypes go beyond their OT types. We should rely on NT indications instead of subjective fancies: typology is not
- The common pattern of continuity between the testaments is promise-fulfillment, yet this is not the sum total of the multiplex relation of the testaments. The OT always “leads forward” to the NT: That is, a unity of eschatological perspective unites the testaments. Both OT and NT believers stand between promise and fulfillment. The NT completes the OT, while moving to the eschaton of the Day of the Lord. And both testaments point to the final consummation. In a consistently unified interpretive approach, we will always consider that each biblical text points in three primary directions: past, present, and future, unifying the whole of the canon.
- Further, that in the continuous history of God’s people, the central theme is the redemption of God’s people and creation with the eventual consummation of his Kingdom among his people on the renewed earth. This purpose of God (past, present, and future) unites the historical process for both testaments.
- There is a single divine plan of salvation in Jesus the Messiah: the doctrine of redemption was essentially the same for those who lived under in the OT era as it is for those in the NT era. This is especially so if we understand that the gospel promise and its reality, the new covenant of redemption, began in Gen 3:15.
- If the canon of Scripture is a unified whole, it can be affirmed that it is entirely sufficient and trustworthy (since inspired by God) as one whole canon of the one whole gospel for the one people of God. If not unified, but disjointed and fragmented and contradictory in any way, then it is not to be counted as sufficient or trustworthy.
But does all this concern with the unity of the biblical text really matter? After all, someone might argue that they believe the kernel of the message of the Bible, and whether it is unified or not is irrelevant to their faith. In response, I suggest that the very gospel of redemption itself depends on it. That is, if we consider the Bible as God’s unique revelation inscripturated to us, then we must consider it inspired by God, and thus its message must of necessity have a coherent unity. This is especially so, in light of our belief that God himself is a Triune unity. His words to us should naturally communicate unity and coherence. This is not to say that everything is entirely clear at every given stage in the progression of revelation, for the revelation of redemption is given in unfolding stages of development. Rather, it means that the coherent unity of its many themes, motifs, prefigurations, typologies, images, symbols, prophecies, promises, allusions, etc., are evidence of its sufficient and trustworthy testimony to the truth. It would also be very confusingly contradictory to believe that the message of the text is coherent even though it is based on a contradictory and disunified text, as many people try to sustain today. The theological message of the text depends upon the historical and textual trustworthiness of its coherence and unity.
This is observed particularly in several major biblical themes already mentioned:
The creation theme: unifies the entire bible a history about God who creates and about God who re-recreates through redemption. The promise of redemption is based on the fact of creation, since only God who created this universe could be the one to redeem his creation.
The covenant theme: unifies the various people and periods with the assurance that the promise of redemption will be fulfilled, because God the Creator and Redeemer promised. His word is faithful and true and will come to pass since he bound himself to his promise. The covenant is the grounds (and context) for God’s binding relation. His covenant is the guarantee of his promises. His promises are to redeem, to resolve the problem of our alienation from God.
The redemption theme: unifies the period following the creation and fall of humanity. This redemption theme is the central meaning of the entire Bible. The fall into sin and rebellion against God resulted in a loss of God’s presence. Sin broke the unmediated presence of God in the Garden of Eden. The promise of redemption was the promise of restoration to God and his presence.
The OT and the NT display a supernatural unity here, since both testaments are intrinsically about this restoration, and the means to that restoration. There are so many interwoven themes that correlate to this redemption-restoration that I can only mention a few here, but they all testify to the wondrous unity of the Bible:
- In Eden, the first Adam was given to have kingly, priestly, prophetic dominion over creation, yet he sinned against God’s commands, and since then all born of Adam have sinned in Adam: “For as in Adam all die . . .” (1 Cor 15:22a).
- In Israel, the Last Adam, Jesus Christ was given to fulfill the mandate of obedience given to the first Adam, and Jesus succeeded. All who are born anew in him have been given his righteousness: “Even so all who are in Christ Jesus will be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22b).
- Hundreds of times the OT predicted and foreshadowed a Messiah, a redeemer, a deliverer, as Prophet, Priest, and King. This trifold expectation was fully realized in Jesus, the true Prophet, true High Priest, and true King.
- This hope of redemption is patterned also on the exodus from Egyptian slavery theme that integrates the OT with the NT. The people of God will be delivered by God from the slavery to sin.
- The OT established the need for atonement for sin, redemption from alienation. The entire sanctuary-life of ritual and sacrifice represented this restoration to God’s holy presence. There could be no redemption without atonement. The NT shows us that ultimately only a Messiah would be able to satisfy this need for atonement (and he did just that on the Cross of his death). As the Bible begins in the paradise of God’s presence it ends with the future hope of paradise in God’s presence. This hope is made possible by the death of Jesus Christ. It is also made possible by his resurrection unto life, bodily. The resurrection of the dead is another major theme that unites the OT and the NT, for God will restore his creation through redemption. Final redemption will bring life everlasting. Redemption is a new creation and a final exodus from sin.
- The hope of the Messiah is at the heart of the entire Bible. In a real sense, the promise of Gen 3:15 is the seed promise that all the rest of biblical history unpacks/unveils progressively.
“15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel”(NAS)
- This is the gospel hope that One would come and restore, to provide the requisite means to crush the Liar, to reverse the curse on creation, to re-enter the Eden of God’s presence, the one to justify unrighteous sinners, the one to fulfill all the promises of an eternal seed, an eternal home-land, and God’s eternal presence. These three were represented throughout the OT in the promises of progeny, prosperity, and sanctuary–presence and are realized in the work of Messiah in the NT. The restoration to God’s presence would require the grace of God, this is the gospel of justification by faith that Abraham knew as well as the apostle Paul knew.
- This is the very gospel of God which unites the OT and the NT. James 2:23-24 tells us, “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”b and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”
- Jesus clearly proclaimed the monumental importance of the unity of revelation in
Lu 24:25-27 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
Luke 24:44-45 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.
This is why the unity of the Bible matters: the gospel of Jesus depends on it. May God open our minds to understand this unity between his testaments so that we might more clearly understand and embrace his gift of redemption and then share together his kingdom of glorious life everlasting.
Some quotes on the unity of the Bible:
In response to the many contemporary assaults on the unity of the Bible, a group of conservative scholars, pastors, and teachers wrote the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics. It has an important affirmation regarding the unity of the Bible:
- WE AFFIRM the unity, harmony and consistency of Scripture and declare that it is its own best interpreter.
- WE DENY that Scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another. We deny that later writers of Scripture misinterpreted earlier passages of Scripture when quoting from or referring to them.
Readers too often project some moral or spiritual truth over a biblical character or event, paying more attention to the moral lesson they see in the narrative than to the actual story itself. The underlying objection to interpreting the Bible in a moralistic, exemplary fashion for every narrative passage is that it destroys the unity of the message of the Bible. Under this method of handling the text, each narrative tends to be cut off from the redemptive history of Christ and results in a severe fragmentation of the message of the Bible. Rather than considering the whole event, character, and episode for what it contributes to the context in which it is set, a subjective process of analogy too often takes over, along with an individualistic isolation of selected details that happen to fit the fancy of the interpreter’s purposes. Such a selection process tends to be arbitrary, subjective, and usually unrelated to the whole context of the narrative, much less to the total message of the Bible.
UNITY The Bible is inextricably mingled with all that is greatest in human history, national literature, and individual life. Its influence on literature has been invaluable and supreme. Dante and Milton are wholly based on the words and truths of Scripture; Shakespeare is full of them, and Wordsworth and Tennyson and Browning. George Eliot and Victor Hugo borrowed from them their best ideals; Carlyle, Newman, and Ruskin were saturated with them from childhood. The laws of Alfred and Charlemagne were inspired by them. Judas Maccabaeus caught from them the fire of his patriotism; Gustavus Adolphus pored over them before he charged at Luetzen; Cromwell was found absorbed in them on the eve of Naseby. They have been on the lips of warriors and statesmen and martyrs at the sublimest moments of their lives, and so entirely have they decided the destinies of nations that but for them the civilization of Europe might still have been as cruel as that of Egypt and as corrupt as that of Rome.
Yet the essential unity of the writings is hardly less remarkable than their infinite variety, and in spite of its manifold elements the Bible may be regarded, under certain limitations, as an organic whole.
It has the unity of the nationality from the bosom of which it mainly sprang. It has the unity of Monotheism. It has the unity which rises from the fact that it deals exclusively with religious ends, or with ends which were regarded as bearing upon religion. It has, lastly, the unity which rises from its being the history of the dealings of God with one chosen nation; with all other nations; with individual men; and with the whole race of mankind. It describes the gradual education of the Hebrews, of the heathen, and of many separate souls, in the knowledge of the Will of the Supreme. The deepest principle of spiritual life, which consists in the sense of man’s communion with the living God, runs through all its diversities, and elevates even its rudimentary morality.
Lints writes, “The Bible, in its form and its content, records the dramatic story of God reaching into human history and redeeming a people for himself. The form and content of our theology must reflect this.”
“Our interpretation of the Bible ought to take into account the progress present in the ongoing unfolding of the redemptive plan of God through marked stages. It ought also to take into account the unity of the redemptive plan ensured by the divine authorship and governance of that plan.”
“The structural unity-in-diversity of the theological framework does not originate with the reader or with any system imposed on the text but with the unity-in-diversity of the divine and human authors of the biblical text. There is unity because there is one divine author. There is diversity because the divine plan (story) unfolds in and through history.”
“God’s redemptive history moves with a purpose, and the consummation of that history is fundamental to the proper interpretation of each of its individual episodes. This serves to underscore the point that the Christian theological framework must be grounded in the entire canon of Scripture. This is true not only with respect to the content of theology but also with respect to its form. Too frequently the evangelical theological framework has lacked a sense of movement toward a consummation. It has tended to emphasize specific doctrines rather than the entire ‘doctrinal package.’”
“The epochs of redemptive revelation are knit together because there is one God who holds redemptive history together.”
“It is the totality of redemptive history and revelation that inform each portion of Scripture and bind the whole together. And since the accomplishment of redemption was the fundamental reason why the books were written in the first place, it provides the fundamental key to interpreting the texts as a whole. It is the revelation of redemption that underscores every biblical text and therefore ought to underscore every exegetical and theological enterprise that seeks to be faithful to the biblical text.” p. 274 [see more on redemptive history from Lints in his ch 7]
It is important to see that both biblical parts and biblical patterns are necessary to the construction of a theological framework. Theologians should not be content with simply bringing to their readers’ attention individual pieces of the text in isolation from the patterns into which those pieces fit. This means that it is important to convey something of the original context of passages but also something of both the “epochal fit” of the text and the “canonical fit” of the passage. A passage in this sense may be said to have three contexts: its immediate setting, its setting in a particular epoch, and its setting in the entirety of God’s redemptive revelation. There is a general awareness that theologians cannot do justice to the meaning of a given passage if they try to explain (or use) it without reference to its immediate context, but we should realize that they may do equal exegetical damage if they seek to explain (or use) it without reference to the epochal and canonical contexts.
 There have been quite a number of such texts of dubious value for the study of the Bible, such as the famous gospel of Thomas.)
 See Peter Jones’ The Gnostic Empire Strikes Back and Spirit Wars: Pagan Revival in Christian America.
 Derived from G. Hasel, NT Theology, ch. IV.
 Chafer, Dispensationalism, pp. 406-07.
 Scofield Reference Bible, pp. 989, 1230; Chafer, Dispensationalism, p. 443
 Chafer, Grace, pp. 176, 179, 181.
 Goldsworthy, Preaching, pp. 15-16.
b Gen. 15:6
b Or Messiah; also in verse 46
 Kaiser, Biblical Hermeneutics, p. 70.
 F. W. Farrar, The Bible (London-Bombay), 1897, p. 3. Quoted in Solomon Goldman, The Book of Books: An Introduction. Philadelphia (The Jewish Publication Society of America), 1948, p. 329.
 Lints, The Fabric, p. 64.
 Lints, The Fabric, p. 78.
 Lints, The Fabric, p. 78.
 Lints, The Fabric, p. 79.
 Lints, The Fabric, p. 267.
 Lints, The Fabric, p. 285.