Monday, August 31, 2009

More on Understanding the Old Testament


The article by Tim Keller in the previous post is a description of what is known as the Redemptive-Historical approach to interpreting the Bible. It answers the question how does one interpret the Bible and apply it to life? In the Redemptive-Historical approach, one reads every story of the Bible in light of the larger story—the story of redemption.
In order to understand this better, let’s contrast it with some other approaches to reading the Bible by examining the story of David and Goliath. In the story (1 Samuel 17), the nation of Israel is at war with the Philistines. Rather than having the whole armies engage, the Philistines send out their champion, Goliath, to fight for them against Israel’s champion. Goliath, however, is 9 feet tall. He is a giant of a man. No one from Israel wants to fight him.

David is too young to be in the army. Yet, his father sends him to the battlefield to take food and provisions to his older brothers. When he hears the taunts of Goliath, he volunteers to fight. Rather than clothing himself in armor, he takes five stones from a stream and kills Goliath with his slingshot.

How can we apply the story of David and Goliath to modern people? There are four basic approaches.

The Moralistic Approach

In the moralistic approach, one reads the stories of the Bible in the same way one would read Aesop’s Fables or William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues. In this case, you read the story for the moral and the moral becomes the application. So, the moral of this story is that David is brave in facing his challenges. Therefore, we should be brave like David.

There are some good things in the moralistic approach. In this case, David is a good example for us. We should be brave like David, or courageous like Daniel. We should not be greedy like Judas, or immoral like David with Bathsheba. However, the moralistic approach will not always work. There are times when biblical characters engage in morally ambiguous behavior and the Bible offers us no immediate commentary on whether it was right or wrong. For example, was it sinful for Isaac to marry Rachel (which violates later Old Testament laws)? Should he have just settled for Leah, even though Laban deceived him? Was Noah in sin when he got drunk or did he not understand fermentation? If you simply approach these stories as morals, you will miss some very significant parts of their meaning.

The Allegorical Approach

In the allegorical approach, one usually says that Goliath represents all of the big problems and challenges we face. These problems might be money, health issues, relationship problems, etc… We should be like David and “face the giants”. We simply need to go up against our problems in faith, trusting God to take care of us.

There are some good things about this approach. After all, the issue of faith and trust in God is clearly a part of the story. David’s brothers and the other soldiers are afraid of Goliath. They do not trust God to help them. However, David exemplifies faith. David gives this wonderful expression of faith in 1 Samuel 17:34-37a: "But David said to Saul, 'Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.'"

Clearly, part of the emphasis of this story is a call to trust God in difficult circumstances.

However, there are some great problems with the allegorical approach. First, you can take a story out of the Bible and make it say just about anything. There is no way to know if you are reading the Bible as it was meant to be read because your meaning is governed only by your creativity.

Secondly, and more importantly, there is nothing distinctly Christian about such an interpretation. The same is true of the moralistic approach. One can teach the story of David in this way in a Jewish synagogue, a Muslim Mosque, or a public school, just as easily as in a Christian church. Yet, Jesus said that all of the Scriptures speak of Him (Luke 24:25-29).

Thirdly, if one approaches the stories of the Bible as merely allegory or as morals, then the Bible will be crushing. We are not brave like David. We are much more like the cowardly army of Israel. Is the Bible merely telling us to “buck up”? If that is all it is saying, then we are without hope.

The Typological Approach

The typological approach looks for a type of Christ in the story. In this case, the typological approach would say that David is a type (a symbol or model) of Christ. Just as David rescued Israel from Goliath, Jesus rescues us from our giants.

In this particular instance, the typological approach is superior to the other two. David often is a type of Christ. In many ways, David shows us what Christ is like. He points us to our Rescuer.
However, the typological approach has severe problems when applied to other stories. If one tries to use the typological approach, he begins to look for Jesus under every rock. Furthermore, as is the case with the allegorical approach, some in using this approach try to find symbolism in every aspect of the story. As a result, many of the same problems that are in the allegorical approach are also in the typological approach.

Furthermore, just as with the moralistic approach, there are many stories that seem to be ambiguous. What does one do with these stories?

The Redemptive-Historical Approach

The Redemptive-Historical approach seeks to understand the story in the context of the history of redemption. As one reads a story, he determines where it fits in the history of redemption. Since the history of redemption culminates in Christ, he then connects the story to Christ. After connecting the story to Christ in the history of redemption, he then seeks to understand its significance for the people of today.

The chart below illustrates this approach. [Note: This chart came from a D. Min. course I took at RTS with Dr. Edmund Clowney and Dr. Timothy Keller] The red lines show the other approaches while the black lines show the redemptive-historical approach.

In the redemptive-historical approach, one understands that David is the future-king of Israel. Furthermore, one understands that Jesus is the rightful heir to David’s throne and will reign forever and ever. That is, Jesus is an even greater king than David. In the story of David and Goliath, we do not identify ourselves with David (as in the allegorical or moralistic approaches). Rather, we are the fearful people of Israel in need of a savior. Yet, where David risks his life to save his people, Jesus gave His life to rescue us. The central message is not to be brave like David. Rather, the main idea is to see that you are weak and that you need a Savior.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mark! Good to grasp those differences in how to read the Bible. We all have a great tendency to raise our own standards and lower God's.

"The principle is that every part of the Scripture is not understood unless it is seen as pointing beyond itself to Christ. No history, no set of laws, no prophecies, no wisdom literature is ever an end in itself. Like John the Baptist it points beyond itself to Christ."

Amen! Otherwise we just preach ourselves.
"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." 1 Cor 2:2