The Bible and Salvation History, A Whole Bible Biblical Theology

D. A. Carson, the general editor of the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, has given oversight to the whole project and also written the study notes on John and a few other essays. One of those, which follows from his article on “The Bible and Theology,” is “A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible” (2637-2639).

In this essay Carson addresses the importance of salvation history. This is foundational to the discipline of biblical theology. I include excerpts from some of the key sections of the essay.

What Is Salvation History?

Although the word “history” sometimes refers to what has taken place, it more commonly refers to the story or account of what has taken place. No human account of what has taken place can ever be exhaustive; we simply do not and cannot know enough. . . . Salvation history is thus the history of salvation – i.e., the history of events that focus on the salvation of human beings and issues involving the new heaven and the new earth. . . . at least in part it is the account of what God has done, of the events and explanations he has brought about in order to save lost human beings. (Even what salvation means, what it means to be “saved,” is disclosed in this history.) From this, four things follow:

  1. Salvation history is part of world history. It may tell of some events that other historians are not interested in, but it so describes real events that it necessarily overlaps with other histories.
  2. Salvation history is real history. It depicts events that really did take place.
  3. Salvation history includes not only events caused by other events that take place in the natural world but also events caused directly by God. Sometimes, of course, God works in providential ways through the natural order. . . . But when God raises Jesus from the dead, there is nothing natural about God’s action: this is the direct intervention of God, displaying his might in contravention of nature. Nevertheless, Jesus’ resurrection happened; it took place in history.
  4. Although the Bible contains a good deal of salvation history, it contains things other than salvation history. For example, it includes wisdom literature, lament, law, prophecy, and much more. But even these disparate kinds of literature that make up the Bible are written at discrete points along the Bible’s story line. In other words, salvation history provides the backbone to which all the parts of the Bible are connected.

When addressing The Shape of Salvation History, the broadest way to summarize it is through creation, fall, redemption and consummation. There is, of course, much more to say under each of those major epochs in redemptive history. The key to remember is that the convergence, culmination and turning point of all of salvation history is “the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.”

Carson concludes this essay by making five statements that highlight the importance of salvation history.

The Significance of Salvation History

  1. The story line of the Bible, the sweep of salvation history, provides the framework on which so much else in the Bible depends. For example, it would be impossible to trace such themes as the tabernacle/temple, the priestly ministry, the Davidic dynasty, and the Messianic hope apart from the salvation-historical framework in which these themes are embedded. Thus, the discipline of biblical theology is grounded on the appropriate grasp of salvation history.
  2. The Bible’s salvation history largely establishes the direction of its movement. . . . Salvation-history is cohesive and discloses God’s purposes in the direction in which the narrative unfolds.
  3. The trajectories that run through and are part of the history of redemption gradually point to the future and become predictive voices. For example, the promise of a Davidic dynasty (2 Sam 7:11b-16), a promise made about 1,000 years before Jesus, a dynasty that endures forever, is fleshed out in Ps 2, given new and rich associations in the eighth-century BC prophecies of Isaiah (Isa 9), and provided with further images in the sixth-century BC ministry of Ezekiel (Ezek 34). One this trajectory is established, thoughtful readers look along this trajectory and cannot fail to discern ways in which the depictions of Davidic kings point forward to the ultimate Davidic king.
  4. Very often these trajectories (or ‘typologies,’ as they are often called) in the history of redemption become intertwined to form rich tapestries. For example, although it is possible to follow the themes of tabernacle/temple, Jerusalem, and the Davidic dynasty as separate trajectories . . . they come together in 2 Sam 6-7: the ark is brought to Jerusalem and the groundwork is laid for the temple, David’s dynasty is established, and Jerusalem, now the capital of Israel, is becoming the city of the great King. From this point forward these themes repeatedly wrap around each other, so that mention of one often pulls in one or both of the others.
  5. Above all, salvation history provides the locus in which God has disclosed himself in events and in the words that explain them. As salvation history is the framework of the Bible’s story line, so it is the locus of the revelation of the living God, the Lord of history.

This approach to reading and understanding the Scriptures has had a profound effect on me. It has transformed my reading, understanding and teaching the Bible. It has opened my eyes to understand the Old Testament, including Leviticus!, in ways that are true and faithful to God’s redemptive intent, through their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. It has enabled me to affirm joyfully that Christians affirm two testaments and one Bible, and, through the various ways and means of God’s revelation through words and events, Jesus Christ is the center and focus of it all. This is truly a Christian reading of Scripture!

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