Making a Covenant with Abraham (Part 5)

Read the series so far.

Problems with the Promise & Fulfillment Motif?

John Sailhamer is a critic of the common evangelical dogma that teaches a “promise-fulfillment” way of looking at the two Testaments, because by setting things up that way, the almost irresistible temptation will be to interpret the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, and in particular with the first coming of Christ culminating in the Gospel. Such an attitude threatens to turn the Old Testament, the Bible of Israel, and of Jesus and the Apostles, in to a book of colorful stories and sermon illustrations for New Testament preaching. 1

This might sound very good. As a matter of fact it does sound good to very many evangelicals. So good in fact, that it has often been assumed by pious minds as a natural implication of having a New Testament. But the “promise–fulfillment” idea so frequently recommended cries out for a bit of careful examination. The received wisdom is that we don’t start by reading through the OT to find its meaning, but that we begin by reading the NT, with emphasis on Paul’s Gospel, and we then interpret the OT through our understanding of the NT, especially our understanding of the work of Christ. Essentially what is being urged on us is the hermeneutical priority of the NT. Without the interpretive mindset we have gained from the NT, so the thinking goes, we are not in a position to rightly understand the OT. Hence, the OT is to be interpreted, not on its own merits, but by the NT. An earlier quote from Goldsworthy again makes this clear:

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel. This has its outworking in both directions. What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him. So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event. What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.2

Because Goldsworthy is not interpreting the OT on its own terms, but through his own understanding of the NT, he is not hesitant about converting the covenantal promises of the land to Israel into a “true fulfillment” in Jesus Christ and the Church. In this promise-fulfillment scheme, the OT does not serve up enough clear data to furnish its own interpretation. But one might well ask, is there something wrong with the Old Testament or is there something wrong with the way some scholars look at it?3

The Birth of Isaac & the Hermeneutical Test of Faith

The next two chapters in Genesis (i.e. 18 and 19) are ostensibly about the judgment and destruction of the cities of the plain for their wickedness. However, the three men who visit Abraham at Mamre are there for more than that. One of the visitors is the Lord Yahweh Himself, as the text makes clear. After the two angelic companions leave for the rescue of Lot in Sodom, the Lord tells Abraham,

I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son. (Genesis 18:10)

After hearing Sarah laugh at the promise, God reiterates it almost verbatim:

Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. (Genesis 18:14)

As the story moves on we read in chapter 21,

And the LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him. (Genesis 21:1-2)

In calling the reader’s attention to these verses I want to drive home the precision of God’s word. God means what He says. The tragedy of Ishmael is that Abraham and Sarah they did not take God at His word and instead attempted to help the situation along by a reinterpretation of His covenant words. But the message of Genesis continues to be that God’s words are to be taken at face value. The next chapter puts the seal to this truth, but before we study it, I should say something about the phrase “in you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him” in verse 18. This statement, which is a close match to Genesis 12:3,4 is not to be construed as a coverall statement of the whole Abrahamic covenant, land promise and all, to be given to every saint in the entire history of redemption. The words draw attention to an important aspect of the covenant; the seed promise that will eventuate in salvation offered to the nations through Jesus Christ. But they do not extend to the promises of geo-political statehood or geographical location. The phrase is repeated by Peter in Acts 3:25 in a very Jewish setting (see 3:12-13). It appears then to have been understood by Peter in the same terms Abraham had understood it.


1 E.g., “As Christians, we must return to the principles of Old Testament interpretation dictated by the New Testament.” (Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 54-55)

2 Ibid, 50. The conclusion drawn from this way of reading the OT is that not only does it not reveal enough of God’s intent, but many of its prophetic assertions are in need of revision via the NT. So Goldsworthy can say that “the earlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” (Ibid, 123. See also G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431)

3 I simply pose the question for the time being. Still, I cannot suppress the urge entirely. In the words of John Sailhamer’s criticism of Geerhaardus Vos; “The divine promises as objects of faith in God were more important than their objective fulfillment… The lack of fulfillment of the OT promises was the primary means of teaching God’s people to look for spiritual and future dimensions of God’s promises. Vos spiritualizes the OT’s lack of fulfillment.” (Meaning, 424-425). It is this presupposition that invites typology to assume the upper hand in OT hermeneutics.

4 The only change is the substitution of “families” (mishpachah) in 12:3 with “nations” (goyim) in 18:18.

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There are 4 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

I do not know exactly what I've got right and what I've got wrong, but I do find that (apart from Ed of course, and probably some other guys here) I tend to see the New Testament through more "Jewish" eyes than most.  I also remember a friend who had rejected Christianity partially on the basis that he found the Old Testament more relatable, and I do have to wonder if "fundagelical" tendencies to downplay the intrinsic Jewishness and continuity between the Old and New Testaments might have something to do with that--that we ignore the setting for Christ and thus tend to make Him a lot more "benign" and "unthreatening" than He really is.  And personally, I do tend to see salvation through grace by faith all over in the Old Testament....there was law, yes, but the undercurrents are hard for me to deny.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture


Thanks for the comment.  This sort of thing came up recently in a class I was teaching.  The person asking the question was trying to reconcile the "Jewishness" of the OT and its covenant promises with the "Gentile-ness" of much of the NT.  In my answer I tried to show that Jesus Himself taught that there would be a (unexpected) interval between what we now call His first coming and the second coming (e.g. Lk. 19:11ff. cf. Acts 3:19-21).  Analyzing the OT prophetic literature through the lens of the covenants, it looks very like the "kingdom/golden age" predictions fall into the category of the second coming.  What I think this means is that the "gap" in-between the two comings was filled by the Church (foreknown by God but not by anyone else).  Hence, one would not expect, e.g., the Pauline literature to say anything about things like Israelite land and king because that was not what God is dealing with between the advents.  Nonetheless, passages like Romans 11 remind us of what is going on.       

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Ed Vasicek's picture

Paul, you are simply right. That's just the way it is!  Thanks, brother.

"The Midrash Detective"

Paul Henebury's picture

Ha! Well that settles it brother.  ;-)

Thanks for the encouragement.



Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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