The Redemptive-Historical Approach

I’ve heard the descriptor “redemptive-historical” a number of times in relation to preaching, study of the Bible, or the covenantal nature of God’s actions, but never had it explicitly defined for me. Based on my inductive reasoning skills (or is it deductive?), I figured it referred to the story of redemption with God as the main character as He acts concretely in history to accomplish this redemption. In Michael Horton’s A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-centered Worship, he devotes a brief chapter to this redemptive-historical approach and its ramifications and practical application for preaching and biblical study. I found it very helpful.

Often, we read the Bible or hear preaching that is geared toward us as individuals. This can be manifested in the “how does this verse speak to me” or in reading the Old Testament primarily as separate stories with moral examples. Examples of this would be reading the story of Gideon’s fleece as a manual for seeking God’s will; or, like David, finding our own five smooth stones with which to slay the giants in our lives; or in reading Acts like it is an example of how to “do church” instead of as a historical narrative. The problem with approaches like this is that it’s not the right way to read the Bible.

The point of the redemptive-historical approach is to read Scripture “in terms of God’s unfolding mystery of redemption, not as a collection of superior moral insights, empowering thoughts for each day, an end-times handbook, or a blueprint for a new social order – indeed, not even chiefly as a repository of doctrine.” While these elements are present in Scripture, there is a larger purpose and narrative of the Bible. The Bible is about Christ:

“This exegetical method forms the central nervous system of the entire New Testament, whether the Gospels or the Epistles…If this is how the Bible interprets itself, we surely are in no position to quarrel with a redemptive-historical approach to exegesis…This approach is sensitive to the unfolding plot of redemption in genuinely historical events that end finally in the consummation of all things in Christ.”

The Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and the apostles did not interpret Scripture in these narrow, isolated ways, but instead interpreted it in light of God in bringing redemption to His people. The evidence for this is overwhelming:

-Jesus preaching himself from Moses and the Prophets on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27)
-Jesus claiming that eternal life found in Scripture is through the Scripture bearing witness to himself (John 5:39)
-Jesus explaining that Abraham rejoiced to see Christ in his day (John 8:56)
-The sermons in Acts showing Christ from the Old Testament
-Peter showing that the prophets were concerned with salvation found in Christ (1 Peter 1:10-13)
-Paul declaring that all the promises of God are “yes” and “amen” in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20)
-The entire book of Hebrews expositing the types and shadows of the old covenant finding their fulfillment and supremacy in Christ

With perhaps a tough of irony, Horton gives five practical suggestions for Christ-centered Scripture reading and preaching, which I excerpt here:

1. In the reading of Scripture, whether privately or in public worship, one might consider including an Old Testament and a New Testament reading, the former selection related to the latter as promise to its fulfillment.
2. You might ask yourself, What’s the stage of redemptive history at which we find ourselves in this passage? If this question were asked each time, it could clear up the tendency to convert a significant event in the past into an unhistorical example or symbol for us today.
3. You might ask yourself, How do I find myself in Christ (and therefore with his church) in this story? Instead of trying to find room for God in myself, God makes room for us in his drama.
4. Read and hear the Bible with the church. Creeds, confessions, a good systematic theology can all help us to see the limitations of our own narrow range of ideas, presuppositions, experiences, and longings…It’s a choice between interpreting Scripture with the larger church rather than thinking of ourselves as omnicompetent. It is a sign of humility when we are able to conclude that we, like the Ethiopian eunuch, are hampered by our own blind spots.
5. Read and hear prayerfully. In every act of interpretation, we are entirely dependent on the Spirit, and, as our Savior promised, ‘He will testify about me’ (John 15:26).

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