The Three Most Important Words I Learned in Seminary: “Textual, Epochal, Canonical”
Have you ever watched a movie in 3D? If so, you may have ducked to miss the incoming airplanes or screamed as sharks appeared to attack you. The sensory overload of three dimensions doesn’t change the movie, but it does intensify the experience.
In this essay, I will argue that we need to read Scripture along three horizons. Like 3D glasses at an IMAX theater, these three horizons help us discover God’s unfolding plan that finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. They help us see what’s going on (1) in the text, (2) in the covenant history of that text, and (3) how a multitude of texts revealed over time find their place in the whole Bible. In sum, this approach looks at the Bible along textual, epochal (or covenantal), and canonical horizons.
Faithful interpreters must consider the grammar and history found at the textual level; they must also attend to the place any passage stands in covenantal history; and they must explain how this individual passage contributes to the whole Bible and is itself informed by the rest of Scripture.
Only as we learn how to read the Bible along these three horizons will we be able see how the leaves and the trees (i.e., words and sentences) begin to form a well-ordered forest (the whole biblical canon), a forest that has come to us through many seasons of growth, decay, and rebirth (i.e., the progression of covenant that have led to Christ).
To help see the forest and the trees, let’s consider each of these horizons.
THE TEXTUAL HORIZON
When Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount, he said, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18). Among other things, this verse tells us that every letter (iota) and every serif (dot) was inspired and important. Every word, every sentence, every proposition and poetic image is necessary for understanding the biblical text. Studying grammar and history is where interpretation begins; it’s where we discover meaning as we grapple with the author’s intent.
Eschewing postmodern theories of interpretation that places meaning in the reader, faithful interpretation seeks to know God’s intentions through the intentions of the human author, which are conveyed in the grammar of the text. At the textual level, word usage, genre sensitivity, and literary structure are just some of the ways we ascertain the grammatical-historical meaning of the text. Likewise, Greek and Hebrew lexicons, biblical concordances, and historical and cultural background studies help us to understand the Bible at the textual level.
Interpretation begins here, and we cannot move to the next two horizons until we have done the spadework. Often, errors in interpretation and sameness in preaching (i.e., making every Old Testament sermon sound the same) come from an inattention to the textual horizon. We cannot superimpose our theological framework on the text, even if that framework may shed light. We must see how the text in question is written to God’s people first. Only then can we begin to make application to Christ and his church.
THE EPOCHAL / COVENENTAL HORIZON
The epochal horizon recognizes that the Bible isn’t merely a catalogue of timeless truths. Rather, it’s a progressively revealed testimony about God’s redemption in history. Jesus made this point in Matthew 5:17, when he declared that he came to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, not to destroy them.
On the whole, Scripture is written with a framework of promise and fulfillment. As Acts 13:32–33 says, “And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus.” Likewise, Hebrews 1:1–2 reveals the superior revelation of Christ the Son to the prophets who served previous generations of believers.
In Galatians 3 Paul even builds an argument for the gospel on the fact that the promise came 400 years before the Law. This means that if the order of the Bible is neglected, the faith once for all delivered to the saints will be undercut and the gospel put in jeopardy. Thus, in interpreting the Bible, we must always ask the question: When is it?
Sabbatarian differences notwithstanding, how many errors in application would be prevented, if we realized that the Law of Moses is no longer directly applicable? The Old Testament is useful for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), but the old covenant is no longer in service (see Hebrews). Stated differently, both Testaments are written for believers in Christ, but almost all the words in the Bible are not written to believers directly.
The most obvious example of this comes in 1 Corinthians 10, where Paul speaks of the events in Israel’s history as being written down for the church: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (v. 11). This slight distinction between “written to” and “written for” has a significant payoff, and it requires discerning where a text fits in redemptive history in order to make an appropriate application.
Indeed, what was written to Israel only applies to the new covenant church as it’s mediated through Christ. David Helm’s graphic in Expositional Preaching and used in all the Simeon Trust workshops is particularly helpful on this point.
The textual horizon leads you from “Text” to “Them/Then.” The epochal horizon takes you from “Them/Then” to Christ (his person and his work). And yet, more than just a straight, horizontal line, the epochal horizon follows a series of covenants. These seven different covenants include:
- Adamic Covenant
- Noahic Covenant
- Abrahamic Covenant
- Mosaic Covenant
- Davidic Covenant
- New Covenant of Peace
In the progression of covenantal history, these covenants organize the Bible and explain various promises and stipulations for the people of God. Faithful interpreters of any passage will be aware of these covenants and how they relate to a given passage of Scripture. Without this awareness, we’ll unavoidably make errors in application.
THE CANONICAL / CHRISTOLOGICAL HORIZON
From the first promise of salvation in Genesis 3:15 to its full consummation in Revelation 21–22, all creation is moving toward Christ (see Eph. 1:10). Figuratively speaking, Scripture is written in italics. The Old Testament slants forward towards the Son who is to come. Similarly, some parts of the New Testament slant backward to the finished work of Christ, while others slant forward to his return. As Jesus taught his disciples, all Scripture points to him (John 5:39; cf. Luke 24:27). Faithful interpretation of any portion of the Bible must see how any passage stands in relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This Christ-centered approach to interpretation shows how 66 different books find their unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul himself says the gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham (Gal. 3:8), and Peter says that the Spirit of Christ was leading the prophets to speak of Christ’s sufferings and glory (1 Pet. 1:10–12).
The Bible is unified, therefore, not only because it comes from the same God, but because it all points to the same God-man, Jesus Christ. Jesus is not only a mediator between God and man in salvation (1 Tim. 2:5), but as the goal of creation and revelation (Eph. 1:10), he is also the mediator between human readers and God’s inspired Word. Paul’s words to the church in 1 Corinthians 10:11 make sense because the church is in Christ. And those who are in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile, now have authorization to call the Hebrew Scriptures their own.
With respect to interpretation, every text has a place in the Bible’s covenantal framework. Every text is organically related to the covenantal history that leads to Christ. In other words, every text has Christ as its final goal. He’s not anachronistically transported back into the time of Israel or imported into texts that are foreign to him. Finding Jesus in obscure parts of the Old Testament is worlds apart from finding Jesus in Harry Potter. Rather, as he has told us on many occasions, all the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings are about him. So we have justification to look for Jesus in all parts of the Old Testament. No interpretation is complete until it comes to Christ.
Certainly, this approach is not neutral but biased—biased by Christian belief. The alternative is an approach to reading the Bible agnostically, where there’s uncertainty about seeing Christ—uncertainty until all doubts have been erased by human examination. This approach may try to “honor the text,” but it’s inconsistent with the main point of Scripture: to see the Incarnate Word in all of God’s Word. This is what the Christological horizon does, as it stands upon the observations of the textual and epochal horizon.1
READING THE BIBLE CHRISTIANLY
I’m persuaded that unless we learn how to read Scripture along these three horizons—textual, epochal, canonical—we’ll miss the power and wisdom of Christ that’s found in the whole counsel of God. When we see Christ from all parts of the Bible, we’ll become more like him in all parts of our lives. After all, this is the goal of all biblical interpretation: to become three-dimensional image-bearers whose likeness to Christ is produced by the Word and the Spirit.2
This approach to reading Scripture doesn’t mean we’ll perfectly understand or apply God’s Word. Scripture is perfect; interpreters aren’t. There are many pitfalls in moving from the text through the covenants to Christ, but to cite David Helm again, the “long way around is the safest way home.”
1 John 17:20ff might be one of a handful of passages that directly apply to the Christian today.
2 David Helm, Expositional Preaching: How We Speak God’s Word Today (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 67.