Three Horizons in Biblical Interpretation

cropped-biblevizarc7mediumorig.jpg[This morning I teach the men of our church about three horizons in biblical interpretation. Here are the notes. What follows is a portion of content.]

Three Horizons in Biblical Interpretation

In Preaching and Biblical Theology, Edmund Clowney identified three horizons that the faithful interpreter must engage three horizons to rightly understand biblical truth. These three horizons relate to the biblical text, the biblical covenants (or epochs), and the biblical Christ (i.e., the canonical testimony about God in Christ).

Expounding on these three horizons, Richard Lints has written in his illuminating book, The Fabric of Theology,

The biblical text has three interpretive horizons: the immediate context of the book (or passage), the context of the period of revelation in which the book (or passage) falls, and the context of the entirety of revelation.

It is signally important that we take each horizon seriously if we want to understand the biblical material properly. While no horizon takes precedence over the others, each must nonetheless be regulated by the other two. The meaning of any given passage will depend to a great extent on its place in its own particular epoch and its place in the entirety of redemptive revelation. The theological interpreter of Scripture must allow the three horizons to dialogue with one another continually, helping to explain and clarify the meaning of the others.

It is when we keep all three horizons in dialogue that Scripture begins to inform us about what questions it considers important and the framework necessary to find answers to those questions.[1]

In other words, only by attending to the three horizons can we understand how to read Scripture on its own terms. Likewise, because our goal is to know God, not just Moses or Matthew, it is imperative we read theo-logically, i.e., seeking to know the word (Logos) of God (Theos).

Knowing God is our goal and it requires careful attention to grammar, history, and the covenantal canon. Only as we learn how to read these three horizons together will we be able see how the leaves and the trees (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).

In the next three sessions, we will spend time on each horizon. But let me give some biblical bases for each of them. 

The Textual Horizon

A key text for observing biblical interpretation in action is Nehemiah 8, Speaking of the priests, verse 8 reads, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” When Israel returned to the land, the people needed a re-education in the ways of God. Even before the exile, attention to the Law had been lost (cf. 2 Chr 34:8–21). Now, delivered from captivity, the sons of Israel were not much better off. Hebrew had been lost in the exile; Aramaic was the new lingua franca, and so Nehemiah had the Law read and the priests “gave the sense” of its meaning.

Like Ezra himself (Ezra 7:10), these Levitical leaders helped the people understand and apply the Law of God. As the Law commanded (Lev 10:11), they were explaining what the Law meant. And thus we have a true example of biblical exposition. Such interpretation is found in other parts of the Bible too. The only two sermons in Scripture (Deuteronomy and Hebrews) both show evidences of biblical exposition—explaining the meaning of a biblical text. (E.g., Deut 12­–25 expounds Exod 20; Heb 5–10 expounds Ps 110 and Jer 31).

The pattern continues today. Our goal is to put our finger on the text and explain what it says.

The Epochal / Covenantal Horizon

Zooming out from the textual horizon we come to the epochal horizon. This horizon recognizes the Bible is not a catalogue of timeless truths. Rather, it is a progressively revealed testimony about God’s redemption in history. It is intentionally written with a promise-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 intentionally reveals the superior revelation of Christ the Son to the prophets of previous generations. From the internal testimony of the Bible we learn that God revealed himself over time, and that the order of his redemption is important (see Paul’s argument in Galatians 3, where his argument depends on the Law coming 400 years after the Promise).

In recent centuries this progressive revelation has been variously described as a series of dispensations (even WCF uses this biblical language) or covenants. While epochs is a nice, neutral term for the progress of redemption, it is not as biblical as “covenant.” As our previous study showed, the Bible is a covenant document, comprised of two testaments, and centered on the new covenant of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it fits the biblical storyline to understand it as a series of covenants—which is different from (two-covenant) Covenant Theology. In fact, from an overview of the Bible, we can lay out redemptive history along six covenants, all leading to eternal covenant of Christ.

  1. Covenant with Creation (through Adam)
  2. Covenant with Creation (reissued through Noah)
  3. Covenant of Promise (mediated by Abraham)
  4. Covenant of Law (legislated through Moses)
  5. Covenant of Kingship (mediated through David)
  6. Covenant of Peace (mediated through Jesus Christ)

These covenants are listed in chronological order and can be shown to possess organic unity and escalating development over time. (See Biblical Covenants Chart). For matters of interpretation, it is necessary to ask, “When is this text taking place?”

And thus it is necessarily to know the stipulations of each covenant, and how the passage in question relates to the various covenants. Moreover, in the dog days of Israel’s kingdom, when the Davidic covenant is spiraling downward and the prophets are looking for a new David with a new covenant, it is important to see that such messianic hope will re-shape much of the promises to Israel and David.

In other words, through redemptive history the covenant function as Scripture’s tectonic plates. But as they fall apart, they begin to shift and change shape. Ultimately, they are all shadows of the one lasting covenant, the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ. The

The Christological / Canonical Horizon

Finally, there is in Scripture an eschatological direction. From the beginning of Genesis (3:15), Scripture is written in italics: it slants forward towards the Son who is to come. As Jesus taught his disciples, all Scripture points to him (John 5:39), thus to rightly interpret any portion of the Bible we must see how it naturally relates to Christ.

This Christ-centered approach to interpretation is easily misapplied (and just as easily mischaracterized). But rightly understood, it shows how sixty-six different find unity in the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Notice Paul himself says the gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham, Gal. 3:8). The Bible is unified not only because it comes from the same God; it is unified because it all points to the same God-man, Jesus Christ. And because it is a human book with promises to all humanity, all Scripture points to the Messiah who is the mediator between God and man.

What we will consider is how every passage relates to Christ. But for now, consider: every text has a place in the covenantal framework of the Bible. Hence, every text is organically related to the covenantal backbone of Scripture, which leads to Christ. Therefore, every text finds its telos in Christ through the progress of biblical covenants. In this way, every text has Christ as its final goal and terminus. Christ is not (anachronistically) transported back in time to Israel. Rather, he is the telos to which all the Old Testament points.

This Christ-at-the-end (Christotelic) presupposition is based on the exegetical conviction that all Scripture, all covenants, all typology leads to Jesus. And, accordingly, it has massive interpretive implications. It says that no interpretation is complete until it comes to Christ.

Likewise, any application that comes to us from the Old Testament, which avoids Christ, is fundamentally unsound. Likewise, all New Testament applications find their source of strength in Christ, the covenant he mediates, and the Spirit he sends. Therefore, all interpretations must be unashamedly Christian, i.e., Christ-oriented.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1] The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 293.

4 thoughts on “Three Horizons in Biblical Interpretation

  1. Pingback: Textual, Epochal, Canonical: Do The Three Horizons of Interpretation Apply to the Psalms? | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Did Rahab Lie? An Exegetical Answer | Via Emmaus

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