At the outset, it is essential to clarify what these few pages are and what they are not. As the title indicates, this is only a starting point. There is a great deal more that needs to be addressed with regard to theology than what can be stated here. Having said that, however, it is my intention to set forth a few very basic definitions for students who may feel a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of tackling the First Testament, let alone learning what theology is all about. Due to the focus of this course, these definitions will be primarily "located" within the First Testament, although those that deal with doctrine of Scripture of necessity draw on both Testaments. Key passages of Scripture that support or serve as compelling illustrations of many of these basic theological doctrines are part of the presentation.
The scope of issues included in this survey simply cannot be exhaustive. Therefore, if one of your favorite theological truths has not received adequate press, enroll yourself in a theology course. In addition, I will be the first to admit that, in the areas where there are differences of opinion regarding some very fundamental issues in theology, the pages that follow reflect my interpretation of the biblical data. Not all of you will agree with the details of the presentation. (That is another reason for keeping this pretty basic; I would like this to reflect, as much as possible, a fundamental consensus as to our response to the truths of Scripture.) It is my hope that this primer will spur you on to question, to reflect and to further study.
I mentioned "starting point" above. One of the difficulties is deciding where to start even within this topic. Truth is exceedingly complex, and the prospect of understanding the tiniest part of truth about The Infinite Personal God, His choice to communicate to His creatures, and His intervention on our behalf is often overwhelming once we begin to contemplate it. Thus, the topics that follow are all intricately inter-related and the sequencing of them is decidedly arbitrary.
Occasionally, theology and doctrine do not receive very favorable press in our circles. They sound intimidating to some people and are perceived by others as dead. What is important to realize is that "theology," coming from a combination of Greek words, literally means "the study of God" and therefore is of fundamental and vital importance for us. We use the term in two general senses. First, it refers to the study of all areas of religious (and in our case, Christian) inquiry and, depending on the approach of a given segment of that study may be designated systematic theology, biblical theology, covenant theology, liberation theology and the like. Second and more specifically, the technical designation "theology" refers to the study of the Person of God and His work. To be sure, these two senses are not that far apart as the "work" of God ultimately encompasses all aspects of existence.
We only commence this study because we are persuaded that God exists and has chosen to communicate with us. These are astounding truths, they are our presuppositions, and they should, upon reflection, give us a sense of profound meaning in our lives.
The first thing we need is a basic definition. Revelation is divine self-disclosure that unveils otherwise unknowable truth and calls forth a response. Now, what are the possible implications of making that statement with regard to the God of the Bible?
The process of revelation is entirely God's doing. Humans cannot reason their way to God. This is inevitable for two reasons. First, God is God. He is eternal and endless in majesty and might; in other words, He is infinite while we are limited in all aspects of our being to time and space dimensions. Second, He is holy. Humanity is not only finite, we are sinful. That God has chosen to communicate presumes that there is a need to be met by that communication. We need restoration to communion with God; we are not simply out on an objective quest for the divine. Because of our finite and sinful nature, we can never arrive at an understanding of God on our own. Thus, God in his mercy and condescension, reveals Himself. Much of our discussion will presume that words are an adequate, although far from perfect or complete, medium for a significant part of that communication.
The previous statement indicates a primary focus on verbal revelation. There is, however, more to the story and for this we turn to two convenient theological categories, more definitions, and specific biblical foundation for these statements.
General revelation is God's disclosure of His divine power and attributes through creation, both of nature as we observe it around us and of human nature as we see the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual capacities of humankind. In Psalm 19 we are told that the heavens declare the glory of God, that this declaration is continual ("day after day…"), that these natural phenomena lead to a degree of knowledge, and that this glorious declaration transcends language barriers! Verses 5 and 6 give an illustrative figure and verses 7 and following move on to address verbal revelation. Notice that the Psalm also includes the response that revelation elicits. Paul, in Romans 1:18-20, notes that we are without excuse if we do not see the divine power and attributes of God in nature. He goes on to state, however, that we do not see Him and we reject the implications of what we do perceive because of our sin; thus we need special revelation. Further, in Romans 2:12-15, we are told that the conscience of humankind is evidence that God has given to humans a fundamental understanding of right and wrong.
From general revelation, we can learn that God is a God of order, power, wisdom, beauty, intelligence, and morality. What haven't we learned? We have little idea of our relationship to this God, His will and purposes, and the meaning of all the complexities that are part of our life experiences. Thus, we need something that articulates this relationship and purposes.
is the verbal statement of truth that would be otherwise unknowable. Special revelation discloses God's character
and will, the meaning of human existence, the nature of the spiritual realm,
and the purposes of God for humanity. It
discloses His love, justice and truth. Special revelation comes via the Word of
Scripture and, most sublimely, the Word in the Person of Jesus Christ. As the Word, Jesus is God who has come in the
flesh to reveal God's glory and make God known to us. He is Son of God and Son of Man, "the
radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of His being…" Both the written Word and the incarnate Word
Finally, another way of talking about revelation is to state that God reveals Himself by mighty acts and by prophetic, instructive words. Aspects of the mighty acts may be described within Scripture and then, by the inspired prophetic word, interpreted. Examples of these would include creation, the exodus, and the resurrection. Thus, there is an interweaving of historical and prophetic genres in the biblical text. The Word also records human response to God's acts and words. It is important to note that the written words are themselves revelation. They are not merely the human record of revelation.
With this topic we arrive at a rather sensitive issue, the understanding of which has sadly divided the evangelical community. What I present below reflects the traditional definition of inspiration followed by a brief presentation of the factors that need to be part of the discussion.
"Inspiration is a special act of the Holy Spirit by which He guided the writers of Scripture so that their words should convey the thoughts He wished conveyed, should bear a proper relationship to the thoughts in the rest of Scripture, and should be kept free from error in thought, fact, doctrine and judgment."
The two key biblical texts upon which this definition is founded are II Timothy 3:15-17 and II Peter 1:20-21. The former tells us that all Scripture is God-breathed. IT is important to note that the texts about which Paul is talking are not the originals, but copies. Yet, they retain this quality of "inspiredness" because their source is God. Furthermore, they are purposeful. In verse 15, Paul indicates that the "sacred writings…are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ." Verses 16, 17 add to the purpose statement: "…useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." (NRSV) II Peter 1:20, 21 specifically articulates the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of conveying the prophetic word of the First Testament.
While there are other texts that are significant, especially in regard to the New Testament, these will suffice for our purposes.
At issue now: how shall we understand this process, which involves humans who, in and of themselves, are fallible and whose fallibility does become evident in the transmission of the text? At what stage (and why?) is human fallibility allowed to affect the record? As starting points, I suggest the following considerations. First, by virtue of who God is, what He chooses to reveal will be truth. Second, revelation is made to a world which is distorted and twisted by sin, where intellectual processes are limited and where falsehood is often part of verbal interaction. Revelation is about the effects of sin in the world. Thus, God’s revelation includes, for example, statements made by Satan and false and false statements made by humans. In other works, truth is complex, it may have “two sides,” and it can include unsavory aspects. Third, at the step of inscripturation, the process of revelation begins to be entrusted to humankind. While the Holy Spirit is the operative force (II Peter 1) and the Word is God-breathed (II Timothy 3), each author had his own talents, limiting chronological and cultural sphere, and audience. Because God is still the predominant Person at this stage of the process, Truth is recorded. Nevertheless, the following also become evident at this stage: Selection and adaptation of material to fit best the needs of the audience; omission of much detail (that we might like to see included); citation of other sources available to the human author that may or may not be accurate; use of background-peculiar information; use of literary forms and figures that would strike a familiar chord with the audience. Thus, the written product will not be complete and exhaustive truth. That would be an impossibility. In many cases, it is evident that choices needed to be made as to what to include and how to say it.
I would suggest, finally, that the key factor must be humility as we address the issue and recognize that the more this process is entrusted to fallible humans, the more likely there are to be problems. That does not mean the quality of inspiredness is lost, however, because God in His mercy intends to reveal His Truth to us. He preserves what we need to know and, in fact, much more to challenge us.
I have chosen to introduce these together as a major heading because, while the doctrine of God is primary, it is inextricably linked with our understanding of our humanity and all that entails.
The Person of God
It is at this point that words are insufficient; God is simply beyond our ability to describe or define. And yet, because He has chosen to communicate in verbal fashion, there are things that can be known and articulated about Him. By way of introduction, two related terms are particularly important. These will be foundational to our further study of the works of God.
Monotheism is the belief that there is one God and only
one. Our fundamental affirmation of
monotheism is found in Deuteronomy 6:4—“Hear, oh
Sovereignty refers to God’s all-encompassing control over
every aspect of the universe, seen and unseen, past, present and future. A human sovereign is a king who exercises
dominion over those individuals who are subject to him. God is King over all of His creation. He is omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient
(all-knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere present). Thus, He is perfectly able to accomplish His
In addressing the Person of God, it is particularly illuminating to turn to the catechisms. These are systematically arranges questions and answers that were developed in order to teach the principle truths of Christianity. They reflect long and careful consideration of the richness of the biblical data. I always find myself going back to the Westminster Catechism’s response to the question: Who is God? “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” There is a very interesting one/three/seven structure to this which may help us remember it. Aspects of God represented in the “three” of his infinity, eternality, and unchanging nature are things that cannot characterize us. They are the essence of His nature that make Him divine. The “seven” attributes which follow are perfectly God’s; some of them can also, finitely and imperfectly, characterize those who bear the image of God. That brings us to the next section.
What is the paradox of being human? Both male and female (Genesis 1:26) were made
in the image of God, which means humankind was a true and undistorted
reflection (as created beings) of the moral and spiritual capacities, the
intellectual abilities, and the emotional nature of the Divine. In more basic terms, that meant humans were
granted the ability to think, to explore wisdom, to choose, to love beauty, to
communicate without distortions, to be creative, to be truthful. As a result of the entrance of sin into the
human sphere (Genesis 3), however, the image was marred in all aspects. This is what some theologians refer to as
total depravity. It is not that all the
good was entirely obliterated; rather, there is no aspect of being human that
has not been tragically s
God’s mighty act of creation
implies a number of things. First, it
does imply His sovereignty. Having made
everything, he knows it all intimately and exercises complete dominion over all
of it. Going hand in hand with that is
his omnipotence. Second, the power that
enabled Him to create also sustains the world.
Finally, there is a cosmic purpose, an end for all of this. The full realization of the
Election is the sovereign and eternal decree of God in which He chooses in mercy before the foundations of the world to rescue individual persons from their utterly fallen and helpless condition in sin and guilt and to make them holy and blameless as adopted children to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:4). It is not based on human works. In our study of the narratives in Genesis, we see a very clear example of this in God’s choice of Jacob before his older twin brother, Esau. Before their mother, Rebecca, gave birth to the twins, she was told “…the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). In Romans 9:11, 12, the apostle Paul draws on this very incident to illustrate his point that those who come to God come by His calling and not because of their own wisdom or ability. “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by Him who calls—she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger’.” There is a tragic side to this process as well which is represented by Pharaoh whose heart was hardened and who hardened his heart. The process is evident throughout the narrative in Exodus 4-11. God’s election of individuals and nations accomplishes His purposes, from the call of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed to the intentional choice of foreign nations to punish His wayward people.
Salvation is a
comprehensive term, referring to deliverance from the power and effects of
sin. Specifically, we are saved from sin
and death, guilt, alienation from God, ignorance of truth, deception, fear,
despair, and a meaningless life. These
are very real aspects of the human condition and we see them over an over again
in the pages of the First Testament.
Positively, salvation means we enjoy peace with God, access into His
presence, hope of glory, endurance in suffering, steadfast character, and the
indwelling of the Spirit (Romans 5:1-5).
Salvation extends beyond the individual to society and is aimed at
intimately related to the broad concept of salvation, is more specific in that
it indicates how salvation is accomplished, i.e., by the payment of a
price. In ancient
Covenant is God’s
“instrument” for effecting the process of reconciliation between God and
humankind. It is truly at the heart of
the historical, instructive, and prophetic texts of the First Testament and, of
course, finds its culmination in Jesus’ fulfillment of those covenant promises. Technically, a covenant is an agreement
between two parties that establishes a relationship and involves obligations on
both sides. God initiates this
relationship based on His covenant love—hesed. God’s
“obligations” are stated in His promises to extend the benefits of His grace to
individuals or nations. Human
obligations are to commit themselves to God.
There is characteristically a “sign” that accompanies the articulation
of a covenant; it is to serve as a reminder to the parties involved that there
is a seriousness about this relationship and its obligations. We note four key covenant statements in the
First Testament, the first three of which have specific signs associated with
them. The first is the covenant God made
with Noah after the flood (Genesis 9:8-17), promising that never again would He
bring destruction of this magnitude upon the earth. The sign was the rainbow. In Genesis 12-17, we read of God’s covenant
promises to Abraham. They included
numerous descendants, the Land, and the prospect that all declaration of Abraham’s
belief and the covenant ceremony (Genesis 15) was circumcision. The most expansive statement of covenant is
the revelation of Torah at
In Jeremiah 31:31-34, the Lord declares that the time is
coming when He will make a “new covenant with the house of
In the Hebrew, the expression which we translate “make a covenant” literally means “cut a covenant.” This process is dramatically illustrated in the covenant ceremony of Genesis 15, in which Abraham cut in half the sacrificial animals and the Presence of God in the form of a smoking fire pot and blazing torch passed between the pieces.
“Covenant” is the same word in Hebrew as “treaty” and, as a
matter of fact, the form of the covenant that God made with the people of
The similarity between this form and what is found in Exodus
20-23 and the entirety of Deuteronomy is instructive in several ways. For one thing, God chose to reveal the
details of His promises and the obligations of the people in a form that they
would have recognized from their familiarity with the political world around
them. Second, that the form of the
covenant statements in Exodus and Deuteronomy most closely parallels Hittite
treaties may be helpful in terms of the date of this material. The Hittites were a flourishing and dominant
power, conquering peoples with whom they made treaties, from about 1450 to 1200
BCE. This is the time period to which
traditional scholars date the Exodus from
Torah, best translated “instruction,” is the statement as part of the Sinai covenant of the obligations upon the people of God. These are not construed as the way the people worked their way to salvation. Instead, living according to these instructions was indicative of their loving and grateful response to God who had redeemed them. These instructions ranged from ethical and moral issues, such as those found in the familiar Ten Commandments, to specific details on life and conduct in their own particular social structure. They also included extensive ritual and ceremonial instruction on how to approach God in worship and how to live with a constant sense of the presence of a holy God.
Central to the worship was sacrifice. Shedding the
blood of sacrificial animals was an integral part of worship. It indicated that a life was being taken in
place of the individual ugliness of sin and death. The sacrifices were to take place in the
The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 articulates the components of faith as follows:
What is true faith?
True faith is not only a sure knowledge, whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in His word, but also a firm confidence which the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel, that not only to others, but to me also, remission of sins, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits (Question and Answer #21).
“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of
what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). We
might think of this as a primarily cerebral activity until we read beyond that
opening statement in Hebrews and discover that each of the “heroes of faith,”
those wonderful characters found in the narratives throughout the First
Testament whose names are recorded in this chapter, acted in accordance with what he or she believed. They “lived by faith” (Hebrews 11:13). Faith is a reasoned response, a very
important consideration in our culture, which tends to consider any talk of
faith as automatically a blind and/or irrational response. One of the most compelling examples is that
of Abraham as he responded in obedience to the word of God in Genesis 22 to
take his only beloved son, Isaac, and sacrifice him on
That we can even talk about faith is dependent upon the faithfulness of God himself, who is entirely consistent in His words and works and who gives to us the gift of faith in His promises by the Holy Spirit. The Hebrew term, emunah, whether applied to God or humans, is best translated faithfulness, indicating that we are talking about something vital and active. When the Person involved is God, emunah is frequently used in conjunction with hesed, the loyal and unfailing covenant love of God for His people. In other words, God acted on behalf of those in need.
It would be a serious omission if I did not briefly address the very profound ethical implications of the theological truths set forth above. When we are called upon to do justice, love mercy (hesed) and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8), we are commanded to be “godlike.” Each of these qualities characterizes God in His just and merciful interaction with and provision for humankind. These are the characteristics that are part and parcel of the theological material above. His gracious condescension is evident from the outset in His choice to communicate on our “level.” Even more, to accomplish comprehensive justice and to extend mercy, God, in the person of Jesus Christ, accepted humiliation beyond our capacity to apprehend. Thus, election, salvation, redemption, and covenant are the shining benefits for us of his perfect will and character and they call us to the same attitude “as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8 NIV).
The items listed below are only a tiny selection but each has been helpful as I have prepared the above text. All are accessible and address the doctrinal issues presented from a variety of perspectives.
· Dunzweiler, Robert J. “Are the Bibles in Our Possession Inspired?” Interdisciplinary Biblical Research Institute, 1981.
Walter A. ed. The Concise Evangelical
Dictionary of Theology.
· Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Intervarsity Press, 1994.
Youngblood, Ronald. The
Heart of the Old Testament.
 I have chosen to use the designation “First” Testament in place of the more familiar “Old” Testament out of a desire to be sensitive to those for whom that text is the Bible. Furthermore, in our contemporary culture, “old” often connotes that something is of less value than the “new.” That does not seem to be the message we want to convey regarding this utterly vital part of God’s revelation.
 I Corinthians 1:21—the world through its wisdom did not know [God].
 Be on the lookout for other passages that tell us the same kinds of things, especially in the Psalms. Note, for example, Psalm 97:6—"the heavens proclaim His righteousness and all the peoples see His glory." In the prophetic literature, Zechariah 12:1 presents the same focus—"the Lord who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the spirit of humans within, declares…"
 What is generally revealed in the creation of humankind provides a "bridge" to special revelation, as that is the medium for the incarnation.
 John 1:1, 14, 18
 Hebrews 1:1-3
 Dunzweiler, p.1.
 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” (NIV) The versus that follow are just as important, indicating God’s foreknowledge, predestination, calling, justification, and glorification of His people.
 See also Ephesians 1:1-6.
 See especially Exodus 4:21; 10:21, 27; Romans 9:16-18.
 See, for example, Exodus 21:30 and the entirety of Leviticus 27.
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