Discovering Reformed Theology through the Old Testament
9 March 2018 | Filip Sylwestrowicz
“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed”. Gal 3:7-8, ESV
It was only a few years ago that these words turned my theology upside down. I knew them. I had read Galatians many times. But until that day the powerful assertion that is made here about the relationship between the Old and New Testament escaped my attention. Paul says that believing Gentiles are nothing less than children of Abraham, and this was already foreseen in the Book of Genesis. My previous theology could not really account for that. The church, I believed, must be a very different thing from Israel. We are justified together with Abraham, but otherwise we are not really partakers of his blessing. But that day I began to realise that I had missed a lot.
My experience of discovering Reformed Christianity is probably unique in some ways. Of course, there are many evangelical Churches from other traditions where one can find a robust Old Testament preaching and understanding of the continuity between the old and new covenant. But there are also some aspects of my way to the Reformed Church which are quite common. And one of them seems to be a growth of appreciation for the Old Testament.
A robust understanding of the Old Testament is one of greatest strengths of the Reformed theology. A covenantal framework provides us with tools for seeing the continuity and progress in the history of salvation. First, this framework brings continuity because subsequent covenants in the Bible build upon one another rather than replacing each other, and because the relationship with God since Fall could be grounded only in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice. Second, this framework illustrates progress because God’s people are moved from the initial promise of God in Genesis 3:15 through further promises and growing revelation to the ultimate fulfilment in Christ. These dynamics of unity and progress are expressed in Reformed theology through the concept of the covenant of grace, which is administered differently before coming of Christ and afterwards but also remained the same in essence. Shortly after I found my theology deficient while studying Galatians 3, I read O. Palmer Robertson’s “The Christ of the Covenants”. While reading it, I found myself discovering the Old Testament anew. It was no longer a collection of stories, but an account of God’s plan of salvation leading to the glorious climax in our Lord Jesus Christ.
A rich Reformed understanding of the Old Testament becomes especially apparent in preaching. I discovered this myself after going to the seminary where I was exposed to the redemptive-historical preaching. Essentially this approach to preaching developed by Dutch theologians Klaas Schilder and Benne Holwerda seeks to see Biblical stories as parts of God’s larger work throughout the history of redemption. I find this kind of preaching especially compelling when it deals with Old Testament texts. It helps believers to see how various events in Scripture are part of God’s plan of salvation. Another approach to which I was exposed during homiletics class was Christ-centred preaching. This school – advocated by Sidney Greidanus at Calvin Theological Seminary and Edmund Clowney at Westminster Theological Seminary, or more recently by Bryan Chapell and Timothy Keller – seeks to proclaim Christ as a central message of all Scriptures. Reformed preachers following this approach take seriously our Lord’s own words that the Old Testament Scriptures are bearing witness to him (John 5:39, Luke 24:26-27). 1
My own example shows how essential a robust view of the Old Testament is for people coming to Presbyterian and Reformed Churches from other Christian traditions. Faithful preaching which seeks to proclaim Christ from both the Old and New Testament and which emphasises the underlying unity and progress in the history of redemption is very powerful. This is something that, I think, Reformed tradition does very well.
Filip J. Sylwestrowicz – editor of the Tolle Lege Institute’s blog and student of theology at Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary. He has a licencjat (BA) in Hebrew Studies from University of Warsaw.
- Arjan de Visser, “Redemptive-Historical Preaching Today”, parts 1-3, Clarion 67, no. 2-4 (2018) and Timothy Keller, Preaching: Communicating Faith in the Age of Skepticism (New York: Viking 2015). ↩