The problem that has faced the Evangelical world as it looks towards the Bible is that while we have a very high view of Scripture, by and large, we do not seem to have a very high view of the story it tells. When we look at common ways of reading everything from the beginning text of Genesis to the crucifixion of Christ, from the establishment of the Israelites in Canaan to the final chapters of Revelation, they are often pulled out of context as propositional statements or, worse yet, separate or overriding stories. In his book Far as the Curse is Found, Michael D. Williams lays out a more constructive, Biblically consistent interpretative method that avoids the follies that cause pop-Evangelical interpretative methods to fundamentally miss the wonderful story of the Bible.
Of course, others have addressed this subject. For that matter, the Evangelical interpretations of recent times actually go against the grain of traditional readings, applying a healthy dose of cultural baggage to arrive at “clear” readings. The problem with many attempts to provide a more Biblically consistent reading is that they are totally inaccessible to non-technical audiences. This is what makes Williams's book unique: it is written for a general audience and he presents his case by following the story of the Bible, rather than in convoluted arguments separated from that story.
This story starts in creation. Essentially, Williams says, we must understand that when we talk about creation, we also talk about covenants. God’s covenanting is the key metanarrative by which the book reads the text of the Bible. God’s first covenantal action is with Adam as the work of creation wraps up. We can see that even before sin entered into the world, it was part of God’s nature as a covenantal God to bind himself to his creation to bring about a relationship with that which he created. This is a bond God only makes more explicit in the incarnation (282). Moreover, humans were to represent this connection between God’s rule and the creation for him to the rest of the creation; before the fall, humanity was placed as stewards of the world (60). Clearly, too, Israel was called to be a witness by its internal concern of remaining righteous – in doing so it was a light to the nations (255). Likewise, God’s promise to Abraham carries a goal far less narrow than merely redeeming Abraham’s descendents – indeed, in this act God is carrying out his mission to redeem the world (118). So too, the covenant with David; though it may at times have appeared to be a dismal failure, it was actually a further advance in God’s mission. The prophets realized that the Davidic dynasty will fulfill its promise of being the means by which the kingdom of God becomes “centrifugal,” as the book puts it, and covers the whole world (187, 255).
Far as the Curse is Found shows that God’s concern for holiness was revealed through his chosen people by his covenant with them at the time of the Exodus (183). But more than merely being holy for their internal benefit, the people were to be a “nation of priests” (Ex. 19:6). Just as Moses represented them to God, so too, in a sense, we can see Israel representing the world (138). As was noted above, from the beginning of the nation in God’s covenant with Abraham, God’s covenanting with Israel provides Israel not only for a relationship with God, but also a missionary mandate (118). Just so, the body of Christ in the new covenant – the engrafting of “the nations” into the tree of Israel (Rom. 11:17) – is charged by its covenant with God to be the salt and light of the world, ultimately represented by the ultimate seed of Israel (14). Lest we think this is a stretch, Williams points out that the Apostle Peter leaves us no room to doubt the links between Israel’s covenant and the Church’s covenant, for he transfers the commission of priesthood to the new Christians (250). This connectedness between the Israelites and the Church is an essential component the author’s method – and of the Bible’s as well.
In all of this, God has covenanted with Adam, with Israel and with the Church not for the purpose of merely redeeming the covenanted peoples’ souls, but rather with the goal of fulfilling his plan for creation – to form a relationship with his creation (274). Williams asserts that a relational and creational focus is obvious with the pre-fall Adamic covenant, but it should be no less clear later on. As the book shows, the Exodus is the event that sets the pattern for how God redeems his people (23). In noting that, we would be remiss to overlook that God’s redemption is not merely spiritual, for in this act, God is a “nation builder!” Further, Christ’s work represents the defeat of the corrupting force of sin, a victory for the church that has the clear goal of redeeming the material creation – not the least of which occurs in the resurrection of the dead (290). These acts make it clear that the intent of redemption is not for the purpose of escaping from the creation that God made for us (290)! If such had been the goal, God would be one who changed his plans when things went south – but in truth, we see that God did not do that at all. As Williams explains, God’s mission is that he redeems in a holistic way towards covenantal relationships with his people (34)
John’s prologue to his Gospel furthers the truth of creational goodness and God’s covenantal workings in creation – for God redeems by entering creation, an affirmation of “the goodness of creaturely life” (282). The preparation for this very creation affirming incarnation also affirms the connectedness of God’s progressive covenants, for, as Williams puts it, through God’s ever narrowing selection of “vehicles” for his mission, he is setting the course of history that brings the Redeemer into the world (111). God’s mission, the book leaves no doubt, is one that lifts up and does not reject creation and it is this mission that drives the covenantal focus of the Biblical story.
In presenting this understanding, Williams also offers insights into how this influences the identity of the people of God. He shows that we must see that we are not in a separate story, a separate dispensation, but rather clearly part of the same covenantal plan – the same mission – that God has had since the beginning. Scripture is clear that there is continuity between God’s covenants (213), that while God continued to reveal his plan in a progressive fashion, the underlying “moral will” remained the same (238). It was God’s original mission to be in relationship with his creatures and the fulfillment of that through the church is merely a realization of God’s universal concern for the redemption of his creation (59). Williams quotes Roger Hedlund, who called God the “first missionary,” seeking out humans after the fall in Genesis 3:8ff (117). As such, the book helpfully shows, we too should be oriented towards missions – in a very broad sense, beyond simply sending a few people overseas.
It is worth observing how closely the doctrine of God and the doctrine of humanity influence each other. Clearly, our understanding of God influences how we can see ourselves as the people of God. Charles Sherlock wrote that God provides an example for us to follow in himself; as Robert Newman put it, this is a “dynamic” interaction in which we are charged with “doing” like God. When we recognize that God is a missional, covenanting God who does not change, we are called to follow his lead by always acting with a missional mindset, mindful of our status as part of God’s purpose from the beginning creation. We have not been placed in our own story about God’s goodness, but rather made a part of the story we see in the pages of the Bible! Recognizing that we are placed in God’s metanarrative of creation and covenants provides us with a hermeneutic – a missional one, to borrow words from Chris Wright – that helps us to not only understand Scripture but also to understand ourselves and our mission. (273).
The book leaves one asking a profound question that ought to be asked more often. Namely, why on earth would we expect God to be anything but consistent in his mission? Unfortunately we do expect that God is inconsistent. Yet the witness of Scripture to God’s mission tells another story; the Bible testifies to God’s covenant faithfulness, a faithfulness he shows by his own good pleasure and grace. When we see the consistency and integration of God’s works of creation and covenant as fulfillments of his mission, it gives a clear and resounding commission for our own lives. Michael Williams has done a great service to theology by presenting a cogent and integrated picture of God and his people (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005. $17.99).
Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business.