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What Is Salvation History?

  • D. A. Carson Theologian
  • 2018 7 Sep
  • COMMENTS
What Is Salvation History?

Although the word “history” sometimes refers to what has taken place, it more commonly refers to the story or account of what has taken place. No human account of what has taken place can ever be exhaustive: we simply do not and cannot know enough. For example, a history of the Roman Empire cannot possibly tell us everything that took place within the Roman Empire during the centuries the empire existed. Any history of the Roman Empire will necessarily be selective. A history will be judged as excellent or poor on the basis of how representative it is, how the parts are made to cohere, how evidence has been handled, and the like. However the history is organized, it involves sequence (keeping an eye on time), cause and effect, trends, and evaluation of significance.

Salvation history is thus the history of salvation — i .e., the history of events that focus on the salvation of human beings and issues involving the new heaven and the new earth. Even when the focus narrows to one man, Abraham, and his descendants, that man is given the promise that in him and in his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3). Biblical Christianity is not an abstract or timeless philosophy (though of course it involves abstractions): at least in part, it is the account of what God has done, of the events and explanations he has brought about in order to save lost human beings. (Even what “salvation” means, what it means to be “saved,” is disclosed in this history.) From this, four things follow:

1. Salvation history is part of world history.

It may tell of some events that other historians are not interested in, but it so describes real events that it necessarily overlaps with other histories. The Bible tells of some events bound up with Tiglath-Pileser (2 Kgs 15:29), Nebuchadnezzar (Jer 39), and Pilate (Matt 27:11 – 26), but we also know of these men from sources with no connection to the Bible.

2. Salvation history is real history.

It depicts events that really did take place. This may seem a rather obvious thing to say, but it has to be said, because some theologians have argued that salvation history — biblical history — is often not historical. Sometimes, they say, it relates things as if they really did take place even though they did not take place. The importance of these “events” that never happened, it is argued, lies in their aesthetics, their important themes, or their ability to stir the imagination. But salvation history is real history.

3. Salvation history includes not only events caused by other events that take place in the natural world but also events caused directly by God.

Sometimes, of course, God works in providential ways through the natural order. For example, although biblical authors know about the water cycle — water evaporates from oceans and seas to form clouds that send their precipitation back to earth to run in rivulets and streams and rivers back to the sea (Eccl 1:7) — they generally prefer to say that God sends the rain (e.g., Matt 5:45). Thus, God works through the natural order. But when God raises Jesus from the dead, there is nothing natural about God’s action: this is the direct intervention of God, displaying his might in contravention of nature. Nevertheless, Jesus’ resurrection happened; it took place in history. This must be strongly asserted against those who say that genuinely “historical” events are those that have natural causes. Such a stance rules out what the Bible makes obvious: God can and does directly intervene in history beyond his providential reign that utilizes natural causes. Salvation history includes events like Jesus’ resurrection, events that take place but that are caused directly by God.

4. Although the Bible contains a good deal of salvation history, it contains things other than salvation history.

For example, it includes wisdom literature, lament, law, prophecy, and much more. But even these disparate kinds of literature that make up the Bible are written at discrete points along the Bible’s story line. In other words, salvation history provides the backbone to which all the parts of the Bible are connected.

THE SHAPE OF SALVATION HISTORY

One might summarize salvation history in four words:

  • Creation
  • Fall
  • Redemption
  • Consummation

That is the entire story, painted with the broadest brush. Then again, one might add in, after the fall, a number of other turning points: the call of Abraham and the beginning of the Abrahamic covenant, the exodus and the giving of the law, entrance into the promised land, the establishment of the Davidic dynasty, the exile and the end of the exile. Under redemption, one might break down the category into constituent parts: the incarnation, Jesus’ atoning death, Jesus’ resurrection, and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost.

Of course, one might then further refine the details of this history. For example, one might specify David’s seven-year rule in Hebron over two tribes before he captures Jerusalem, makes it his capital, and simultaneously becomes king over the twelve tribes. In discussing the Davidic dynasty, one might list the various monarchs and what they did for good or ill. One might describe the tabernacle and its function as stipulated in the law of Moses, then trace its history until it is displaced by the temple built by Solomon, observing further the destruction of the temple under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, and the building of another temple under the ministry of prophets like Haggai. Likewise, one might expand the discussion of the exile to distinguish the onset of the exile of Israel in 722 BC by the Assyrians from the onset of the exile of Judah in 586 BC by the Babylonians. The distinction between these two dates is of more than antiquarian interest; e.g., the prophets build on the fact that Israel is taken off to captivity long before her “sister” Judah to argue that Judah ought to learn some lessons from the wretched experience of Israel, while in fact she learns nothing and seems committed to duplicating all Israel’s sins, with far less excuse (e.g., Jer 3:6 — 4:31). And so far nothing has been said of the salvation-historical contributions of, e.g., Ruth, Esther, Daniel, and Nehemiah.

All these historical details, many of them significant historical turning points, make up the history of redemption. And all of them, rightly configured, draw lines toward the greatest turning point of all in salvation history: the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Messiah.

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SALVATION HISTORY

Five things might usefully be mentioned.

1. The story line of the Bible, the sweep of salvation history, provides the framework on which so much else in the Bible depends. For example, it would be impossible to trace such themes as the tabernacle/temple, the priestly ministry, the Davidic dynasty, and the Messianic hope apart from the salvation-historical framework in which these themes are embedded. Thus, the discipline of biblical theology is grounded on an appropriate grasp of salvation history.

2. The Bible’s salvation history largely establishes the direction of its movement. To return for a moment to the simplest outline of salvation history: we begin with creation, with God as the Creator and all that he makes declared to be good; we move to the fall, which establishes the nature of the problem throughout the rest of the story; we arrive at redemption, which is God’s answer to the horrible defiance of human rebellion and guilt, turning as it does on the cross and resurrection of Jesus; and we finally reach the consummation, when in the wake of redemption God finally brings to pass all his purposes, secured in Christ and now brought to completion. Salvation-history is cohesive and discloses God’s purposes in the direction in which the narrative unfolds.

3. The trajectories that run through and are part of the history of redemption gradually point to the future and become predictive voices. For example, the promise of a Davidic dynasty (2 Sam 7:11b – 16), a promise made about 1,000 years before Jesus, a dynasty that endures forever, is fleshed out in Ps 2, given new and rich associations in the eighth-century BC prophecies of Isaiah (Isa 9), and provided with further images in the sixth-century BC ministry of Ezekiel (Ezek 34). Once this trajectory is established, thoughtful readers look along this trajectory and cannot fail to discern ways in which the depictions of Davidic kings point forward to the ultimate Davidic king. Similar things can be said of many other trajectories that run through salvation history. For example, the theme of the exodus is picked up and developed in the return of the people to the promised land after the exile and culminates in the new exodus theme in the NT (see “Exile and Exodus,” pg. 2347).

4. Very often these trajectories (or "typologies," as they are often called) in the history of redemption become intertwined to form rich tapestries. For example, although it is possible to follow the themes of tabernacle/temple, Jerusalem, and the Davidic dynasty as separate trajectories (these are teased out in various articles in this study Bible), they come together in 2 Sam 6 – 7: the ark is brought to Jerusalem and the groundwork is laid for the temple, David’s dynasty is established, and Jerusalem, now the capital of Israel, is becoming the city of the great King. From this point forward these themes repeatedly wrap around each other, so that mention of one often pulls in one or both of the others. The destruction of Jerusalem at the onset of the Bab ylonian exile means the destruction of the temple and the suspension of the Davidic monarchy. Eventually Jesus is hailed as the Messianic King as he rides into Jerusalem (Matt 21:1 – 11), cleans out the temple (Matt 21:12 – 17), and is crucified as the king who reigns from the cross (Matt 27:27 – 37), providing the atonement long anticipated by the rites in the temple (Heb 9:1 — 10:4) and pointing the way forward to the Jerusalem that is above (Gal 4:26; Heb 12:22).

5. Above all, salvation history provides the locus in which God has disclosed himself in events and in the words that explain them. As salvation history is the framework of the Bible’s story line, so it is the locus of the revelation of the living God, the Lord of history.

D. A. Carson talks Biblical Theology Study Bible from ThomasNelsonZondervan on Vimeo.

DACarson-BibleTaken from NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible Copyright © 2018 by Zondervan. This article was originally published on www.nivbiblicaltheologystudybible.com, “A Biblical-Theological Overview of the Bible.” Reprinted with permission.

D. A. Carson is Research Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the president and a founding member of The Gospel Coalition, an influential network of evangelical pastors and churches. Carson has served as assistant pastor and pastor and has done itinerant ministry around the world. He is a sought-after preacher, author, and an active guest lecturer in academic and church settings worldwide. Carson received a Master of Divinity from Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto and the Doctor of Philosophy in New Testament from the University of Cambridge. He has written or edited nearly 60 books, many of which have been translated into other languages.

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