Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 7, Number 40, October 2 to October 8, 2005

Redemptive History, part one:

Introduction to Redemptive History

By Ra McLaughlin

What is Redemptive History?

Redemptive history is, simply put, the history of redemption. It is God's plan for history, which he decreed before the foundation of the world. It is what God has done in the past to redeem, what he is doing in now to redeem, and what he will do in the future to redeem. "To redeem what?" you might well ask. Well, most broadly speaking, to redeem creation; more narrowly, to redeem creation through the redemption of mankind; and more narrowly still, to redeem mankind through an elect remnant, and to redeem creation through that remnant. This redemption of mankind and creation is a historical process, and any given point in history represents a certain stage of that process.

Now, it is important to acknowledge that this is not the only definition of "redemptive history." Sometimes when theologians speak of "redemptive history," they are referring to historical accounts told for redemptive purposes. That is, the history may not be true, but believing its message still leads to redemption, either on a personal or corporate level. For example, some theologians might argue that the primeval history of Genesis 1-11 is fiction, but that it still communicates true things about God that are necessary to be believed for salvation. This redemptive function of the primeval history is seen as the true meaning and purpose of the text, with the mythological framework being only a vehicle for communicating the redemptive message of faith in God. In many ways, by this definition, redemptive historical accounts function similarly to parables.

In these lessons, we will affirm that all the historical accounts in Scripture explain various aspects of personal and corporate redemption, and that they contribute to our ability to trust in God for salvation. But we will also assume the truth of all the historical accounts in Scripture. When we speak of "redemptive history," we will be referring to the historical progression of events, sovereignly decreed and providentially controlled by God, that are leading to the final redemption of creation through the elect remnant of mankind.

The Metanarrative of Redemptive History

We can summarize the overall content of redemptive history in the following way:

Eternal Decree

Before the foundation of the world, God planned to create an earthly kingdom for himself. He also foreordained his entire creation, and everything that would take place in it, in order that his earthly kingdom would come to exist as he planned. But his plan included a few twists. He would not simply create and maintain a perfect world; instead, he would create and maintain a perfect world that would fall into sin, and that he would subsequently redeem from that sin. In order to accomplish this redemption, God the Father covenanted with God the Son, promising to give to the Son certain individuals as a special treasure if the Son would atone for them.


Once all these divine plans were in place, God created the world to be his earthly kingdom, and he created mankind to minister as his priests and vice-gerents in this kingdom. God also covenanted with mankind, though mankind's first king, Adam, promising to bless mankind with life, wealth, rule and posterity if mankind obeyed him, and promising to curse mankind with death and destruction if mankind rebelled against him. God required mankind to be unwaveringly faithful to him, and to extend and maintain his earthly kingdom throughout the whole world. So far so good — and no need for redemption.


But as God had decreed, mankind fell into sin. And as a result, God inflicted on mankind the curses of his covenant. This is where the need for redemption enters the picture. With mankind's fall, there was no one to spread and maintain God's kingdom throughout the whole world. Instead, mankind was doomed to destruction, and the hope for God's kingdom on earth was doomed along with them.


So, God extended forgiveness to mankind, in order to save both the people he loved and the kingdom he planned to build. This forgiveness was offered first in Genesis 3, where God also promised to send a redeemer who would restore mankind to proper fellowship with and service to God. Specifically, in Genesis 3:15 God said that the woman would bear a child who would crush the head of the serpent. Theologians commonly refer to this as the protoevangelion or "first gospel."

The Long Road to Redemption

The rest of the Bible's history tells the story of how mankind, and especially God's elect remnant, was represented by a series of leaders after the death of Adam. Through the most significant of these leaders, God commonly confirmed his gospel by confirming his covenant. The first of these subsequent leaders with whom God confirmed his covenant was Noah. He was then followed by Abraham, who was followed by Moses, who was followed by David, who was followed by Christ.

Under Adam and Noah, God's covenant focused on all of humanity. Under Abraham, Moses and David, God began to focus primarily on the nation that contained his remnant within humanity. And in Christ, he began to expand this remnant to all nations, and thereby to expand the focus of his covenant once again to the whole world.

Christ, of course, is the most important and most significant human figure in all of redemptive history. He performed the work on which redemption is based, and began the restoration of the world so that it could finally become God's earthly kingdom. His work continues during the present period of his physical absence from earth, and will finally be completed when he returns in glory.

Now, this is not to say that these were mankind's only covenant leaders, or that God confirmed his covenant only under these men. On the contrary, as we will see in future lessons, there were many other covenant heads, and even other explicit confirmations of the covenant. But Scripture dedicates the most space to explaining the covenant headship of these leaders, so our lessons on redemptive history will focus on them.

Why is it Important to Understand Redemptive History?

Understanding the flow of redemptive history is often critical to understanding the original meaning of the texts of Scripture. Yes, it's true that we can understand many details in the Bible without a strong grasp of redemptive history. But we cannot see the big picture, and therefore we cannot see the full impact the Bible intends to have, without being aware of the details of redemptive history.

Purpose of Scripture

Consider the Bible's purpose: God has given us revelation so that we might understand more about him, more about us, more about his plans, and more about our relationship to him. He does not give revelation to confuse us but to enlighten us. To put it another way, the more we understand what God is doing throughout history and creation, the more we understand our own purpose and role within history and creation.

More specifically, God intends Scripture to minister first to those who receive it first, and second to those who come after them. And since the Bible does not change, it always means the same thing. Therefore, it cannot have one meaning for the original audience and a different meaning for us today. Instead, whatever meaning it has for us today is the same meaning it had for the original audience. Of course, the same meaning must be applied in different ways by each audience, but any valid application will always be rooted in the true meaning of the text. We will look at many examples of this in future lessons.

Theological Context of Scripture

Since Scripture's meaning is rooted in its original context, the greater our understanding of that context, the greater our understanding of Scripture's meaning. And of course, this context is multifaceted. It includes not only historical details, but things like literary forms and conventions, social circumstances, and theological understandings. This means that in order to understand any given Scripture, we need to understand how its divinely inspired human author and its original human audience thought. And as part of this, we need to know what they believed about God and redemption, and how their beliefs differed from ours in light of the different revelation we have received.

One way we determine the theology of any given ancient writer and audience is by looking at the details of their lives and writings. Another way we determine their theology is by looking at what later biblical writers said about them and their theology. And yet another way we understand their theology is by looking at the flow of redemptive history. This last way will be our focus in these lessons.

When it comes to determining the theology an ancient writer and audience, the flow of redemptive history is significant in a number of ways. First, the theology of the writing assumes all the true theology that went before it. Each writer and audience assumed that what God had already revealed was still true, even if the new writer did not repeat it. For example, when Moses wrote, he assumed that the things God had revealed to Adam, Noah and Abraham were still true. Moses' audience would have assumed the same thing. In the same way, modern Christians should assume that the theology of the New Testament is still true today. There are many, many examples of this kind of thinking in Scripture.

Now, since the theology of the prior generations was received as true, and since later generations merely added to and expounded on that prior revelation, we can conclude that the theology of every age is still as true today as it was originally. If it was true in Moses' day that Noah built an ark and that God hates sin, it was also true in David's day, just as it was true in the days of Jesus, and just as it is true today.

Progressive Revelation

Understanding that theology developed throughout history tells us that any given writer and audience believed the theology of the Scriptures that came before them, and that this theology formed the theological context in which their own writings were produced and received. This is the basic idea behind the Reformed doctrine of progressive revelation, which states that subsequent revelation builds on and expands prior revelation.

Of course, it should be readily admitted that there are apparent discrepancies between some of the older and newer theologies in the Bible. For example, Moses taught his audience to sacrifice animals to atone for sin, but the author of Hebrews taught that animal sacrifices never actually atoned for sin, and that atonement has always been available only through Christ. We will examine this discrepancy as well as others in future lessons.

In general terms, apparent exceptions to progressive revelation do not negate earlier theology. Rather, they affirm what went before, but also clarify earlier doctrines and modify the way these doctrines are applied. These different applications are required because redemptive history has progressed to new stages.

How Do We Determine the Details of Redemptive History?

A very popular Reformed method for determining the details of redemptive history is Old Testament biblical theology. The word "biblical" in the phrase "biblical theology" is not intended to convey that this is the only way of doing theology that the Bible affirms, or that it is the only way of doing theology that arrives at biblical conclusions. Rather, it is intended to convey that this method of doing theology organizes doctrines in the same way that the Bible does: historically rather than topically. (I would argue that the Bible does not actually organize its doctrines either topically or historically, if it organizes them at all.)

The strategy of Old Testament biblical theology is first to group texts historically. Once a grouping is complete, its various doctrines can be systematized to determine what theologians in that age believed. Next, doctrines from the given grouping can be aligned with correlating doctrines from prior and subsequent periods. This helps us determine how and why the doctrines changed from one period of time to the next.

Old Testament biblical theology should be distinguished from New Testament biblical theology, which evaluates doctrines according to author rather than historical period. For example, New Testament biblical theology might attempt to derive the theology of John, and to note the differences and similarities between John's thought and Paul's.

As I have defined them here, one can actually do Old Testament biblical theology with the New Testament, and New Testament biblical theology with the Old Testament. In fact, in these lessons we will carry the ideas and methodology of Old Testament biblical theology all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

Our future lessons will use various methodologies, including Old Testament biblical theology, to trace the history of redemption from Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to Moses, to David, to the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, to the post-exilic restoration, to Jesus' first advent, to the present day, to Jesus' second advent. Hopefully, this introduction to the details of redemptive history will help us apply the ancient Scriptures to modern life, and give us a broader perspective on God's purpose for us in the modern world.