You Can Read the Bible

Dispensations, Sister Aimee, and Covenants

Matt Carter

For almost all of church history, Christians have believed that there was and is only one way of salvation. Christians have believed that the whole history of redemption is united in what the Reformers called the covenant of grace. Very early in the second century, the early church fathers argued against heretical folks like the Gnostics and Marcionites who wrongly said that there was a difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. For example, the way that St. Augustine in the early fifth century talked about this was to point out that God made a covenant with Adam before the Fall, which was based on works, and the covenant with Abraham that was based on grace. This covenant of grace is what enables our faith in Jesus and continues to this day. As we've tried to point out in this course, there is a lot of diversity in this history of redemption as it has stretched across time and geography, but it is still fundamentally united.

Why would people think that there might be basically two different Gods in the Bible? One answer is that having two Gods explains why we make sense of and react so differently to the Old and New Testaments. When we encounter Old Testament passages like we've been reading, we find that there's a whole lot of really awful treatment of people as well as a whole lot of rules and laws that don't seem to make much sense. In contrast, when we read the New Testament, things seem much more sensible. Added to this is a lot of reference in the New Testament to the old covenant being over. 

On top of all of this is our more recent church history in America that has since the nineteenth century seen a lot of evangelical movements that have emphasized a discontinuity and a disunity between the Old and New Testaments. The most prominent of these is Dispensationalism, but it is hardly alone. One of the big differences between this American version and the ancient Gnostic version is our emphasis on the individual and the value we place on an individual being both emotionally present and authentic. An example of this valuation is seen in Sister Aimee, a famous Pentecostal revivalist in 20th century Los Angeles who prioritized her feeling special messages from the Holy Spirit to her even when that feeling and special message ran contrary to Scripture. When she felt led by the Spirit to divorce her husband so that she could spend more time in her ministry, she went with that instead of Scriptural commands about marriage and divorce. Her reasoning was that even the New Testament is just dead words on a page until and unless they are infused in an immediate way by the Spirit. The priority for her was on her personal experience, and she and she alone got to decide what that meant.

In contrast to this, the New Testament writers and the bulk of church history have understood there to be one history of redemption in the Bible. Alongside of this, the Reformers continually emphasized that this was the clear teaching of the Bible and that we prioritize interpreting Scripture with Scripture. So when we read the parts of the Bible that we've been reading and are jarred by what we find there, it is on us to try to get what is and is not being communicated in a way that is consistent with everything else we also find in Scripture. We don't get to simply feel a disconnect and swiftly explain it away as no longer relevant by prioritizing only the New Testament or our own present feelings. 

So what are passages like Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Galatians 3-4 saying about God's redemption? How do Abraham and Noah have different roles in the New Testament than Moses?

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