The Hermeneutics of Continuity and Discontinuity

Covenant theologians and dispensationalists differ on how much continuity and discontinuity exists throughout the progress of biblical revelation. Simply stated, covenant theologians tend to see more continuity in Scripture, whereas dispensationalists tend to see more discontinuity. The problem comes when continuity or discontinuity begins to function as the lens through which Scripture is interpreted. Put another way, the problem comes when covenant theology or dispensationalism begin to function as a system of hermeneutics.

For example, covenant theologian Robert Booth refers to continuity as “a principle of biblical interpretation” which should guide the interpreter in his handling of the Scriptures. According to Booth: “Our interpretive starting point will determine how we understand the Bible. Most people do not consistently apply any interpretive principle, yet we should all strive for interpretive consistency. The…covenantal principle of interpretation holds that we must…assume continuity and unity in God’s revelation.”

This approach could be referred to as “a hermeneutic of continuity,” because it comes to Scripture with the assumption that one will consistently find continuity in the Bible rather than discontinuity. The problem with this approach is that the unity of Scripture does not demand continuity over discontinuity in a given area. Otherwise, the unity of the Bible would preclude the possibility of any discontinuity throughout redemptive history.

Rather than using a hermeneutic which consistently assumes either continuity or discontinuity, it is better for the interpreter to set aside his assumptions and make an objective comparison between A and B in a given area to determine how much continuity or discontinuity may exist. Put another way, continuity and discontinuity in a given area should be a post-exegetical conclusion, not a pre-exegetical assumption. Otherwise, the one who looks at Scripture through the lens of continuity will tend to deny legitimate points of discontinuity, and the one who looks through the lens of discontinuity will tend to deny legitimate points of continuity.

21 responses to this post.

  1. Very well done, Matt. I agree completely. It’s rather disconcerting to me to so often hear someone champion their theology as their hermeneutic. It’s little wonder, at that point, how their hermeneutic consistently yields their theology.

    Here’s a question though. What do you say to someone who believes it’s impossible to be objective? Someone who thinks a pre-exegetical decision on continuity/discontinuity is a necessary evil?

    And, for good measure, what are some practical ways one might go about divesting himself of preunderstandings?

    And I guess a foundational question is: how can I derive my hermeneutics from Scripture if I first need a hermeneutic by which I approach Scripture?

  2. Sorry for the italics. I hope that fixes it.

  3. Mike,

    I’m sure Matt will weigh-in with a more polished answer but here’s a quick thought. Many assume, falsely I think, that having presuppositions (theological, etc.) preclude one from being objective. I would say that objectivity is found within the exegetical process when the interpreter does not force his presuppositions onto word meanings, syntax, etc. In other words, he goes wherever the exegetical process leads him. In the end that may cause him to rethink some of his theological presuppositions and his reading of the particular text. The exegetical process is objective in so far as words have meaning…which unless we are relativistic postmoderns, we believe they do. Does this make any sense?

  4. Posted by Scott Christensen on June 1, 2011 at 11:03 am

    This seems to be another way of saying, “let the context determine whether a text yields a position of continuity or discontiunity.”

  5. I think Paul said it very well. The issue is not one of leaving your theology at the door when you sit down to exegete a given passage. Rather, the issue is one of refusing to let your theology dictate your exegesis and being open to letting your exegesis correct or refine your theology. Not an easy task.

  6. “How can I derive my hermeneutics from Scripture if I first need a hermeneutic by which I approach Scripture?”

    Excellent question. Sort of like asking how it’s even possible to read Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book”! I would argue that our hermeneutical approach to Scripture is not explicitly taught in Scripture, but rather that it flows out the nature of Scripture itself. It would take me a long time to develop this–and it wouldn’t fit in the comment section if I did–so perhaps I’ll put something together in an email to you, Mike.

    • Posted by Jim on June 8, 2011 at 6:47 am


      The question you posed here in one I am very interested in. So, if you will graciously extend me a little more time than the 30 seconds you originally allotted, I would love to see the the email you sent to Mike.

      Thank you so much.

  7. Here’s an example of what I mean: The centerpiece of covenant theology is the so-called “covenant of grace,” a single covenant which is said to extend throughout redemptive history. In contrast to this idea of a single covenant, Ephesians 2:12 refers to “the covenants [plural] of promise.” In his commentary on this verse, covenant theologian William Hendriksen writes: “Paul speaks about covenants, plural. He has reference, no doubt, to the many reaffirmations of the one and only covenant of grace.” How do you get from “covenants” (plural) to “covenant” (singular) without letting your theology dictate your exegesis?

  8. Posted by Scott Christensen on June 1, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    So why does Mike get the privilege of a private e-mail while the rest of us can only guess at what pearls of wisdom might flow from your keyboard?

  9. Because Mike, as far as I know, was not rooting for the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII. And Mike, I am quite sure, didn’t rub my face in the Packers’ loss to the Broncos that following Tuesday in the hallway before chapel. Not that I’m bitter.

    Okay, I’ll send to you whatever I send to Mike. And to anyone else who responds in the next 30 seconds…………..time’s up!

  10. LoL. I smell a follow-up post.

    And thank you both for your great answers.

  11. Posted by Mike Jarvis on June 2, 2011 at 1:19 am

    If I promise to buy your next book, Matt, would you include me in your recipient list?

  12. Posted by Mike Jarvis on June 2, 2011 at 1:22 am

    That is, I mean your distribution list?

  13. Posted by Scott Christensen on June 2, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Hey, your Packers just won a Super Bowl – isn’t that enough to heal your wounds?

  14. Posted by Paul Eastlack on June 5, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    I think that it is very beneficial to the church when those who apply a theological hermeneutic and/or a continuity principle to determine meaning, to clearly say that’s what they are doing. And that they believe it is imperative that they employ this process, for without it they could not come to their conclusions. Not that long ago allegorists (if I can use the term), were not that forth coming. So, I am thankful that they are.

    Matt, could you supply the reference to Robert Booth’s quote?

  15. The quote comes from page 156 of Booth’s Children of the Promise: The Biblical Case for Infant Baptism. See pages 14-30 of the same book for Booth’s discussion of continuity as a principle of Bible interpretation.

  16. Yeah, include me on that dist. list Matt. Pretty please.

  17. Posted by Caleb Kolstad on June 9, 2011 at 9:05 am

    me three

  18. “He goes wherever the exegetical process leads him.” If only this were the starting point (and to combine this with the post on the seminaries), maybe this needs to be job 1 of the seminaries.

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