On Reading the Bible with the Church – By Dr Roland Chia (Dated 9 Feb 2021)
“In his thoughtful book entitled Passion for the Truth (1996), the evangelical theologian Alister McGrath observed that ‘Evangelicals have always been prone to read Scripture as if they were the first to do so’. To read Scripture in this way is often to interpret it in a subjective and idiosyncratic manner that distorts the intended meaning of the text.
The Bible belongs to the Church. Thus, the proper way to read, interpret and apply Scripture is to do so under the tutelage of the Church. By ‘Church’, I am referring to the catholic (universal) Church, and not to one particular tradition or denomination. This means that no individual or local church has the right to make the exclusive claim that theirs is the authoritative interpretation of Scripture.
However, many cults and heresies associated with Christianity – both ancient and modern – have made just this claim. They have interpreted the Bible in a way that suits their own fancies or supports their pre-conceived doctrines while refusing the guidance of the Church.
This is precisely what the initiators of the so-called New Grace Reformation have done. These hyper-grace preachers have interpreted a number of biblical passages in a way that conforms to their peculiar doctrine of grace. In so doing, they have strayed from the exegesis of the universal Church and have completely misinterpreted and misapplied the Bible – often with dire theological, spiritual and pastoral consequences.
There are many examples of how hyper-grace preachers have misinterpreted the Scriptures to fit their erroneous doctrine of grace. In the limited space of this article, however, I would like to examine just one passage – Exodus 24:7. I’ve chosen this passage because the interpretation offered by the hyper-grace preachers is quite crucial to their entire theology of grace.
Exodus 24:1-8 provides the context for verse 7. But in the interest of space, I will only cite verses 6-8:
And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
This passage describes the renewal of the covenant of God conducted by Moses based on the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) which he has received from Yahweh at Sinai.
The hyper-grace preachers have suggested an outlandish (and ultimately seriously erroneous) interpretation of this passage. They teach that Yahweh had originally planned for the Israelites to enter into a covenant of grace. But in their arrogance, the people of God at Sinai refused to accept this covenant in its original form. They demanded instead to conduct their relationship with God on the basis of the law.
Hyper-grace preacher, Paul Ellis, explains it this way in his book The Gospel in Ten Words:
From the beginning, God desired a relationship with us but we preferred rules. God told the Israelites that he wanted them to be his treasured people but they weren’t interested. Their attitude was, ‘Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it’.
Joseph Prince echoes Ellis’ interpretation of this passage in his book Unmerited Favour, but provides a much clearer explanation:
Now, they wanted to exchange the covenant of grace that they had been under for a different kind of covenant. When Moses told them what God had said, they responded arrogantly (which can be seen from the Hebrew syntax), saying in essence, ‘All that God commands us, we are able to perform!’ In other words, this is what they said to God, ‘God, don’t judge us and bless us anymore based on Your goodness and faithfulness. Assess us based on our merits. Bless us based on our obedience because we are well able to perform whatever You demand of us!’
We search the text in vain to find evidence that would even remotely suggest that the Israelites had refused to accept the covenant of grace offered by God but preferred to follow the law instead.
To my knowledge, not a single Old Testament scholar would agree with this bizarre interpretation.
The late Brevard Childs, who from 1958-1999 was the distinguished Old Testament scholar at Yale University, stated quite categorically that Exodus 24 showed that ‘Israel has accepted the divine offer and entered a covenant with her God’.
In his commentary on this passage, the great Genevan Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) saw this covenant as foreshadowing the new covenant that will be inaugurated by Jesus Christ. This is how he summarised the ritual performed by Moses and how it points to Christ:
The sum is, that the blood was, as it were, the medium whereby the covenant was confirmed and established, since the altar, as the sacred seat of God, was bathed with half of it, and then the residue was sprinkled over the people. Hence we gather that the covenant of gratuitous adoption was made with the ancient people unto eternal salvation, since it was sealed with the blood of Christ in type and shadow.
Commenting specifically on the response of the people of Israel recorded in Exodus 24:7, Calvin wrote:
Now, although the profession here recorded might seem to be derived from too great confidence, when the people declare that they will do whatsoever God commands, still it contains nothing amiss or reprehensible; inasmuch as the faithful among them promised nothing, except in reliance on the help of God: and gratuitous reconciliation, if they should sin, was included in it (emphasis mine).
Bible scholars and theologians therefore see Exodus 24 as an appropriate conclusion to the momentous events described in Exodus 19-23, namely, the giving of the ‘Ten Words’ or the ‘Ten Commandments’. Commenting on this passage, the John Durham, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Southern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, writes:
… in chap. 24, all this revelation is brought to a happy response as the teaching is shared with Israel. Israel makes a positive response; a covenant of relationship is joined and solemnized with appropriate ceremony; the leaders of Israel are given a preparatory and authenticating experience of Yahweh’s still more intimate Presence …
Exodus 24 is not about the negotiations of a defiant Israel with God as the hyper-grace preachers would have us believe. Instead, it is about the powerful presence of God, whose covenant with his people was an expression of his intimate relationship with them. Durham explains:
Exod. 24 is bound together by the theme of divine Presence: the chapter begins with a special call to a special group to come closer to the Presence that has come close to them; proceeds to narratives of covenant-making with the Presence, an intimate experience of the Presence, and a summons of Moses yet more closely to the Presence; then ends with the anticipation of a special revelation about response to the Presence.
By a sleight-of-hand, the hyper-grace preachers have offered a totally idiosyncratic interpretation of this passage – an interpretation that is not at all supported by the context. Their interpretation has changed the narrative completely. The passage has been twisted beyond recognition and used to support their negative view of the law.
Most significantly, the hyper-grace preachers have failed to read the Bible with the Church.
In their attempt to interpret this passage to fit into the Procrustean bed of their erroneous doctrine of grace, the hyper-grace preachers are doing exactly what many cultists and heretics have done. They have mutilated the text and mangled its true meaning.”
Dr Roland Chia
Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine
Trinity Theological College
Theological and Research Advisor
Ethos Institute for Public Christianity