You are hereThe Hermeneutic of Covenant Creation As Taught By A. Berkeley Mickelsen
The Hermeneutic of Covenant Creation As Taught By A. Berkeley Mickelsen
by Timothy P. Martin
Covenant Creation is based on a specific hermeneutic approach to Genesis creation. Jeff Vaughn and I laid out a case for the apocalyptic-symbolic interpretation of Genesis creation in our recent book titled Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation. Covenant Creation is based on a specific hermeneutic approach to Genesis creation. Jeff Vaughn and I laid out a case for the apocalyptic-symbolic interpretation of Genesis creation in our recent book titled Beyond Creation Science: New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation. Our work refined, expanded and contextualized the general approach to Genesis creation presented by the preterist theologian Milton S. Terry in his 1898 book titled Biblical Apocalyptics. Today, Terry is perhaps best known for his scholarly contributions on the subject of biblical hermeneutics. His massive works are used as textbooks in conservative Bible colleges and seminaries across America. Terry’s reputation as a proponent for the grammatico-historical method of biblical interpretation is well-known.
The Hermeneutic of Covenant Creation
Here is the way he introduced the challenge of properly interpreting the early chapters of Genesis:
“Any satisfactory interpretation of Genesis must be preceded by a determination of the class of literature to which it belongs.”
Few disagree with the notion that the Bible comes to us in different forms and styles of literature. But if that is true, then our interpretation of Scripture must be sensitive to the literary nature of the inspired text we may be reading at any given time.
The implication of recognizing the Bible as literature is that different literary genres require different interpretive approaches. It would be a mistake, for example, to read the book of 1 Kings in exactly the same manner as the book of Revelation. There is a variety of literary genre in our Bible; those who ignore this reality will be doomed to misinterpret vast portions of Scripture. “Literalist” interpretation of the details described in Revelation is a great example of the problem of genre blindness.
Terry went on to ask these key questions which prepared the reader for his presentation:
“But if these opening chapters of the Bible are a revelation of God’s creative relation to the world, may they not be apocalyptical in character? Is it not fitting that the canon of Scripture should open as well as close with an apocalypse?”
Terry argued cogently, from the textual details, that the earliest chapters of Genesis communicate in a similar prophetic-symbolic genre as prophetic portions of the Bible. He also stressed the many structural links and motif connections between Genesis and Revelation.
The Framework of Covenant Creation
We made a case in Beyond Creation Science that the literary genre and central subject in the early chapters of Genesis means that the creation account cannot properly be used to provide a plain-literal scientific record, whether young-earth or old-earth, of the origination of the physical universe.
We believe that Genesis speaks about the origin of the “heavens and earth” that passed away in A.D. 70. Note how the New Testament authors draw the story of the end in direct relationship to the beginning:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea…” Rev. 21:1 (NIV).
“… In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands, they will perish, but you remain…” Heb. 1:10-11 (NIV).
The fact that the “first heaven and the first earth” (Rev. 21:1), the one made “in the beginning” (Heb. 1:10-11), did pass away in finality by A.D. 70 tells us of the nature of the “heavens and earth” in view of Genesis 1:1. Did the physical universe pass away in A.D. 70? No. That fact provides a powerful demonstration that Genesis creation is not a plain-literal account of the original formation of the physical universe and planet earth. Genesis is focused on the beginning of the covenant world God made with his people, beginning with Adam and Eve.
The creation account offers its own clues as to what it is about. Genesis 2:4 says:
“These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” (KJV)
The form of this verse, “These are the generations of…,” is used throughout Genesis (e.g. 5:1; 6:9; 10:1, 32; 11:10, etc.). In every other instance where this form is used, the reference is to people. Genesis 2:4 uses that form (referencing generations) in conjunction with “heavens and earth” because the creation account speaks about the original formation of God’s people; Genesis creation is a symbolic statement, involving real people in real history, describing the “beginning” of God’s covenant world of friendship and relationship with his people.
The creation as God’s people? This should not sound strange to preterists at all. Paul, drawing from the earliest chapters of Genesis, identified “the creation” as God’s people in a passage expounding the glory of the children of God:
“For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” Rom. 8:19-22 (NKJV).
Where did Paul learn to associate God’s creation with God’s people? He certainly didn’t make this up from scratch! Paul understood “the creation” as God’s people because the Old Testament repeatedly associates “heavens and earth” with all those who live in covenant relationship with God (e.g. Deut. 32:1; Isa. 1:2; Jer. 4:23-28).
This covenant-centered focus of creation in the Bible also explains how Paul could call those who believe on Jesus Christ as God’s “new creation” in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 6:15. Paul’s doctrine of “new creation” was rooted in his own understanding of the earliest chapters of Genesis. How else could Paul naturally make that identification of believers as God’s “new creation”?
Genesis speaks of the creation of “heavens and earth” in the same covenant context as the New Testament teaching of the end of the “heavens and earth.” Covenant Creation at the beginning of the Bible matches Covenant Eschatology at the end.
The Hermeneutic Criticism of Covenant Creation
The main opposition of Covenant Creation from within preterism arises from a competing hermeneutic approach to the creation account in Genesis. Some critics imply that the earliest chapters of Genesis communicate in an altogether different way than prophetic texts found elsewhere in Scripture. Sam Frost, for example, explains his view succinctly:
“Genesis is prose, not apocalyptic, and no Hebrew scholar to date has taken Milton Terry's view seriously...”
Is that assertion true? Let us set aside the fact that Milton Terry (and by extension Martin and Vaughn) could be right regardless of how other Hebrew scholars interpret Genesis. Appeals to the majority are quite odd coming from full-preterists! But is it really true that “no Hebrew scholar to date has taken Milton Terry’s view seriously”?
Terry Not Alone
Those who have read Terry’s work in Genesis might already know he is no “lonely voice in the wilderness” regarding his apocalyptic-symbolic approach to Genesis creation. Terry was not alone in this approach to Genesis even in his own day! He noted in Biblical Apocalyptics that “not a few eminent scholars have called this first section of Genesis a poem” or “inspired Psalm of Creation.” Apocalyptic texts are known to be presented in poetic form and structure. Psalms frequently use metaphorical symbolism.
Another well-known preterist theologian in the 19th century, F. W. Farrar, took a similar apocalyptic approach to Genesis creation:
“There is no other Eastern book in the world which we should have dreamed of understanding literally if it introduced speaking serpents and magic trees. Even the rabbis, stupidly literal as were their frequent methods, were perfectly aware that the story of the fall was a philosopheme – a vivid pictorial revelation of the origin and growth of sin in the human heart.”
J.H. Kurtz outlined this prophetic approach to Genesis creation in 1857, more than three decades before Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics:
“Therefore, we come into possession of the very important hermeneutical rule that representations of pre-Adamite developments, founded upon revelations, must be viewed from the same standpoint, and interpreted according to the same laws, as prophecies and sketches of future times and developments, founded also upon revelation.”
Matheson argued along the same lines in 1889:
“We have always held that, apart altogether from questions of authorship, [Genesis creation] ought to be interpreted as the visions of the prophets are interpreted; in other words, to be classed with those portions of Jewish literature whose mission was to teach in symbols”
Modern conservative writers add their general agreement to this hermeneutic approach to the earliest chapters of Genesis. Bernard Ramm states:
”The main purpose of Genesis is theological and religious. This has been said innumerable times already, but there is the temptation to get too involved in the details of science and to forget it.”
James Montgomery Boice wrote:
“What do we find when we turn to the opening chapter of Genesis? Here the Christian view is stated for the first time and in definitive form. It is a theological statement, however, and we must acknowledge this because if we do not, we will inevitably find ourselves looking for scientific explanation and be misled… Genesis 1 is not a description from which we can expect to find answers to purely scientific questions. Rather, it is a statement of origins in the area of meanings, purpose and the relationship of all things to God.”
David Chilton anticipated the Covenant Creation view when he wrote as a partial-preterist:
“[T]he same is true of the prophets: They, also, spoke in figures and symbols, drawing on the rich heritage of Biblical images that began in the Garden of Eden.
Indeed, Paradise is where prophecy began. It is worth noting that the very first promise of the coming Redeemer was stated in highly symbolic terms…
‘I will put enmity
Between you and the woman
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall crush your head,
And you shall strike His heel.’ (Gen.3:15)
Obviously, this is not simply ‘history written in advance.’ It is a symbolic statement, very much of a piece with the evocative, poetic language used throughout the Bible, and especially in Revelation. [emphasis mine].”
The above comments do have some variation among them even though they all clearly imply that the early chapters of Genesis have symbolic elements. The active use of symbolism is a key distinctive marker for apocalyptic texts.
A. Berkeley Mickelsen’s “Descriptive Language of Creation and Climax”
Recently Jeff and I stumbled across another book on biblical hermeneutics. We were surprised by what we found. A. Berkeley Mickelsen’s wrote his book Interpreting the Bible in 1963 while he was professor of New Testament interpretation at Bethel Theological Seminary. The book was published by Eerdmans, no obscure publishing house in the world of Christian publishing.
We highly recommend this book to those interested in studying the art and science of biblical interpretation more in depth. Mickelsen’s book reads like a cross between Milton Terry’s Biblical Hermeneutics and G.B. Caird’s The Language and Imagery of the Bible. Suffice it to say that Mickelsen’s book is a strong contribution to the grammatico-historical method of biblical interpretation
Mickelsen wrote his book as a futurist, but he tipped his hat to Milton Terry in his chapter on Poetry:
“Years ago, Milton S. Terry showed that one could not emphasize too strongly the fact that some structural form is essential to all poetry.”
Mickelsen then offers a footnote to Terry’s Biblical Hermeneutics. But perhaps the most striking and substantive acknowledgement of Milton Terry’s influence is found in Chapter XIV titled “Descriptive Language of Creation and Climax.” See if this looks at all familiar:
“The biblical accounts of creation and climax have been extensively discussed throughout the current century and it is likely that the discussion will continue for some time to come. Most certainly the oft-recurring question as to how God created the world and how he intends to consummate human history is one of wide and intense interest. However, if we are looking for a play-by-play account of either of these divine activities, we will search the Bible in vain. Much is said in Scripture about the fact of creation and God’s vital association with all that took place. Enough is said about climax in the New Testament so that by the time the reader has completed 1 Corinthians he knows that all things will be in subjection to God. When the reader has completed the book of Revelation, he knows that separation from God or fellowship with God are the two possible destinies before mankind…
Yet it is important that we consider the language used to convey to us what God has revealed about creation and climax. Interestingly enough, we find that the same kind of language is employed to describe the beginnings and endings of history [emphasis mine].”
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Admittedly, Mickelsen is working from a futurist paradigm, for he believes the subject of the “beginning” and “end” in the Bible is the physical universe. He is consistent. In Mickelsen’s view, “climax” must remain to come in our future at the end of the physical universe as we know it. Yet Mickelsen explicitly draws together the parallel between the language, the genre, of both early Genesis and Revelation. That is precisely what Milton Terry taught decades earlier! Mickelsen, the accomplished Hebrew scholar and giant in the field of biblical hermeneutics, was teaching Milton Terry’s view of linguistic similarity between Genesis creation and biblical prophecy.
What Mickelsen’s comments show us is that you don’t have to agree with Terry’s preterism to see the inherent connections between the language and focus of creation and consummation. That helps to explain why futurists committed to a literal, physical universe reading of creation continue to insist that biblical prophecy, especially the book of Revelation, speaks about the end of the physical universe to come in our future. Mickelsen’s view is very common:
“Creation is past and present. But there is also a future dimension of creation. This future aspect gives meaning and unity to Scripture and history (Isa. 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13; Rev. 21-22). The narrative of human history begins with creation. The final removal of sin and rebellion will be climaxed by creation. Here a factor of unity shows itself to be also a factor of harmony.”
The amazing thing is that Mickelsen comes very close to embracing the true central focus of all biblical prophecy. Consider how this statement in his chapter on “Prophecy” could have led him to a preterist view:
“On many subjects prophecy is an unfolding, expanding kind of treatment. The prophets deal with the basic questions of how man and God can come into fellowship with each other – what God requires, what God will do, and what man must do. Prophecy is progressive in the sense that later revelation is based on earlier revelation.”
Note how he advocated a fundamental insight highlighted by Covenant Eschatology in his opening chapter:
“Modern man belongs to an age of technology and to the culture which accompanies it. His environment is different, and his concepts are often correspondingly different. For instance, he tends to think of society individualistically, while the biblical writer emphasizes group unity [emphasis mine].”
And then there are passages in Mickelsen’s book that bear an uncanny resemblance to Milton Terry’s Biblical Apocalyptics. Consider the striking similarity of these statements:
Milton S. Terry (1898): “We gain nothing for the honor of the Scriptures by attempting to force upon them a meaning they were never intended to convey.”
A. Berkeley Mickelsen (1963): “When a commentator fills apocalyptic imagery with his own ideas, he disqualifies himself as a true interpreter. It is much better to say: ‘I do not know what this means’ than to force a meaning upon the imagery which it was not meant to carry.”
Milton S. Terry (1898): “Our interpretation of this remarkable composition [Genesis creation] cannot therefore proceed on any method of literal correspondencies. The narrative is no more a treatise on natural science than it is an almanac.”
A. Berkely Mickelsen (1963): “Yet such questions as the age of the universe, the nature of light, the time and procedures by which God prepared the earth for habitation of man are not touched upon at all.”
Yes, it is absolutely clear that Mickelsen’s work relies heavily on Milton Terry’s view. There is an essential unity regarding the communication of Genesis creation and biblical prophecy; not just in form, but also in content. Mickelsen simply coins his own term, “Descriptive Language of Creation and Climax,” to elucidate what Milton Terry taught decades earlier:
Those who lean toward the Covenant Creation view can appreciate Mickelsen’s conclusion to his chapter titled “Descriptive Language of Creation and Climax.”
“1. We must recognize that figurative language is indispensable in conveying to us the realities beyond empirical experience. If God in revelation had not chosen to use such language, our ignorance would be total…
2. The realities [covenantal/gospel – T.M.] described by the figurative language of creation and climax are crucial for men to understand… Such [covenantal/gospel – T.M.] realities demand the use of combinations of figurative and literal language to give us every possible insight…
3. …The language of Scripture – in this case the figurative language of creation and climax – can penetrate man even in his dull and blind obsession… Creation and climax speak to men about their destiny…
4. Such language and the truths conveyed by it were not given to satisfy our scientific curiosity but to assure us about the ‘whence’ and ‘whither’ of our existence…”
That is the broad context of Covenant Creation. I would add more content based upon the theology of Covenant Eschatology. Both creation and consummation revolve around gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, I believe Milton Terry would have been proud of Mickelsen’s work, even if Terry might have taken issue with Mickelsen’s futurism!
Mickelson wrote his book in the early 1960s. That was about the same time that dispensationalist authors Henry Morris and John C. Whitcomb took the Seventh Day Adventist interpretation of Genesis mainstream by publishing The Genesis Flood. Ellen G. White’s visions of flood geology, defended by George McCready Price’s academic writings, exploded among Evangelicals when Morris and Whitcomb applied their own brand of premillennialism to Genesis.
The hermeneutic methods which Terry, Mickelsen and other scholarly giants taught about interpreting Genesis creation and biblical prophecy were forgotten and ignored as modern young-earth creationism was born. To the vast majority of conservative Christians, Genesis became a literally precise, scientific record of the origination of the physical universe and planet earth, just as Revelation was taken as a literally precise, scientific record of the end of our planet earth and the universe.
Even here, the astute reader will notice that the language connection that Terry and Mickelsen taught between Genesis creation and biblical prophecy was not entirely abandoned. Their approach was simply redirected in the context of modern “literalism.” As Henry Morris said:
“If you take Genesis literally, you’re more inclined to take Revelation literally.”
Preterists should consider that one reason dispensational premillennialism and modern young-earth creationism were widely successful with American Christians is because they presented a consistent view of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Genesis creation was interpreted as a plain-literal statement of the creation of planet earth and the universe. Noah’s flood was interpreted as an event that flooded all of planet earth. Prophecy spoke of a coming fiery annihilation of planet earth at the Second Coming of Christ. That is what won the day for conservative Christians in America during the late 20th century.
This view is now failing at both ends of the Bible and everywhere in between.
It is past time to jettison futurism in all its varied forms and flavors. But it is not enough to switch prophetic views in isolation from everything else in the Bible. Prophetic views are all rooted in the earliest chapters of Genesis, because the Bible tells one over-arching and interrelated story. It will not work to claim that the Bible opens with a plain-literal, scientific description of the origin of the physical universe, but then goes on to close with prophecies about the final end of the old covenant world which passed away in finality by A.D. 70. A physical-universe “beginning” is not consistent with a covenant “end.”
Wide acceptance of preterism will come only when Preterists keep the central focus of creation in harmony with the central focus of eschatology. Covenant Creation matched with Covenant Eschatology offers true consistency from Genesis to Revelation. These two symmetrical views acknowledge the covenant-centered focus of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
The seed ideas and hermeneutic methods of Covenant Creation were nurtured by many devout Christian scholars including Milton S. Terry and A. Berkeley Mickelsen, two outstanding authorities on sound biblical interpretation. That fact doesn’t make Covenant Creation true or false. But it should encourage honest, objective evaluation of the biblical case for Covenant Creation by those sincerely committed to the truth of God’s Word over the traditions of men.
 Milton S. Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics: A Study of the Most Notable Revelations of God and of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker , 1988), p. 39.
 Ibid., p. 43.
 Sam Frost, comments available online at: http://preterism.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1632544:BlogPost:19771&p...
 Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics, p. 43.
 Frederic W. Farrar, The Bible: Its Meaning and Supremacy , pp. 242-243 as quoted by Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics, p. 50.
 J. H. Kurtz, The Bible and Astronomy  as quoted by Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, p. 152.
 As quoted in Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics, p. 44n.
 Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture, pp. 149-150.
 James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 162.
 David Chilton, The Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987), p. 29.
 A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), p. 324.
 Ibid., pp. 306-307.
 Ibid., p. 292.
 Ibid., p. 5.
 Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics, p. 43.
 Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, p.303.
 Terry, Biblical Apocalyptics. p. 44.
 Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible. p. 306.
 Ibid., p. 322.
 Henry Morris as quoted by Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: The Evolution of Scientific Creationism (New York: Knopf, 1992), p. 339.