EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Oren Martin, assistant professor of Christian theology at Boyce College and Southern Seminary, discusses his new book, Bound for the Promised Land, with Towers news writer Andrew J.W. Smith.

AJWS: Why should the church today care about the land promise? What significance does it have for the church?

OM: I think it just helps us understand how to put the whole Bible together. The land promise is one of those issues that big theological systems like dispensationalism and covenant theology really divide over. Dispensationalism itself divides over it because it’s such a crucial issue. So pastorally, it’s a great issue. That’s why I chose the topic: it not only helped me understand the whole Bible and how it fits together, but also to see how God fulfills his promises in Christ. The land promise is one that you can draw a line from beginning in Eden all the way to the new creation to see the wonderful, majestic, gracious ways that God fulfills his promises. And so it was really rich for me just to explore that theme and be wowed by a God who keeps his promises.

AJWS: In the book, you explain how the return to Eden eschatologically goes beyond the original archetype of creation. What is theologically significant about that — going even beyond Eden, not just back to the way it was?

OM: I think that there can be a romanticized view of Eden that we live in a state now that pities us and some people say, “Oh I wish we could just get back to Eden!” And Eden was wonderful. I can’t imagine being Adam and Eve before the Fall and having that unhindered relationship with God — fellowship of walking in the garden, hearing God’s voice — all those things apart from sin. But I think we can kind of romanticize it and want to go back, but we have a better Adam who has accomplished for us what Adam didn’t accomplish. Jesus succeeds where Adam failed, he obeys where Adam disobeyed, and because of his work rooted in who he is as the God-man, we have a better Eden — a place where there will be no more sin, there will be no more conflict, there will be no more possibility for the serpent to enter because Christ has defeated him through his death and resurrection.

AJWS: You define the kingdom of God theme in the Gospels and New Testament as more or less an extension of the land theme in the Old Testament. It seems like that’s been a rarely discussed aspect of the kingdom of God. How does the land theme influence our understanding of the kingdom of God in the Gospels and kingdom themes throughout the whole New Testament?

OM: Well, I think a of lot of scholarship — George Eldon Ladd and even our own Dr. [Thomas R.] Schreiner who emphasizes a lot of what Ladd emphasized — has focused on God’s reign when we discuss the concept of God’s kingdom. I felt like I was coming along and connecting some dots that had been put there, but hadn’t really been connected together into a comprehensive biblical theology of how the land relates to the kingdom, especially as it unfolds through redemptive history. So I still emphasize God’s reign and rule in history comes inaugurally with Christ in a new way and it’s consummated in the new creation. We see it unfold from Eden to the land of promise — from Israelites living in Canaan, to that kingdom rule being displayed in the life of Christ and his authority over things. But ultimately, we see the place of the kingdom in the new heavens and new earth.

AJWS: In the last chapter you start to flesh out some theological implications of the land theme. Does a physical fulfillment of the land promise require a dispensational framework?

OM: No, not at all. I think what dispensationalists would argue is that a literal fulfillment of the land promise would be that the nation of Israel in the millennium (or the eternal state) has their own piece of real estate that’s apart from the nations, apart from the Gentiles. And I would argue differently, and maybe that’s part of my contribution: dispensationalists say covenant theologians tend to spiritualize, saying the land promise was fulfilled in Christ. They tend to end there and not go far enough and connect the promises to how they will ultimately be fulfilled and enjoyed in the new creation. And the dispensationalists would say, “Well yeah, they’re not interpreting Scripture literally. They’re just spiritualizing it.” And that’s why I’m saying: No, I wholeheartedly want to affirm the physicality and the literal fulfillment of the new creation, but that literal fulfillment looks much different. That literal fulfillment is everyone — Jew and Gentile — in Christ inhabiting the new Jerusalem, new heavens and new earth, new creation, the worldwide temple. So I affirm a literal fulfillment but not in the literalistic ways that dispensationalists would want to argue.

AJWS: So much of this book is about the proper application of biblical theology. What is your methodology for drawing some of those typological and biblical-theological connections? 

OM: My approach to biblical theology is going to see Scripture as a unified whole. It’s going to see it as coherent, and it’s diverse because we have many different authors over thousands of years, writing Scripture in different genres, different cultural and historical contexts. Behind those authors is one author who is God, and he is inspiring them to write. The canon has one plan which is traced from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. God’s redemptive plan progressively unfolds as his revelation progressively unfolds towards its culmination in Christ.

AJWS: So, how do you do that? For a lot of us, we’re impressed by large-scale biblical theologies, but we’re concerned about making sure they progress from authorial intent. What are some of the steps you take not only to identify connections but then to make sure they’re legitimate?

OM: There’s a couple of things I do. One, you need to have good presuppositions based on Scripture about what Scripture is. All Scripture is inspired by God, so it comes to us as God’s Word with the authority of God’s Word. It’s wholly truthful in everything that it affirms. So, we have right presuppositions and assumptions that don’t come outside the text but are built from the text. When we come to a text, I think there are three things I try to emphasize. One, as I come to Scripture, I ask: What is that text saying in its immediate context? What is the purpose of the author (and we take “the author” as human and divine, it’s a dually authored text, God through man)? So I try to look at the text in its own context. You’re paying attention to grammar, using the grammatical-historical method of interpretation.

I think a lot of people, that’s where they stop. See where it is in history, pull out some of the cultural things that would be impactful on its interpretation; you do grammar, you do syntax, you trace it where it is in its context, those kind of things. And they stop there before going on to the next step, which is seeing where it lies in the scope of God’s unfolding plan. If you’re past 2 Samuel 7, you have to understand you’re on the other side of the Davidic covenant. Or if you’re in between Exodus 20 and 2 Samuel 7, you’re in the context of the Mosaic covenant. So it’s the covenant structure. God’s plan unfolds and progresses toward God’s fulfillment in the new covenant. You have to ask whether there are persons, events, or institutions that would be illuminating for understanding this text.

So you’re asking whether what comes before that would illuminate this text and bring more clarity, bring more progress in terms of God’s redemptive plan. And then you don’t stop there. You actually ask, How does this text fit into God’s plan in Christ? Ephesians 1 — God works all things according to the counsel of his will to sum up all things in Christ, so you need to think about how this text relates to all of Scripture. I think there’s a multi-step approach. For me, I zoom in narrowly on that immediate text, then go to where that text lies in God’s unfolding plan, and then ultimately its place in the whole cannon.

AJWS: This book is based on your dissertation. What are the challenges of condensing all that research into a less than 200-page book?

OM: It involves, I would say, cutting off my right arm. The series was 80,000 words max. I had to cut out 50,000 words. I was selecting pages and pages of footnotes and with one stroke deleting them. One day in Panera Bread, I worked on this footnote summarizing Ezekiel 40-48, the continuity and discontinuity between it and Revelation 20-22, and you just delete it. So, anyway, I’m thankful to be part of the series, and I’m so grateful that I contributed to a series that contributed so much to my growth in Christ.